Create in Me a Clean Heart

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February 14, 2018 Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. These words from Psalm 51 this evening should sound familiar. It is one of the songs we quite often use for our offering. We’ll have the opportunity to sing it in just a little while.

Lent is a time for us to return to God. A time for us to repent of our sins and to pray that God creates in us a clean heart. Ash Wednesday is our entrance into this sacred season of the church year. It is a chance for us to re-center our lives and hopefully create new habits that we will carry into the season of Easter. However, we are human, and often we fall short. It is a good thing that Lent comes around every year to keep reminding us of the love that comes to us from our grace-filled God.

The gospel text from Matthew is one that has been used quite regularly on Ash Wednesday since the Medieval Ages. It points towards the disciplines that we are called to during these next forty days. First, we are called to Almsgiving. How are we being charitable in our lives and giving to those that are not as fortunate as we are? One way that we have chosen to do so as a community this Lent is to give to the Backpack Blessings program that assists families with meals for the weekend. Our Wednesday offerings will go to support ELCA World Hunger.

Prayer is the next discipline that Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount. Living a life that is centered in prayer is one that will strengthen our relationship with God. It is here that Jesus teaches us how to pray, what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. There is no right way or wrong way to pray. God’s heart is already open to us, Jesus would like us to open our heart to God.

Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days right after he was baptized. Fasting is the third discipline. We too can fast. Lent has been known to be a time that many choose to give something up. A time to give up chocolate, sugar, pop, beer, or you fill in the blank. What if we were willing to go much deeper than that. Pope Francis made these suggestions this year for fasting:

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

These disciplines that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount are ones that have the possibility to bring us into a much closer relationship with God.

It is through our faith that we encounter Jesus Christ and the saving grace that is bestowed freely. By almsgiving, prayer, and fasting we are given a way to relate to Jesus. It is here that we repent to God and ask that God create in us clean hearts. Hearts that reveal where our treasures lie. A treasure that is filled with love and compassion for God and our sisters and brothers in humanity.

Let us pray. Loving God, we repent this evening. We seek out clean hearts so that we may be your sign of love and compassion in this world. Be with us in these next forty days as we walk towards your cross and the promise of a resurrected life. Amen.

 

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To What are We Listening?

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February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

Who remembers playing telephone when you were younger?

Perhaps, you weren’t that young when you played it the last time. I have participated in playing telephone during leadership retreats. I have had the confirmation students play it before. It is a great exercise to determine who is really listening to the message that is being shared. It is a great game that creates laughs because the message that gets to the end of the line is almost never the same message that started the process. There are many factors that affect the transmission of the message. We are affected by the noise around us and the many distractions that vie for our time. The message can also be very different depending upon the source.

In the commotion of our lives and the constant clatter of noise that occurs in our society, we are reminded that God has sent Jesus and it is in Jesus that we are called to listen.

Jesus comes bearing a message of good news in a time of uncertainty. There is upheaval in Israel and concern for the occupation by the Romans. Jesus Christ is the good news. Born incarnate in a world that needs a sign of hope. A sign of hope that darkness will not vanquish the light. A sign of hope that the light will illuminate even the darkest corner.

It is on the mountain that Peter, James, and John are caught by surprise. They are in awe of the sights and sounds. Jesus is transfigured, or changed, right before them. They then encounter Moses and Elijah. Peter is so caught up in the whole event that he wants to stay on that mountain top. It is a glimpse of things to come, yet there is still much to be accomplished in Jesus’ ministry in his earthly life.

Peter is fooled into the temptation that everything has been accomplished. There is nothing more to do. His concern for the disciples that did not come up the mountain does not even exist. He is so eager to set up shop and stay here for eternity. He is listening to his own inner desire to live in the present moment and is not even contemplating the things to come.

Can you think of those moments in your life that you thought you had reached the top of the mountain and did not want to look down? Like Peter, it would have been nice to just build a dwelling and stay there for all of eternity. We have so many voices coming at us today that it is hard to decipher to what or to whom we should be listening. We are surrounded by the media (print, television, social) as well as very vocal individuals that want to make sure their voices are heard. Some of these voices are valid and others we have to sift through.

Advice maybe coming from those around us, however, we often want to do things our way. We fail to listen to those in our lives that may actually have some words of wisdom to share. There are two experiences I can point to in life when you do truly feel like you are on top of the mountain. Life could not get any better at that moment.

One instance is on your wedding day. It is something that you have been preparing for and the excitement builds up until the very day of the ceremony. Standing in front of the officiant and hearing the words that you are now married empowers you with the notion that you can conquer the world. That is, until you take off the rose-colored glasses. As those of us that are married can attest, marriage is not easy. It requires work. We do not stay up on that mountain top. Sure you may, for a short period of time. During the honeymoon period. Then life comes at you full blast and you must learn to listen to one another and build upon the foundation of your relationship.

The birth of a child can also be one of those times that you think you have reached the mountain top. I was present for the birth, by cesarean section, of both of our children. I recall having the same emotions each time. After a little scare during labor, seeing Emali being born healthy and full of life put me on top of the world. I made sure to hand out cigars, both real and bubblegum. The same emotions ran through me 18 months later when Kiefer was born. Let me tell you, babies remind you how real life is much sooner than coming off from the honeymoon! Then they become teenagers before you know it!

If we could have just went back up to that mountain top and stayed there.

Peter wants to stay on the mountain top as well. While a little unnerving to see Moses and Elijah at first, it is also pretty awesome. A glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that will come down to us.

Jesus does not let him stay. This glimpse that he has seen has forever changed him as well. While Jesus was being transfigured, I am sure that Peter started to experience a transformation in his own heart and mind once he fully got to understand the occasion.

We hear the voice from the cloud say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” A beautiful book end to our time after Epiphany. We first heard the voice from the cloud when Jesus was baptized, and once again it guides and instructs us to listen to Jesus.

It is in the listening that the disciples will continue walking with Jesus. In the listening they will begin to sense where their ministries will lead after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected three days later. The voice of the Trinity will not leave them. It is forever present and they must still their minds and hearts to listen to where they are being called in their ministry and begin fulfilling the great commission.

Jesus does not let us stay on that mountain either. The voice coming from the clouds to listen to Jesus is the same for us. It is a promise that God will be with us. What a reassuring fact as we prepare to enter the season of Lent. A season of repentance and turning back towards God.

We are called to come down from the mountain top and be the hands and feet of God in our world today. We come down to the valleys to walk with our brothers and sisters that need help.  We come down to be a voice for those whose voices are not being heard. When we come down, we must listen. When we listen, we must do it with our whole heart, mind, and soul. We must listen to our sisters and brothers that have been affected by racism. We must listen to our sisters and brothers that are dreamers and grew up with us. There are so many people that we can listen to. It is in these conversations that we can hear Jesus speaking. God is present among us, especially where we fail to look.

Igor Stravinsky said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Part of being in relationship with others is listening. Actually, we should be listening much more than we choose to open our mouths. We find God in our relationships when we are open to the Spirit moving in and among us as we listen. The love that God shows for us through Jesus is a love that can grow exponentially through our relationship with others.

God not only loves us enough to send Jesus to bear the cross with unending love, but God loves us so much to listen as well. To listen to our struggles and challenges. To listen to our celebrations of joy. To listen to all that we raise up in our prayers and even in our anger. It is in that love that grace abounds.

Let us pray. Transforming God, you call us to listen. May we hear in your words, a prophetic message of love that transforms all of your children. May your call to listen provide the opportunity to open hearts and minds. May we listen more and be slow to judgement. May you continue to be the light that shines within us. Amen.

 

A Review: A Course in Christian Mysticism by Thomas Merton, edited by Jon M. Sweeney

Thanks to Englewood Book Review for the advance copy and publishing this review.

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If you have never had the pleasure of visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I would recommend you take the time to do so. My visit to Gethsemani several years ago was one of my first true encounters with the work of Thomas Merton. Staying for a week at the Abbey allows one to hear Merton’s lectures during meal time. His voice coming through the speakers with an air of authority yet a playfulness that exudes an openness.

Jon Sweeney has done a wonderful job of compiling and editing some of Merton’s lectures into this thorough teaching on the early Christian mystics, providing the foundation for our practices that we have this present day. In this century, the interest in mysticism and spirituality has been on the rise as people are looking for deeper connections with God. Sweeney, bringing the lectures of Merton to life for all to easily access, provides a basis for an introduction to Christian mysticism while allowing the reader to make connections to the present.

Among his many jobs over the years at Gethsemani, Merton was a teacher and took pleasure in instructing novices and the other young monastics. These lectures came out of the need that he saw for reconnecting with the traditions of the early church. The lessons or lectures began in 1961. Merton wrote in his journal, “We have no memory. . .. The loss of tradition is an important factor in the loss of contemplation.” This is surely one reason why he wanted to deliver lectures on these topics to the young monastics (from prologue, xiii). Living in a community is not always easy, and it is through the eyes of Merton that the young monastics were encouraged to connect with the early Christian mystics and find their place in it all.

Thomas Merton, himself, is one of the leading Christian mystics of the last century. From his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain to his books on Zen and the connection Christianity has with Buddhism, Merton brings a well deep in mysticism that has not quite been seen to the same degree since his early death in 1968.

In his first lecture, he sets out the aim for the course and the importance of connecting with one’s tradition. As he witnessed the young monastics moving away from their knowledge of the tradition, we too can see that same loss today. Many Protestant churches express an uneasiness when it comes to connecting with the early mystical traditions of the early church fathers and mothers. The mystery of the church has lost its intrigue for many and they want to be told specifically what to think, say, and do. Merton acknowledged this concern within the Catholic church throughout his life and desired for people to seek out the mystical traditions that helped shape and form the early church. He says in the first lecture, “We must become fully impregnated in our mystical tradition. The mystical tradition of the Church is a collective memory and experience of Christ living and present within her” (pg. 10).

As Merton journey’s back to the first mystics, his writing can become a bit heady if you do not have a basic understanding of Christian history. He does a fairly good job at trying to explain himself, yet one may have to slow down a little to fully take it all in. The early martyrs and Gnostics, specifically Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, all have a place within the foundation of Christian Mysticism and while some of their practices and beliefs may have been corrected overtime, their influences are still felt to this day. In Martyrdom, Merton emphasizes that it helps one die to their own selves as they commit themselves to the way of Jesus Christ.

He points to many of these early martyrs and Gnostics as the source of Christian mystical thought and the beginning of true contemplation as we have come to know it today. He goes into a deeper discussion on the Cappadocian Fathers. He makes a connection with gnosis and the first thoughts of contemplation as he speaks of St. Ignatius.  The ascent to God is viewed through the sharing of the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa and many of the mystics throughout the centuries have taken aspects of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation on mysticism and the ascent of the soul to abide in God.

Merton also brings Evagrius Pontus into the discussion as “one of the most important, the least known, the most neglected, and the most controversial of Christian mystics” (pg. 57).  Merton continues his journey through time as he teaches upon St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and many more.

These in-depth lectures over the course of three years are brought to life through the editing of Sweeney, so that the reader can feel as though they are right in the room with Merton instructing them and leading the discussion. The addition to pointing out additional resources and a study guide makes this a wonderful resource for group discussion. This is not the first time that these lectures have been in print, however, Sweeney edits them all into one collection and with his additions, he has created a resource that should be a part of anyone’s collection that is interested in learning more about Christian mysticism.

Called to Serve

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February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Preparing a meal for over 100 people weekly can be a challenge. That challenge is multiplied when your ingredients are dependent upon what the local food warehouse receives for the week. Imagine getting, 10 lbs of leeks. Ever tried leek soup? It was interesting. Or 20 lbs of onions. I learned how to make a pretty good french onion soup. Sometimes, you never know where a calling is going to lead you.

The calling to run the Wednesday Community Lunch at the Presbyterian church during my last call was part out of necessity, since my calling as a pastor was part time, and part because I could pass the food safety manager certification. However, I would not trade that time for anything. I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people and serve those in the community that truly needed a hot meal and especially a friendly conversation.

It is great that Jesus was able to serve others throughout his ministry. How are we expected to live up to those same expectations? How are we suppose to make time for helping others when we stay so busy? Of course I am being a little facetious. It is true though that we want to make sure that everything in our own little corner of the world is taken care of first. I may be able to help, but let me make sure that all the needs of my family and self are taken care of first. I may be able to support such and such cause, but let me make sure that I have money left at the end of the month. These are struggles that most of us have had at one time or another.

When we insulate ourselves from the world around us, then we are missing out on the opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ working in the world to bring healing and reconciliation. We can do this at all levels of our society, from the individual, to the household, to our greater communities, and beyond. Insulating ourselves from others can create a paranoia of the other. It is where fear is born.

We witnessed that fear last week in the story of the man with the unclean spirit. Again this morning, as the gospel of Mark continues, Jesus continues to heal those that are sick or possessed with demons. It starts when they arrive at the home of Simon and Andrew and Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. There is an urgency to their request for Jesus to go and be by her side and bring her healing as well.

After a while, Jesus had to start feeling like a vending machine. People coming to him nonstop to heal whatever ailed them. It may have appeared that Jesus was inundated with request upon request for healing, yet he continued to cure many. It was tiring work, yet work that carried out his calling to share the grace and love of God. In the healing, it reveals God in the brokenness and pain. God in the midst of the people bringing hope and compassion where it had been lost.

However, Jesus cannot stay in the same place. He has a mission that he has been called to and that requires walking many miles. There are others that must be healed. There are parables to share through his teaching and preaching. First, as we witness many times in the gospels, Jesus must step away to rest. While he is divine, he is also human and his body requires rest and care just as ours. Stepping away to a deserted place also provides him the opportunity to pray and be renewed for the journey ahead.

In the healing that occurs, we witness Jesus serving. It was for this that Jesus came into the world. Later in his gospel, Mark reveals that, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The serving begins as soon as Jesus’ ministry is underway. From the healing of the man with the unclean spirit, to many and varied healings in this mornings gospel. It is in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law that we witness God’s grace and the mother-in-law’s faith played out. This is a tender moment that Jesus has with Simon’s mother-in-law. He reached out and took her hand. To hold her hand in his, in her sickness, was a visible sign of love and compassion that Jesus will continue to show through his ministry. It is a love that knows no boundaries and fears nothing that comes in its way. The fever that she has breaks and he raises her up to new health.

And what does she do? She gets up and begins to serve those in the household. Now, this is not a call for women to be the ones that serve in the household. This passage has been wrongly used in the past to attempt to bolster this very idea. However, it is a reflection of the calling that Simon’s mother-in-law has in her own life. A reflection that shows her thankfulness to Jesus for bringing her healing. In the way that Jesus serves others, she is able to reflect this in her own household for those that she loves and cares for. She moves beyond herself and opens her heart up to everyone that is in her presence.

In Jesus’ serving, he lays the foundation for our calling in the world to be with one another. Not to insulate ourselves, but to surround ourselves with the beauty of humanity that comes in all shades, shapes, genders, orientations, and abilities. What does it mean for us to serve as Simon’s mother-in-law did? What are we doing to serve those in need, just as Jesus did?

Every time that we reach out with love and compassion to the outcasts and those that the greater society has brushed aside, we bring Christ to them. Every time we welcome MCREST into our church, we live out the calling that God has placed upon our hearts. Every time we give a Christmas bag or bike to someone in need, we are God’s hands in the world. Every time we welcome visitors we are given the opportunity to proclaim the Good News and love as Jesus loved. Our faith and thankfulness for the gifts that God has given us are made visible in our actions when we reach out with love instead of ridicule and disdain. Jesus came into the world to show us the way of love and to remind us that God is present with us.

Let us pray. Serving God, you came to walk this earth showing a love and compassion like no other. While we may stumble and fall, continue to be that reminder for us that you are always present and working through us when we love in return. Amen.

 

A Review: Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson

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I am honestly not sure where to start, therefore this will probably become more of a recommendation than it is a review. Dyson uses the format of a worship service to present a flowing oratory on the current state of race relations in America today. I honestly, believe that as a white heterosexual male my response is not worthy. What I need to be doing, as well as the rest of white America, is to be listening. Listening to our brothers and sisters that have walked the road that is foreign to our own upbringing.

I do not know what it is like to be a black man in America, and I could never truly find out. I have been pulled over twice for speeding and not once have I received a ticket. I did not pull out a pour me story or try to make excuses. Both times, my son was in the car with me. I understand how much different the outcomes of those situations could have been if I were a black man in America.

Unfortunately, that understanding falls on many deaf hears throughout the country. While God has created us equal, humanity has decided to divide. This is a sermon to wake up those to the experience of black America. I will never fully understand my brothers and sisters experiences, but I know that I can walk with them and listen. I can stand beside and with them, and do better.

This is a book that should be required reading in schools. Of all of the books that I have read in the past year, this rises to the top of the list.