Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sept 27, 2015 Sermon: "Prayer That Works"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 19.7-14
NT: James 5.13-17
Prayer That Works

             Most of you probably remember the Challenger shuttle crash in 198­­6.  Our entire nation mourned, as the space shuttle carrying six astronauts and elementary school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, exploded just after takeoff as we all watched on live television.  It was a dark day for our nation.  Those liftoffs had become routine, even celebratory, and we could not understand why such a tragedy happened. 
            So, why did it happen?  Was it a fluke accident or an unforeseen circumstance?  No, it was a failure to communicate.  Engineers who worked on the shuttle’s booster rocket system, the big tanks on the belly of the shuttle that thrust it through the atmosphere, expressed concerns about the o-rings for years.  They never quite sealed correctly, so they advised their bosses that the Challenger wasn’t ready to launch. 
            Their bosses didn’t want to disappoint NASA, NASA didn’t want to disappoint the President, and the President didn’t want to disappoint the nation.  So the news about the faulty o-rings, which sealed the fuel in the booster rockets, never made it past the lowest level engineers.  Their bosses never told anyone.  NASA didn’t know.  The President didn’t know.  The nation didn’t know.  Until we saw the flames in the sky that fateful day.  The reason was faulty o-rings, but the cause was a failure to communicate. 
            If the consequences of failures in human communication are that grave, then what might the consequences be when we fail to communicate with God?  That question came to me this week as I watched, with the rest of the nation, the Pope drive around DC in his little Fiat.  While there’s certainly much to say about his trip, one of the most striking to me has been his ability to speak so publicly, so proudly, and so appropriately about church things outside the church.  He has taken our entire nation to church.  He has facilitated communication with God. 
This week’s scripture is about prayer, and prayer in its most general sense is communication with God.  When we pray, we speak silently and aloud, we listen, we watch, we wait, we leave voicemails wondering if anybody ever hears them.  Sometimes when we don’t receive a call back, we assume the lack of an answer is the answer. 
            James’ point here in chapter five seems to be that no matter what our situation is, prayer is always in order. 
Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 13…if you are suffering.  Whether you find yourself wandering in the desert for 40 years like the Israelites on the exodus or stuck in a job that isn’t making use of your talents, it is OK to grumble to God!  Let it all out in prayer.  Get it off your chest.  We all need to vent every now and then!
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 13…if you are cheerful.  Whether you are celebrating an anniversary or basking in the glory of achieving a goal you’ve been working towards for months, enjoy your success with God!  Share your thanks with God for bringing you this far, for you surely haven’t gotten there by yourself. 
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 14…if you are sick.  Not because you expect prayer to work like a magic trick, but because you need support.  God’s support and the support of your community to get you through whatever ailments you face. 
            Communication with God is necessary, according to verse 16…if sin is gnawing at your soul.  Whether you’ve done something you know you shouldn’t have or failed to do something you know you should have, prayer allows you to ask God for forgiveness!  And forgiveness allows your relationship to be mended. 
            The Challenger crashed because of a failure to communicate.  The engineers’ concerns never made it to those in charge, because they were too busy.  Imagine the consequences we face when we fail to communicate with God.  I know we’re all busy.  It can be hard to sit down to a meal together, much less pray together.  Sometimes when we get in bed we’re so tired we fall asleep before or during our prayers!  I suggest you approach prayer, communication with God, differently. 
            What kind of prayer works?  The answer is, “Prayer than works.” 
            What am I talking about?  Think back earlier in James.  He teaches us that faith  without works is dead, right?  What if the same is true of our prayers?  What if, in describing all these kinds of prayers, he is saying that our prayers should be more than words?  What if he’s saying prayers that work…work? 
            A prayer that works for those who suffer would mean helping to relieve their suffering.  If they are hungry, we might live out our prayer by feeding them.  A prayer that works for those who are joyous would mean praising God!  A prayer that works for those who are sick could mean something as simple as giving them chicken soup or giving them a ride to the doctor.   A prayer that works for everyday folks might mean a service of wholeness, where the pastor sprinkles water on your forehead to remind you of your blessedness and your importance to God and God’s desire that you be whole.

            What kind of prayer works?  Prayer that works.  Remember, prayer is communication with God.  And words are just a small part of communication.  As the pope taught us this week when we preached to Congress about ending poverty and then ate lunch with the poor, our works and our actions are prayers too.  Amen.       

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sept 20, 2015 Sermon: "Humility: Liberation from Me-First Thinking"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 1
NT: Mark 9.30-37
Humility: Liberation from Me-First Thinking

            Today, Dr. William Hood is a retired professor of art history at the Oberlin College in Ohio.  But in the late 1960s, he was a college student who had a chance encounter with a larger than life figure.  He tells a story about that encounter which was brought to my mind by this week’s reading from Mark. 
            In 1968, Hood was a college student in Atlanta.  He attended a small dinner party with a few friends.  To his great surprise, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta also attended.  When the Kings arrived, the whole room grew still.  After all, they were national figures, and here they were at a dinner party.  The college students were afraid to say a word, and the host was in the kitchen.  So naturally, it was the dog, a corgi, who greeted them first.  Coretta King knelt down to rub his belly while Martin took their coats to the closet.  They offered Coretta a drink, very well aware of the fact that she was the wife of a Baptist minister, so they made sure to say they had non-alcoholic options.  She said she’d have a Coke. 
            Martin returned to the room, and they offered him a drink as well.  He said, “Are there any Baptists here?” 
            They said, “No sir, we’re Episcopalians.” 
            “Well in that case,” said Martin, “I’ll have a scotch on the rocks!”  And Coretta said she’d have a sherry instead of that Coke. 
            Hood found himself amazed at the King’s humility.  Even though they were on television and in the papers, at the dinner party they were just like everyone else.  When the conversation turned serious, everyone looked to Martin for his views on the Vietnam War, poverty, and race.  But he didn’t want the conversation to be about him and his work.  Instead, he turned to Hood—a young man he’d only met that night, a college student he would never see again, looked him directly in the eye, and said, “Tell me what you’re studying and why.”  And then he listened. 
As Hood tells it, King looked at him with a keen intensity that let him know he was actually listening, caring, and wanting to know who this young man was and what he intended to do with his life.  He described the humility he saw in King as a kind of energy that had a liberating effect on everyone in the room. 
            Who are some of the most humble people you’ve known in your life?  Seriously, I want to know.  Tell us.  Inspire us!  Make those humble souls blush by naming them! 
            Now think about that person you mentioned or thought about.  What made them humble?  It’s sort of hard to describe humility.  You know it when you see it, but it’s hard to describe positively.  Jesus describes humility this way: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 
            If you’ve grown up in church, you’ve heard that same idea hundreds of times.  The first will be last…and the last will be first.  But what did Jesus mean by that in his culture?  Everybody knew who the “first” were.  The wealthy.  There was no middle class in Jesus’ day.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  In his day, there were the landowners and everyone else.  The 1% owned everything, including the other 99% of the population.  There was no Galilean Dream where you could work your way up out of poverty if you got a corporate job and invested your money.  So the first were the select few wealthy landowners, and the last was everybody else.  Jesus’ message, in that world, was that whoever wants to be first must be last of all.  Why would Jesus preach that to his disciples?  What would be so important about humility? 
            Because their society viewed wealth as an indication of importance, and he turned that idea on its head.  For Jesus, putting others before yourself is what really makes your important.  Humility.  If you were rich, you could be first in God’s eyes by serving your less fortunate brothers and sisters.  And if you were the 99% who was always lasts in this life, you could be first too…by humbly serving your neighbors.  In that way, Jesus’ message was for everyone in every circumstance.  The humility he preached knew no bounds whatsoever. 
            He even practiced it himself!  When he healed someone, what did he tell them?  “Please don’t say anything about this to anyone else.  There’s no need to call attention.”  When he’d had a long day and would rather just take a nap but someone came to him with a sick little girl, what did he do?  He put the nap on hold and healed the child. 
            This week I read a definition of humility in Psychology Today, and it said this:  Humility is a state of freedom from me-first thinking, which our culture teaches us to do at every possible turn.  A state of freedom from me-first thinking.  Does that sound good to you?  Sounds great to me.            
            Remember Hood in the room with King…where he said King’s humility had a liberating effect on him…did the humility of your heroes have a liberating effect on you?  Did it make you feel like anything was possible? 
            I’ve been thinking this week…what if the church was more humble?  What if we as a people, as an institution, were liberated from me-first thinking?  It’s no secret that most of our churches were built for three or four times the people who attend today.  We argue all the time about why that is.  Is it because we’ve taken stands on social issues?  Or because we’ve failed to speak up people are hurting?  Is it because people are just too busy these days?  Or is it because we’re too busy taking care of aging buildings to do ministry?  I think it’s much simpler than that.  We’ve been too busy trying to be first instead of being last. 
            Our call is not to be the biggest or the best or the most attractive.  Our call is not to be the most glitzy or shiny church on the block.  Our call is not to be the “it” church.  Doesn’t it feel liberating to have that weight lifted from your shoulders?  It allows you to relax and be who you were called to be.  Last! 
            Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian, taught that humility was an ethic.  That infers it’s not a choice you make but a constant series of choices you make over a long period of time.  A series of habits strung together.  A pattern…with a surprising result. 
            The surprising result of humility is not meek, mild, lowliness.  The humble are not weak.  Bring back to mind that example of humility you mentioned or thought of before.  That was not a self-conscious, weak person, was it?  Our society thinks of humility in those terms, but they couldn’t be more wrong.  The humble are confident.  The humble are liberated.  They have peace of mind and heart.  Like a child who will dance to their heart’s delight even when everyone is watching, the humility of Christ liberates each of us to be first in God’s eyes.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.   

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sept 13, 2015 Sermon: "A Savior, Coming of Age"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Proverbs 1.20-33
NT: Mark 8.27-38
A Savior, Coming of Age             

            Do you think Jesus always knew who he was?  Did he know as a boy that could heal the sick?  Was he aware as a young adult that he would soon die?  Did his mother or the Holy Spirit tell him how it would all happen?  These may seem like silly questions, but I bet most of us assume he did.  But just because you know something’s going to happen doesn’t mean that you’re ready for it. 
            You still scream at scary movies, even though you know something is going to pop out of the darkness.  You still cry at romantic comedies, even though you know they will live happily ever after.  You still get nervous for the good guys in superhero movies, even though you know they always beat the bad guys.  Just because you know what’s going to happen doesn’t mean you know how it’s going to happen.  Even though Jesus knows who he is, that doesn’t mean he’s ready for it.  Remember he is fully human, too. 
            According to Mark, it all began with the Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus, signaling God’s favor in his life.  No birth story.  No manger or star.  No donkey and no Joseph being turned down at the inn.  Just the Spirit descending like a dove.  It was an outward symbol of an inward truth—the child was special.  But that didn’t preclude him from the same troubles as everyone else.  Not only was it just as hard for him to ask Mary to the school dance as every other awkward teenager boy, but he dealt with deeper problems too.    
            He wasn’t like the others.  His family told the community he must be crazy, for they had no explanation for his outlandish behavior—turning water into wine and “pretending” to know more than the teachers.  They were tired of having to answer for him, so they disowned him.  In response, he did what most other young men would do in that situation, he returned fire with fire, disowning his family and hitting the road with some half-hearted fishermen for friends.  The only cousin who had really understood him, John, lived out in the woods with only his beard and locusts for company.   
            Yet, the boy growing into a man was fully God too.  He was doing things no one else could do, and people were talking.  That dove’s appearance might not have been a coincidence after all.  Everywhere he went, people paid attention.  They practiced his teachings.  They looked to his guidance.  They brought him their sick.  And he always came through. 
            But what goes up must come down, and so did Jesus.  John was captured by the Romans and beheaded at a party, as if it was entertainment for the royals.  Jesus tried to get away with his disciples, but they couldn’t get far enough away.  He fed thousands.  He rescued the disciples from a raging sea.  Then he met a Gentile woman who wanted his help.  He said no, because she wasn’t Jewish.  Then she opened his eyes to the absurdity of that idea, and he realized the breadth of his mission was much greater than he had realized. 
            If Jesus knew who he was, then why did he ask the disciples in the midst of all this chaos, “Who am I?”  Perhaps he just wanted to test them.  See what they would say.  Discern if they knew more than they let on.  Find out what they were telling other people.  But I think it was an honest question.  He wanted confirmation from his friends that he was who he had become—Son of God, healer of the sick, friend of Jews and Gentiles, Savior of us all. 
            It wasn’t an identity crisis.  He always knew who he was.  It was a coming of age.  He became who he knew he always was. 
            I find Jesus’ coming of age remarkably comforting, because he was a human, too.  If even he didn’t always have everything figured out, then maybe there’s hope for me.  For my disorganized desk and my best intentions left unfulfilled and my hurtful words.  Maybe there’s hope for us.  For our broken relationships and our unfulfilling jobs and our unknown mistakes.  We may not yet be who were born to be, but there’s still time.  Hope is alive.  Just like Jesus, we are coming of age. 
            Fourteen years after 9/11, some people look at the world and see a world unhinged.  They see division and hatred and enmity.  There’s no denying  that, but I hear a voice louder than all those who are shouting. 
I hear Jesus asking, “Who do you say I am?”  He asks that to remind us that he is the Messiah, who has saved us all already. 
“Who do you say I am?”  He asks that to remind us that he had to come of age, just like we do.
“Who do you say I am?” He asks us that to remind us to be hopeful.  Coming of age takes time. 
            Did you notice that Jesus himself, even once the disciples confirm who he is, tells them not to tell anyone else?  Why would he do that?  Because the Son of God doesn’t do it for the glory; he does it to the glory of God.  There is honor in letting your actions speak for themselves without commentary or adulation. 

            As we all come of age—as we grow over time into the people we were created to be, no matter our age—take hope in knowing that it takes time.  Take hope in being aware that who you are reflects to the world the good God who made you.  Take hope in the Messiah, for this is his world.  Take hope.  Amen.              

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Sept 6, 2015 Sermon: "You're Not You When You're Exhausted"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Mark 7.24-37
You're Not You When You're Exhausted
            For some reason this week, I’ve been thinking about statues.  Like Michael Jordan’s statue in Chicago that shows him in his famous jumpman pose.  Or Rocky’s statue in Philedelphia at the top of the Art Museum steps which shows him in his victorious boxing pose.  Or John Henry’s statue here in southern WV which shows him with a hammer in his hand, commemorating the time he outworked a machine.  Statues always show people doing what they did best. 
            Have you ever wondered what your statue would look like?  Leah would be playing a harp.  Rodger’s statue would have to be motorized so it could rock as he played the piano.  And Kerry, my wife’s statue, would show her sleeping.  That is, according to her, what she does best.  We once took a trip to China together in college, and when we returned she asked me to show her my pictures. 
            “Here you are asleep on the train to Nanjing.  Here you are asleep on the plane to Tibet.  Here you are asleep on the yak riding over the Himilayas.  Here you are asleep on the Buddha’s belly in the monastery.”  I thought she would be mad at me for taking all those pictures, but when I turned around for her reaction…she was asleep! 
            The statue I’ve thought of most this week is Jesus on a mountaintop overlooking Rio de Janerio, Brazil.  His arms are outstretched, as if he’s welcoming the whole world into his arms.  That shows him at his best.  Practicing radical inclusion.  Welcoming any and everyone into his family. 
            That made me think about the way Jesus is often memorialized.  Whether it’s statues or paintings or stained glass, Jesus is always helping others--healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, baptizing the masses.  When we think of Jesus, we usually think of him helping others.    
            That’s why today’s story is so odd.  A woman comes to him for help, and he rejects her…sarcastically, nonetheless.  That’s not the Jesus we know.  So what’s going on in here?
             According to Mark, several important things have recently happened in Jesus’ life.  His cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, was recently murdered brutally by the government.  He tried to take his disciples out of town after that to get some rest and relaxation since they were being following night and day by people asking for help, but they couldn’t escape the crowds.  Thousands found them, and Jesus fed them all with five loaves and two fish.  When they left there, a terrible storm arose on the sea, prompting Jesus to walk on water in order to calm and save the disciples in their boat. 
            My point is that by Mark 7, Jesus is exhausted.  Exhausted by death and travel and healings and feedings.  Exhausted.  Verse 24 says he went to the region of Tyre, which was a significant distance from his home base.  He walked miles and miles to get there.  It was a port city where Jews would have gone for vacation but never would have lived.  Gentiles lived there, and Jews only went there to get away.  So this was a place Jesus wouldn’t have been as well known.  A place he could maybe get some rest.  He ducks into a house, hoping to have a moment to himself, and the Syrophoenician woman finds him.  Even though she’s a Gentile, she knows exactly who he is, and she wants his help with her sick daughter. 
We’ve heard this story before.  Woman approaches Jesus.  Has a sick relative.  Asks for help.  We know what’s supposed to happen next.  He’s supposed to help her.  That’s what he does.  Except, he refuses to help the Syrophoenician woman. 
            He says, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”  Something may be lost in translation there…some saying with which we are unfamiliar today…but it’s pretty clear what he means.  He won’t help her.   Why not?   
            Because when we’re exhausted, we do things we wouldn’t normally do and say things we wouldn’t normally say.  Jesus is exhausted, and in that moment of weakness he says something he wouldn’t normally say. 
            As soon as the woman turns his sarcastic response on its head, though, he realizes his mistake and helps her daughter.  If you’ve ever lost your cool in a moment of exhaustion or anxiety, you know it only takes a small trigger to bring you back to reality.
            And for Jesus, reality is marked by radical inclusion. Like his statue overlooking Brazil, Jesus’ open arms welcome all those who have ears to hear.  His open arms beckon those whose eyes see him.  His open arms call to all of us, promising peace and respite from a raging world that can leave us all feeling like Jesus did when he took an impromptu beach trip to Tyre.  

            As Paul writes in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  All of us…are one…in Christ Jesus.  Praise be to God.  Amen.