Lenten Devotional: Monday, Feb. 15

by Joel Siebentritt

1 Corinthians 3:16
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

Matthew 18:20
For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

The Honduran Mission Group sang the following country-gospel refrain as our big green and white bus carried us over the last miles through Tegucigalpa to the airport.

Travlin’ that highway home
I’m travlin’ that highway home
Oh narrows the way, thank God I can say
I’m travlin’ that highway home
-Walter Bailes and Frankie Bailes

It was the end of a short week that seemed much longer.  We had been geographically far, far from home; culturally distant from all that was familiar; and, linguistically handicapped.  Foreigners in a foreign land.  The music and the words comforted me in the same way it had on our long journeys out to the village of La Fuente the previous 4 mornings, and back again each afternoon.

Sometimes when I’m way out of my “comfort zone,” I can also feel spiritually out of touch too…further away from God’s comforting presence…a long way from “home.”  Like singing that song, the following passages are reminders to me that those feelings are passing and cannot change the truth that God is ever present in our lives.  I can know God’s presence in quiet prayer and meditation.  I can know God’s presence in song.  And I can know God’s presence through loving fellowship, anywhere, anytime.  God is with me.  God is with you.  God is here.  On my daily path to discovering God, I am always travlin’ that highway home.

Prayer: God of all time and space, open my eyes that I may see you, my ears that I may hear you , my mind that I may know you and my heart that I may welcome you, now and always.  Amen

Sermon: The Gift of Uncertainty

“The Gift of Uncertainty”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1Corinthians 13:11-12
Feb. 14, 2016

The Word in Song: “Call to Lent”

Sermon

On Friday I was headed to Atlanta to have lunch with my friend Melissa Allen. We have been friends since the third grade. After she moved to California when we were in high school, we lost touch, but just in the last few years we have reconnected along with another elementary school friend, and have managed to get together once or twice a year when Melissa is on this side of the country instead of at home in Olympia, Washington.

I drove my familiar route from my home, out of my subdivision and on my way to Atlanta Highway. I was thinking about where we’d be meeting, the things I needed to do when I got back home, the events of the last few days, and all of a sudden, I awoke! I wasn’t on my way to Hwy. 78 as I had planned; I had turned in the wrong direction and was headed towards 316. My brain had been on automatic pilot and I was traveling in a direction I’d not meant to go.

I thought it kind of a funny coincidence that this had happened at the very time we are starting Lent and focusing on what happens when we, as Dante described it, awake to find ourselves lost in a Dark Wood. And I admit, I complimented God on having a great sense of humor.

Everybody gets lost at one time or another. Sometimes it is easy to recover, as it was for me on Friday. Other times, there is no going back, no retracing steps, we’re completely lost. Our maps are out of date, our sense of direction is shaken; the past is gone and the future is not clear. All the bright certainty has faded away and we can’t see any farther than the end of our outstretched arms.

There are all sorts of paths that lead to this uncertain place – on a personal level, unemployment, illness, loss of a loved one, betrayal by a friend; on the corporate level, – a company moves it’s production to another country (Carrier Air Conditioning announced 1400 layoffs this week in Indiana). For us as a congregation, we experienced it with the fire three years ago. You can’t turn on TV or read a newspaper without seeing the national controversies over immigration, gun violence, rights of minorities, religious freedom. At any moment, some of the touchstones of life can be shaken or slide away and we’re left without many, if any, solid rock assurances.

In those times we are forced to realize that there is so much more going on, more twists and loops, more torturous curves and dangerous turns to life than we’d ever imagined. We are confronted with uncharted territory  we had not planned for and where we are not in control. But it is there in the darkness of that place that potential for newness exists. It is there that God waits to meet us; it is there that the Holy Spirit begins nudging us in the right direction. It is there that Paul’s words in 2Corinthians become real “we walk by faith, and not by sight.”

These kinds of unsettling experiences tell us that faith is not certainty.  Faith is not a magic talisman that keeps us safe and protects us from life’s difficulties. The various heroes of scripture illustrate the truth that faith indeed is the opposite of certainty, for they all lived with uncertainty – Abraham, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Jesus’ mother Mary, Paul,  Peter, even Jesus himself. No one would say that they did not have strong faith, but their faith did not exempt them from uncertainty and struggle. Actually, it’s usually the very certain ones who do not come off so well in the Bible. Remember Job’s friends? Remember the Pharisees? Remember Saul before he became Paul?

In our passage from 1Corinthians, Paul says that the higher our need for certainty, the greater our immaturity. My grandson Lukas, who is five, likes to have things a certain way. As a great lover of Mickey Mouse, he prefers to have his milk in a Mickey cup, and he makes life very difficult if the Mickey cup is in the dishwasher – Ninja Turtles won’t do. Toy Story won’t do. Even Frozen won’t do – even though he knows all the words to “Let it Go.” Same thing with his clothes – Mickey shirts are preferable.  Life is simply better with Mickey Mouse at every step of the way.

When we’re adults, Paul says, we put away childish things. We can drink as easily from a Ninja Turtle cup as a Mickey cup. We can tolerate gray areas in our lives; we can get along without having all the answers; we can live with uncertainty.  We can live with the fact that for now we see through the glass darkly or dimly, a word which in Greek is the root of our word “enigma” – something mysterious, ambiguous, not easily understood or interpreted.

We might think that we prefer certainty to uncertainty, that we’d like to script our lives so that we know the outcome. We’d prefer no difficult challenges, definitely no defeats, no sorrows, no losses. Joan Chittister says that we prefer to live with the “illusion of benign unchangability,” but that it is always being interrupted by obstacles and interruptions that at first seem to “make every next miracle impossible, every next point unreachable, every present situation unbearable.”[i]

But the paradox is, that the next miracle or milestone in our lives is often dependent on the interruption that threatens the present miracle, the place where we are now.[ii]  Knowing that these times of uncertainty are a part of living, does not make them any easier when they come, and the pain comes from having to let go of the way we wanted things in order to give way to something else that is being born, created new. And God is there in the darkness of that creation, making something new. God does some of God’s best work in the dark.

Maybe you can remember a time of great uncertainty when all of your bright plans had been dashed and you could not see beyond the catastrophe.  But now, sometime later, you can look back and recognize and even give thanks for the blessings, the new miracles in your life, that came out of the loss. Hindsight is always so much clearer, isn’t it?

We all have some kind of story like that. In my life, I spent a good bit of time in the dark wood when my husband died at the age of 49. We had plans for the future as our children left home and we would become empty nesters. But with his death, that certain plan was gone. And as with any time of grief, you just kind of go through the motions for a while. I could have done as Job’s friends suggested, “Curse God and die.” But instead over the following year, I was able to identify and accept my cal to ministry that I would never had recognized before, and with God’s help, I took the first tentative steps toward that new life. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a good thing for Bruce to die! But that unchangeable, beyond my control to stop event became a catalyst in my life for something good that I would never have dreamed of in a million years. I am here to tell you, if you are right now in a dark wood, your struggle, uncertainty, or grief can become the source and occasion of the next miracle in your life.

How is anyone able to do that: Perhaps the clue lies in one of Paul’s greatest statements about the endurance of love that immediately follows his observation about uncertainty. Love is based on trust, not certainty.  Trust allows for growth and change, it allows for freedom that certainty cannot produce. [iii] Trust and love can be developed amid uncertainty – we know that from our experiences over the last almost three years now. We lived through a very uncertain time. Who would ever have thought the church would burn; it might have been the one thing in life that you know would always be here.  Other places might come and go, various people might let you down, but right here on this corner in Athens Georgia, there was a little piece of certainty. And then it burned.

It was trust and love that got us through. Trust in God and in one another. Love for God and one another. And God’s love for us and trust in us. There was no going back, the path ahead was not yet visible, but the love and the trust were there.  And the rest, as they say, is history. Here we are. Is it a path we would have chosen? Of course not. But are we Ok with where we are? Absolutely. And now we face another period of uncertainty as I retire and another pastor stands in this pulpit. It would be the height of ingratitude to doubt that the same love and trust that saw us through the fire will see us through now.

Today we give God thanks for of all things, the gift of uncertainty! For what it teaches us – to let go of what we cannot control; to face the future with hope and not despair, to find the power and courage to face our challenges, and to live into the trust and the love that surrounds us every day.

[i] Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 12.

[ii] Chittister.

[iii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), 2015, 28.

Sermon: Life is what happens when we’re making other plans

“Life is what happens when we’re making other plans”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 12:20-26, Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18
March 8, 2015

Choir Anthem: “I Choose You”

Sermon Audio

Not many of us like change. It means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we do easily. It is so much easier to keep things as they are. We rely on routines and predictability in our lives for a sense of stability and safety. We seek equilibrium. Sr. Joan Chittister says “we want to sink into the marshmallow of life and enjoy what we have gained.”[i]

Even good change is difficult. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or staring a new job, or moving to a new place, these are all good changes to make, and to make them, takes a lot of determination and effort. But at least these are changes that we want to make; we are ready for them even if they may take time and effort on our part, and even if they are temporarily uncomfortable or stressful. There’s a greater good that we’re working toward and believe we can achieve.

But what about those changes that we don’t chose to make, the ones that come in to our lives uninvited? It’s one thing to decide to find a new job; it’s another thing to find out your current job is being eliminated.   It’s one thing to decide to get into better shape, it’s another thing to find out that your body is doing things you didn’t realize, and exercise alone won’t cure it. I read yesterday about a young man who began to put on a lot of weight. He chose to begin an exercise and diet plan, but it didn’t seem to do much good. He continued to gain weight. He was finally diagnosed with a pituitary tumor that had been quietly growing at the base of his brain and causing all the trouble and required unexpected surgery to cure him.

In life there are changes we would never choose, but if we live long enough, they are a part of life and will come to us uninvited ,unexpected, and unwelcomed. If we made a list of them, all of the items would probably have certain things in common – shock, loss, and interruption. This kind of significant change does more than create a little temporary anxiety or stress, it can make us feel powerless, helpless , overwhelmed, and afraid. In these situations, our natural inclination is to be in denial, to hold off the future, to run away, to escape, to avoid the pain because frankly, loss feels like death, and who wants to die? But because many of the losses we experience in life are inevitable and unavoidable, trying to forestall the future is futile and trying to hang on to the present forever is impossible.

We know that the only constant in our lives is change. Change is present at every stage and phase of our lives, and it is necessary for the sake of carrying us on to the next phase of life. We experience biological and social change; internal and external change. Some of it we control, but much of it is beyond our control. How we respond to it then, is all important.

In our gospel reading today Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth, and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Somehow for Jesus, change and loss are not defeat, but gain; not the end; but somehow a new beginning.

One of the real blessings for me as a pastor having served this church for almost 14 years, is the opportunity to have watched the truth of Jesus’s words lived out in individual lives within this congregation. There are all kinds of stories of unwanted change and loss in this room this morning – and all kinds of struggles in the aftermath, and most miraculously and most beautiful, all kinds of new life that has pushed its way from the earth and into the sunlight. Each of us has a story to tell.

For me, unwanted change came in the deaths of two people closest to me. it was the loss of my mother when I was 35 years old that brought me back to church after many years away; and it was the death of my husband 13 years later that brought me first to seminary and then here.   Both events forced me to think differently about who God is and who I am and what God is calling me to be and to do. In the process, and it is a process because it doesn’t happen overnight, I have come to understand that although they are both physically absent from this life, their lives continue to bear much fruit. And I have come to trust that there was nothing in life or in death that they or any of us has to face that Jesus himself did not experience, and that he walks with us each step of the way.

In both events my life was changed through circumstances I could not control, in significant ways, and I found myself on an unwanted, unexpected path, pushed in a new and different direction, one that has given me despite my grief and loss, a good and a blessed life; and no one has been more surprised than I have been. Paul’s words, Mikell read earlier express it best; In the Message it reads this way: “So we’re not giving up. How could we. Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without God’s unfolding grace. . . .There is far more here than meets the eye.”

I know that for some people that old saw about a door closing and another door opening is a whole lot of hooey! Too trite, too clichéd, too easy, too pat. But nevertheless, for me it proved true. Not that the second door opens immediately after the first door closes. No, there can be a good bit of time standing in the hallway looking for a door, or going from door to door and finding each one locked. Endurance plays a large part. But Paul says elsewhere that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint. And sure enough, it takes a while to imagine, first that anything can come next, and second to imagine what will come next. But we can do more than simply endure. We can rediscover hope, and with hope we can begin anew.

My story is not so unusual – there are many who have experienced new life through the unexpected loss of the old. But even in the most unexpected and most unlikely circumstances, miracles can occur. Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts with you in a Lenten devotional and also in a newspaper article about Kelly Gissendaner. Even though 18 year ago she was found guilty of murder, to which she has confessed, even though she was sentenced to death, she has not died prematurely, but instead, surrounded by death, she has found new life, and she is a new person in Christ. She is not the person she used to be. As the prison doors closed behind her, the door of faith opened wide for her.

Even though we say we believe in redemption, it is still is hard, isn’t it, to imagine such a transformation. And yet it has happened. She has opened her heart in that most despairing of places – death row – to the grace of new possibilities. Through the grace of God, she has been given the opportunity to touch lives for the better even as she has felt hers drawing to a close. And now, who knows. The death penalty is now suspended for the time being. But each day that she has, she is living as fully as she possibly can.

The word for us today, is that change, change we will never be ready for, change that disrupts the very center of our lives, is not the end. There is a gift hidden within it if we have the faith and the endurance to persevere and look for it. It is the gift of beginning again. The gift of growth. The gift of bearing more fruit, different fruit from what we’d ever imagined.   We may be as Paul was, afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but also like him, through the grace of God present with us, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

The challenges for each of us are “what are we able to endure? How long will we persist? How much are we willing to learn in order to begin again?   We have a choice even in change that we did not choose – we have the choice to try to hang on to our present life and inevitably lose it, or to let it go, and somehow keep the life that truly is life for eternity. We have the choice to die spiritually, or to begin again, to be open to possibility, to see God, as Sister Joan says, not only as a caring father, but as a “birthing mother, who brings new life with the rising of every sun and the descent of every inner darkness.” And she says, we have the choice “to grow spiritually in the image of our mother God . . . to be open to newness, to expect surprise, to understand pain, to soothe hurt, to nurture difference rather than to deny it. . . . to [welcome] tomorrow . . . rather than to attempt to cement today into eternity. . . . until, at the end, we find ourselves full-statured and full of grace.”[ii] May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.

[i] Joan D. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 20.

[ii] Chittister.

Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, March 3

by Lisa Caine
March 3, 2015

2 Corinthians 12:9 — “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”   

I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to bed on Sunday night knowing that in all probability it would be my very last night on earth, knowing that the next evening, I would be strapped to a gurney while people I didn’t know prepared to put me to death.

That’s what Kelly Gissendaner had to do Sunday. I had forgotten about her, the scandal of her conviction in 1998 for the murder of her husband the year before long gone from my mind. I stood at that time with the ones holding the stones, ready to throw them at her because of her sin. Righteous indignation is always so easy to gin up.

I didn’t think about her again until Saturday when her story once again became newsworthy and clergy friends of mine began posting on Facebook about her impending execution.  TV focused on 18 years ago, the heartless murder of her husband for the insurance money. My friends focused on the new Kelly, the person they had met and mentored for the last 18 years through Candler School of Theology’s prison ministry program, and who was now mentoring others, encouraging them reminding them that their suffering can be redeemed.

My friends spoke of a woman who had confessed her sinfulness and who took responsibility for her actions.  She had changed from the woman, who in her own words, “had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment,” and still could not understand how ”I had let myself fall into such evil.” In prison she had learned,” no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”

In 2011, in a speech to her prison classmates all of whom had studied for a year to receive the Certificate in Theological Studies from Candler, Kelly said, “receive the word and revelation and act on it; your life will never be the same . . . there is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean . . . . When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted.”

We preach a lot about redemption, about salvation, about being born again, about new life in Christ. We say we believe it. We say we trust in it for our own salvation. We read in the Bible about sinful people who turned their lives around, still were far from perfect, but were used by God for powerful purposes.  King David as an adulterer and a murderer, had much in common with Kelly, but he too repented of his sin, and wrote “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.”   And of course, there is Saul, who had such a turnaround, that he received a new name to signify his new being – Paul.

We sing with great gusto the old hymn, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”  Do we really think those words are meant only for us “good” folk whose sins are mostly hidden and much less messy than Kelly’s, but nonetheless sin – pride, anger, envy, lust, sloth, gluttony, indifference, to name a few. Do we think we can judge who is eligible for salvation or do we believe Jesus’ words in Matthew, “Judge not that you be not judged, for the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  Are we so sure of our own righteousness that we can risk our own judgment for the pleasure of judging another? In advocating for her death are we not also committing murder in our hearts?  Let the person without sin cast the first stone.

The only way I can understand this obvious contradictory thinking is to believe we have split minds, our “civil” mind and our “religious” mind.   So we can simultaneously believe the courts have the right to judge “crime” and God has the right to judge “sin”; thus, God’s grace and mercy may abound freely over sinfulness of all kinds, but our human civil “justice” can’t show mercy, can’t show grace, can’t show forgiveness because that would somehow be  condoning and encouraging heinous behavior. This dualistic thinking is the way of our fallen world, not the way of God.

For now there is a stay of execution as the State examines the quality or potency of the drug that they were to have used last night.  It was “cloudy” for some reason.  Kelly has one more day at least, and of course, that is all any of us has – one more day. And so in that brief time that is guaranteed us, perhaps we can, to use Kelly’s words “put off hatred and envy and put on love and compassion. Every day.”

Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, we lift up to you our sister Kelly. In life and in death you are God and Kelly and all of us are surrounded by your love and upheld by your grace whether we live or whether we die.  In this time of Lent, may we focus on our own sinfulness, our own alienation from you and from one another. Prevent us from turning our attention outward and focusing on someone else’s weakness; it’s always easier to look out than to look in.  In our own weakness may we turn to you for strength; in our own sinfulness may we turn to you for forgiveness, mercy, and grace.  And as we pray for these things for ourselves, may we not ask for what we would not want for someone else, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.

Sermon: “Double Blessing”

“Double Blessing”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Nov. 9, 2014

For the last several years in the final weeks of the Christian year, we have turned our attention to stewardship, and what it means for us to give back to the God who has so generously given to us. Stewardship is more than a monetary issue, as important as that aspect is to our continued existence and vitality. Stewardship is really about what we do with what we have after we say we believe. And we have much to share. When we join the church we make some promises about how we will use what we have – more than promises, we make some vows. Right off hand, do you know the difference between a promise and a vow? Both are pledges of assurance that we will or will not do something. But a vow is a promise made not just with another human being but also with God.

In our vows of membership, we promise to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Two years ago, in November 2012, BF – before the fire – we focused on prayer because it is foundational to everything we do.

A year ago in November 2013, AF – after the fire – we focused on presence. We’d had lost our church buildings to a fire – we were in a temporary location three miles away. There was no better time for us to concentrate on our vow of presence than during that limbo time. Presence is always important, we can’t be absent and be the church, but presence is more important than ever perhaps, as we commit ourselves to God, to the church, to one another, and to the world in our journey of faith.

This year we are focusing on the third of our membership vows – the promise to support the church with our gifts. Before we can give, however, we have to recognize and give thanks for how much we have been given. We had that opportunity last Sunday when we remembered and celebrated the gifts we have received from the saints in our lives. We know we are all beholden to someone. None of us is self-made, without the influence of another. We are the people we are today because of someone or several ones who influenced us in a positive way. Joel shared with us about his parents and the loving direction he has received from them throughout his life.

Today we are going to consider love as the motivation for giving. Sharon has shared how love motivates her in her work and she gives her time and talent to school children. Love is the only true reason to give; there may be others that distract us – dreary obligation, peer pressure, the desire for a tax deduction! But it’s love that has the power not only to bless the receiver but also the giver of the gift as Paul explains the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians.

This passage from first Corinthians is perhaps one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. It is a great favorite at weddings, and maybe that’s where you’ve most often heard it. Maybe it was read at your own wedding. But interestingly, Paul wasn’t writing to a young couple just starting married life together. He was writing to a congregation he’d founded in Corinth, writing in response to their request that he intervene and help them with the fighting and bickering that was tearing them apart. They were a very unloving group of people, divided into factions, each one thinking itself better than the other.

They were divided over the importance of their various spiritual gifts, with one group maintaining that the gift of speaking in tongues was the most important of the gifts. And there was heated debate over whether or not an interpreter should be provided to translate ecstatic speech so that the rest of the congregation could understand. In the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading, Paul reminds them that spiritual gifts are not meant to separate them into special or privileged groups, but are meant for service to the common good. And if they use their gifts appropriately, they will find themselves to be a part of that mystical, living, dynamic entity that he calls “the body of Christ.” Within the body of Christ it makes no difference whether their gift is flashy and obvious like speaking in tongues, or quiet and subtle, like caring for the sick, or offering hospitality to strangers. It takes all the parts, all together to compose the Body of Christ, and each is an indispensable and unique contributing member of it.

Paul concludes by saying something quite interesting. As they strive for greater gifts, he says, “I will show you a more excellent way.” What could possibly be more excellent than what he has already described – a community of faith intent on sharing their abilities, their gifts, and their graces for the common good – all for one and one for all. What could be better than that?

The more excellent way is to do all of those things with love. Love must be the motivation behind the right use of gifts; love is what makes them important at all. One can speak in everyday language, the tongues of people, or one can speak in ecstatic speech – the tongues of angels – and can be eloquent, able to communicate ideas and possibilities with great effectiveness, but if love is not the motivator of the speech, more often than not, communication is used for personal advantage and can divide and isolate, rather than bring together and unite.We don’t have to look far to see that do we?

Although I may not be happy with the outcome of the midterm elections, I am happy that they are over because of the terrible divisive, biased, half-truths that passed for electioneering in the last several months. What if our elected officials had been able to see their opponents as equally loved children of God, not as bumbling idiots or evil adversaries hell bent on destroying the country. What if their goal was the common good and not simply their own desires to gain power or to be elected?

Paul says we can have all kinds of prophetic powers, and be full of knowledge and information, but without love that knowledge can be used as a tool or a weapon to gain advantage of another. It can destroy rather than promote loving relationships and understandings among us. Paul doesn’t say that the intellect is worthless, we are, after all, to love God with our minds, but without love, it can become cold, calculating, self-serving, and dangerous

He says we can have all faith – but like eloquence and knowledge – faith without love is dangerous. It is what led to the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is what led our forebears to burn people at the stake as witches, or to affirm slavery and to proclaim one race as superior to another. The Westboro Baptist Church calls it faith when they protest at various public events, proclaiming God’s hatred for the LGBTQ, and God’s judgment on the United States. But true faith is meant to draw us closer to God and to one another, and God is love. Only when we act out of love do we reflect God in us. Faith that results in violence towards another person or group of people, or leads to intolerance of diversity, or indifference to the poor, or that supports injustice is counterfeit faith because it lacks love.   When his speech or his faith lack love, Paul says, he does not become a better person, but is diminished by it. In fact he says, in that action “I am nothing.”

The same is true of giving. If we give away everything we have, even if we sacrifice our very lives for the cause, but do not do it out of love, we gain nothing. He doesn’t say that the gifts are worthless, or that the gifts are nothing. Gifts can be used for good regardless of their source. All gifts to God and God’s people can bring about good. If you win money in the lottery, don’t be ashamed, don’t hesitate one minute, to tithe to your church! Your ill-gotten gain can be used for good purposes!   But here’s the thing – unless a gift is given out of love and the motivation for the giving is to bless another person and not ourselves, then giver loses out and gains nothing from the transaction. There is no blessing for the giver in the gift.

So that should make us stop and think rather closely about our motivation for all of our giving. There are some misguided reasons for giving; I mentioned a few earlier . Guilt, fear, obligation, peer pressure, even the desire for a greater tax deduction! But all of these are rather grim, grudging motives for giving that don’t lead to feeling blessed – harassed maybe, but not blessed! You know in your heart when you give with love – there’s a lightness there, not a heaviness. There’s joy there, not resentment. There’s freedom, not obligation. It makes you feel good! Those of you who serve at Our Daily Bread tomorrow and give your time to that effort will feel good about it when you leave, as though you have been given a gift far greater than the food that you helped to give. That is the blessing that comes to the giver from giving with love.

Or think about how you feel on Christmas morning when you watch your family open the gifts you have lovingly selected for them. When you give a gift to someone, you are really giving a part of yourself in those gifts. The concrete package is a representation of you and your affection. When they see the gift they think of you and when they think of you they think of love. And that is exactly why Paul insists that love must be our primary motivation for giving. Because that’s what God did — love is God’s concrete expression the in gift of Christ. “God so loved the world, that God gave . . .”   “[i]Giving is our opportunity to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us.”

Love then is more than a feeling, more than a thought; it is action; it is behavior. It changes and blesses the one who gives as much as the one who receives. For me personally, I give to my children and grandchildren because I love them. I give to various charities because I love God’s people and want to have a small part in making life better for someone. I give to this church because I love God and I love you and I love the work that is done in and through our efforts. When we think about it, we all know from our experiences that gifts given out of love bear a double blessing – they bless those who receive and they bless those who give. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to share our love through the gifts we give and to be blessed in the giving. It is the more excellent way. Amen.

[i] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 631.

Sermon: Renamed & Renewed

Renamed & Renewed

Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine

Aug. 3, 2014

Genesis 32:22-31, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

 

This summer we have been spending time with our ancestors, getting to know the forebears of our faith a little bit more intimately perhaps than when we were first introduced to them in Sunday School, which is for some of us many years ago now. We are now visiting with the third generation – the grandchildren of Father Abraham; these are Isaac’s kids – the twins – Jacob and Esau. They are the Danny DeVito/Arnold Swartzennegger kind of twins — couldn’t be more different. Physically, Jacob is slight, stays close to home and depends on his wits to get by; Esau is strong and muscular and loves hunting and the outdoors.   Their personalities are different too – Jacob is calculating, always looking for the advantage, planning ahead and not adverse to manipulation and cheating to get what he wants; and Esau is blunt, straightforward, quick tempered, and pretty much lives in the moment without thinking of the consequences.

Because their parents played favorites, the boys grew up estranged. Jacob swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. And later, he connived with his mother Rebekah to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father, Isaac. When Esau threatened to murder him for this betrayal, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham and his mother Rebekah had departed from years before. In the twenty or so years Jacob lived there, he married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah.

In a kind of poetic justice, Jacob met his match in his father in law Laban, who was as much of a trickster and conniver as Jacob was. Finally, it seemed best to leave his tense situation with his father-in-law and head back home. They had conned each other one time too many over the years, and their relationship was fast deteriorating. The only fly in the ointment to returning home, was his long lost and embittered brother Esau, who when last heard of was threatening murder.

Jacob sends greetings ahead to Esau, and the response is swift; Esau approaches with 400 men. Jacob is terrified, and prays to God for help for the first time in his life, but also hedges his bets in perfect Jacob style, sending gifts, or more realistically, bribes, hopefully to pacify his brother. As night was falling, he even sends the women and children and the rest of his caravan on across the river Jabbok so that they will be between him and the advancing Esau. Finally he collapses into a deep sleep, alone, powerless, and anxious – caught in the middle between Laban behind him, and Esau before him – no place to go, no place to run, no place to hide.

The last time Jacob was alone was when he was escaping from Esau’s wrath, and he dreamed of angel messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from the sky, and God gave him assurance that God’s intention was to use and bless Jacob’s life. I wonder if he even remembered that dream; it had happened so long ago. But God did not come to him in a bright dream this time. God came as an intruder, a heavenly stranger, who wrestles with him throughout the night until daybreak, at which point, the stranger cripples Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life.

To his credit, Jacob didn’t wimp out in the middle of the struggle! He fought the stranger all night long, and near the end demanded that the stranger bless him. Instead, the stranger asks him his name. And here is the real crux of the story. Names in the ancient world are not simply names, they are descriptors, indicators of one’s character and nature. And Jacob’s name – literally means “heel” or “grasper” because he was the one who was grasping at Esau’s heel as they were being born. And he’d been grasping ever since – living by his wits, trusting no one, and proving himself untrustworthy over and over again. So when the stranger asks him his name, he is really asking him to confess – confess who he really is – confess his failures, his shifty deals, his compromised integrity, his shoddy character, his selfish misuse of his life and the lives of others all to get what he wants regardless of the cost. It is time for Jacob to come clean; time for him to confess who he really is – that he is a cheat and a scoundrel.

But once he does, an extraordinary thing happens. God refuses to accept Jacob’s confession as the end of the story, refuses to allow his name to be all there is to him. And instead, God gives him a new name – Israel – which has been interpreted to mean “the one who wrestled with God and humans and prevailed.” And with this new name God then blesses Jacob and sends him limping into a new future, marked almost immediately by the arrival of his brother Esau, who runs toward him not to kill him but to embrace him and to welcome him home.

For Jacob, this encounter is something like the encounter he has just had at the Jabbok. And he says to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10). Jacob is a changed man – the young Jacob was a deceiver who took his brother’s blessing. Now he is the one who has wrestled with God and come to terms with who he is in God’s eyes. He could have sung, as the choir did earlier, “All is right that once was wrong; I’m finally home.” He can see God in the face of the one who was once his enemy, whom he fled so long ago in fear for his life.

Walter Bruggeman has commented that the healing and reconciling work of God happens in both vertical and horizontal directions.[i] The love of God alters our understanding of who God is and who we are; it changes our understanding of our core identity and causes us to realize finally that we are beloved children of God. And when that happens, something also changes in our relationships with other people. A new kind of love can flow through us. And the more we give ourselves to God the more we are able to perceive other people differently and value them differently.

One of the beliefs we have as Christians is, as Paul expressed in 2Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (vv.16-18). And we remember this every time we gather together at the communion table, as we do today. Like Jacob, we say aloud our sins and shortcomings – and we are given a new name – forgiven, beloved child of God. And then we participate together in the meal of fellowship that Jesus instituted to remind us God’s reconciling work in Christ and encourage us to go forth to become reconcilers. It doesn’t mean that henceforth everything will be perfect; it certainly wasn’t for Jacob, as we will see next week. But it does mean that the God of Second Chances and New Beginnings goes with us, and will offer us opportunities again and again to find renewal, refreshment and reconciliation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Walter Bruggeman, Genesis, 1982, 272.

Sermon: The Common Good

The Common Good
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 8, 2014
1Corinthians 12:3b-13, Acts 2:1-21

The story of what happened on the Day of Pentecost is a favorite one of the church. It is the oldest of Christian holy days, and is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of the church. As JoBeth read the story from Acts, the disciples had been waiting as Jesus instructed them for the coming of the Holy Spirit, but they really didn’t know what that meant but then, suddenly, they found out what they were waiting for in a powerful way. The Holy Spirit of God blew through the room, enlivening and enlightening everyone there. Those who’d been cowardly were suddenly brave; those who were afraid to speak, began to preach; those who were afraid of strangers began to greet them as if they were long lost friends. It was a life-changing experience, making some of them so different in their behavior than they were before, that outside observers simply thought they were drunk. But it wasn’t something so simple as alcohol. Peter the fisherman, who addressed the crowd to explain what had happened, would never be the same again; he’d never go back to his nets, to his old way of life. Because of what happened that day, his feet were set on a different path.

The celebration of that life-changing day of Pentecost divides our church year into two parts, the first half focused on the life of Jesus, the second half focused on life in the Spirit. Since Advent we have recalled stories of Jesus’ birth, manifestation of his identity, his ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. And now, we embark on a new journey, a journey of Christian life and practice under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts goes on to tell us what early experiments in Christian community looked like. And Paul’s letters are windows into early Christian communities throughout Asia Minor that were struggling to define what this new life meant amid the old life that they were so used to. In all of these writings, the Holy Spirit of God is the driving, motivating force, equipping persons in new and exciting ways for the new lives they had embraced in Christ. People were leading, teaching, preaching, prophesying, offering hospitality, visiting the sick. They were going places they’d never been and risking not only their reputations but their very lives in loyalty to the one in whom they had found freedom from fear, from sin and from death itself.
The Corinthians were a particularly difficult congregation. On the one hand, they embraced the gifts bestowed by God with enthusiasm. On the other hand, however, being human, they had begun to compare their gifts and some had found reason to think of themselves as part of the spiritual elite of the congregation. They thought they were better loved by and closer to God because of their particular gift.

So Paul has a job on his hands. How to encourage the different gifts within the community yet at the same time remind them that these gifts of which they are so proud and boastful, are, after all, gifts! Not their inborn talent, not their inalienable right or possession, not something achieved through their own merit, but free and gracious gifts from God, given to them for the common good, for the up-building of the community and not for the boosting of their individual egos. In their pride and excitement over their gifts, they’d lost sight of the giver.

Paul reminds them of the overarching unity in their diversity that they were ignoring or had conveniently forgotten. Their variety of gifts had all been given by the same spirit to share with each other through belief in God revealed in the person of Jesus. It was time for them to go back to square one, and square one is unity of faith in Christ, the one who is the measure by which genuine activity of the Spirit can be identified. As far as the Spirit is concerned, there is no room for categories or hierarchies that divide one group or one person from another, or causes anyone to think he or she is better, more privileged, or more greatly loved by God than another. Instead, the Spirit of God calls diverse people into community together despite, and maybe because of, their differences.

Although we know this to be truth, that doesn’t make it any easier to achieve or to maintain. We know that Christ calls us to unity; but our human tendency is to separate or rank ourselves on the basis of our differences and preferences for individual priorities and interests. However, as we noted last week, unity matters to God. Remember that according to John’s gospel, it is what Jesus preached about on his last night with his disciples. “Father, I pray that they can be one,” Jesus said. He didn’t pray for their health, or their happiness, their success or their safety, but for their unity.

Not that he meant they should be identical – all the same, with the same thoughts, same gifts, same ways of doing things, same ideas and interests. But that they should be unified in their trust and faith in God as they knew and understood God in Christ, and their love for one another and their community of faith. That’s what the Corinthians had forgotten.

Paul uses the metaphor of the body to explain their unity in diversity. This metaphor would have been quite familiar to the Corinthians. In fact, in classical writings it was often used for the hierarchy of society, for the purpose, however, of supporting the interests of the upper classes. The upper class political writers transferred the truth of the foot’s subordination to the head, to the social body composed of masters and slaves, men and women, rich and poor, the well-born and the peasant. If the Corinthians had not been listening closely as Paul’s letter was read to them, they might have been lulled into thinking Paul was advocating a way to manage the less gifted in the church by making them feel needed but kept in their place by convincing them that they are merely the feet.

But that is not what Paul does. First of all, in the body of Christ, Christ is the head of the body, with all others subordinate to him. All the other bodily parts, although very different one from the other, are of equal honor. For the good of the body, hands aren’t feet and ears aren’t eyes, but they share the work of the body, and one part is not more important than the other. They are interconnected and interdependent on one another, not in competition, because they all receive life and growth from the same Holy Spirit. Paul’s language is the language of friendship, dependence, and cooperation, not of hierarchy, individualism, or domination.

Thus, every gift, service, or activity and every person is equally important, all manifesting the one Spirit through which each is empowered for service for the common good. All of us have spiritual gifts and all rightfully can expect to have these gifts put to use in the community. Gifts are not reserved to a privileged few, but are given to all.

Have you ever wondered about your gifts? Have you ever been guilty of thinking that you have no needed or useful gifts? Do you ever look around at others and think, “I could never do that! I’m just not very talented.” There are a couple of mistakes in that kind of thinking: First mistake: comparing yourself to someone else! Always remember that you are a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God, so comparison does not apply! Second mistake: thinking you’re not good enough! The writer Marianne Williamson has written “You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.” I would say actually, your playing small does not serve God or God’s people.

I think we can rightly identify as gifts of the Spirit any aptitudes or interests we have that are informed by and energized by the Holy Spirit for the greater good, those skills and abilities which are means through which God is a work with grace and mercy for the good of all. So each of us here is gifted insofar as God’s grace and power reorient us away from ourselves and our own interests, away from our fears about our supposed inadequacies, to become agents of God’s love.

Last Thursday evening I attended a meeting of our district’s strategic growth team. Part of the meeting was devoted to small congregations, to hear about their gifts for ministry. What they were doing to make a difference for others and how they were attentive to the needs of their community and one another. Phil Schroeder who is the Conference director of church Development commented that the danger to small churches comes from within, when small churches think they don’t matter or that they can’t do anything because they are only a few people. The truth is, he said, small churches can do great things.
And certainly that is true of our church. Each of you is so willing to share the gifts God has given you, and because of your sharing we make a difference in our little corner of God’s kingdom. We know we can change things for the better in both large and small ways through the sharing of our gifts.

In this congregation we those who teach, sing, visit the sick, send cards and notes, make sandwiches or deliver them, work on church inventories until their eyes cross, greet visitors, pay bills, check to see that the lights are out and the doors are locked. We have others who are good listeners, encouragers, and organizers. And still others who are examples of courage, patience, kindness, endurance, gentleness, grace, and love. The list of gifts that you possess goes on and one, and you express your love for God, God’s people and the church in sharing them.
When I first decided to go seminary people would ask me what do you want to do? And all I knew to say is that I felt that somewhere there was a place that needed a pastor, and I could go there and do what I was called to do and each person there would also do what he or she had been called by God to do, and by working together, sharing our gifts, we would be the church. Oconee Street is such a place.

The Spirit of God is a work in each one of us and has given different gifts to each. So claim them! But more than that, these gifts should not only be identified, claimed, and celebrated, but put to use for the building up of God’s kingdom because they are given to us by the Spirit, not to create division, but unity, for together we are the church, the community of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.