Getting What You Ask For

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Matthew 13: 44–53
Series: Lord's Prayer (Part 2)  

Naming Names

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Matthew 6:7–13
Series: Lord's Prayer (Part 1) 

Doers of the Word

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Rev. Kristin Willett
Scripture: James 1:17–27

The letter of James is not very long. In our pew bibles, it is comprised of barely four pages between Hebrews and 1st Peter. The letter of James almost didn’t make it into Bible, and once it was in some wanted it out.

Martin Luther, one of Protestant Reformers, wanted to eliminate the book of James from the canon. When he wrote the German New Testament he laid out the contents page with each book numbered. At the very end of the list, set apart from the rest of the scripture, was a small group that Luther didn’t even see fit to number – those books were James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelations. In his view, these books were secondary.

He suggested that the contents of James promote justification by works, meaning that individuals are saved through the merit of their deeds. This was in direct contrast to the writing of Paul who professed that salvation was a gift from God, that individuals were justified through Jesus the Christ.

Luther’s strong distaste for James led him to write on the subject, and Luther’s writings dominated the the reflection on this letter until recently.

Recent scholarship suggests that James was writing to an intentional community similar to our own gathering – he was writing to a group of believers. Though much of the letter does focus on action, one prominent Bible scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that that focus is founded first on a shared identity within the community – an identity founded on inheritance according to promise, belonging to a kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, and life normed by faith and love. For Johnson, James and Paul do not contradict each other because they are not addressing the same point. Paul is speaking to the foundational grace and faith introduced by Jesus, James is calling believers to respond when faced with that grace.

The passage we read this morning alludes to that foundation of grace. When James makes reference to the Word he is speaking of the Gospel, the Good News. The Word is God’s Word given to us. James calls it the word of truth and imparts the importance of hearing that Word and listening carefully to it.

In worship, the corporate gathering of believers, we hear the word proclaimed through the reading of scripture and the sermon. We are hearing the good news of who God is and what God has done and is doing. We receive the Word enacted by the waters of baptism and partaking of the Lord’s Supper, reinforcing the message of grace and love and making it more tangible for each of us.

As we hear the Word proclaimed and receive the Word through the sacraments, the Holy Spirit quickens people to an awareness of God’s grace and claim upon their lives. The Spirit helps us to know God’s will in contrast to society and moves us to respond. It is through the Holy Spirit that what we hear proclaimed is then understood. As we come to know God’s grace our faith is strengthened.

As our faith deepens we can see God’s Word at work in the world. We can see God’s involvement in the struggles of the oppressed, in the comforting of the grieving, in the healing of the sick. As we notice God at work in the world we respond to God’s grace by wanting to be a part of God’s work. We are moved to action.

Worship renews us and transforms us. We then offer ourselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world. This is exactly what James is referring to when he calls us to be Doers of the Word. He is calling us to live into our response to God.

Hearing and understanding the word illuminates its meaning, making it real for us, allowing it to become a part of who we are. It shows us how we can change our actions to reflect God’s will. As James suggests it is like looking in a mirror and noticing that you have something on your face. Do you do something about it or do you continue as if you didn’t know it was there. As the word is revealed we see how it differs from the ways of the world – proclaiming acceptance in place of judgment, love in place of indifference, grace in place of retribution.

We may see a problem or issue in our neighborhoods or community that needs to be addressed and think that it is too big for us. And we are right – it is too big for us alone, but it isn’t too big for God. If we allow God to work through us, God will do amazing things, bigger things than we ever imagined possible.

In the late 1930s, a midwestern farmer named Dan West was serving as a Church of the Brethren relief worker during the Spanish Civil War. His job was ladling out rations of milk to hungry children, he was forced to decide who would receive the limited rations and who wouldn’t – quite literally, who would live and who would die. He realized that this form of aid was insufficient. West returned home and formed a new relief organization, dedicated to ending hunger permanently by providing families with livestock and training so that they would no longer need to rely on others to feed their children. In 1944 – the first shipment of 17 heifers left York, Penn., for Puerto Rico, going to families whose malnourished children had never even tasted milk. Since that first shipment Heifers International has continued for over 60 years, by helping 8.5 million people in more than 125 countries. They have expanded to more than heifers but their aim is still to provide families and communities with lasting nourishment. Each family that receives an animal agrees to “pass on the gift” and donate the female offspring to another family, so that the gift of food is never ending.

West saw a need and did not allow him self to be limited by his own ability. God worked through him to start something that has lasted beyond West’ own life and has bettered the lives of millions.

Even more recently a simple prayer: “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl game, help us to be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat” has inspired a youth–led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world. This prayer, delivered by a seminary intern serving a church is South Carolina gave birth to an idea. Why not use the Super Bowl weekend, a time when people come together for football and fun, to also unify a nation for a higher good: collecting money and canned food for the needy? The plan was for youth to collect donations at their schools and churches in soup pots and then send every dollar directly to a local charity of their choice. The Senior High youth at the church liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated the first year, reporting their results so a total could be determined and then sending all the $5,700 they had raised to aid area non–profits. That was 1990. Since then, ordinary teenagers have generated an amazing $50 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. Our own congregation has become a part of this movement. In the last five years we have raised $8,100 on Super Bowl Sundays and donated all of it to Andre House.

When we own this, this reality that worship, that gathering here together is as much about being equipped to leave as it is about soaking up the Word, our notion of church changes. As one of my professors from Princeton, Darrel Guder put it, we need to get away from thinking about church in the “place where” mentality. “Church” is conceived in this way as the place where a Christian civilization gathers for worship, and the place where the Christian character of society is cultivated. This mentality was not so much articulated as presumed, not formally stated in creeds but so engrained in churches’ practice it became dominant in churches self understanding. When we become doers of the word this mentality changes. Church is understood as a body of people sent on a mission. Unlike the previous notion of a church as an entity located in a facility or an institutional organization and its activities. The church is being re–conceived as a community, a gathered people, brought together by a common call and vocation to be a sent people. The Church’s essence is missional, for the calling and sending action of God forms its identity.

Our own church is the starting point for some amazing God driven action. Pinnacle Presbyterian Preschool started small, but over the years it has become a leader in early childhood education, attracting teachers from around the state and even the country to come and learn our teaching techniques. The love and desire to help young children develop has inspired others to follow our lead. The school provides training for other teachers and educates 180 young children in our community.

Our music ministries are too a national attraction, with renowned concerts being presented to the community, and established musicians desiring to come observe what is happening within our community. Thousands of people who do not come to worship on Sunday mornings have been blessed by the ministry of this church through its concerts and music education.

This year, the Pinnacle Theological Center is breaking new ground. It is working with the General Assembly to record and distribute the lectures and forums that are presented this year. So that the talent, resources, and knowledge that is coming together here is accessible to a larger audience.

This is just the beginning. God is priming us to do amazing things within this community and around the world. We as a church, as a sent people, are able to achieve much with God’s involvement. We can be doers of the word and make a lasting impact of the lives of people. It all starts with an idea. Listening and hearing the word of God, allowing it to be implanted within us and to grow into an idea. But we must hear James’ call and to be doers of the word not simply hearers. Inspiration and imagining how God can use us is just the beginning, we must be willing to act in big and small ways. Recognizing that our faith is not something that we do on Sundays, but that it shows us how to really live and calls us to action.

Don’t allow the word of God to go in one ear and out the other. Allow it to become implanted in your very being, to take root, and then hold on as God shows you what next extraordinary, world impacting idea that we are being called to do, sent out to do.

God has brought us together not by chance and not simply to share this space, but to equip us, to build us up as a community, a community sent into the world.

In the words of St Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.”

Be Doers of the Word. Amen.

Categories: 2009, September 2009

The Good Samaritan, Part 2: ‘He Ain’t Heavy...’

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Luke 10:25–37
Series: The Good Samaritan (Part 2) 

The Good Samaritan, Part 1: Finding Our Place

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Luke 10:25–42
Series: The Good Samaritan (Part 1)

Bread of Life

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Rev. Kristin Willett
Scripture: John 6:48–58

Categories: 2009, August 2009

Longtime Coming

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Equipping the Saints

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Rev. Fran Park
Scripture: Ephesians 4:1–7, 11–13

Categories: 2009, August 2009

Out of the Whirlwind

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Mark 6:47–56

The Party Begins

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Leviticus 25:1–7 ; Mark 6: 30–46

Robert Farrer Capon is a theologian and a cook. Alongside books on the New Testament and theology, he’s also written a couple of cookbooks, with musings on how God and entertaining intersect. One of those cookbooks is called The Party Spirit. In that book, Capon makes a recommendation that helps us understand the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 – though he makes no mention of the story at all.

What he says is this: If you are throwing a party with a great guest list and a long order of things to get ready, work as hard and as joyfully as you can to prepare. Spend all day, or more, if you need to. Try new things, be bold, take a chance or two to make the party work. And get help if you need it. But while you’re doing all of that, always do one additional thing. Fifteen minutes before your guests are due, stop what you’re doing. Doesn’t matter in the least whether you’ve made it to the bottom of your to–do list or not. You are finished. You are ready. Other things can always be taken care of in the presence of your friends. They won’t mind in the least, if, indeed, you have done this one thing.

So 15 minutes before, stop. Look around. Breathe. Give thanks. Take your apron off. Straighten your tie (or if it’s Arizona, where we don’t wear ties, tighten up your sandals). Pour yourself a glass of wine, or a glass of iced tea if you prefer. Take a taste of the appetizers you’ve set out. And let the party begin. That way, when you open the door for your first guests, you’re welcoming them into a party that’s already underway.

The guests don’t bring the party.
  The party begins in the host.
    The party begins in the host.

When I’ve met someone who knows this, it’s a pleasure. For I know I’m in good hands.

The party begins in the host.

• • •

Now let me restage our story from the Gospel of Mark for you, to see if it resonates. We begin a bit earlier than what you heard read.

Jesus had been in Nazareth, where he was not well accepted. After leaving there, he divided 12 of his closest followers (the ones we call his disciples) into pairs and sent them out to do his work in the villages. They were to go with nothing in hand and trust that they’d be provided for by folks who welcomed them. If they weren’t welcomed, they were to move on until they were.

After a while, the pairs came back to tell their stories. And so wanting to give them a rest, Jesus suggested that they go to a deserted place across the lake. But when news of their plans spread, folks went by the thousands to meet them at the boat. When Jesus saw the crowd he felt for them, and he set his plans aside so he and the disciples could be with them and teach them.

The disciples, however, don’t appear so flexible. They seem more nervous than compassionate.

And dusk came.

"Jesus, look at all of those people out here in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t do any preplanning here and there’s no logistics team in place. What will happen when they all get hungry? You’ve got to draw this to a close, Jesus. It’s in everyone’s best interest. Let them go to the towns to buy food and take care of themselves!"

And Jesus gently, but firmly, takes the disciples to task:

"You give them something to eat!"

"What?"

"That’s right. You have enough. All will be well. There is a higher logic at work here. How much bread do you have?"

"Only five loaves. And a couple of fish."

And Jesus took that little bit of bread, and the fish, and raised them to heaven. He broke the bread, and told them to distribute what was there.

Folks have puzzled for centuries about what happened next in the story. Were people so convinced by Jesus’ message that they pulled out food they had been hiding or hoarding for themselves and their families and began to share so openly that all were fed? Were folks so moved to generosity, that they passed over the food when it was offered them so that others could eat? Did food spontaneously and supernaturally multiply, so that whenever food was taken the baskets would replenish themselves?

I don’t know. But I do know that by telling us that they took 12 baskets of leftovers, Mark wants us to believe that there was more at the end of all of this than there was at the beginning, and that everyone had more than enough. And Jesus kept teaching and blessing.

• • •

John Senyoni is a professor and Anglican church worker in Uganda. For several years, he led efforts to organize an annual summer youth gathering in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Speakers, classes, music, small groups, prayer circles, planning for mission. Each year the gathering grew in number, beyond all expectations: 5,000, then 10,000 youth, and more, year after year.

When hearing John tell this story a few years ago, I asked him about arrangements.

"Did you charge folks?" No.

"Did you have a registration process?" No

"Did you have dormitories?" A few, but not nearly enough.

"Where did folks sleep?" Well, the people of Kampala just open their homes, and their churches. No one goes homeless.

"Do you organize meals?" No, but people provide. Everyone eats. "God is doing this," John said. "We are provided for."

The party begins in the host.

• • •

The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is not just another miracle story. It is a story about faith, and lack of faith. It is a story of communion, of breaking of bread, of sharing in Christ without fear or feeling of scarcity. It is a story of abundance – not of waste or luxury, but of God–given, compassion–driven, true abundance.

When we see through the eyes of Jesus, there is more than enough.

When we first pray, then bless, then act, there is more than enough.

When we let ourselves get caught up in a story larger than ourselves, or our needs, or our abilities, or our worries, there is more than enough.

When we see what we have before we dwell on what we lack, when we float in hope before we sink in fear, when we welcome the gift before we count the cost, and when we give the gift before we count the cost – we will receive far more in return than we can ever give.

• • •

So what am I actually saying? Should we all go out and plan a gathering for youth with no arrangements for housing, or be flippant with the practical details of life? I don’t think so, at least not in this culture. After all, without careful planning and a good dose of realism now and then we would surely have less than what we have. Thank God for the planners among us.

Yet what I am saying is that as important as realism is, for we who seek to follow Christ there is always something more. When we turn to follow him, we take a turn down a path we cannot perfectly predict, nor ever really control. We allow a certain mystery at the heart of all we do that is deeper than chance or fate. We let that mystery into what we dream, and into what we choose to want from life. We put ourselves into that larger story. And we accept that story – God’s story – to be a truer picture of what is than what we often see. We enter a party already begun in the One who calls us to it.

Because of this, we can sometimes stretch beyond what seems reasonable. We can step out, in faith, trusting that God will do more than we can ourselves. We can believe that the Holy Spirit will complete our faltering efforts and reshape our priorities. We can trust that we already have what we need, as long as we give it freely and without holding back. We can know that in Christ’s blessing, our bread and fish will be a feast – that generosity, self–sacrifice, and the mystery of divine multiplication will see us through to something not a single one of us could have imagined before we came to the party.

So we stop what we’re doing and gather round this table now and then. We pour a glass of wine, break bread, bless them both, and share. And we let the party begin in us as we find ourselves in the One who’s welcoming us.

• • •

I can’t say what this means for each one of you – in your own lives or in your families. I don’t know you well enough yet to guess. Yet because of what I’ve seen of the One hosting our party, I do believe that there is meaning in all of this for each one of us, for our families, for our work, for our church.

Are there areas in your life where you’re missing the larger picture, where you’re clinging too tightly to a way of seeing things and won’t let go, where you’re looking too closely at what’s missing and not enough at what’s there, or too much atneeds and not enough at gifts, or where you are trying to go it alone rather than sharing your load with others? In those places, God can make a way out of no way, as the old spirituals say. A spiritual reality can take hold and make more from what you have than what you think is possible, and multiply a meager share into more than enough. It doesn’t happen without effort, but our effort is finally not the reason for the blessing. It is God, and God’s blessing.

• • •

And so I will be bold enough to make a comment about what all of this might mean for Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, even on only my second Sunday in this generous pulpit.

You have done remarkable things as a congregation, following the Spirit. You’ve stretched in faith. You’ve given beyond reason. You’ve built on faith. You’ve hoped beyond logic. You’ve set out on a journey and walked with confidence and resolve – even over rocky terrain and through the occasional dust storm. You’ve joined the party God is hosting for you. And yet as I join you, I also sense some brewing anxiety.

This is understandable at a time of changing leadership, with Larry gone and now Mac. Add to that a very uncertain economic reality out there, and things can feel a little unfamiliar. Not a lot, but a little.

You’ve stretched, and you might wonder if you’ve stretched too far.

You’ve depended on blessing, yet might wonder if you’ve depended too much.

We worry a little about the budget, and about the mortgage, and about what vision will take us forward.

For this very reason, I’m glad the Lectionary gave us this passage today, about Jesus breaking a little bread and 5,000 eating. For the message is there for us:

We will have enough. By your generosity, by your sacrifice, by God’s grace (always, always, by God’s grace), we will have enough. We’ll have enough vision, energy and resources. We’ll invite folks to come along, because we love the party so much we want them with us. And we’ll feed, shelter, heal, give peace, and do miraculous things, because that’s what God is already doing and God has invited us to join in.

For each one of you in your own lives, and for us together: No fear. Only hope. For in Christ, the party is always already begun.

Amen.