Sunday, September 20, 2015

Getting in Line

First Presbyterian Church Memphis, TN

September 20, 2015

Psalm 1

Mark 9:30-37 

We’ve had long periods without much rain this summer and fall. So I’ve had to water a group of hostas in my front yard to keep them alive. I carry the watering jug from the back yard every other day or so and I give huge gulps of water to the green leafy plants. The plants appreciate my concern and my efforts, I am certain. But a colony of ants lives under the rocks and among the roots of one of those hostas. When I water the plant, the ants come scurrying up out of the ground by the thousands, maybe even by the millions, carrying ant eggs as fast as they can go—running for dry ground. I used to expect those ants to move, find a new place to set up their colony, to hatch their eggs. But they seem intent on staying right where they are. I water. They scurry. Happens over and over again.

I wonder who those ants think I am and what reason they imagine for this random flooding that happens to their home and family. I wonder if they go to church on Sunday morning and talk about whose sin is causing the colony to suffer so.

We are not so different than the ants. There is so much we do not know and cannot understand. One way to improve our lot in life is to acknowledge our limitations, just admit what we do not know. I like to think that I am different than the ants in that surely- by now- I would have tried something new.  If the floods kept coming, surely I would find a new place to live, a new place to be me. I like to think that. But I am deeply imbedded in this world and its ways. We get stuck in our patterns, our biases and our perception of reality.

The first Psalm, this Psalm we have heard this morning, is an introduction to all one hundred and fifty Psalms. Those who do not follow the advice of the wicked nor take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers will be like trees planted by the water. Their leaves will not dry up or wither. They will be fruitful. And, in all that they do, they will prosper.

We are tempted to find comfort in the simplicity of this Psalm. Those who do right will be rewarded. Those people who do wrong will be blown way, washed away, like chaff. Yet, you and I know faithful people, people who have lived exemplary lives, kept the faith, and yet are not prospering in the ways that we imagine prosperity. Just by reading the book of Job we can dislodge the notion that being a good friend to God will serve as protection from illness, grief and pain.

How do we get it right? Living faithfully and trying to understand what God wants and needs from us is so complicated. I can see why so many people give up. If we dare to ask questions, the answers are not always clear or simple.

I was recently with a young woman, Andrea, who was doing her best to figure out what it means to be faithful, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. She was going through some tough times; finances were the focus of her struggle. The ends were not meeting; her income didn’t stretch all the way through a long month of days and basic needs.

Andrea attends a church regularly and she listens to preachers on the radio. She was raised in a conservative and evangelistic congregation. She was raised to trust preachers, to believe that they are set apart by being specially anointed. Andrea was raised to believe and respect the words that come from the preacher’s mouth. The radio preacher was fired up, passionate about prosperity and how Jesus intends to give back more than what we, as disciples, can give to him. “Give!” the voice on the radio insisted. “Give everything you’ve got to this radio ministry. Give to help spread the Word of God on this program! And be amazed by what God returns to you!”

Andrea wrote a check to that minister and his radio program. She gave her rent money for the month and she waited for God’s return. She was evicted, lost her apartment. And she now lives with her parents, sleeps on their couch in the den. And she is nervous about asking questions like, “What does it mean to prosper in the Kingdom of God? What does it get a person to be faithful, trusting and true?”

In Mark’s gospel today we connect with Jesus and his disciples in Galilee. Jesus wants privacy, a chance to be with the disciples in his inner circle for some deep truth, difficult lessons. He tells them that he will be betrayed into human hands, killed, buried and then he will rise from the dead and return to life.

Not one of the disciples asked a question. Not one of them is recorded as saying, “But if you are the Messiah, aren’t you supposed to be a super hero? Didn’t you come to save us, Lord? To set us free from Roman rule and all forms of oppression?” No. They went on with what they were doing: lining up at Starbucks to pay big bucks for a cup of coffee, or whatever it was that the disciples did back then to distract themselves from the rough realities of life around them.

The disciples didn’t ask Jesus about this deep and painful lesson he was teaching them because it did not fit into their cherished narrative. They already knew the story: The Messiah would come and make things better by knocking down the bad guys and eliminating suffering. I imagine they hoped and planned to be on the front lines and on the front pages of the newspapers when the world got turned upside down by Jesus.

We want to believe that life has order and meaning. We want to know how to pass the course. “Uh, professor,” a hand goes up in the middle of the classroom while the professor is standing up front lecturing. “Will that be on the test?” That’s what we want to know. Will it benefit me to learn this lesson? How will I be rewarded? Because if learning this lesson will not move me closer to the front of the line, then I see no point in paying attention.

There’s so much in this world that we do not understand, far too much that doesn’t work out the way we planned or the way we hoped it would. I don’t know what benefit, if any, Andrea received from her generous gift to the radio minister. But I am sure that the radio minister was glad to receive her check, glad for her contribution.

We understand the radio minister. I’ll be honest. It is easier for me to understand the radio minister than it is for me to understand what on earth made Andrea give away her rent money. I know what it is like to work to earn a profit. I even know what it is like to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses in order to increase my profit. For a while I worked as the RN in a weight-loss clinic. I was the designated “medically supervised” part of that clinic and the weight loss diets of our clients. It was my job to run EKG’s, record weekly weights and to counsel clients about their progress. The more of our brand-name products I sold to clients during those counseling sessions, the more profit I made. So I did my best to convince men and women that they would look better, be happier and lose weight faster if they purchased more of our products. Lettuce, spinach and carrots from the grocery produce section just would not work the same way. I went to work to make money and that was how the organization worked.

Maybe you have done things on the job that clearly benefited the bottom line. If so, you can understand the radio minister. We might not want to recognize him when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but we understand him. It’s the way the world operates. To get to the front of the line, we have to sell more, stand out, have our brand recognized around the world and make more profit.

Let’s return to our text in the Gospel of Mark. We follow Jesus and his disciples into Capernaum. Here, Jesus asks a question. ‘What were you arguing about on the way here?” The disciples were reluctant to tell him the answer. They were arguing about who was the greatest among them.

We understand this. Competiveness runs through our veins right beside the red blood cells. We want the best, the newest, the most. We want our children to be at the top of the line in the best schools. We want to think we have earned God’s favor and that we deserve all the conveniences and things we own. In so many ways, you and I are up toward the front of the line—by the world’s standards. We have power to make choices in our life. So many people just wish they had a clean glass of water to drink.

The best we can do is be brave enough to ask questions like: What is it costing this nation to hang on to so much wealth while so much of the world goes without food and clean water? What would Memphis gain if each of the seven thousand churches adopted a person as they were released from the county jail, really supported that person and their family until they got on their feet? What rewards would our city gain if our churches united in a singular, concentrated effort to erase racism and its cancerous toll on human life here? Where would this congregation be in a year if you focused all your prayers, time and talent on increasing the minimum wage to a living wage in Memphis?

We are called upon to sit down and consider what Jesus says to his disciples about the line-up in the Kingdom of God. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What does it mean to be servant of all?

I urge you never to underestimate the value of a good question. Don’t be afraid to ask them. Maybe we could all agree to live with this question in the coming week…What does it mean to be servant of all?

There’s so much mystery to God. God says to the prophet Isaiah, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Jesus knew how challenged his disciples were by the notion of the last being first and the first being last, so he took a small child into his lap as an illustration. A child. Open-minded. Curious. Needy. Creative. Trusting. “Be like this,” Jesus said.

I am thinking about Andrea and that radio minister. It would be so easy for us to scoff at the hypocrisy of that radio minister and to write him off as a fraud. And Andrea. It would be just as easy for us to dismiss her as foolish.

But then I have to remind myself …there is something to be learned from everyone and everything in the Kingdom. If we, as disciples of Jesus, did more learning and less judging, we might be more help to God in ushering in the Kingdom.






Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tongues and Ears

First Presbyterian Church/ Memphis, TN

September 13, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9a

James 3:1-12

I am a storyteller. People identify me that way and I am happy to be recognized as a storyteller. I have so many stories from my life experiences that long to be shared, stories I need to share in order to connect with the healing power of being heard, being respected for what I have survived and being valued as a decent human being among other decent human beings.

Being human is challenging, at its very best it is challenging. We are all doing our best to overcome yesterday’s mistakes and injuries. We are all waking up each morning with hope that we will grow into our better and higher selves. We want our story to have a happy ending, satisfying closure. And we want that for others. So I find myself these days doing more listening than telling. In my storytelling experience, I have come to see that listening helps me to be a better person while it also helps the people around me to be their better selves as well.

The title of today’s sermon, Tongues and Ears, might imply that I am going to talk about hot sex. But, instead, I am going to talk about hot and heavy listening. I am trying to listen to myself these days. What messages am I sending to myself? Which voices in my head get power and authority to tell me who I am and why I am here?

You, too, may have been wounded in the past by the tongues of others. Other voices may have told you, and effectively taught you, that you are not enough, a problem, a disappointment, a loser in the line-up of human beings. And what has been said cannot be taken back. However- it is an insult to the God who created us if you and I wallow in resentment and bitterness about the evil that has come from tongues of others. God’s plans for redemption in this world depend upon our trust in God’s power and goodness within us. So we are called in our discipleship journey to listen for the Word of God and the voice of God.

God created each one of us with a purpose. We are here for a reason, to be part of the Beloved Community, to help usher in the Reign of God. Tongues of others may have done their best to throw us off the highway, to obstruct our view of who we are and what good we might contribute to this world. It is absolutely possible for the evil on the tongues of others to trap us in darkness.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your tongue can speak healing words to yourself. Your ears can listen to lessons of hope from others. And we can all walk into the light together. It’s all about tongues, words spoken, and ears, lessons learned.  Our tongues and ears are vital to our personal growth. What we say to ourselves and about ourselves and how we listen to it are key in how we perceive our place in this world. We are all teachers. We teach ourselves first. And if we hope to teach good and healthy lessons to our children, students, families, neighbors, friends and co-workers then we must first review and improve the curriculum that we have been studying about our own value.

My friend, Karen Gennette, offers to me the gift of “Listening Sessions.” She listens while I talk. Her listening is highly effective as a form of encouragement in my life. One day I talked to Karen about kindness. I recalled experiences of being treated kindly by others and I told her about moments when I shared from the kindness of my own heart. We were both struck by how kindly we felt at the close of an hour. I talked about kindness and she listened to my talk about kindness and we both increased our investment in kindness. I think it was more than an emotional response. I understand this kind of thing to be hormonal. When we choose to focus on kindness, compassion, joy, faith, hope and love we open up the hormonal channels that release endorphins into our blood stream. And we actually become kinder, friendlier, more compassionate and loving.

We see the whole world through our own experiences. If we want the world to be a kinder place then we start by talking kindness to ourselves and asking people around us to talk about kindness to us.

Isaiah says: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” We are all teachers and we teach ourselves before we teach anyone else. It is through our discipleship, our relationship with the redeeming Word, Jesus himself, that our weary selves are redeemed and set free to lift others up to where they long to be.

It’s September and school has begun. Children are seated at desks all over the city and teachers are standing in front of the room doing their best to teach what must be learned if the children are going to succeed.

The Commercial Appeal has a feature section in today’s paper about teachers. What people think teachers are doing as opposed to what teachers are actually doing.  I have volunteered at Snowden School in my neighborhood. I confess that I could not do what teachers are called and required to do day after day after day!  I admire our teachers. In fact, I am in awe of the people who show up every day and manage all that they have to manage in a classroom full of children and young people.

Tony Campolo tells a story about a fifth-grade teacher, Jean Thompson, who looked at the students in her classroom on the first day of school and she said, “I love you. I love all of you just the same.” It was the way she routinely began the school year. But Campolo says that Ms Thompson was lying. We all know that some students are much easier to love than others. How many of you have ever been in a class where it was clear that the teacher just didn’t particularly like you? All teachers have favorites. How many of you have been in a class where it was clear that you were the teacher’s favorite? Right. While somebody else was not. That’s the way it goes in school.

Teddy Stoddart was in Jean Thompson’s room that year. He was not her immediate favorite. He slouched in his desk all the time. He mumbled and muttered when he spoke. His hair was messy. He smelled awful. And his face maintained a rather dull look.

Ms Thompson had access to Teddy’s records. She could have and should have known. The notes were all there in his file. First grade: Teddy is a good boy. He shows promise. He has some social challenges. Poor home life. Second grade: Teddy is a good boy. He is too serious for a second grader. His mother is ill. His father is not invested in Teddy’s school work. Third grade: Teddy is a troubled child. His mother died. His father is detached. Fourth Grade: Teddy is a boy who needs help.

Christmas time came and all the children in Jean Thompson’s class brought gifts to their teacher, piling them on her desk. They were all beautifully wrapped in red paper, gold paper, and green paper with pretty ribbon—except for Teddy’s gift. It was wrapped in brown paper from a grocery sack and held together with lots of scotch tape.

She opened all her gifts and when Ms Thompson opened Teddy’s gift she discovered a rhinestone bracelet with several stones missing. And a bottle of cheap perfume, the bottle half empty. The children started to giggle and make fun. But Ms Thompson put the bracelet on her wrist and held it out with an admiring look. “It’s gorgeous! Thank you, Teddy!” Then she dabbed some of the perfume on her wrist and smelled it, taking in the experience and smiling widely. “How nice! Teddy, this is wonderful!” The students changed their attitude when they saw how much the gifts meant to their teacher. The giggling stopped.

That afternoon, when all the other students had left the room, Teddy walked up to his teacher and said, “Ms Thompson, all day you have smelled just like my mother. That’s her perfume. And her bracelet looks so nice on you. I’m glad you like it.”

After that, Ms Thompson’s classroom was transformed. She had heard a new voice, a new word had been spoken to her and she had listened.  She no longer focused on teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. She focused on coaching, tutoring, listening, being kind… so the students could learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Years went by and Jean Thompson taught many students. One day she got a letter. “Ms Thompson, I’m graduating from high school and I wanted you to be the first to know! Teddy Stoddart.”
More years went by and the teacher got another letter. “I wanted you to be the first to know. I am graduating from the university, second in my class! It has not been easy but I made it."
Six years passed and the next letter said: “Ms Thompson, I am graduating from med school and in a few weeks I will no longer be Teddy but Dr. Theodore Stoddart, MD. I am being married on June 27th and I want you to come. I hope you can make it. I hope you will sit in my mother’s place at the wedding. You’re the only family I have. Daddy died last year.”
Jean Thompson bought a plane ticket and she went to that wedding. She sat in the seat where Teddy’s mother would have been seated.
Jean Thompson was transformed by a student. And because she was able to move into a place of transformation, she gave all of her students a chance to be transformed. She saw in that rhinestone bracelet and the cheap perfume a chance to be part of the Beloved Community. She chose words to say to Teddy and to the students in her classroom that would help to usher in the Reign of God. She was transformed. Teddy was transformed. Her classroom was transformed. The world around all of them became a kinder place. A place of hope. Lonely hurting people became family for one another. The irony of the story is this: When Jean Thompson was retired and elderly, Teddy Stoddart was her family, the one beside her at the end of her days. Her student became her child, a family born from deep listening.

May we use our tongues to speak words of healing and hope. And may our ears listen carefully for what the Word of God has to say to each one of us. We are part of something magnificent.