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Lenten Surrender

This week I was invited to be a guest preacher at my good friend’s church up in Greenwich for a Wednesday night Lenten dinner and worship service. The theme for these services this year is: “Lenten Surrender.” My Theme was “Surrendering Your Stuff.” The text of my sermon is below…

Surrendering your Stuff
Text: Luke 12:13-34
A sermon preached by Rev. Julie Emery
First Presbyterian Church, Greenwich, CT
March 17, 2010

Luke 12:13-34: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Every year in early February our church has a kids garage sale to raise funds for Heifer International. If you don’t know about it, Heifer is an organization that sends animals and teaches sustainability to communities around the world. After the sale, the Sunday School kids get to take the funds raised and vote on which animals they want to buy. The kids love it, and each year they gather toys and books they no longer want and cart them in to our fellowship hall, selling their wares for a good cause.

This year, as usual, I was scrambling at the last minute. Remembering the garage sale the Saturday before, I started talking with my 3.5 year old about any toys he might want to donate to the garage sale. As a pastor I am thinking: I really need to teach this to my child and I think perhaps this year he is old enough to understand. But when I ask him if there are any toys he might want to give away – he starts naming the toys he got this year for Christmas.

“What about my Leapster or my bike?” he suggests.

“Well honey,” I say, “You just got those toys and you still like to use them…What about a toy you don’t really use anymore?”

“What about my leggos?” He says.

“Well, you got those just this year too.” I say, “What about some of our baby toys?”

When he started naming the toys his brother got for Christmas, I began to realize that this might be a longer conversation than I had time for. In the end, I confess with a heavy heart, we just couldn’t get it together. I chalked it up to suspecting that my child was too young to understand. I was anticipating the day after the toy was sold when reality set in and he didn’t have it anymore.

But lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps I am the one who didn’t understand? Maybe the issue was not his inability to see the consequences of giving his favorite toy away. Maybe the issue was my tight grip on the things we have accumulated for our family, and my unwillingness to act upon and encourage my child’s innate sense of generosity? Maybe my anxiety kept him from being generous.

Our text this evening is one of the many occasions in Luke’s gospel where Jesus talks about money. I came across a statistic this week that one in every seven verses in the gospel of Luke is about money. Jesus talked about money more any other subject except the kingdom of God. There is absolutely no way around it: Money, “stuff” – how we respond to it and what we do with it, is an essential part of how we understand the message of Jesus.

Luke’s Jesus in particular speaks out again and again against the accumulation of goods, as the parable that begins our passage points out. “Take care!” He says, “One’s life does not consist of the abundance of one’s possessions.”
And then he says this: “Do not be anxious, therefore, about your life and what you will eat, or your body and what you will wear.” “Do not be anxious,” Jesus says. “For your father knows that you need these things, and it is his good pleasure to give you the kingdom…”

I recently traveled with my church on a work trip to Nicaragua building houses. While I have participated in a fair amount of mission and service worth throughout my life, this was my first experience in what is known as the “Third World.” Wanting to be well prepared, I traveled to Nicaragua with four pairs of shoes: A pair of work boots to keep my feet safe on the work site, a pair of flip flops for relaxing at the end of the day, a pair of hiking sandals, and a pair of sneakers. Now for me, four pairs of shoes on a vacation is pretty standard, if not sparse. What can I say? I like shoes.

While we were there I noticed the number of community members who worked on the house alongside of our group – children, women, men. We passed concrete blocks from one to the other to move them closer to the site. We shoveled dirt and gravel into wheelbarrows and trucked it away. We shoveled and pick-axed and mixed cement by hand. Ninety-five percent of the Nicaraguans did this work alongside of us in plastic sandals, which were likely their only pair of shoes.

When speaking with one of our Nicaraguan trip leaders, she told me of a family she knew who had two children who had to have one child go to school in the morning and one in the afternoon. The child who went to school in the morning would rush home quickly so that she could give her shoes to the other child to wear to school in the afternoon, since their family could only afford one pair between them.

What could you do without? What could you surrender without a thought? Is it something you no longer want or it something of value?

What do you need? What do you want? Do you know the difference?

In the context of our text today Jesus is likely not speaking to the poor. He is not telling people who have nothing that they should not to worry about food or clothing. He is not telling this family with one set of shoes for two children to not worry. Instead, he is telling people like us. He is talking to the man who wants more of his inheritance than his brother will share. He is talking to the woman who has everything she needs to live, and still feels she needs more. He is talking to the child who doesn’t understand the difference between need and want. He tells us not to worry. What Jesus seems to understand is that the more stuff we have the more anxious we are about it: how to keep it, how to get more, how not to lose it, how to get it for our children and our children’s children, and our families and our friends.

This past week, many of us were swept away by the force of hurricane winds and rain: gusts up to 70 miles an hour in some places. The Times reported that in the New York Metro area, over 500,000 homes were without power. As it may have been here in Greenwich, in Larchmont and Mamaroneck there were pockets of the area who were out, and pockets who stayed on. Our home in Mamaroneck lost power on Saturday night, and with two children under the age of 4, by Sunday afternoon we were looking for somewhere else to stay. With no heat, and no refrigeration, and nothing to do with the kids during the day in a cold house, it got frustrating quickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who felt that way.

We were blessed to have an invitation to stay with friends for a couple of nights, blessed to have a warm place to sleep and access to food and toys for the kids. But for me at least there were two things happening in my head. On the one hand I was annoyed and frustrated at being set adrift, away from my stuff, my clothes, the comfort of my home; Especially during a time when I needed to finish two sermons over the course of the last four days. I just did not have time for this inconvenience.

But there was this other voice in my head that began to gather strength as I drove around surveying the damage in Larchmont. “What a gift,” I thought. I noticed how a few trees that hit houses, but I also noticed how many missed them by just a couple of feet. One street down a few blocks from our church had a tree fall across the middle of a Honda Accord parked in the drive way and across the street. But how remarkable that no one was in it, and that the tree didn’t hit the six houses that could have been in it’s path.

What a gift that we could suddenly have quality time with new friends. What a gift that the only thing lost was a handful of groceries. What a gift that we are all safe.

There were lives lost this week in this storm, and those losses are an unbelievable tragedy for those families and for those communities. I grieve for their pain and sorrow. But I also have to shake my head in wonder at how much damage there was and how much worse it could have been. And so when I stood there looking at that squashed Honda, I couldn’t help but think – “Wow, Thank God it’s just a car. Thank God it’s just stuff.”

It was hard to survey the damage we sustained throughout the Northeast this past week and not think about Nicaragua, and Chile, and Haiti. It was poignant yesterday when we finally returned home to our power and our stuff, our shoes and our toys – and realize how many don’t even have a fraction of this stuff – let alone reliable access to electricity and water. Perhaps just a few days of surrender can connect us in powerful ways to those in our world who have no choice but to live a life of surrendering stuff.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What can you surrender? What can you let go of? Where is your treasure?

There is this amazing thing that happens when we surrender our stuff. There is space. Without all that clutter covering our windows we can see more clearly. Much like the last two days of sunshine reveal the landscape and spring. We can see. We see what we need, and what we can survive without. We can experience what it’s like to live without TV or electronics or even light and in that we can see our neighbor. We can see how much we have and how much we have to give. And perhaps in holding on a little less tightly to our stuff, in surrendering a little more, we will see the abundant Kingdom, that God has given us, already.

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At our presbytery meeting today, we shared in communion. First I must say, the worship we share in our presbytery is awesome. Compared to other presbyteries I’ve been to (no offense) our worship is vital, thriving, creative and engaging. I ALWAYS enjoy it. But one thing I realize I enjoy especially is worshipping in the pew. Since usually now I’m up there – leading – it is quite rare that I can just relax and receive. It is such a gift to receive. To receive the word, to receive the music, to receive the gift of the Lord’s Supper.

Worship today was the beginning of our jubilee year, and we talked about the river stones of faith we have gathered in our journey. We were reminded that when Joshua brought the Israelites into to promised land and they crossed the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, God parted the waters so they could cross. And when they stood in the dry riverbed, God told them to take a stone. The stone was to remind them of what God had done for them, how God had led them, saved them, brought them to a place where they could thrive and prosper.

When asked to ponder what stones I remembered, I couldn’t help but think of my dad, who was in that very moment in a plane, on his way to Haiti to do medical mission work. Dad had been feeling a fervent and intense call to go to Haiti, as every report said they were in need of Orthopedic Surgeons, and he had done medical mission work before. He knew he had the gifts and skill, and knew they were desperately needed. After lots of work, he found a group of people who were going and tagged along, flying from Michigan to Port Au Prince today. You can read about his trip on the trip blog here.

But it wasn’t just because of his flight and my worry that he came to mind. My dad came to mind because he is one of the people who taught me what it means to offer our gifts to God and to let ourselves be used. He is not the only one, of course. My mom as well lives a life of service and caring. And while I didn’t want to lift them up in my sermon last Sunday as it felt a bit too personal and self-serving, I truly feel that my folks are the people who have taught me most fully what it means to live out the word “vocation.” They embody the idea of our greatest passion meeting the world’s greatest need. I feel honored, proud, blessed to be their daughter.

What strikes me as I feel fed by bread and word and story, as I remember my stone and feel blessed by the saints that continue to teach me the Way, is how God gives gifts so freely, and how – if we are willing to use them – a way is cleared to serve.

So, two things: One, please pray for my dad as he serves the people of Haiti, that he is safe, but also that he finds a place where he can use his gifts for the most good.

Two, perhaps a trip to Haiti is too much, too bold. But where is God calling you to use your gifts “for the common good” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12? What is your greatest passion…where might it meet the needs of the world? How is God calling you to use your gifts in the world…today?

God be with you in it all…Amen.

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A Prayer for sermon writing

There are some times that the sermon writing is particularly challenging – whether because it’s been a tough week or because the Spirit is just moving slow like molasses… this is one of those weeks, but I’m keeping this prayer close as I write…

“God can do everything
and I can do nothing.
But if I offer this nothing
in prayer to God
everything becomes possible
in me.”
-Carlo Carretto

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A Christmas Prayer

Bright Holy God,
Tonight we are filled with longing.
We long for your power to fill our weakness,
we long for your triumph against our failures,
we long for your great wealth against our poverty,
we long for your light in this darkest of seasons.

And then, You come among us as an infant.
You come as one powerless, humble, small, vulnerable.
You fill us with awe and wonder.
You bring light of a different kind than we imagined.
You bring hope of a different sort than we desired,
You bring not what we ask, but what we need.

And so, in awe and wonder, we lift to you the great need of the world.

Like the prophets we long and hope for peace,
peace that might conquer anger and war and fear
We pray for peacemakers and peacekeepers,
for rulers, for politicians, for fighters, for older people and children…
for all who are caught up in conflict, in bitterness and danger…
We pray for peace and justice.

Mindful of all who followed the star, we pray on this night for travelers…
for those who are traveling home for Christmas,
for those who are traveling because they have no place,
no shelter they can call their own,
for those whose home is on the road.

Gathering together this night, we pray too for all who are sick,
and for those who care for them.
We pray for those grieve,
for those who spend this season
longing for loved ones gone before us into your kingdom.
Surround them with your love and peace this night.

Filled with anticipation, we pray for the children everywhere,
who anticipate the celebration of your birth with innocence and joy,
may those who have little be filled with good things,
may those who have much be humble and thankful.

We lift to you O God our own needs,
our own worries, our own hopes and dreams…
For we know that you meet our longing with gift of your love.

Emmanuel, God with us, heaven come down to earth,
Help us tonight to listen to the angels and not be afraid of you
Of your weakness or your glory.

Come, Holy helpless Jesus.
Come Word into flesh.
Come into our lives with joy. Amen.

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Friday Five – Thanksgiving

So I should first probably introduce this, since I’m new to the Friday Five and trying it out. As a new blogger I spend a good amount of time (probably too much) reading other people’s blogs. I want to know what other people are writing, thinking, suggesting and questioning. The answer is – anything and everything. As some of my loved ones caution me on my ideas for posts – my fellow bloggers keep suggesting and questioning and risking. They inspire…

One of the great blogs I read is RevGalBlogPals which is, as you might guess, a site where clergy women gather to blog together, inspire and assist in sermon ideas, advise and encourage in ministry. It’s a great blog. And every friday – they have something called the “Friday Five” – to get our juices flowing and to allow many of us to connect on an idea or thought. Usually briefly, usually very fun. So here is today’s Friday Five:

Jan’s Friday Five: Thanksgiving Thoughts
The Cure

Lying around all day
with some strange new deep blue
weekend funk, I’m not really asleep
when my sister calls
to say she’s just hung up
from talking with Aunt Bertha
who is 89 and ill but managing
to take care of Uncle Frank
who is completely bed ridden.
Aunt Bert says
it’s snowing there in Arkansas,
on Catfish Lane, and she hasn’t been
able to walk out to their mailbox.
She’s been suffering
from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.
The cure for the mulleygrubs,
she tells my sister,
is to get up and bake a cake.
If that doesn’t do it, put on a red dress.

–Ginger Andrews (from Hurricane Sisters)

So this Friday before Thanksgiving, think about Aunt Bert and how she’ll celebrate Thanksgiving! And how about YOU?

1. What is your cure for the “mulleygrubs”?
It used to be chocolate… and a movie. But with my boys climbing all over me these days I usually go for a big tickle session. The loud belly laughs of my boys is always the best way to cheer myself up. After that – fresh air…

2. Where will you be for Thanksgiving?
We will be “here” – close by that is. My brother and his family will host (they live about 15 minutes away) and my immediate family will descend upon us for the week – a sister and family from Michigan, a brother from South Carolina.

3. What foods will be served? Which are traditional for your family?
We are a classic midwestern family – turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes and green beans. I feel very blessed, though, to have eschewed the really classic midwestern dishes – we do not serve the dreaded green bean casserole with french’s onions on the top and the sweet potatoes will be sans marshmallows… What can I say?

4. How do you feel about Thanksgiving as a holiday?
Love it love it love it love it. When I was a child it was always my favorite holiday. My father’s side of my family used to gather every Thanksgiving – 12 cousins – lots of boys – for food and football and lots of fun. I am the youngest cousin – so I always loved being around the big kids. I loved the liveliness of it all. The cooking, the joking, the eating. At the end of the night we always had a totally rowdy and rauckus game of spoons. Once we broke my Aunt’s dining room table. She was not pleased.

Now that side of the family gathers every summer instead – more vacation time to manage – more time together. But our Thanksgivings together still color my love of this wonderful holiday.

5. In this season of Thanksgiving, what are you grateful for?
I am grateful for my family, especially for my boys and my hubby. Sooo grateful for the health of my father-in-law, and his continuing recovery from recent illness and surgery, and the other family members who have rallied to surround him with care (especially my sister-in-law.) Lastly, I am thankful for this new community, new friends welcoming us in, and the slow but sure journey of feeling at home here.

Wishing you all a feast of food and a community that loves you this Thanksgiving….

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Calling for Help: A Sermon

Calling For Help
Text: Mark 10:46-52
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 25, 2009 Reformation Sunday

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52)

+++
It was a crisp fall day. A bit like today. The leaves were just starting to turn, so there was crunching beneath our feet when we walked, and the tree line was a mix of green with yellow and orange popping out in bursts on the horizon. Our group was down by the lake – so the view around us was exquisite – the way the trees were reflected in the water, the calm of the morning.

I had been content to hold back a bit and take it all in. It was a teambuilding retreat, and while I am a part of the team and I want to bond with them, it was more important that they bond with each other. So I was happy to be leader and not participant, for the most part. But for this exercise, our leader looked at me and said – “You’re going to do this one too.” And then she handed each of us a blindfold.

We sat waiting for her to set up a course, our eyes covered, sitting at the picnic table. We made jokes in the dark and laughed at each other’s voices. When the course was ready, our leader set us up in a line – each holding on to the next, and led us into the course. We stumbled along, telling the people behind us when we tripped over a stump or a branch: “There’s a big stump right there – watch out!” And then we stopped.

Through the darkness our leader said, “Okay – now figure out how to get out of the maze.” We bumped along, feeling with our hands out in front of us, tripping over uneven ground and rocks, until each of us eventually found the ropes that were tied about as high as our waists. Our hands led us along the ropes – all now tightly in a line – sliding our fingers along the ropes until they hit a tree, then feeling along the trunk until the next rope, sliding again until a tree, then another rope.

It took only a few minutes for us to figure out we were in an enclosed square. There was no exit. There was no entrance. There was no way out. “I thought – okay – I’ve done this kind of stuff before. There’s a trick,” and we started to brainstorm. We try meeting in the middle of the square and sitting down. We try holding hands. We walk around and around and around the square – our hands finding the only security we have in the ropes that enclose us. “What is the trick?” I’m thinking. All the while feeling slightly annoyed and perplexed, but trying to go with it.

I don’t like to be without my sight. I am more comfortable being able to help others and feigning blindness makes me feel vulnerable and sort of stupid. I can’t help the kids, I can’t help myself, and so I feel ineffectual. I don’t like that I can’t see the ground I’m walking on. I don’t like that I am helpless. I don’t like it. At. All…

In our gospel lesson for this morning we meet the blind Bar – timaeus, “son of Timeaus.” Mark doesn’t give names very often in his Gospel so perhaps Bartimaeus is a well-known beggar in Jericho, or perhaps he becomes well known in the Christian community after his meeting with Jesus. Perhaps his name elevates his status alongside Peter and James and John. Whatever the reason, Bartimaeus is known – and he knows Jesus or at least knows of him. He has set up shop, sitting on the side of the road to beg. It is the only thing he can do – so separated from his community by his blindness.

When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is approaching he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those around him hush him to be quiet but he shouts all the more, “Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus is halted. He stands still, and says, “Call him here.” And so Bartimaeus is called – Those who once hushed him call to Bartimaeus, they tell him, “Get up! He is calling you!”

When Bartimaeus stumbles his way to Jesus the question Jesus asks him is ironically the same question he asked his disciples just before in Mark’s gospel, “What do you want me to do for you?” Even more ironic is the stark difference between answers. Blinded by their own quest for power the disciples ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. In contrast, seeing the possibilities of God’s power, Bartimaeus instead says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

The healing Jesus offers is instantaneous – “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus responds to this healing in the only way he can – by joining those that follow Jesus along the way.

Commentators point out that this moment, this encounter between Bartimaeus and Jesus is the last story in Mark’s gospel before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is the last story of healing, and some say, the calling of the last disciple. It could be argued both ways – that Bartimaeus did not join the twelve disciples but only the crowd that followed him in to Jerusalem to wave palms and shout Hosanna. But Mark uses the word “call” three times in this short passage – to describe the response of this Jesus son of David to this son of Timaeus. Named, called, healed and sent; Bartimaeus joins all who find themselves transformed by the power of God’s possibility, and responding to God’s grace.

Today is a day of celebration: Reformation Sunday – where we celebrate and lift up our ties to the Reformed tradition of faith. We sing hymns attributed to both Martin Luther, the founder of the reformation, and John Calvin, the founder of the “Reformed” tradition of faith – capital R. We remember today that the Holy Spirit is still at work within us – reforming us ever the more, challenging our traditions, pushing us beyond what has come before toward what God desires for us going forward.

The Reformer John Calvin has been on our hearts and minds a fair bit this last year – as 2009 marks the 500th year since Calvin was born. You may already know that Calvin was trained as a lawyer first, and became a theologian only after his exiled father passed away. Calvin was born in France in the middle of the Reformation – he was twenty six years younger than Martin Luther, and was eight years old when Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Calvin found himself swept up in the movement, and while he did not generate the original ideas of the Reformation, Calvin organized them, made them compelling, and embodied them in practical life.

While Calvin thought of himself as a scholar, he was convinced to take up a call as pastor in Geneva, where he lived out the majority of his public life as a Reformer. Calvin was in exile, having been kicked out of France for his beliefs; he was also sickly, and battled through various health issues frequently. All this might have contributed to Calvin’s very thorough doctrine of sin, as well as his doctrine of election or “predestination” which gets him into some hot water with our 21st century sensibilities.

At his most generous and humble, however, Calvin simply believed that we are in every way broken people – tending towards mistakes and mishaps both large and small. He believed we were all blind in some way or another. He believed that we cannot know God’s holiness until we acknowledge our own blindness, but we cannot know our blindness until we recognize God’s holiness. There is no earthly way out of this conundrum; only God can lift us out.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

For Calvin there is a distance between us and the divine source that is drastic and unbridgeable by anyone but God. The hope, then, comes in God’s message of Jesus Christ – who bridges the gap to heal us and love us in spite of our messy, broken lives. In spite of our broken messiness, Calvin said that God gives us God’s glory to wear like a golden robe – that we might be covered with God’s grace….”Go, your faith has made you well…”

The hopelessness had just about set in when I started listening. Deprived of my sight I started listening for each member of our group and I realized that there were some voices that I hadn’t heard in awhile. Voices from members of our group who had been quite vocal were suddenly gone. I listened as I heard others of our group shuffling around and around the square maze – asking questions and shouting out of despair and frustration. I heard the wind flow through the trees above us.

As I thought about the voices that were now silent, I remembered something, and called out, “Somebody help me!” And I waited. Within a few moments my blindfold was removed, and I was led out of the maze to join the others who had figured it out.
Our leader shared with us that this game was easy for younger children, who are so accustomed to asking for help that they think of that almost immediately. For adults, or teenagers in our case, it was terribly hard, since we are accustomed to thinking we can and should be able to accomplish all things on our own. “Help me,” was all that was needed to regain our sight. “Help me.”

“Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me!”

What happens for Bartimaeus is what Calvin believed happens to all of us when we are confronted with our deepest need and God’s overwhelming Grace. Healed of our brokenness, we are reconciled to God and empowered to live out God’s kingdom. Calvin believed that salvation is not an end in itself. “Calvin’s sense of our election in Christ included the strong conviction that God has chosen us and empowered us to live a different kind of life for the sake of the world.” (Johnson, p 45) He believed that the only response to this grace was a life that gives glory to God – a life that encounters all we meet in this paradigm – seeing all people as robed in God’s glory and therefore deserving of our attention and respect.

It took awhile before we all figured out the trick and got out of the maze. It was a bit harrowing for some. The helplessness can overwhelm when you feel like some have figured it out and you have not. But too the realization that all you have to do is ask – that there were only two words that kept you in the dark, two words that stood between you and sight, empowerment, life…it can be almost too much to comprehend.

We sat around the table again – blindfolds removed, looking at each other with new eyes. The air was crisp, the light a bit brighter, the leaves more colorful. We had experienced both our need to ask for help and our need to help each other. We had bonded in the despair of blindness and found renewed hope in regained sight. By the end of the retreat our surroundings had transformed, at least a little bit, as we began to see the image of God in each other.

We are called, like Bartimaeus, to be healed and sent into the world. Calvin said, “From this [calling] will arise the singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, (provide you obey your calling in it), that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” (Inst. 3.10.6) No task too small – be it giving out clean socks or scooping soup into a cup. No task too sordid – be it advocacy and protest for the poor and against exorbitant wealth. No gift too small to offer – be it a smile or a hug. No person who is denied the cloak of God’s glory. No one that we should not imagine covered with the golden robe of God’s glory. No person who is not embraced in God’s love.

Calvin said we are not our own, but God’s and that our call is to live for God’s glory in everything we do. We are not our own, we are God’s. We see through a glass dimly, but in Christ we are given new eyes. New eyes with which to see the world’s suffering and respond with love and compassion. New eyes with which to see our neighbor and to love them as ourselves. New eyes with which to see the possibilities that God might provide if we only ask for help. Amen.

***

Most of my understanding and description of Calvin in this sermon is taken from two sources: William Stacy Johnson’s book, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st century, and three sermons preached by Rev. Dr. Serene Jones at Hudson River Presbytery meeting on September 21, 2009.

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I just posted the sermon I preached this past Sunday and I’m thinking back on what happened in worship on Sunday. It was pretty intense in a lot of ways. First, some context: I serve a mid-size congregation in a very affluent town in Westchester County, NY. Our congregation is in some ways very diverse ethnically, but also fairly sheltered, in that most people live in the upper echelon of financial status. It is a very educated congregation – as many folks graduated from ivy league schools to get to work in a job that might allow them to live in this type of community. It is a fairly moderate congregation theologically, with some members who are very liberal/progressive and some who are very conservative. Because of this education and affluence, people are almost always polite – accepting that they have differences of opinions and avoiding certain topics on which they might disagree. Worship is creatively traditional, and the congregation recently put in a brand new pipe organ to the tune of over $1 million.

The point I want to make is: worship tends to be that stoic, intellectual type. We have fun during children’s sermons and announcements, but music is listened to with a very educated ear, and sermons are inspected fairly closely. Let’s just say this is the first congregation that I’ve had my sermons quoted back to me accurately and my references checked.

So I preached this sermon on Sunday – the one that I posted below, and I went a little out on a limb. I pushed my own envelope a bit. I said some things that still sting in my soul a bit – it was almost a little more honest than I wanted to be, I think. I drove home thinking – did I go too far?

After the sermon, one of our paid soloists stood to sing the offertory anthem. It was a song called, “In Jesus’ name.” And this woman brought it. I mean – as she started, I could tell that this was going to be different. We’ve had some moments with music before – spirituals and jazz and guest musicians. But you could tell that she was putting it all out there during this solo – she was laying her heart and soul down for all to see. In the last line – she broke and started sobbing, she had to speak the last line of her solo, and return to her seat in the choir with tears running down her face.

As my director of music said – you could tell that was a different silence.

It was.

It was a moment that was scary – for me too. I felt like we had both put ourselves in very vulnerable positions – that we had revealed more than we had wanted. That in some ways we wished we could take it back, but in some ways it was some of the most powerful stuff that has happened in worship since I’ve started. I got more compliments about the service than I have gotten yet from this congregation, (who don’t give compliments too easily,) and I can’t express just how intense it was for me as well.

The act of preaching a sermon is so tricky. I’m an emotive preacher – I tell stories that I think will move people’s souls. I want them to feel something when they are sitting there in the pews. I want them to resonate – to hum like a bell – to leave the sanctuary feeling different. But I also worry about that desire – is it manipulative? Is it too much to pull on people’s heartstrings like that? Do I leave them in a better place or just all broken up inside? How far is too far when it comes to emotive preaching?

Well – here’s the sermon…I guess you can decide. What I can say is that the spirit was moving on Sunday – and it was a little scary and intense…

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