Monday, December 17, 2007

A Longing for God

I put up a tree Saturday. I love the fresh smell of semi live trees. I usually cut my own but due to time constraints I picked one up from the Lions Club lot. It is already dropping needles at a rapid rate. Anyway, I am excited to celebrate Christmas at home this year with all four of my kids. You never know when the next Christmas will find us all together.
I got thinking about what HOME means for people. The secular Christmas songs all talk about being "home for Christmas." They talk of a longing for a time when you were comfortable and safe "at Home." Usually the longing is filled with nostalgia , which Spaulding Gray calls "a time in the past that never was." The Advent song we sing at 8:30Am goes "We have a Longing in our heart, O Lord..for comfort, for healing, for wholeness--hear our pray."This is a longing for a home with God.
Whoever said "you can't go home again" is on target. We cannot go back home because we have changed and our relationship to the past can never be replicated. Christams tugs at us because it has always symbolized familiar gatherings and full sanctuary's and familiar music and timeless tales. Since all these things get repeated every year--and everyone participates in the rituals-- the message of nostaliga and homecoming evolks an idealistic image of how our family connectedness should be like.
The question of the week is What is home for you?

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Medium and the Message

Americans are so accustomed to carefully packaged announcements. We expect political leaders to spin the news to fit their agenda. Corporate leaders get out in front of the news in order to make even disappointing business results sound positive. Did you hear the President of Freddie Mac justify the revelation that his company, which was established to provide mortage loan liquidity to American homeowners by maintaining strict loan standards, had engaged in 100% financing (previous policy was 20% down)? He said, "if we didn't go along with the flow we would have lost market share." In other words, everyone else was doing it and we would be losing out of business if we didn't throw our values and government charter out the window?

Even churches have carefully packaged approaches to reaching new people. Some market a hot product "presenting God's uncompromising truth in an uncompromsing manner." Others attempt to lure non believers with "gospel lite." As I read the Christmas season texts you find many difference types of messages and a diverse number of messangers. We have celestial angels and lowly shepherds, fiery preachers (John the Baptist) and quiet and a patient and faithful father (Joseph). Each gives testimony to what god is doing in sending Jesus into the world. Each is amazed that god would do such a thing and shocked how god would do it.

This weeks message is from Matthew 11. John the Baptist is in jail. He is facing certain execution for his condemnations of the Emperors marital infidelities and rapacious policies. He has heard from his supporters that the man he baptized and prophecized about (Jesus) is doing amazing things. He asks the question everyone wants to know the answer to: Are you (Jesus) the one who was promised or should we wait for another?"

It is interesting that Jesus never testifies to his special place in God's revelation. He never says i am the one. He lets his works testify to his Messiahship. "The Lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the blind see, the dead are raised."
As contemporary believers look at Jesus in our own faith journey we must answer the same question. Is Jesus the one? Those that have come to believe and trust in Jesus have another responsiblity: to show with our lives that he is the Lord.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Road to Bethlehem

In churches that try to follow the "church year" this coming Sunday marks the beginning. 4 weeks of Advent and then Christmas. Strict liturgical traditions, Lutherans for example, don't let anyone sing the Christmas carols until Christmas eve. The days preceding Christmas eve are used to read the Old and New Testament prophecies concerning Jesus. Christians are taught to soberly prepare themsevles to recieve the Christ child in our hearts.
As a pastor I have tended to split the difference. To those "I love Christmas " folks I relent and introduce a couple Christmas carols starting in the second week of Advent. I think the Christams carols are the best songs in the hymnbook. People love them and sing them enthusiastically and the music is good (for classical music lovers, check out the famous composers listed on the tops of the carols)
There is no question that once you have been to Bethlehem it is hard to get back on the road again to do it all over. Advent is out of step with the prevailing mood most of us find ourselves during December. People want to get in the good and postive mood that Christmas brings. Parties, plays, gift exchanging, Christmas bonuses, family gatherings---all these things make Christmas in America a special time. It seems strnage then to enter the church in early December and listen to the scripture readings for the season talk about the predicted destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Psalms cry out in Lament "How long O Lord must we wait." Then John the Baptist brings his fire and brimstone message as he "prepares the Way of the Lord."
I like the Advent readings although I much prefer the carols to the minor keys of Advent hymns. I need to be reminded that Jesus came to change our world. He brings a message of nonviolence and forgiveness to a world that seems always to love war. I watched the movie about the Christmas one day truce in World War I and cried. How can you go back to hating and killing someone who shares your love of Christ and shares a meal and a worship service together.
The challenge of Advent is to examine our lives. We are to treat every person with dignity and to respect every person as a child of God. I wonder if the hectic schedules and the shopping demands serve to distract us from even thinking about what Jesus brith and life means for us and our world.
There is a group called "buy nothing for Christmas" that advertises their message of simplifying the season by showing a classic painting of Jesus. Next to the picture is a question: Where did I say that you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday?
I guess I just don't want to put up any trees or enter any malls until I have sat with the scriptures sung the plaintive Advent hymns for a while. The parties can wait. Maybe even the carols. There will still be plenty of time to celebrate.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Real gifts always come with a person attached

We are approaching the Thanksgiving weekend and that means a whole lot of things come to mind. Families get together to celebrate their connectedness. These gatherings are fun for many, a necessary burden for others, and a disaster for far too many. I am traveling to see family in New Jersey and this will be both fun and exhausting. I am thankful that our families get along reasonably enough to make it festive.

Thanksgiving weekend also marks the official beginning of the cultural and commercial holiday season. I would call it Christmas Season but that would overstate the important most Americans place on Jesus Christ. I lived in New Jersey for 15 years and never saw the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade live. I have heard that some of the balloons...Kermit, Goofy, Miss Piggy...are a little worn out looking. They look the way shopper look when Christmas Day arrives. I will give you the theme of news coverage of this years shopping season..."fearful American consumer cuts down on holiday spending." Is it really bad if we spend less?

Gratitude is at the very heart of our faith. Gratitude is a fundamental Christian emotion. Theologians have always told us it is the basic human response to the goodness and mercy of God's grace. At the heart of Christian experience and teaching is not guilt (sorry pre-Vatican II Catholics out there) , nor obligation (as our grandparents taught) but gratitude--pure and simple. Everything we have is a gift from God. We need to be forever thankful and continuously praise God with all our heart, mind and soul.

Sunday's lesson is one of my favorites in Luke. It is Luke 17:11-19 the story of Jesus healing 10 Lepers and then instructing them (as was religious custom) to go to the priest and receive the ceremonial cleansing. The Ten were healed and set off to do their "religious obligation" but then one, a Samaritan, immediately turned around and headed back to thank Jesus. Jesus congratulated the man saying, "Your faith has made you well." Then he asked the man, "where are the other nine?"

My immediate reaction reading this again was that "hey, at least one person said thank you."
In a culture where we look out for number one and are so overly concerned about our personal well being ingratitude is the norm. I probably only send one out of 10 people who do above and beyond service to the church a thank you note. I usually get the same response--"you note was so thoughtful." I take this to mean, "Wow, for once somebody actually noticed my effort and said thank you." One way I thank those people who have mentored me and guided me is by telling sermon stories about their wisdom and faith. You can see that my college professors and the neighboring pastors from my first pastorate were very generous to me with their time.

I believe that a spirit of gratitude is essential for our mental and spiritual well being. I would rephrase Jesus' statement, "You faith has made you well," this way.: "Your gratitude has healed and saved you." Gratitude is a worldview, a way of looking at and living life. The grateful person who wrote Psalm 23 says, "my cup runneth over." Gratitude is more then just saying thank you. Gratitude is looking at the world, and our place in it, and recognizing that God has given you the power to make your life more enjoyable. Being grateful does not change the facts(The person in the 23rd Psalm was going through the valley of the shadow of death) but it sure does help you face the future with the firm expectation that better days are ahead.

On Sunday morning I plan on sharing some ways we can encourage a greater sense of gratitude in our every day life. I have an Oprah suggestion (she is the great church lady of America) and a couple others (one by Fred Rogers.."Oh I miss him.")
I am interested in what things you have found helpful in encouraging this life affirming spirit of gratitude.

I would also like some funny family thanksgiving dinner stories.

Finally, I am sincerely grateful for you folks who read this and comment. I do find the comments helpful in the thought process.

Peace and joy, James Brassard

Monday, November 5, 2007

Giving and Gratitude

It is stewardship time. We did the Time and Talent Survey last week. The response was good and since the areas of service were expanded (including new things people might actually want to do!) we might have some new energy to assist the long time volunteers.
In the next few weeks we will talk about the giving of money. I used to dread this annual event. Who likes to get people to give? I now kind of like talking about giving. Here is my evolution. Several years ago my Stewardship committee was frustrated. The standard stewardship drive was not working. People were giving the same (low) amount regardless of what was said in worship. So out of desperation we tried another approach. The approach was to simply share the bibles teachings on giving. Here is what I learned.
1. The bible talks about giving as a response to God's generosity. In I Corinthians 16:2 Paul tells us to make giving a regular part of our spiritual disciplines. "On the first day of the week, each of you is to put aside money based on what you that you can give it during collection of offerings." Paul took legalism and obligation out of the law. Christians worship and give in joyful response to God's loving offering in Jesus Christ--not because it is a requirement set down way back during the Exodus. Paul simplified Christian charity:
We give proportionally based on what we earn.
We do it regularly to meet needs.
We give it joyfully.

The Old Testament has a strict standard of giving. The first 1/10th was expected to be given to the Priests at harvest time and special appeals were made in addition to that tithe. The New Testament talks about giving based on ability. The concept of percentage or proportional giving was established. People have different income levels and different responsibilities. If everyone gave the same dollar amount this would be unfair because incomes vary widely. Unfortunately in America, the most generous are the poorest. People with incomes under $25,000 give 8% of income but people over $100,000 give less then 2%. Something is wrong here. Part of the problems is that we spend everything we make and our expectations for what we "need" to live rises with our incomes. The Methodist founder Wesley used to say save 10% and give 10% (my personal rule) and live off the rest. But Wesley was frugal and as his income rose (he sold lots of books) he lived at the same level and gave away more each year. Rick Warren makes so much on "The Purpose Driven Life" book sales that he gives away 90% of his royalties. He simply doesn't need the money.
When your income reaches the level of Maryland residents (did you see that Maryland now has the highest per person income in the nation) truly giving 5% or 10% of your income means writing checks that add up to real money. Recently Andrea and i figured that if we didn't tithe we could easily afford this lakeside home we stayed at on our summer vacation.

2. We need to learn to be contend with our place in life. In other words, money shouldn't change who we are and what we believe. Philippians 4:11 "I have learned to be content with whatever I have."

The issue of contentment opens a whole can of worms. Are we spiritually grounded so that we don't judge our happiness based on comparisons with other people? If God has graciously overwhelmed us with more then we could ever need, why are people so unhappy and so worried about the economy?
I believe that if we were growing spiritually and we were connected with people who affirmed our values and shared our commitments, we wouldn't worry about having more and better things. I happen to hate spending money on stuff for myself but love sending checks to organizations I feel are doing good work. I seldom eat dinner out because it takes too much time and it reduces the amount of money I can use better elsewhere. My level of contentment has far less to do with money and much more to do if I think I am being an effect pastor and if I am doing a competent job as a father and husband.

What factors have to do with your level of contentment?

I need some help on this topic for Nov 18th.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Zacchaeus: Luke 19:1-10

The Zacchaeus story has traditionally been seen as a story of conversion in which Jesus brings salvation to a greedy sinner. The narrator sets Zacchaeus up as a rich tax collector. Everyone hates taxes. If the collector is taking an extra cut to enrich himself that makes him a perfect target to public derision. He was also a collaborator with the Roman occupation so that makes him an even more detested figure. Oh, there is more. Remember the song "Short people have no reason." This is the only story in the new testament where someones physical attributes are described. Why is that? As a kid I liked this story because I felt I often missed out seeing things because I was small. Oh, yeah, I loved climbing trees.

Two questions jump out on me? Why did Zacchaeus come out to hear Jesus in the first place? Was he on a spiritual quest? Did he see a hole on his existance that money and possessions couldn't fill? Although we like to psychologize the bible, this is not in the text. But the question lingers. Luke likes to have people from the margins of society encounter Jesus and be transformed. Luke usually is pretty hard to rich people--why is so favorable to Zacchaeus? Just two chapter earlier we had the rich man in hell seeking the poor and destitute Lazarus to give him a drink of water and to go warn his greedy brothers. The rich mans request gets ignored.

The second question is what motivated his restitution? Jewish law required people who repented of their sins to correct the situation and to repay ill gotten gains. Zacchaeus did this but went beyond what was expected. Why? Is it the good kind of guilt. You feel bad and want to set things right so do it generously? How often do charity campaigns show pictures of starving and ill clothed children to "guilt" the rich western audience to cut loose with a $15 monthly check to make them feel less guilty for their good fortune. But that sort of giving doesn't change people the way Zacchaeus was changed.

If i had a church of mostly "seekers" I might attempt to approach the text was asking the existential question poses by the story itself. Methodist bishop Geroge Thompson posed it well in a famous sermon: "Have you ever felt you were there with Zacchaeus up a tree, out on a limb, isolated from faith family that gave you birth, disturbed by the moral contradictions within your won conscience?"

I don't know. The familiar stories are hard to cover without boring people. I used to say, "What else can you say about the Prodigal Son?
I could use some creative help.

I just wish I had read Gary's comments last week about wildnerness before finishing the sermon. You only thanks God after the journey through the wilderness.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mourning and meekness

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

The deeper I get into the Beatitudes the more radical they seem. Jesus is celebrating people who are downtrodden and overwhelmed by circumstances yet are happy and centered. He calls the "loser" winners and say they are the ones who are "truly blessed."

This week I am working on mourning and meekness. How are they connected? First of all mourning is something everyone has to do in life. Jesus knew well the transitoriness of life and so did his followers. Life is uncertain even in our lifes sheltered by material certainty. Death no longer routinely comes in early age or in childbirth. Yet we still die and it upsets us. Jesus is affirming that those that mourn will be comforted and then find a new life filled with joy.

But we mourn more then just death. We mourn the loss of moblity (think of christopher "Superman" Reeves) after his crippling horse jumping injury. His time with his children after the injury became richer, his marriage stronger, and his life took on an even higher purpose: promoting spinal cord research. His taks in mourning was to look at < "Not what I have lost, but what life can I now build."

We mourn changes in our health, changes in relationships with friends and family members, changes in our dreams. We have to mourn loss before we can rechart our course. How often are we out of sorts and unable to just go about our routine because we are mourning loses. We can't just get over it. We have to mourn and become comforted before we can jump into life again.
I believe people mourn in different ways and at different rates. Unfortunately some people never give up on mourning and thus never get back out there for God to bless them again.

Meekness is also an unappreciated character trait. I will say Sunday that meekness is not weakness. Meekness is the ability to stand up to oppression and injustice without resorting to violence. I would love more moives like "Ghandhi" and the Martin Luther King fils to show how non-violent approaches to change have more lasting effect than violence imposed and enforced change. To be meek--meaning wise and steady--requires considerable trust in God. Meekness requires the other party to see your point of view and be willing to change.

I think mourning and meekness are connected because they are both internal attitudes that have to deal with external hardships. Both require trust in God's providentail care.

We will see. I could still use some help here.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Matthew 5:3

I really like Tom Wrights translation of this opening of the "blessed" people in the Sermon on the Mount.
"Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! The Kingdom of heaven is yours."

Wright gets it right about what Jesus is doing in his ministry. He is trying to turn the world upside down, to turn Israel upside down, to pour lavish blessings on all people who turn to him and accept the new thing he is doing.

There are two issues here.
One is: when do the promises of blessing come true?
Is it only in HEAVEN? This has been a common interpretation. The reward for being poor and having suffered lifes indignities is a safe and plentiful life in heaven. This was the gospel the white church preached to the black patient, god is good, you will have shoes to wear in heaven. In other words, this is your state in this with it!
Those that disliked this message had a cute phrase for it: "Christians are so heavenly oriented they are no earthly good." This interpretation also gets believers off the hook in trying to reverse the injustices in the world. If the reward is in heaven---why correct the way things are now? But I believe the Bible is quite clear that Jesus is beinging God news to the cpatives, the poor, the oppressed...right now!God's blessing are intended for everyone--not just the well to do.
I prefer a different understanding of heaven (once again I borrowed from Wright) that heaven is "God's space" where full reality exists, close by our ordinary "earthly reality" and interlocking with it. When we act as God's people we bring blessing upon ourselves and share it with others so they are blessed during their earthly life.
The Beatitutdes then show us how God intends this world to be---yet acknowledges the full reality won't be attained in our time. We are working with God (interlocking action) towards a time when all people know the blessed life. We won't fully reach it--but we can make considerable progress.
Each week in the Lord's prayer we ask for this: THY KINGDOM COME, THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IT IS (already is) IN HEAVEN.

The second issues is the audience. We know the poor need the basics of life. What about those of us who already have been materially blessed? Where is the good news and the great need for the "haves?"
The challenge Christianty has always faced was to make the gospel offer something to the people who already have been richly blessed. The Prosperity Gospel says that God wants to make you evern richer! If you live in beautiful surroundings and have a great marriage and good friends and meaningful work, can you really be considered "spiritually poor?" I could use some help here. I know that often people come to trust God and to open their hearts to a deeply spiritual reality when they fall off their comfortable perch and face hardship. Do we only know Christ when we are humbled and open to his help?

Thos two questions seem the most relevant for me. Give me some help?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

October 7: Blessed are the Peacemakers" Matthew 5:1-11

Here we go with community sermon writing. Climb on board. Each Wednesday we will have a new posting with the coming scripture lesson and some outlined idea. Please jump in and add your insights and examples where the gospel applies. Good illustrations are welcome!

How often have we heard someone who is dealing with bad news--job loss, death of a friend or spouse, a decision to take a new course in life---"I am at peace with it."
The statement usually means that one has accepted the situation and is no longer grieving the loss or fighting the situation they find themselves. It suggests that one is ready to move on to what is coming next in life.

What factors are required to be at peace?
1. Having a trust in God's unwavering presence and love. There is an old saying, "It's not what the future holds, but who holds the future." Individuals who have come to fully trust God and believe in god's love for them are able to get to a point where they can accept almost anything like brings because they know that God walks with them. You have to trust that God loves you and wants the best for you. If you believe in "God" but your image of god is one who is always punishing you for sins committed in the past (I find "nominal' American Catholics are big on this one) then peace is often more elusive.
2. Being at peace requires that you trust that whatever comes at you; "It will be okay."
You might say this is the same as trusting in god's unwavering presence and love. I think it has more to do with how you have been taught to face difficulty. This is more of a "track record" then a faith thing for me. My Father never worried and never paniced (I wish I could say the same) Early on my siblings and I always felt that with Dad around it will always work out OKAY. When my kids would get hurt or in trouble I always communicated to them " don't panic"--if you are still breathing we can and will take care of everything else.

I think you have to teach your children (and other close relationships) to work at being what we used to call a "Non anxious presence." Slow down. Survey the situation. Take care of immediate concerns. Pray. Get good counsel. Work your way through the problem. ...always trusting that it will be OKAY. You will survive to enjoy life again.
Some parents save their kids from having to work out their own problems and deal with the consequences of mistakes. It is hard to let them work things through when you can easily "fix things" for them. But remember---they will have to teach the next generation and they need to gain the confidence that will help them be at peace and be confident in their abilities.

These are personal matters related to "being at peace."
But it is not peace that jesus is directing us but to be peacemakers. Being a peacemaker is a much harder and more dangerous calling then to "be at peace with a situation."
The cost of being a peacemaker is high. Those that opposed this war by suggesting containment of Saddam (like we contained the Soviet Union in the cold War) or who doubted the wisdom of going to war were shouted down. Twice amputated war veterans even lost congressional seats because they questioned the tax cuts that were crammed down Congress throats as part of the post 9-11 trauma.
Peacemakers are always few and quiet because the onslaught of pro-war fever and the desire to get revenege is so strong when patriotism is stirred up.

We see in Iraq how many courageous Sunni and Shia leaders , including many clerics, are killed by terrorists groups whenever they seek to co-operate with the new governments and the American peacekeepering troops. Praise god for their courage. They try to be Peacemakers and are paying a high price.

Peacemakers have to get the conflicting parties to talk with each other. If you have ever tried to mediate a divorcing couple fighting over property and custody of children you know this is a thankless job. Both parties try to "triangulate" you and draw you into supporting "their side" of the dispute.

Nelson Mendela did remarkable work with the "truth and Reconcilation" councils in South Africa. Nelson had spent over 20 years in prison as a political prisoner. He witnessed first hand the brutality of the white minority. He knew that the oppressors need to acknowledge their brutal acts and to face the victims and to hear their stories. This is courageous work for everyone involved. But the truth sets us free.

Too often we ask in prayers "God give us." In being a peacemaker we are instead asking "God change us." Change our hearts. Cleanse us from bitterness. Enable us to see the conflict and the underlying causes from an opposite perspective.

I will leave you with something Jospeh Campbell, the renown teacher on Religious Myth.
"The greatest teaching in Christianity is love your enemies." This is what being a peacemaker requires.

I look forward to your comments.
Be a peacemaker.
James Brassard

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why a Sermon Blog?

After 23 years of preaching 50 new sermons a year I have covered almost every New Testament passage at least 5 times. Don't get me wrong, I love preaching and work very hard at it. Sometimes it is hard to find something in the biblical text that is relevant to everyone who comes to worship. Although it has been said that a preacher is not to say anything new--you are charged with enlightening the Word of God, not creating a new word--even making the text assessable and relevant is limited by my own insight.

When one person in a congregation is the sole interpreter of the Word of God in worship you tend to get a "generic interpretation." This generic interpretation comes from an effort to make the Word relevant to "everyone" in worship. Often times "my experience" connects with the needs and experiences of many people in worship. It is safe to say that it never connects with all the needs of people. My experience is limited and my broad reading and media viewing habits are limited to my interests and point of view. Although I make a serious effort to find illustrations and topics that will make the word come alive to people facing certain challenges in life, I certainly miss signficant issues and concerns because I either don't know about the issue or have no insights into how the Bible speaks to those needs.
This is where opening the interpretation process to other people can yield benefits to the whole church. You can help me--and thus help the congregation--expand our understanding of God's word to us today by sharing your interpretations of the text and just as importantly--to help identify topics and issues and experiences that I would otherwise overlook.

The Protestant Reformation tried to make everyone a readers and interprettor of the Bible. The Reormated mantra was "solo scriptura" meaning scripture alone as the pratical guide to all faith and Christian practice. We are supposed to be "reformed and always being reformed" based on the interpreation of the scriptures. Being an interpretor of the Bible is EVERYONES CALLING. This is not just the task of the preacher.
It is hoped that this blog which works three weeks ahead of the sermon--will incorporate some of your insights --and help you as an interpretor and reader of the word.

Let me know what you think.
Peace and joy, James Brassard

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Peacemaking and Jesus-October 7, 2007

When you read the Sermon on the Mount you find the most original and timeless insights into the real mind and message of Jesus. This is before the church gets to him and makes him a theological construct instead of a real breathing person.