Sermon for 9/27/15 James 5:13-20

Prayer is very much a part of my life. I think if being a pastor had a “traditional” job description, prayer would be one of the expectations. Often, as the pastor, I get called on to pray at all occasions. This isn’t just at church functions either. As the only pastor in my family, I get called on to pray at meals a lot. Now, my immediate and extended family isn’t the “pray at every meal” kind of family. We’re a “pray only at special occasions and holiday meals” kind of family. One Thanksgiving while we were still in seminary, we decided to not make the trip home for the holiday. The phone rang in the early afternoon, and it was my mom. I thought we were going to play “pass the phone” so that I could talk with my family members as they prepared for their gastronomical adventures. But instead, mom hesitated a bit and then said “well, we were wondering if we could put you on speakerphone and you could pray for our meal.” And instead of being gracious and saying “yes”, my first response was “everyone there knows how to pray, someone else do it!” And then one of my other relatives piped up “yeah, but you’re the professional!” If there’s anything I’m not a professional of, it’s prayer.

But, much like many people, maybe even many of you, I tend to only pray in times of crisis. I always say or think that I need to pray more often. So, I think “I’m going to change my ways”, I get settled into bed and usually get out “Hi there, God” before the snoring starts. The other thing about my praying habits is that I am really good at praying for other people (or so I think) but I’m really bad at praying for myself. I feel selfish doing it. I start to think about praying for myself and then I think of all the other problems in the world. I mean, I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got a closet full of clothes, a fridge full of food, a roof over my head, a great job, and a pretty healthy family. What right do I have asking God for anything? But the thing is, none of us is worthy of God’s love and grace, and yet we receive it anyway. Maybe this is just me, but really, I struggle to pray for myself. I even get uncomfortable at times when people ask to pray for me.

Today’s reading from James mentions prayer or praise 8 times. That’s an average of 1 time per verse. And the first sentence alone is a good affirmation to pray. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Notice that there is no talk of worthiness when praying. There is also no mention of a pastor or qualified person praying. Now, the second verse does mention elders; but at the time James was written an elder may not have meant the same thing we’ve come to understanding it to mean now. But, even if it did, notice that it says elderS, meaning more than one person. More than one person is so-called “qualified” to pray. So, let me say this loud and clear right now: all of you are more than qualified to pray for anything, anyone, and at any time. You don’t need a pastor to do it. Anyone can pray.

I think sometimes we don’t pray because we don’t know what to say or the right words to use. I’ve said this before, but you should talk to God as if you’re talking to your best friend. But, what if that’s not enough. What if we just can’t do it? What if your nerves get the best of you and you can’t even begin to utter a single word of a prayer? There’s a couple of things I know for sure: first and foremost, God knows what we desire and what we need. And God will provide, in God’s time. Second, there’s actually a couple of places in the service where we lift up our prayers that are on our heart without having to say much. When we pray for the church, the world, and all of God’s creation, we usually end those prayers with “into your hands, gracious God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy” and this, my friends, means us too. Then, when we celebrate communion, we start by saying “the Lord be with you” and then “lift up your hearts.”

When we lift up our hearts, we lift up the concerns, joys, petitions, and thanksgivings of our hearts. We lift up all we are to God, in praise of God and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy. So, even when we can’t find the words, our response to these weekly liturgy is a prayer in itself. The community surrounding James and his writings obviously believed heavily in prayer. Pray when someone is suffering. Pray a word of praise when people are cheerful. Pray when people are sick. Pray for one another so that we may all be healed. Prayer is so powerful because it is so intimate. When you allow someone to pray for you, you are admitting that you aren’t perfect and that you do need help. Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable with it. I don’t like admitting either one of those things.

But, something so powerful happens in prayer. Our hearts soften. Our ears become opened so that we may more clearly hear the word of God. Our eyes start looking for places in our own world and the world around us where God is at work. Our souls are opened for opportunities. When we pray, we once again become grounded in Christ and the cross. More than increasing our members, more than increasing our budget, more than increasing the number of young people that call this place home, there’s nothing more I would love than to become known as the church that prays. Because when we commit to pray for one another, for the world, and yes, even for our enemies, our single act of prayer speaks very loudly about the God that we worship. When we commit to pray for one another, we admit that we are very much imperfect people that believe in a really perfect God. When we pray, the statement that we make is “I am willing to be loved and I am willing to love other people following the example of Jesus.” So, what do we have to lose. Let’s become a church that prays.

I am going to pass around a basket with some slips of paper in them along with some pens. If you desire to be prayed for just this week put your full name on a piece of paper and stick it in the basket. Then, I’ll pass the basket around again. If you put your name in the first time, pull another piece of paper out the second time. This is the name of the person you are going to pray for this week. Keep the paper in your pocket, your wallet, your purse, your dashboard, wherever you might keep it so that you remember to pray for this person. Could it be someone you love dearly and are close friends with? Of course! But, could it also be someone with whom you have a disagreement and haven’t spoken to for months? Yep.

From now on, I’ll keep the basket in the narthex. When you come in, put your name in as a signal that you want prayed for. Then, as you leave, take a name. It may take us a few weeks to get into the rhythm; but I have no doubt that this will become second nature. Prayer changes people. Prayer can change an entire church. Hang on, friends. The Holy Spirit is blowing!

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Sermon for 9/20/15 Mark 9:30-37

When I was a little girl, I had a bed that was probably every little girl’s dream back in the early 80’s: I had a canopy bed. The bed was huge (or at least it felt like it to my 6 year old self). It was probably a double, but to me, it felt like a California king. My bed was up against a wall, and if you stood at the foot of the bed, the door to the room was on the left and my closet was on the right. I never, ever had to make the right side of my bed. Mainly because I would never allow myself to sleep on that side of the bed. Because (again) it was the side of the bed closest to the closet and that is where the monsters lived. But one morning, it happened. I woke up on the right side of the bed. And I was still alive. What had I been afraid of?

In today’s Gospel reading there is a strange balance between fear and faith. And as I’ve thought about this all week, I become acutely aware that we live in a society that wants us to fear pretty much everything. Entire stores, companies, organizations, thrive out of our fear. It’s more common to hear stories like “do you know what chemicals might be living in your lunch time sandwich”? than to hear stories of people living into their faith. This past week as I listened to the news, I think I confirmed that in one way or another we should be scared of: our drinking water, what’s in our beef, nuclear weapons, presidential candidates, clocks, people who have “middle eastern sounding names” making clocks, the fed interest rate hike, the reliability of roads and bridges, and, of course, anyone who doesn’t look like us. I want to thank all of you for being brave enough to even leave the house this morning.

For every story that tells us we should fear something or stay away from something, there seems to another story contradicting it. Drink more red wine, it’s good for your heart. No, don’t, it’s bad for your cholesterol. Eat more meat for your heart, but don’t because of your cholesterol. Drink more water for clearer skin, no don’t –the chemicals will shrink your brain. And on and on and on. So, that got me to thinking about what fears I have. And I don’t mean like boogie man fears, the same kind I had when I was six, I mean actual fears. What keeps me up at night? Here’s what causes me to toss and turn and causes my ulcer to flair up: the budget of this church. I know we’ll be okay, I keep being told that. But, that doesn’t stop me from worrying. I worry about all the things I have yet to do but want to do. I worry that people don’t think I am visiting them enough, or maybe I’m visiting them too much. I worry about Ellen and the job we’re doing in parenting her. My biggest fear is that she will have inherited my mental health problems.

And guess how many times I have spent nights tossing and turning do I finally give up and turn to God in prayer? No, that seems to be like the least logical answer to my problems. What makes me think I can solve my problems myself? It is usually my own fault, my own sin, that got me into these situations of worry in the first place. The disciples were afraid to ask more questions about Jesus’ death which he was predicting. And then they go from being afraid to arguing about who was the greatest. Sometimes we deal with fear by trying to avoid thinking about it. But the thing is this: fear is what drives us to only look out for ourselves. Fear is what motivates us to put ourselves first. Fear is what inspires us to build physical and metaphorical walls in our lives. And when we finally do all we can to protect ourselves from everything we fear, I think we’ll only find that we are alone. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s fear.

There is a reason that Christ talks so much about fear and being afraid in the Bible. Fear isn’t a new concept. It’s not something that the 24 hour news channels came up with so that we would keep tuning in. And I get it, I really do. There are lots of things in this world to fear. There are so many ways we could finish the phrase “what if…” and usually it’s not good. It’s usually worst case scenario. People even try to make us worry about our faith, which is ironic. This week I got one of those glossy postcards in the mail (as I’m sure many of you did) asking me “if you die tomorrow do you know where you will spend eternity?!?”  Great! One more thing to worry about! Now, some amount of fear is healthy. But when our fears become debilitating, or drives us to despair, that’s when we have some issues. Because here’s the thing about fear: it slowly but surely robs us of everything Jesus promised to us.

Jesus has promised us life; not only life, but abundant life. But, if we’re too afraid to even leave our homes, we aren’t really living an abundant life. And when we spend time in worry and fretting about the future, we are wasting precious seconds that Jesus had delegated for joy and pleasure. Trust me friends, I know a lot about worrying. When it comes to worrying, I believe I am an Olympic Gold medalist. And to counteract fear and worry, Jesus doesn’t invite us to move mountains, or conquer kingdoms, or establish world peace. No, to counteract fear and worry, Jesus invites us into faith. And that faith can be the tiniest, smallest step forward despite all doubts and fears.

And abundant life, again, doesn’t come in conquering the biggest obstacles. Nope, abundant life comes in the form of welcoming the children, or welcoming those who we think are smaller than or less than us. Abundant life comes in the form of being vulnerable, being willing to take a risk, being of service to one another, and welcoming the stranger. These may seem like small, insignificant things. But, they are a response to the grace given to us daily. These small actions are a slap in the face to fear. Fear has a way of initiating blinders on us so that we can’t see what God is up to all around us. Don’t let fear win. Our God raised Jesus from the dead; there is no doubt that God will be with you when you step forward even if you are afraid.

So, what fears do you have, brothers and sisters? What keeps you up at night? What fears do you have that keep you from living an abundant life in Christ? Perhaps that small step in faith can start today. Perhaps you can come forward, confidently, hands outstretched, saying “I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I do know this meal offers me all I need for today and that’s enough.” Or maybe as you start to worry about one thing or another, your refrain, or your response to that fear can just be “God’s grace is enough for me.” Jesus’ fear didn’t lead him to the cross, his faithfulness did. And that faithfulness is what saved our lives.

Sermon for 9/13/15 Mark 8:27-38

My name, Jealaine, comes from a combination of two names: Jean and Elaine, the middle names belonging to each of my grandmothers Martha and Barbara. I am the daughter of Vinnie and Keddy. The big sister to twins Jon and Jayna (born in that order). Granddaughter to Lyle and Martha and Barb and Phil. I am the wife of Chris, the mom of Ellen, and the human that feeds Bailey. I am the daughter-in-law to Phil and the late Barb. I am the sister-in-law to Brian and Erin and proud aunt to Brady, Hadley, Dylan, and Greyson, also in that order. I am an alto, an avid reader, a best friend to Kristin (for more than 30 years), a current events junkie, a rookie theologian and the world’s slowest knitter. I was called and claimed by God in the baptismal waters of St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Maryville, Missouri. I was confirmed at St. James Catholic Church in Liberty, Missouri. I’m a pretty good cook, I keep a lived-in home (i.e., it’s not clean), and I once got a speeding ticket coming home from meeting a boy in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and tried to lie to my parents about it. Who do you say you are? Who do people say you are?

Sometimes I claim who people say I am (“you’re a pastor”) and other times I push back a little bit (“you’re sassy.” Whoa whoa whoa!) So who do people say you are. Jesus asks his disciples this question. “Who do people say I am?” It’s a strange question, don’t you think? Is Jesus having an identity crisis? Of all people, Jesus certainly knows who he is. There’s never been any question as to who Jesus is. But, perhaps it was the people around him who were confused. He had several names he went by, after all. People called him a teacher, a prophet, a teacher, John the Baptist, Elijah. So no wonder people were confused.

Thru high school and college, my nickname was JV. It  was not at all original. Those were my initials before I got married. When people call me “JV” I know approximately what time of my life I may know them from. One of my college friends who regularly called me JV, didn’t know my real name and once asked me if I knew “Jealaine.” It was an interesting situation and we both got a good laugh. But Jesus isn’t asking this to make people laugh. He isn’t asking this to trick people. He isn’t asking because he lost his nametag. Jesus asks this question at a literal crossroad in his ministry. There are 16 chapters in Mark, and this is asked in chapter 8, right in the middle. This is kind of make or break time for those disciples. After this, Jesus foretells of his death and resurrection for the first time. This is the conversation that marks a turn in Jesus’ ministry as he starts to prepare for his journey into Jerusalem and ultimately, to the cross. And so, it is in this crucial moment when the disciples could turn back and go back to fishing or continue following Jesus that he chooses to ask “Who do people say I am?”

And it’s Peter who answers the question “who do you say I am?” Peter, who would later go on to deny Jesus three times by the cock crows, Peter is the one who answers. “You are the Messiah.” Probably having no idea what that exactly means, Peter probably expected to go on his merry little way. Peter, instead was greeted with a lecture. Peter and the others start to hear what it means that their friend Jesus is the Messiah. This had to be a shock to the disciples as this was the first time they had heard this. Jesus tells him about his death, that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and rise again 3 days later. And Peter, who really loved his friend Jesus said (paraphrasing) “now, come on Jesus. That’s not really going to happen. Stop talking like that.” And instead of comforting Peter, Jesus tells him “get behind me Satan!” And then we start to hear what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

       It seems that this reading is interpreted many different ways. Some people read it and think that we have to walk around in sack cloths and ashes, flogging ourselves. Others read it, observe their current situation (which may be less than ideal) and think “well, this is just my cross to bear.” Abuse victims hear this a lot. But really, I think that Jesus is inviting us in to examine our own lives and what gets in the way of our relationship with Christ. We hear that phrase “deny themselves” and we immediately think that we have to sell everything and just pray that God will provide. But instead, Christ is (in a roundabout way) asking us who our God really is.

    Who is your God? My “gods” are things I normally label as good: Chris, Ellen, Bailey, my family and friends. I also have “gods” that are material things or just selfish things: my phone, my tv viewing, my tendency to put myself before others. When I ask people “who do you say I am,” would they respond with “a Christian” just from observing me? There’s a saying that in order for God to increase, I must decrease. In many many ways, I am my own god. Me, and my own sin gets in the way of a full relationship with God. I do a lot of things. Denying myself isn’t often one of them. So I have a challenge for you today, are you ready?

    We have 4 or so more months until the end of the year. I asked church council this same question. What can you do in the next 4 months to increase your faith? What is God calling you to give up? Is God calling you to give up time maybe to volunteer or read a devotional in the morning? Maybe you’ve felt a tug to increase your weekly giving and now is the time. Maybe you haven’t been baptized and you’re embarrassed because of your age. Or perhaps you are just going to sit down with our church directory and pray for each and every member listed by name. We are in a crucial time together. As I get closer to closing out my second year with you, I am excited by so many things that are happening here. But the truth is, none of it matters if Christ is not the center of everything we do together. I have moved this cross back into the church because I want a visual reminder of what should be the center of my life. Notice there’s no room on this for an iPhone or TV. Because the cross is all I need. My soul has a Christ shaped hole that can only be filled by him. The harder I try to fill it with other stuff, the further I get from Christ.

   Who do people say you are? Who do people say Christ is? When people see you do they see Christ? How are you going to spend these next 4 months? Start at the cross, keep that at the center and you can’t mess up.

Sermon for 9/6/15 Mark 7:24-37

I was at Sam’s Club not too long ago, trying to make the crucial decision as to whether or I I wanted 25 pairs of socks or 40. Just as I was about to walk away without purchasing socks (because really, I couldn’t justify that many socks) the woman sharing the aisle with me stopped me. “Excuse me” she said. And right then, right with those two words, I could feel myself tense up. I was prepared for what I don’t know, but for some reason I expected the worst. “Have you purchased shoes here before?” Phew…that was a close one. I said that I had, but only for my daughter and then I was about to move on. With my guard down, she continued “I know this may seem a bit strange, but um…” and she paused, “see, I’m a Christian and sometimes the Holy Spirit stirs and tells me to talk to people. And I feel like I need to talk with you to see if you know about Jesus and know that he is your Savior.” And I smiled, patted her on the arm and said “I do know that. I’m a pastor.” We chatted briefly and I commended her for being a good evangelist and then we both were on our way. And to think, I almost missed this interaction. I had my guard up thinking she had cruel intentions and it turned out that she wanted to let me know about Jesus. It wasn’t a bad day to be at Sam’s. For me on that particular day, that woman was going to the Syrophoenician woman to me.

When I went to my preaching convention, I heard one of our speakers talk and preach on this text and she started by asking “If you were going to share the good news of Christ with the world, would you share this story?” And at first glance, it’s easy to respond with a hearty “of course!” Just look at all the good news in this scripture for today: the demon was cast out of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and the deaf man with a speech impediment had his ears opened and tongue released. This is the Jesus we know and love. The Jesus who cures people. Who notices those on the margins and says “come to me, all who are weary and burdened.” This is a feel good story about how Jesus cures people, right? Another example of who Jesus is and what Jesus can do. So, if you were going to share the good news of Jesus Christ, would you share this story? And if so, what do we do about that Syrophoenician woman? We can’t just skip over her. Her story is in the Bible for a reason. The author of Mark wanted people to hear this for a reason.

See, if we look and read closely, the Jesus we encounter in this text isn’t the Jesus we normally hear about. Instead of referring to this Gospel text as the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we should probably title it “the time Jesus changed his mind” or even “Jesus learns a lesson about feeding people.” It’s easy to want to skip over Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman because it’s one of the few times when Jesus was just flat out wrong. The text is subtle, but it’s there. Jesus says to her “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus calls the Syrophoenician woman a dog. Not a cute “wittle” puppy. A dog. Worse than that, he most likely called her a derogatory slang for a female dog.

I know it’s hard to believe. And I understand the temptation to soften up this translation. After all, this is our Lord and Savior we’re talking about; surely he didn’t actually say this, right? No matter how much we try and avoid it the truth is this: Jesus called the woman a dog which was considered an ethnic slur at the time. It’s a strange interaction. Jesus has all the power in this interaction. The Syrophoenician woman didn’t approach Jesus with a sense of entitlement, she approached Jesus as a desperate mother, looking to have her daughter healed. And maybe, just maybe this great healer she had heard about would help her daughter. She was desperate. Why did Jesus say what he said? He was implying that his feast, his message, his ministry was only for his people: the Israelites. It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus says, to take a feast prepared for his people and give it to the dogs, give it to those who are less than.

And instead of walking away, mad or grieving, the Syrophoenician woman says (paraphrasing) “sir, even the dogs get a little something. Even the dogs eat crumbs.” What she is saying is “you may think I’m a dog, but even I deserve to eat.” And something miraculous happens. Jesus changes his mind. It is the only time in the Bible where we hear of Jesus changing his mind. It is possible that our Lord and Savior who is both fully human and fully divine made a mistake. And what changes Jesus’ mind was this woman. The thing is, Jesus got caught up in labels, in only seeing her gender and skin color, only seeing her status in life and wanted to turn her away. It was the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that all people are entitled to God’s grace. Sometimes grace comes from some of the most unexpected places and unexpected people.

Who will be the Syrophoenician woman to us? Who is going to come into our midsts that we will be anxious to brush off but instead will speak a reminder of God’s love to us. Who is an outsider that we often may want to shoe away, distance ourselves from, or even outright not welcome that is actually trying to bring us the good news of God? Will it be one of our food pantry recipients who makes the bold decision to no longer be relegated to the basement? Will it be a single mother who is struggling to get by and be accepted but is self conscious of her baby that cries during service? Maybe the person to show us the love of God will be a lifelong member of this congregation who finally feels confident enough to say “I’m gay and God loves me anyway.” Will it be an African-American teen just looking for a place where he can hear the good news instead of being labeled a “thug” or a “punk.” Who will walk through these doors, be ignored, and we will have missed hearing about how God gives crumbs to not only those we think don’t deserve crumbs, but God gives crumbs to all of us. Crumbs are all we need. We only need a slight taste of the promise to believe and be changed.

When we say “all are welcome” do we really mean it? Or do we just mean that you are welcome if you look like us, if you dress like us, if you speak like us? Would we actually make room in our pews and in our hearts for someone who was black, or gay, or hispanic, or undocumented, or poor, or someone who was not well  mentally or physically? Or would we just tolerate it for a few Sundays until they got the non-verbal message that this place really isn’t for them? They would leave and we would miss the opportunity to have Christ love us through the stranger. What a loss for us. Hebrews 13:2 says “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Surely if Christ can change his mind and admit he was wrong, we too can do the same. Who will be the next stranger to walk through these doors anxious to share the good news with us? Are we so busy preoccupying ourselves with the idea that only certain people belong within these four walls that we are missing the stranger throwing crumbs at us? If Jesus can change his mind, certainly so can we.