Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Receiving the Spirit

Sermon for April 28, 2019 

Read Psalm 118:14-29 and John 20:19-23 

So our scripture this morning picks up right after last Sunday. This is later that same day, after Peter and John had come back and reported the empty tomb, after Mary had come back and told them about her miraculous conversation with Jesus, who has been raised from the dead!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Early In the Morning

Sermon for April 21, 2019 

Read Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18  

In the joy of Easter morning, we must start where the biblical story does, with a journey to the tomb. We all know what it is like to walk that road with Mary. It is as ancient as the first Easter and as contemporary as today. 

Mary’s Easter began as just an agonizing extension of Good Friday. Her weeping continues there by the tomb in the darkness. Then she notices, the stone is rolled away. The body of her beloved teacher must be gone, stolen, desecrated. Mary’s journey that morning is our journey on many a morning.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Practice of Pronouncing Blessing

Sermon for April 7, 2019 

Read Numbers 6:22–27 and Mark 2:23-28  

This week I want to talk about the practice of pronouncing blessings. To many people the idea of blessing something sounds vaguely mystical, and something that is better done by a member of the clergy. Now, when I was living in the south, I heard phrases like Bless your heart often, but usually they weren’t blessing anyone. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Practice of Saying No

Sermon for March 31, 2019 

Read Exodus 20:8–11 and Mark 2:23-28  

In some ways, last week’s spiritual practice fit in well with our current culture. Work, is after all, an American virtue and we take pride in a good job well done. Even if it is a messy or dirty or unpleasant job, we still take pride in the idea that we have accomplished something. We have earned our worth and that is an important thing for us. 

We are a culture that prides ourselves on what we produce, on what we make. On how much we accomplish. We believe being busy is an ideal to strive for. How many of you when asked how you are doing, reply busy? Sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a roll of our eyes, that has become the acceptable answer.

As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: "If you have more to do than you can do, and the list never gets done but only longer, then you must be very fine, because . . . successful people are busy people. Effective people are busy people. Religious people are busy people. For millions and millions of people, busy-ness is "The Way of Life."

So this week, we’re going to run distinctly counter culture to this ideal. This week we’re going to work on saying no to offers and invitations and jobs. We are going to work instead on practicing the Sabbath. Yes, Sabbath, which actually has nothing to do with church services, per say, but instead with resting.

The word comes from the Hebrew sabat which means to stop, to cease. It’s a day when we don’t work. A day when we don’t run errands. A day when we don’t produce anything. It is a day for doing nothing.

In many ways, this will be the most difficult practice for many people. As Taylor puts it, "Limiting my activity does not help me feel holy. Doing more feels holy, which is why I stay so intrigued by the fourth commandment." We want to do something in order to feel holier: say a prayer, sing a hymn, participate in worship. Saying no, doing less, feels like laziness. Feels like giving up.

But, then there is fourth commandment. Remember the Sabbath and keeping it holy. It is a command that God gives to a people who are freshly out of slavery. Rest one day in seven. This comes before murder, lying and adultery in God’s instructions, so it has to be pretty important. It’s so important, even God rests after six days of work.

Taylor writes. "God worked hard for six days and then God rested, performing the consummate act of divine freedom by doing nothing at all. Furthermore, the rest was so delicious that God did not call it good or even very good. Instead, God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, making Sabbath the first sacred thing in all creation. Resting every seventh day, God’s people remember their divine creation." When we take time to rest, we remind ourselves that even God rested. If our creator needed to take time to rest, why on earth would we think we don’t?

Sabbath is saying no to business as usual and deliberately creating regular moments of rest, recreation, and reflection that celebrate God’s abundance and grace so that when the hard winds of adversity blow down your door and sweep through your hallways, you will be able to remember, picture, and believe that Sabbath peace is real, possible, and even bound to be our future, for we live into an eternal Sabbath.

Now, I realize that all of this sounds great in theory. But when it comes to actually bringing it into our own lives, its a different story. When was the last time you took an entire day to rest? I’m willing to bet for many of us it was not in the last week. I am also willing to bet it isn’t a practice many of us are in the habit of doing weekly.

There’s just so much to get done! Resting sounds like a luxury, an extravagance that only the very wealthy or the very idle can afford. How can we possibly make it a priority when there is just so much to do in our lives? In the world?

Because it’s a reminder that we are more than what we produce. That we have worth beyond our use.  Taylor recommends: "At least one day in every seven, pull off the road and park the car in the garage. Close the door to the toolshed and turn off the computer. Stay home not because you are sick, but because you are well. Talk someone you love into being well with you. Take a nap, a walk, an hour for lunch. Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce - that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight - and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth."

You don’t have to being doing something all the time! You get to rest. Really. It’s a harder practice for some people than they might think. And the attempt itself might seem like torture to begin with.

"Anyone who practices Sabbath for even an afternoon, usually suffers a little spell of Sabbath sickness. Try it and you too may be amazed by how quickly your welcome rest begins to feel like something closer to a bad cold. Okay, that was nice. Okay, you are ready to get back to work now. Yes, you know you said you wanted this, but now you have had just the right amount of rest - maybe even a touch too much - so that you are beginning to feel sluggish.  What if your energy level drops and never comes back up again? What if you get used to this and want never to go back to work? Plus, how will you ever catch up after taking a whole day off? Just thinking about it makes you tired." I am sure some of you have been thinking that from the beginning. That this might sound like a great idea in theory, but the execution is just unfeasible.

For those of you who think that attempting to take Sabbath time is just an impossibility, I have an exercise for you. Make two lists, one with all of the things you know you love, things to do that renew you that you never seem to get around to doing. Then list all of the reasons why you think you can’t do those things. Be  sure to put the list somewhere you can’t help but see it, preferably daily. Being reminded of what our soul is really longing for is a good first step to taking our own Sabbaths.

If a day sounds too daunting to begin with, and it does for many people, try setting aside an afternoon, or even an hour to do nothing. Rest. Read. Nap if you’d like. Go for a walk or color a picture. Get someone else to take a Sabbath with you; it always helps to have someone else to say no with.

But taking this time does matter, and it affects more than we realize. According to the rabbis, those who observe Sabbath observe all the other commandments. Taking time to say no, to rest, helps us to follow God better. It really is holy.

So this week, take Sabbath time. Block out a couple of hours when you aren’t doing anything. When you are just being yourself. It may be hard to set aside the electronics and the to-do list and the chores. But give yourself a chance to truly rest in holy time and see what comes of saying no.

The Practice of Work

Sermon for March 24, 2019 

This week I want to turn our attention to possibly the least glamorous of the spiritual practices this Lent, the practice of work. Now, I’m not talking about employment here, that’s a different practice. Today I’m talking about work in the sense of manual labor. Yes, even the drudgery of physical labor can be a spiritual practice if looked at right. 

As the calendar says we are now into spring, several of you may be turning your attention outdoors. For those of you who garden, or farm, or otherwise work the earth, you know that there is a particular sort of satisfaction from this kind of work. It is far from easy, but at the end of the day there is a satisfaction in seeing what you have done. In many ways this is going all the way back to our roots in Genesis. When we look at the Hebrew, the word we translate as man, adam, actually means "earthling," because God made him from adamah, the earth.

One of the reasons working the earth is so satisfying, is that it connects us to who we really were in the beginning. Taylor writes, "The earthling’s first divine job is to till the earth and keep it. If you have ever tilled a rose garden, much less a garden of Eden, then you know this is difficult to do without getting sore shoulders. Keeping the earth is hard work. You wear yourself out. You also remember where you came from and why.  You touch the stuff your bones are made out of. You handle the decomposed bodies of trees, leaves, birds and fallen stars. Your body recognizes its kin."

Or to put it less poetically and more scientifically, we have discovered that working in the earth actually activates a set of serotonin-releasing neurons in the brain — the same neurons targeted by many antidepressants. Or maybe it’s both. After all, we are a combination of dust and divine breath. Humility, is our very being. Before the fall, before anything else, God told  us to till the earth and keep it. Good, meaningful work can be a gift. Even the preacher in Ecclesiastes, after despairing about the futility of work, commends the satisfaction of work as one of life’s pleasures.

In our passage today, the man in Jesus’ parable knows the value of this work. "Give me a year to tend this tree. Let me put the work into it, and then see how it is doing."  After all, Jesus was a carpenter and his disciples were fishermen. They had no cars, harvesters, dishwashers, or escalators. Their life was lived close to the earth, and we can assume that the ministry of teaching, healing, and feeding could be exhausting.

But the work had value because they didn’t just do it for itself. The did it for God and for other people. Feeding, healing, cleaning up is all communal labor. People need it to survive. Taylor writes: "If all life is holy, then anything that sustains life has holy dimensions too. The difference between washing windows and resting in God can be a simple decision: choose the work, and it becomes your spiritual practice."  

The idea of chores as a spiritual practice has long been practiced in monasteries. Indeed, St. Benedict’s monastic practice can be summarized as ora et labora, prayer and work, contemplation and action. By engaging and tending the physical world we get in touch with our humus, our humanity, as well as the creation, which is the real, God-beloved reality around us. We should not look down on manual labor as beneath human dignity, for in fact it can be a spiritual practice. 

In his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, a monk named Brother Lawrence, meditated on his task of washing the dishes. "[Brother Lawrence] thought it was a shame that some people pursued certain activities (which, he noted, they did rather imperfectly due to human shortcomings), mistaking the means for the end. He said that our sanctification does not depend as much on changing our activities as it does on doing them for God rather than for ourselves.

The most effective way Brother Lawrence had for communicating with God was to simply do his ordinary work. He did this obediently, out of a pure love of God, purifying it as much as was humanly possible. He believed it was a serious mistake to think of our prayer time as being different from any other. Our actions should unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as our prayers unite us with him in our quiet devotions"

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are some chores I like better than others. I actually enjoy cooking, for instance, and I’ve learned to find some satisfaction in washing dishes, but I have never been a fan of folding laundry. It’s mindless and in some ways never ending because there is always more laundry to do, more sheets to fold. And it requires a level of precision that I have never been very good at. But I have been working at turning the act into an offering to God. If I pray while I fold the corners together, if I offer thanks for the clean sheet I am folding, and the fact that I have a bed to put it on and a roof to sleep under, the task itself becomes an offering. I still hate folding sheets, but by turning them into a spiritual practice I no longer dread them. And more importantly, I’m inviting God into even the most mundane moments of my life.

Martin Luther once wrote, "The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays -- not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship." Do what you are given to do well, and that is it’s own offering to God. 

And there is no limit to what counts as labor. If it is something you have to work to do, that counts, regardless of whether or not its work to someone else. When we are sick, the act of heating up soup becomes labor. Walking from one room to another can be work. All of it can be offered to God.

Work will happen one way or another. It is our decision to meet God there or not. "[Work] presents itself as drudgery, which you may turn into soul work by choosing the labor instead of resenting it." Sometimes work is just work, but by remembering the lives it helps sustain, even if it is only your own, you can turn that work into something holy.

So, whatever work you have to do this week, whatever you labors might be, offer them to God. Try to see them as a holy act. And if you get a chance, spend some time working in the dirt, remembering where you came from. Amen.