Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oct 25, 2015 Sermon: "Embracing the Darkness"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Job 42.1-6
NT: Mark 10.46-52

                I once read the story of a girl born blind whose sight was restored when she was a teenager.  After her surgery, she kept her eyes closed for two weeks because it was too much to bare so quickly.  When she eventually opened her eyes, all she could say, repeatedly, was, “O God, how beautiful!” 
                That’s the thing about light.  When you’re used to the darkness, light hurts your eyes.  And when you’re used to the light, darkness can be bewildering, even frightening.  I’ve often heard people who have their sight say losing it would surely be the worst thing imaginable.  For those who have sight, that may be true.  But for those who don’t, much worse things are possible.  It’s all a matter of perspective. 
                That brings us to blind Bartameus.  Jesus once said those who have not seen but believed are blessed!  I think he was talking about Bartimeus.  In a day and time when there were no nursing homes, no social security, and no 501c3s, physically disabled people like Bartimeus had but one option.  Sit at the city gates and beg for mercy.  People often believed disease and disability was a curse from God for some sort of sinfulness, so they did not go out of their way to assist those they believed deserved their lot in life.  (And lest we saddle up our high horse, let us remember we do the same with prisoners, prostitutes, and drug addicts today.)
                Bartimeus hears that Jesus is near, and not only knows who Jesus is…he believes in him.  How do we know this?  Because he calls him Son of David, a royal title indicating that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised heir of David sent to save the people. 
                Throwing off his cloak and jumping to his feet, he runs toward Jesus!  The people shush and push him backwards.  Bartimeus is used to such treatment, so he pays it no attention, calling out this time louder to Jesus! 
                And the Son of David wants to see him.  This blind beggar who has never met Jesus seems to understand him better than his own disciples.  So Jesus asks him, just as he asked his disciples in last week’s story, “What do you want?”  The disciples wanted glory; Bartimeus merely wants to see the Savior standing before him.   So Jesus grants his request and tells Bartimeus to go.  Instead, Bartimeus who is no longer blind sees exactly where he wants to go.  Wherever Jesus does.  So he follows him. 
                I’ve been stressing for weeks now that Mark’s stories aren’t always what they seem.  They seem to be about wealth or divorce, but they’re about something much deeper.  The same is true today.  The story is seemingly is about Bartameus’ blindness.  And it is, but it’s really about something more.  Let me tell you a story. 
                The great preacher Tony Campolo likes to tell this story.  You see, big-time preachers like him preach somewhere different each week, so they can tell the same story and even preach the same sermon over and over again…while some of us have to write a new sermon every week of every year!  Forgive me, I digress.  Here’s the story of Agnes the prostitute. 
                  Tony Campolo flew to Hawaii to preach at a conference.  It was late, so he checked into his room and tried to get some sleep.   His body woke him at 3am, thinking it was much later.   The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and hungry.
He got up and went for a walk, looking for a place to get some breakfast. At 3am.  Everything was closed except for an old dive in an alley.
It was 3:30am in Hawaii.  There sits Campolo, eating a donut and sipping coffee, when in walked eight or nine loud prostitutes who just finished with their night’s work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing protitutes. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replied, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
The first woman said, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”
 “Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
A smile crept over the man’s face. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.”
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony came back. He had decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes. They all shouted, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she totally lost it. She sobbed and cried.
After Agnes blew out the candles and everybody sang, they looked to Tony for what was next.  So Tony got up on a chair and said, “What do you say that we pray together?” And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m., darkness outside, listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes on her birthday.
When he finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
Tony answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thought for a moment and said, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
Sometimes it’s in the darkness that we finally see the light.  I invite you to see the darkness in your life not as something to fear, but something to embrace.  Bartimeus’ blindness was a gate to a greater life, and yours can be too.  We’re all blind to certain things and people, but that’s not a death sentence.  It’s an opportunity to see the light. 
You see, Bartimeus wasn’t the only blind man in today’s story.  The disciples could see just fine, but they had no idea what was going on around them.  They could see the light of day, like us, but they too spent a lot of time fumbling around in the dark to find truth.  Perfectly healthy crowds followed Jesus for months but couldn’t see him clearly to save their lives.  Only Bartimeus did.  Sometimes it’s in the darkness we finally see the light.


Oct 11, 2015 Sermon: "Less Is More"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 90.12-17
NT:  Mark 10.17-31
Less Is More

            Last week we read a passage from Mark 10 about divorce.  Well, it was sort of about divorce but also about something much bigger.  Likewise, today’s story, also from Mark 10, is about money…but also about something much bigger.  Let’s dive right into what’s happening. 
            After Jesus embraced a group of children in his arms, saying the kingdom belonged to them, he was ready to leave town.  As he was leaving, a man approached him with a question. “Good teacher,” he called to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
            Jesus ticks off commandments like they’re a grocery list--don’t murder, don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t defraud, don’t lie, honor your parents.  And the man nods his head like a husband who has successfully gone to Kroger shopping for his wife.  Bread, milk, fruit, veggies, chocolate.  Got it.   He says to Jesus, “I’ve kept all of those since I was a boy.” 
            It’s hard to say what the man might have expected from Jesus.  Does he want an “atta boy?”  Does he want Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?  Does he honestly want to know what else to do?  Mark says that Jesus looked at him with love, which makes me think the man was earnest in wanting to know how to follow Jesus.  So Jesus tells him: Sell everything you own, give the profits to the poor, and then come follow me. 
            As if to highlight his point, Jesus then says to the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."  What does that mean?  Well, there’s an old saying in Jewish literature from Babylonian times about an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.  It was a figure of speech meaning, “Ain’t gonna happen.”  It didn’t just mean the chances weren’t good; it meant the chances were bad. 
            The implications for this wealthy man and for us are clear.  Jesus meant all that stuff about the first being last and the last being first.  He actually expects us to give.  That got me thinking this week about how we spend our money. 
Kerry and I went to the movie recently.  It was a night show, so it was full price.  And we got popcorn and drinks, because Kerry says so.  So it cost about $25 for our date.  I thought that was kind of expensive, but I was happy to pay it because getting to go on a date with Kerry was absolutely worth $25. 
            Do you know how much each of us as members give to the Presbyterian Church each year?  I’m not talking about what you put into the plate.  I’m talking about how much we give to the denomination out of what you give in the plate.  Any guesses?  Not much more than we spent for our date.  The denomination asks every local congregation to pay them about $28 per year per member.  And that money pays for our missionaries across the world, our new worshipping communities that are being created, our seminaries, our curriculum, Bibles distributed in local languages across the globe, and our national staff!  $28 per year.  That’s all the denomination asks for, and they’re talking about having to recall one-third of our missionaries because people aren’t paying their $28. 
            That made me think about how I spend my money, and perhaps it’s making you think about the same thing.  I did a children’s sermon once where I asked the kids to list how they spent their money.  You can guess what they said…candy, toys, games.  Then I pulled out my checkbook and had them read for the church how I spent my money.  Gas…shoes…groceries… golf…shoes. 
            It was a humbling and intimidating exercise, but it inspired me to do a better job of putting my money where my mouth was.  Which is exactly what Jesus challenges the wealthy man to do. 
            I don’t think Jesus literally intended the man to sell everything he owned in order to be a disciple.  Do you have to sell everything you own to be a good Christian?  I know plenty of faithful people who use the resources they have for good purposes, and I believe that sort of generosity honors God. 
            But remember, this story isn’t just about money.  It’s also about something much bigger.  When Jesus tells the man he must do one more thing, what is he teaching him?  Everything is a teaching moment for Jesus.  So what’s the lesson?  Sacrifice.  He asks the man to give up the one thing he would rather keep.  If you were in that man’s shoes and Jesus asked you to sacrifice the one thing you’d rather keep, what would it be?  Think about that.  What would it be? 
            BrenĂ© Brown, in a wonderful book on parenting titled “Daring Greatly” which I commend to each of you, says that the word sacrifice in its original Latin meant to make sacred or holy.  When we give up something onto which we cling—whether it is a possession, a fear, a grudge, a security measure, or a routine—we make our lives more sacred. 
            Keep in mind the man who says this—Jesus—has sacrificed his own family to be traveling the countryside, healing the sick and loving the unlovable.  The ones he says it to—the disciples—have left their own families, possessions, routines, and jobs to follow him.  When they spoke of sacrifice, they did not so lightly.  They all knew what it meant to give something special up…in order to make a more sacred life. 

            May we be challenged and inspired by their example as we consider the sacrifice to which God is calling us, not to make our lives less, but to make them more.  Amen.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Oct 4, 2015 Sermon: "World Communion Sunday"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 8
NT: Mark 10.2-16

            I walked outside the choir door this week just as the masons finished installing the columbarium.  They said, “We finished your house!” 
            Startled, I didn’t say anything, not knowing I if they were joking or threatening me. 
            So then one fellow spoke up and said, “Nah, hopefully you won’t have to live here for a long time…but when you do it’s a nice place!” 
            Facing our own mortality has a way of putting things in perspective.  And I’m not just talking about priorities.  I’m talking about our perspective on the universe.  This week NASA announced that Mars has flowing water.  They’ve also discovered dozens of planets capable of housing life in the last year.  The Kepler spacecraft that found those planets is currently 93 million miles away from Earth.  Thinking about that puts much more than your priorities in perspective. 
            Like a fallen leaf dancing in the wind on a blustery fall day, it is easy to feel small in this big world.  The Psalmist in today’s reading captured that feeling beautifully, writing: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
             Carl Sagan famously pointed to a picture of the universe with a tiny little blue dot depicting Earth.  He said, “Look at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
            With the Psalmist, we ask God: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 
            I think sometimes we get so focused on the little details of life that we fail to see God’s big picture.  A perfect example is how we read Mark 10.  We get so focused on the details of divorce that we fail to see what the passage is really about. 
            Now, hear me out.  Divorce is no trivial matter.  It was a significant controversy in the early church and it still is today.  I know how painful a divorce can be on families, and I also know it is sometimes the very best thing that could happen in the long run.  So I’m not dismissing divorce as a religious issue which needs our thought, our compassion, and our prayers.  I’m just saying that Mark 10 isn’t really about divorce.  It’s about something much bigger.
            Think about it.  The passage begins with the Pharisees, religious leaders of whom Jesus was regularly critical for following the law but ignoring how it affected real people, Pharisees ask Jesus what the law says about divorce.  This was a test.  Jesus knew it.  He’d been through these tests before.  And so they go back and forth about all the messy details of divorce.  They’re all intently focused on those details.
            Meanwhile, a bunch of kids want to see Jesus.  The disciples turn them away, for he is busy…arguing about divorce with the Pharisees.  I think sometimes we get so focused on little, ultimately insignificant details that we fail to see God’s big picture. 
            When Jesus finds out that the disciples have kept the children away from him—children who came seeking his acceptance, his love, and his blessing—he lets them have it.  Why?  Because they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  They were all so focused on religious debates about who God loves that they failed to love God’s children who were standing at their feet. 
            Today is World Communion Sunday.  Christians of every race, nation, and denomination will all celebrate communion across the world today.  I know how tempting it is to focus on the little details that separate us from one another.  But God’s big picture intends something greater for us. 
             O God, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  The question itself may be the answer.  We may not know why God cares so deeply for this speck of dust suspended on a sunbeam, but why matters less than that God does.  God is mindful of each of us.  The faithful church attendee who receives communion today like every other time, the refugee family who stops at a church along the way to receive it, the new believer who just joined the church in a revival last week, the pastors and the officers, the musicians and the choirs, the young and the old, the sick and the well, the literalist and the liberal, the wise and the foolish.  God is mindful of each of us. 
            I can just picture the scene depicted at the end of Mark 10, where Jesus opens his arms and gathers the children around him in a warm and loving embrace.  As you receive communion today, know that you are being embraced by God in just the same way, just as you are.  We may not understand why God is so good to us, but we can give thanks that God is.  Amen.