I (h)ate Christmas Sermon 3

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
 Advent 2017.3: DesperATE to ImmediATE

I don’t know if this is true, but rumor had it, when I was a college student, federal regulations said you couldn’t call something a hamburger that wasn’t pure beef.

You couldn’t just google it back then.

We began to wonder when the campus dining hall would post the day’s menu with things like “beef patty on bun.”

What’s the difference between a “hamburger” and a “beef patty on bun”?

We weren’t sure, so we figured naming rights were somehow involved. You couldn’t call it a hamburger unless it was all hanburger. Sure, “beef patty on bun” implies some beef, but that word “patty” leaves a lot of wiggle room.

Like, I learned this week, peanut butter has to be a minimum of 90% actual peanuts. That’s why, you’ll notice, there are jars of product on the shelves in the “peanut butter” section of your grocery store that say “peanut butter spread.” “Spread” is the wiggle room.

And, you probably knew this, but Pringles are not actually potato chips. They are less than 50% potato! And I don’t know about you, but I’ll probably go on eating pringles, even though I know this!

I think we’d all agree, wouldn’t we, that transparency is important.

When Jif Peanut butter first entered the market, they didn’t want to have to admit to the public – to peanut butter buyers, that it was 20% crisco, but I’d want to know if what I thought was peanut butter was ⅕ crisco!

Jiff has long since raised their peanut butter content to at least 90% peanuts. So don’t worry.

What’s in a name?

In Bible times, names had significance.”Israel” means “to struggle with God and men and win.” “Jesus” means “Yahweh is salvation,” and is the same name in Hebrew as Joshua – in the bible we get one directly from Hebrew, the other through the Greek.

The name “John” comes from Hebrew for “Yahweh is gracious.”

That wasn’t enough for Jewish leaders in John chapter 1. They wanted to know more because of what John was doing and how many people were seeking him for what he was doing.

John the Baptist had gotten their attention, so they wanted to know more.

John confessed (and didn’t deny) that he was not the Christ. Serious clarification there, huh? That wasn’t enough.

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

John said, “I’m not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

John answered, “No.”

They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied,
“‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness,
   Make the Lord’s path straight,’
just as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Sometimes when we want clarification and details and transparency, what we really want is control.

In Genesis 32, when God and Jacob are wrestling, and Jacob won’t give up, God asks for his name. There was an understanding that knowing someone’s name could give you some power over them.

We want to know names, and we want answers – often because we, too, think that knowing gives us control.

In the early days of social media and internet gaming and chat rooms, almost no one used their real name. Many of us still have email addresses that hide our actual identity.

We want to know, and to control, and we don’t want others to know too much, or to control us.

Too much desire for knowledge and control, though, leads to desperation.

Especially in this information age, we can never know enough or control enough to guarantee our own safety or security. Focussing too much doing so leaves one feeling nothing but desperate.

This is not the time of year when anyone wants to feel desperate, but, can we admit, we do?

I tend to feel desperate when, usually on December 23rd or so, I realize that the shopping I have to do isn’t just going to happen. I have to do something!

And, full disclosure, Rachel takes responsibility for almost all of “our” christmas shopping. All that’s left for me to do is “my” christmas shopping.

And I have been slow to learn that it won’t just happen. I have to decide to make it happen, and then I have to act.let

So, I don’t know how desperate you feel right now, but I want to offer you an alternative for the day.

This won’t take care of the shopping you have left to do, but it will help you face it.

For right now, give up a little need for knowledge and control. If you need knowledge, get out your Advent book and open to today’s order. There’s the song order.

That’s all you’ll need. Other than that, receive it. Accept it. Let being here replace your frustration. Let the immediate, the now, the right here, the presence of God, melt your desperation away.

Because what we really want is for you to receive this cantata. Receive it, accept it. Now.

Jesus warned us (in the Sermon on the Mount)  not to borrow worry. Not about tomorrow, our about clothing, or food, or any of the other issues that tempt us to desperation.

Words cannot grasp or define or limit God, though we may try. So let them go.

Trade the desperate for the Immediate. And receive our choir’s cantata. Let it bless you, and bring you into the very presence of God!

Not aimed at you

young-girl-cryingOnce I noticed the little girl crying, I could not not think about it.

Being at an elementary school to meet with a 4th grader I mentor, I was sensitive to the little girl’s privacy and space. Had this happened at the church I pastor, I wouldn’t have felt the same nudge to maintain my distance.

After all, at least two teachers had stopped to talk with her.

Her situation wasn’t desperate or an emergency, but I still could not really focus on anything else. After all, I’d just preached on our “participating in Christ’s suffering” in Philippians 3. Part of what Paul is writing about, I argued, is that we must be willing to feel.

And, oh, was I feeling. So I was praying.  But I wasn’t willing only to pray, so I decided I would ask a teacher.

I caught one of the teachers on lunch duty and asked. Of course, I started with, “I realize this may be none of my business….”

“She’s homesick.”  Then the teacher added, “and she sees these tables (where I was sitting) other parents come to see their kids, and it doesn’t help.”

I was an adult there to visit a child. Not my child. Yet, my actions, to a homesick little girl, could add to her feelings of homesickness. But my visit wasn’t aimed at her.

Almost every time there is a disaster somewhere, and someone gives thanks for being spared, someone else replies with some version of “Why are you thankful? Are you saying God struck down the people who weren’t spared?”

To be fair, with almost every disaster, it is a matter of minutes before someone somewhere casts judgment, and claims God sent the disaster.

But most of us, in expressing thanks, or in simply trying to do something good (like visit a child at lunch), aren’t aiming our intentions at you.

And I’ll try to remember this next time I’m the hurt or grieving one and I observe someone experiencing joy.

Because we all get to live both sides of this one.

 

#UMCGC and moving on to perfection

perfection meme

Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

For at least the last 25 years, I have answered this question, “Yes, by the grace of God.”

The other seven members of my ordination class in the Texas Annual Conference in 1991 answered the same. As far as I know, every ordained United Methodist has answered the same way.

I was pretty sure that the eight of us didn’t have exactly the same understanding of what this question meant. No one asked. No explanation, no dissertation was required

I can tell you that I full on loved that question!  Fresh out of Asbury Seminary, I was deeply committed to living into Christian Perfection. Wesley’s teaching on perfection played an essential role in my choice of seminary.

When I was 27 I fully expected, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.

Today, at 52 I still fully expect, by the grace of God, to be made perfect in love in this life.

My understanding of what it means, and towards what, particularly, I am moving, has changed. If it hadn’t, I would have serious reservations about my fitness for effective ministry.

I haven’t talked to anyone from my ordination class in at least 20 years.  This is partly because I have changed conferences; I am now a clergy member of the Central Texas Conference.

Occasionally I wonder what the 27 year old Steve Heyduck would think of the 52 year old version. There would be some serious disagreements. And yet, we are together. I wouldn’t be the me I am today had I not been him then.

I wouldn’t be committed today to being made perfect in love in this life were it not for my original commitment then. With 25+ years on this path, then, I have to think I’m closer now than I was then.  If I didn’t believe this, I would owe it to the Church to surrender my credentials and find another vocation.

 

W’s Q’s #4

wesleys questionsPart of John Wesley’s genius, as the founder of the Methodist Movement, was the way he organized to make disciples. He established small groups everywhere he went. When these small groups met, they would go through a list of questions at each meeting. The questions were designed to guide the group members into a deeper walk with God.

Here is the fourth question:

  1. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?

 

Wesley knew better than to think that spirituality, or following Jesus, was simply a matter of spending time each day in prayer and bible study. He knew that following Jesus would affect every area of our lives: including the way we dress, our choice of friends, where and how we work, and habits we hold on to.

But the wording of this question reminds us that neither is following Jesus only about shopping at different stores, befriending a different group of people, etc.  The beginning of the question is as important to the disciple of Jesus as the ending: “Am I a slave…?”

In John 8:31-32 Jesus said “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Following Jesus sets us free from all matters of bondage, including things like clothing, friends, work, and habits.

Perhaps the most basic way this question challenges us to grow is in facing the truth that everyone who follows Jesus doesn’t look exactly like us. They won’t all dress the same, have the same friends, work the same jobs, or have exactly the same habits.

I’m reminded of a story told by a deeply faithful Free Methodist college Professor.  His young adult daugther was in a relationship with a young man of the Dutch Reformed tradion.  Unlike the Free Methodists, Dutch Reformed do not carry the same social taboos on alcohol and tobacco.

Knowing the young man to be a committed Christian nevertheless, this professor told me how he and his wife sought to reach out across such different practices. If their daughter was serious about him, they would make every effort. They invited him to join them at the symphony.

The young man graciously declined. “While I very much appreciate the invitation, I would never dream of doing such a thing on the sabbath,” he told them.

When we find ourselves enslaved to some social particulars, we might set up barriers that keep us from fellowship, and that can poorly represent our Lord.

Dress, friends, work, and habits matter. They matter deeply.  But they are not lord of our lives. That place is reserved for Jesus.

Putting Jesus “First”

“Put Jesus first.”  I feel like I hear this a lot.  The scripture that has informed our current sermon series, Colossians 1:15-20, supports this directive.  It says, after all, in verse 18

He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

But what does “putting Jesus first” look like?

In our society, people who “get to go first” don’t have to stand in line like everyone else. They receive protection from all the normal people; they can have guards and gates and get ushered to the front row or the luxury boxes.

Not only was Jesus NOT treated this way; there is no indication that Jesus ever sought to be treated this way.  In fact, I’m reminded that he said that “Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave—  just as the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Matthew 20:27-28)

Jesus WAS the head, the firstborn from among the dead. He DOES and WILL occupy the first place among everything.  He was also so secure in his relationship with God that he felt no need to act like it, or to show it off. In fact, he emptied himself, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)

May you and I, and all who are trying to follow Jesus, be secure enough in our relationship with God that we, too, might not seek to be recognized as first, or as more important than others. May we follow the way of Jesus – and, in doing so, we’ll find we are putting Jesus first.

You Don’t Preach Right!

“You didn’t begin your sermon with the reading of the scripture text. You are always supposed to read the scripture as the beginning of your sermon.”

This is a very close approximation to something a colleague of mine was told recently.  This colleague is soon to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry for commissioning – a major step towards ordination.

Part of the qualifying process is submission of a sermon – both manuscript and video recording.

My colleague asked for my insights as to whether such a particularity could, in fact, derail his quest.

I shared that I cannot remember the last time I read the scripture text as the beginning of my sermon.

For me, anyway, this rarely if ever happens in part because our liturgist reads one of our texts immediately before I stand to preach.  Re-reading the scripture myself would give in to the notion that preaching is not really a part of the worship service as a whole, but rather a stand-alone event thrown into the midst of a worship service.

I encouraged my colleague to continue to preach the Word, and to preach the text for the service, whether or not that scripture text was written into the sermon.

A much larger concern for me is that someone would suggest so simple a component done differently would disqualify a sermon altogether.  What I think really happened was an incident of either

  1. “You didn’t preach the way I was taught to preach” or
  2. “You didn’t preach the way I like to hear someone preach.

Are there specific mechanics that you believe are absolutely essential to the successful preaching of a sermon? Do Jesus’ and Peter’s and Paul’s preaching always follow your rules?