Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Message 2014

(This message was given on Thanksgiving Day in St Paul's Cathedral. The sermon text was Matthew 22:34-40.)

I want to wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving today. It’s a gift to be able to gather and celebrate in this beautiful place of worship. We are, as always, grateful to the people of St Paul’s for welcoming us on this special day.

Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest travel period of the year in the US. Airports are packed and highways are filled to capacity as people are headed for reunions with families and friends. I know that many of you have family members visiting today. I also know that many of you are here in London and missing your families—missing your homes.

Most of us will try to soothe those feelings later with a Thanksgiving feast. Turkey and all the trimmings, different regional touches to the meal, pies and cakes and all kinds of treats. If we’re all very quiet we could probably hear our stomachs growling.
But the real point of Thanksgiving is remembering to be thankful.

Everyone knows that it’s important to say thank you. It’s part of the glue that holds us all together—it’s we teach our kids, right? “Say please and thank you.”

Being grateful—and saying “thank you” out loud—is a good and healthy part of being alive—it’s an essential part of being in a community.

Forbes Magazine says that gratitude in the workplace isn’t what it ought to be. “Only 10% of adults say “thanks” to a colleague every day,” according to the writer, “and just 7% express gratitude daily to a boss.” This is important, according to Forbes, because 49% of managers believe that a culture of gratitude increases profits.

Worrying about profits isn’t exactly what I was going for here today. But whether it’s profitable or not, every language and culture has its own way of saying thank you.

For those of you who know Pinterest: There are 377 different ideas for thank-you gifts on the first page alone.

But sometimes, apparently, it’s difficult to find the right words. And so of course, there’s a website to help us with that. It’s simply called “40 Thank You Phrases,” and it has such creative options as:

I am all gratitude, or,
I will forever be beholden to you, and:
Thanks a Ton.

They get slightly more creative as you work your way down the list.

Words are powerless to express my gratitude.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Consider yourself heartily thanked.

The list includes some unexpected gems such as:

Please accept my vehement protestations of gratitude.

And for those of us who come from California, the list actually includes this familiar phrase:

It was so awesome of you—thanks. (All that’s missing is the Dude at the end of the sentence.)

But of course, sometimes, we simply forget how important it is to say thank you, and the results can be fairly severe.

The Huffington Post shared the story of a young woman who was invited to a wedding for a couple she didn’t know very well. She decided to get a little creative with the gift, and so she filled a picnic basket with all kinds of fancy condiments and delicacies and specialty candies.

The bride was not impressed. She sent her guest a message that read: “I'm not sure if this is the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding, people give money in envelopes now. I spent $200 (the bride went on) covering you and your date’s meals, and I got some Fluffy Whip and Sour Patch Kids in return. Consider this a heads-up for the future.”

The bride went on to demand a receipt for the items in the gift basket.

I know, right? I cringe every time I read that message. That poor groom. Sometimes it’s a comfort to know that no matter how badly you behave, nothing you do could ever be as bad or as rude as something another person has already done. She probably should have just said thanks.

Thanksgiving is a day set aside to say thank you—a day to be grateful to God for life and the blessings we enjoy. But more it’s more likely that we think about the other important things: the food—the friends and family—the football games to watch.

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday. We Americans grow up learning about that first Thanksgiving—our entire set of traditions and the industry around the holiday, all stem from the story we’ve inherited that describes that very first meal.

But did you know that the only eyewitness account of that first celebration of Thanksgiving is just 115 words long? That’s right. Just a little over a hundred words, and look what we’ve done with it.

Our text this morning is even shorter than the description of that first Thanksgiving—just 92 words, but it is packed with an amazing and life-changing message. In our passage this morning, in this brief text from the Gospel according to St Matthew, we find a roadmap to a meaningful and fulfilling life—a path to true and lasting greatness.

In our story from Matthew today, Jesus is being tested by some Pharisees. These biblical scholars followed Jesus around and listened to his teachings—then they put their heads together and tried to come up with questions that would somehow back Jesus into a theological corner.

They ask him: Which is the greatest commandment in the Law? And Jesus answers:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We’re right to remember the first part of what Jesus says in this passage—to love God and love your neighbor is such an important thing for us to know—it is, in so many ways, the essential ingredient to a full and happy life. We’re right to remember those two rules for living, but I’m struck by the last thing Jesus says here, too.

“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Really? Think about that for a moment.

The Law helped shape the behavior of God’s people. It was where the followers of God learned their ethics, and the boundaries of what they should and should not do.

The Prophets corrected God’s people went they went astray—when their worship was hollow, and when they forgot to be just and fair in the ways they did business. When God needed to discipline his people, he spoke through the prophets.

Now Jesus comes along and says simply, Love God and love your neighbor. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

And so the core of the Christian message—the one that everything else hangs on—is this:

Love God, and love your neighbor.

Here’s the bottom line: If you can make the small leap to see following God’s commandments as a way of being grateful to God, then there is no better expression of gratitude—no better way to say thank you—than the one we see in our text today:

Love God, and love your neighbor. Every other law and every other prophet—the sum total of everything we know about living the life of faith—everything hangs on these two commandments.

You may know that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in this cathedral 50 years ago. In one of his speeches Dr. King said this:

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity, or the Second Theory of Thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Maybe that's what's missing in places like Ferguson this week.
Maybe both sides have forgotten what's really important.

A heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love.

That’s what the life of faith is really all about. Because let’s be honest here: any trained monkey can follow a list of rules. The life of faith is different. True greatness is different. God calls us to a “soul generated by love,” for him and for our neighbors.

But maybe you’re having a hard time loving God right now.
Maybe the thought of loving God never occurred to you before.

That’s OK. God isn’t going anywhere. He’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready, and in the meantime there is so much for us to do. But where do we start?

Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn of the New York Times have just published a book called A Path Appears. In so many ways this book is a thoughtful, hopeful, and very specific answer to the question: How do I love my neighbor?

They tell some great stories.

Like the kid who was told by his third grade teacher that he would never amount to anything. A trio of family friends started mentoring him, and after college and a career as a journalist, Lester Brown is an evening news anchor in Boston. Oh, and the mentoring charity he started will serve 30,000 kids this year.

Or the group in Africa that provides chlorine dispensers to families so they can drink clean water. The units cost $1.98 per year, and they reduce one of the major contributors to childhood deaths by 40 percent. That’s 2 dollars a year.

Or the high school students in Southern California who were so moved to see how kids around the world were prevented from learning, that they raised $200,000 for a partner school in Haiti. High school kids.

This book is a treasure trove of opportunities to help other people, and it’s a feast for those of you who base everything on a good answer to the Return on Investment question. (You know who you are.) Here’s one just for you:

A medical doctor applied his knowledge of infectious diseases to the way gang violence spreads in urban communities. The US Justice Department estimates that the doctor’s program reduced gang shootings by as much as 28%, and here’s the kicker: for every dollar spent on this program, almost 16 dollars are saved in medical costs and legal fees. That’s in addition, of course, to fewer young people being shot.

I’ve never recommended a book in a setting like this, but that changes today. If you are at all curious about what you and your family can do to make this world a better and more livable place, read A Path Appears, and commit to trying just one single suggestion you find there. Fair warning, though: Doing good—loving your neighbor—it’s a little like potato chips. You can’t do it just once.

We’ve already heard from Dr. King today. Listen to the way he once challenged his congregation. He said:
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, "What are you doing for others?"

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast today, take a moment to think about what you can do for someone else—talk with your family and friends about one thing you can do or share with another person to make their life safer or gentler or just better. It’s not about feeling bad. It’s about setting yourself up to feel better than you’ve ever felt before.

If Dr. King is right and life’s most persistent and urgent question really is ‘What are you doing for others?' If that’s the question, then let me invite you to take a stab at one of the answers today.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen, if we spend just a fraction of our day thinking about how we might help another person?

The resources and talents represented in this room today could change the world.

As we continue our celebration of this wonderful Thanksgiving Day, think back on our text. The best way we can be thankful today is to love God, and to love our neighbors.  Everything hangs on those two commandments.

And so may that be true in your home and in mine, today and every day.

Amen. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Monday, October 20, 2014

All In (Acts 8:26-40)

(This message in one in a series called "Acts of the Spirit," and was given at the American International Church in London on 19 October 2014)

One of the things I’m noticing is that a fresh reading of Acts is changing how I see what the church is meant to be. Over these last few weeks we’ve been looking at Acts and following three separate themes:

· The miraculous origins of the church.
· The meaning and experience of God’s presence in the world.
· The call on us as the church in the 21st century.

Luke is telling the story here—it begins in his gospel and continues in the book of Acts. So it’s no surprise that the first thing he shows Jesus doing is talking about the Kingdom of God. Just to review: The Kingdom is not a place or a realm, with limits or boundaries. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is the experience of God’s reign—God’s values and ethics and authority over all things and all places and all people. Jesus comes back from the dead and talks about the Kingdom for 40 straight days—40 days of teaching the disciples and the early believers about that Kingdom of God.

As we come to our text this morning, the church is growing by the thousands each week. The first persecution is beginning to take shape, and Stephen has been martyred under the watchful eye of a Pharisee named Saul. Stay tuned: he’s going to be important very soon.
Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. 31 "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to  come up and sit with him.

32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

So where are we in this text? The early church is under persecution. Stephen has been murdered. A Pharisee named Saul is chasing the leaders of the church all over the region

Philip, one of the men chosen to manage the distribution of food, is on the run. He’s traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road that passes by the city of Hebron, and the graves of Abraham and Sarah. He meets a eunuch. Eunuchs were men whose sexual parts were removed so they could be trusted to guard harems and run government offices. This guy was a treasury official in Ethiopia—he was a powerful man who was trusted to oversee the treasury of the queen. But there’s more for us to know here.

In the OT eunuchs are listed as permanently unclean and restricted from the Temple. Deut. 23:1 says: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Eunuchs were not permitted to the community of faith. Now we know there were all kinds of restrictions on people who were temporarily unclean for a whole range of reasons: touching various animals or bodily fluids, menstrual cycles, and a range of other natural conditions. All of these could be restored. People who had made themselves unclean somehow could ritually cleanse themselves and be back in the Temple the next day. Eunuchs were different. They were permanently, irrevocably barred from worshipping God in the assembly of the faithful.

One writer described it this way: “The law strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the temple. Their transgression of gender binaries and inability to fit into proper categories made them profane. They did not fit in the tent.”

But notice that the eunuch is on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem, where in all likelihood he was turned away and prevented from worshiping. When Philip finds him he’s reading a scroll of Isaiah 53. Think about how hard it must have been for him to get his hands on that scroll. There was no Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s down the street—there were no Kindles with Bibles loaded into them. This man had spent a small fortune on a hand-copied scroll of the book of Isaiah, and he read it as a way to help him follow God.

Philip greets the man and hears him reading out loud from Isaiah. Riding in his chariot. Out in the desert. Still feeling rejected after his visit to Jerusalem. Reading out loud from the Scriptures. Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the man is a little exasperated, maybe from just being turned away at the Temple: “How can I understand it unless someone explains it to me?”

Turns out the eunuch is reading a passage we read every Advent season, from the heart of Isaiah 53, where the suffering Messiah is promised to us. How perfect is that? How perfect is it that his question is about who this prophet might be? The Ethiopian is watching and waiting for Advent, and Philip gets to tell him that it’s already here.

Philip takes the question and hits it out of the park, and this Ethiopian gender outsider becomes the very first non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith. They see a little pond or oasis or whatever kind of water you find on a desert road, and this Ethiopian government official says: Is there any good reason why I can’t be baptized?

Think about that question. There are a lot of things Philip could have said at this moment. He could have quoted that Deuteronomy passage and left him there. He could have said that his sexual identity meant that even if he believed, he could never be a part of the church. Of course that’s not what happened. Philip is a product of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Philip is a new creation. Philip listened to the risen Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God for 40 straight days, and in this story it’s clear that he understood what it meant.

In one of those unexplainable moments, Philip is taken out of the story. What’s funny is that the Ethiopian guy doesn’t even notice. All of his prayer and study and longing to understand God has led him to this encounter with someone who had the answers. He rides back to Africa singing songs.

This is a great story about being ready to share the faith. About being sensitive to the questions and searching of people around us. But here’s another thing in this story that we should remember:

We should never ignore the significance of the fact that the first Gentile convert in the Bible was a black sexual outcast.

This is Palestine in the first century, under the control of the Roman Empire. There were no diversity programs or sensitivities then. And yet the first recorded Gentile to accept the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was a black sexual outcast.

When you think about the miracles of the New Testament, never forget this one. Never forget how Philip the apostle lived the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he ran into an Ethiopian eunuch.

What do we make of this? It’s crucial to notice here that after Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion. Jews from outside the Holy Land; Gentiles from anywhere and everywhere; even those whose gender identities and lifestyles were outside the mainstream.

After Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion.

So what the heck happened? What happened to that inclusive trajectory? What happened to the church being a place that was always trying to outdo itself in welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the ones no one else would accept?

The truth is that it’s not long before the church became so deeply connected to the culture, that it came to reflect the culture’s biases and taboos and hatreds. There are all kinds of examples.

Women in leadership in the 1st century were edged out as the church gave in to the patriarchy of the surrounding culture.

The sharing and communal living of the early church is obliterated by individualism and the rise of private property and unrestricted capitalism.

Closer to home in American history: Slaveowners in the American South could celebrate passages that seemed to condone slavery as a perpetual norm—as something that would always be OK, while at the very same time their slaves could be reading the same Bible and longing for release from bondage to the Promised Land.

Maybe Ann Lamott puts it best when she says: “You know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.”

But that’s not the way it was supposed to be. That’s not the way Christian culture was meant to speak in a prophetic voice to whatever host culture it finds itself in.

The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

If we’re going to get this one wrong, then it should be on the side of being too generous—too open—too loving, and not the other way around. That’s what Luke is showing us in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. That’s what this church can be when we allow the reign of God to cover this place.

What can we take away from this text this morning? Three crucial things to remember.

First, God is already working in the hearts of people all around us, even on the margins. Maybe especially on the margins. That Ethiopian was searching for God on his own, desperately waiting for someone to share the Good News with him. He didn’t get any help from the religious establishment of the day. People all around us are searching for God on the own. Our job is to enter into those conversations with our own stories.

Second, the gift of the Holy Spirit trumps everything—even the limits God himself placed on the life of faith in the Old Testament. This is the hardest one for us. My own denomination is tearing itself apart because it’s forgotten who it was called to be—not a keeper of rules, but a demonstration of grace.

And finally, because of that, we’re called to remember that everybody is welcome here. We’re called to be agents of that open, flexible, grace-filled love that Philip showed the Ethiopian. No matter where they’re from, or who or how they love. If they’re willing to seek the God of the Bible through the ministry of Jesus Christ, then we should be looking for the nearest puddle to baptize them in.

Acts is getting interesting, isn’t it?

Just remember this: The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.

May that be true in this place, and in every place that claims the name of Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.