What It Means to Worship

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, November 11, 2018.

Psalm 100, Psalm 150

This is the second of six Sundays during which we are lifting up themes of giving and generosity. So what better way to begin than with some stewardship jokes!

A man died and went to heaven.  He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter who led him down the golden streets.  They passed stately homes and beautiful mansions until they came to the end of the street where they stopped in front of a rundown cabin. The man asked St. Peter why he got a hut when there were so many mansions he could live in.  St. Peter replied, “I did the best with the money you sent us.”

At an Executive Council meeting, the congregation’s wealthiest member decided to share a portion of his faith story. “I’m a millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a youth meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give everything I had to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.” When he finished and sat down, the chair of the stewardship committee (Mario) leaned over and said: “Wonderful story! I dare you to do it again!”

The Sunday School teacher was just finishing a lesson on honesty. “Do you know where children go if they don’t put their money in the collection plate?” the teacher asked. “Yes ma’am,” a boy blurted out. “They go to the movies.”

The pastor of a tiny country church had been having trouble with stewardship and offerings.  One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we receive the offering, I would like to request that the person who stole the eggs from Widow Jones’s chicken coop please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. God doesn’t want money from a thieving sinner.” The offering plate was passed, and for the first time in months everybody gave.

Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him. “You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!” Horrified, the little boy obeyed. After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty? “Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”

I know there are some groaners in there. And also some questionable theology. But I will circle back to these in a moment because I think there is actually a point to be made in there somewhere.

As part of our effort to highlight the many and marvelous ways your gifts to the church are used, on each of the next four Sundays we will be celebrating one of the four cornerstones of the church, Worship and Music, Fellowship and Community, Outreach and Mission, and Children and Youth. So this Sunday is a celebration of our worship and music.

Which begs the question, what is worship? Some might call this gathering on Sunday morning a church service. In fact some of you may have simply said last night, “I’m going to church in the morning.” And it is not uncommon for someone with a Catholic background to ask me what time our mass is. But at First Church we call this a worship service. These distinctions might seem unimportant but, it seems to me, worship has a particular and important meaning in the context of our faith.

The Hebrew word for worship is Shachah – “to prostrate in homage to royalty or God: bow down, crouch, humbly beseech, make obeisance, do reverence, worship.”

There are several Greek words used for worship in the New Testament, but the closest to our meaning is Latreuo – “to render religious service of homage.”

English synonyms for worship include: revere, venerate, pay homage to, honor, adore, praise, glorify, exalt, extol, cherish, treasure, adulate.

Wow! Whether in in Hebrew, Greek or English, worship is a strong, evocative word.

What do we worship? I suppose we could cynically and critically respond by saying we worship money, status, youth, looks or fame. In fact many a sermon begins with just such an observation. But this is such a negative application of the word.

If we use the word to mean adore or cherish, we might use worship to describe the way we feel for a lover, “I worship you.” But any therapist worth their Marriage and Family Therapy License would challenge such worship as misplaced and unhealthy.

No, I think worship seems to require an extravagant affirmation of something truly good. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we rarely use the word uncritically or without suspicion.

Yet, we claim the word regularly in church. Not only do we describe this as a worship service, we have a Call to Worship, and regularly talk about worshiping God. Does the word have meaning for you in this context? This morning, as you left the house, did you “go to church” or “prepare yourself to worship God?”

This is the connection between generosity and giving, as represented in those jokes I told, and this worship service. Neither is about us. Each requires us to radically decenter ourselves and assign our highest value to something that is not us.

The Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Copernicus came to the radical conclusion that our solar system revolves around the sun, not the earth. The implication,that humans are not at the center of the universe directly confronted both Catholic doctrine and Protestant reformers of the day. John Calvin wrote, “We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre.”

Though we have long since come to agree that the earth is not at the center of the celestial universe, we humans still act as if it is, and we are, and that everything revolves around us.

And whether in our life of faith or in our decisions around giving, subjugating our own perceived self-interest is a radical notion indeed.

This kind of decentered giving was represented at a fundraiser for the clinic we support in Uganda, when over eighty people gathered in Palmer Hall for a celebration of the Faith Mulira Health Care Centers great work.

Regardless of what each of us concludes about God’s nature, whether a divine being or the presence of a transcendent unconditional love, it is this radical act of living our lives decentered that is the fundamental act of faith. This is what we do when we worship, and this is what we do when we give to the church.

So just to circle back to those opening jokes.

The size of your home in heaven does not depend on the amount you give in this life.

Unlike Mario, I don’t ask you to give your last dollar.

Please, hold on to enough money that you can go to the movies without guilt.

And, I would be delighted to accept offerings from thieving sinners.

But that mother gets it exactly right. It taint yours; it taint mine; it’s God’s. All of it is God’s.

Let us decenter ourselves and worship God.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!

 

 

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Relationship, Respect, Resources: A Model for Mission

uganda school

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 28, at First Church Simsbury.

 

Mark 10:46-52

Some of you know that this summer, with a team from First Church, I visited the clinic we helped establish in Masooli, Uganda. Our Masooli Project board is hosting a fundraising dinner for the Faith Mulira Health Care Center on Friday, November 9, to which those interested in supporting the clinic are invited. So, I have hoped to, in some way, feature the clinic in this morning’s worship service and sermon.

But every sermon should be rooted in the biblical text, so let’s begin with the story of Blind Bartimaeus from the gospel of Mark. In some ways this reads like many stories where Jesus heals someone who is sick or disabled. But there are a number of unique aspects of this particular story.

  • Not only is the blind man given a name, he is located in relationship. Bartimaeus son of Timaeus. It is fair to assume that Timaeus is someone who is known and provides a connection to Mark’s audience.
  • In the gospel of John Jesus heals a man born blind. Because this story does not say this, we might wonder if he wasn’t rendered blind from some trauma, illness or accident.
  • Bartimaeus strongly advocates for himself, repeatedly crying out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”
  • Many among the disciples try to hush Bartimaeus, believing that Jesus should not be bothered with the likes of him.
  • And, when Jesus invites Bartimaeus to come forward, the beggar shows himself to be quite capable, springing up and throwing off his cloak.
  • And lastly, Bartimaeus simply names his need to see to Jesus, and Jesus responds, restoring his sight.

I suggest that these themes encapsulate an approach to giving that we might call: Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

Think of the ways we might respond to a beggar like Bartimaeus today, sitting on a sidewalk, loudly crying out for help and healing. We might see him as helpless and pitiable, broken and hopeless. In response we might drop some change in his cup, buy him some food, bring him to a shelter, or try to get him into a program that could help him live independently.

But just as we might want to “help” our modern-day Bartimaeus, we might also quietly judge him, wondering if he wasn’t somehow responsible for his situation. And our blame would likely lead us to distrust him. We might wonder if he was trying to manipulate our emotions, or outright scam us. Or, could he be mentally ill and dangerous?

The more we thought about these things, the more we might, like the disciples in the ancient story, talk ourselves out of responding to his need, and just wish he would be quiet.

While thoughts like these might have been behind the disciples’ hushing of Bartimaeus, Jesus thought nothing of the sort. Jesus took Bartimaeus as he presented himself, as a good, capable and competent man who had a particular need for help. So Jesus met his need.

Yesterday, First Church hosted an event put on by the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, called Reviving Justice. Following a spirited worship service participants attended presentations and panel discussions on a variety of justice issues. My colleague, Rev. Damaris Whittaker, was the Revival Preacher. Some will remember Pastor Whittaker; she participated in my installation and has preached here.

Now serving Fort Washington Collegiate Church in Manhattan, Pastor Whittaker has led her church on five mission trips to Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria devastated the island a little more than a year ago. Herself Puerto Rican with family still on the island, Pastor Damaris provides a meaningful connection between her mission team and the people they were serving. They made their first trip there just as soon as commercial airlines resumed service, and they were the first ones to enter with relief supplies in some of the areas they visited. They went door to door, delivering non-perishable food and kits to purify drinking water. As they approached one of the central cities, they passed a hand-painted sign that read, “Los Olvidados,” The Forgotten Ones. Despite the complete absence of any government relief, the residents of the city were unwilling to wait passively for help. When they arrived, the church’s mission team found that the residents had already cleared the streets and highways themselves. Pastor Damaris describes being deeply moved when residents would end every encounter with the words, “We are alive, thanks be to God.”

Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

Note that these mission trips to Puerto Rico have many of the same qualities as Jesus’s encounter with Bartimaeus. The help provided is grounded in a personal relationship and respect. Even as leaders passed them by, like Bartimaeus, those that needed help proved to be faithful and capable advocates for themselves.

Which brings us to our mission to Uganda. Some of you know that the founding of the Masooli clinic began with a relationship between Nancy and Gordon Crouch and Faith Mulira. A nurse in Uganda, Faith fled the violence of Idi Amin’s regime and worked as a nurse’s aide here in Connecticut which is where she met Gordon and Nancy. Faith dreamed of returning to Uganda to open a clinic for people in her hometown of Masooli. And after lots of faith, hard work, and generosity from Gordon, Nancy and many others, the Faith Mulira Health Care Center opened its doors about twelve years ago.

Each year, our local board, the Masooli Project, has raised over half the income for the clinic. But no one from the church or board has been back to the clinic since it opened, until this summer.

Just as many in the crowd and among the disciples were quick to judge Bartimaeus, it would have been easy to question the work of the clinic, especially as the years went by without meeting the clinic staff face to face. In fact we had begun to ask seemingly reasonable questions. Is the money being well-managed? Is the staff well-trained and committed to their work? And most of all, is quality, affordable health care being delivered to those who need it most. Of course there is nothing wrong with these questions themselves, but without the respect that is born from relationships, the questions could imply suspicion and judgment.

I described the way we might react to a modern day Bartimaeus begging on the sidewalk, with pity and a desire to help, but also with suspicion and fear of being taken advantage of. I confess I wondered about these things when we set out on our 32 hour journey to Uganda.

Any doubts and judgements were quickly dispelled upon arriving at the clinic. Not only did we create new relationships, we were able to see the need with our own eyes. And just as Jesus respected Bartimaeus as able and competent, we got to see the entire clinic and its staff as extraordinarily capable. The clinic director, doctors, nurses, pharmacist, lab technician, and business manager were all the equivalent of their contemporaries in the United States, and the clinic functioned like a well-run American community health center.

And like Bartimaeus, through no fault of their own, the Faith Mulira Clinic simply lacks the resources necessary to entirely succeed on their own. Remember, I wondered whether some trauma had rendered Bartimaeus blind, unable to live independently. In Uganda we don’t need to wonder; the country suffered first under Idi Amin’s violent dictatorship, then experienced a series of civil wars that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over decades. Though more stable now, the current government is also a dictatorship, and clinic staff joked with us that they might be jailed if they opposed the government.

I share this background because, like Bartimaeus, who maintained faith, hope, agency and competence despite the trauma that rendered him blind and dependent, so the people of Uganda in general and the clinic staff in particular, have likely experienced trauma unimaginable to us, yet remain extraordinarily faithful, hopeful, capable, and even cheerful. They lack only the resources to be successful on their own.

Relationship, Respect, and Resources.

As I said, on Friday, November 9, the Masooli Project board, of which I am a member, will be hosting a fundraising dinner. A video filmed and edited by son of the church Kirk Scully will debut there, and Karen Callahan, Heather Duncan and I will tell stories of our time there while showing some stunning photographs of our visit (you will see some of those photos displayed in Palmer Hall this morning). Those who attend the dinner will be asked to make a gift or pledge to support the clinic. There is an invitation in your bulletin, and you may rsvp to heather at the email address listed there.

Relationship, Respect, and Resources, a good model for our mission to the clinic in Uganda, an important model for stewardship, a faithful model for our lives, and an essential model for our world.

When a Little is Enough

african loaves and fishes

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 29, at First Church Simsbury, Connecticut.

John 6:1-15

Some of you know that fifteen to twenty years ago I led a ministry to homeless people who lived in a beach park in Hawaii. This ministry had a couple key components. We hosted a weekly worship service in the park, after which we would serve a bagged meal of a sandwich, chips, fruit and a sweet of some kind. And, a couple times a week, I would walk through the park visiting with the people who slept and passed their days there. These two aspects of the ministry, the worship service followed by a simple meal, and the visitation with people felt very different to me.

In the worship and meal service, I and my fellow church members clearly felt like the helpers. In addition to the spiritual food we offered through worship, we literally fed hungry people. We were generously sharing the plentiful resources of our church by providing people a bologna sandwich, Doritos, an apple, and a rice crispy treat. I don’t make light of this act of charity in the least. The homeless people were extremely grateful, and it felt good knowing that this small investment of time and money could meet a real need and alleviate suffering, at least for a moment.

But walking around the park visiting with people offered a very different experience. When I saw someone I knew, I would greet them by name, and sit down on the bench, or on the grass, next to them. In addition to meaningful one-on-one conversations, from time to time something else would happen in these encounters; one of the homeless people would offer to share their food with me, especially if they were in mid-bite when I walked up. Mike Lee once passed me a bag of dried squid that he was eating from. I have observed that well-fed people like myself often react to such offers by saying, “Oh, no thank you, I’m not hungry,” or, “You keep that, you need it more than I do.” But over time, I learned the power of breaking bread with someone who offers to share, not out of plenty, but from want. I graciously accepted Mike’s offer of the cuttlefish.

On another occasion, I came across to two wonderful men I knew, Cliff and Corbin, who were right in the middle of preparing a meal over a fire. Cliff and Corbin would joke that they were grumpy old men, but they were anything but. Though they had both suffered terrible hurt that led in one way or another to their homelessness, they always greeted me with a smile and an invitation to sit down and visit. Corbin was a skilled guitar player, and if I caught him at the right moment he would serenade me with beautiful Hawaiian music.

I asked what they were cooking and they said, stew, by which they meant a combination of every item they had recently received from a nearby food pantry: a couple kinds of soup, kidney and garbanzo beans, tuna fish, and Kraft macaroni and cheese, all stirred together in the same pot, and served with lots of hot sauce. Here too, I thanked them, and accepted their offer of a little stew.

Two very different experiences. Both valuable in their way. Using the wealth of the church to feed hungry people, and accepting an offer to share a small bite of food from those who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

I thought of Mike Lee, and Cliff and Corbin, when I read this familiar story of “Jesus” feeding the 5000.

First, let’s make sure we know what the story really says. Sometimes we have heard popular stories like this so many times, we think we know them, but we may miss key details or make false assumptions.

Having watched Jesus heal many, a large crowd has followed him across the Sea of Galilee and now gathers around Jesus and the disciples on a mountain side. The writer tells us that the Passover is near, which might be significant to the story. So let’s tuck that tidbit away.

Observing the hungry crowd, Jesus asks the disciple Philip where they could buy bread to feed all these people. Philip responds, saying that even if there was a place to buy bread (and there isn’t), he would have to work more than six months to earn the money necessary to buy enough bread. These are familiar challenges to ministry, right? How do we do it? How much will it cost?

Then Andrew says this, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” This is so interesting to me. The boy would have surely been carrying this small amount of food in a bag in order to feed himself during his day’s journey. How does Andrew know, not only that the boy has food, but exactly what the boy is carrying and how much? Maybe the boy offered his meager lunch to Andrew to help relieve the hunger of the crowd.

Jesus directs the disciples to have everyone sit down in the grass, gives thanks, then distributes the boy’s bread and fish to the crowd. Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and were satisfied. And there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets.

So, who feeds the 5,000? Jesus, or the boy?

I described two stories about sharing food in the homeless ministry I led. The one, about feeding hungry people with a modest investment of time and money from the church. The other, about homeless people offering to share the little bit of food they had with me.

I would suggest that Philp had the first model of ministry in mind. Where will we buy the bread? How much will it cost? While Andrew had an experience of the second model of ministry when a little boy shared everything he had with Jesus, the disciples, and 5,000 hungry people.

There is nothing wrong with the first model of ministry, providing for immediate needs, in fact it is biblical. In the 25th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  But the second model of ministry, represented by the boy’s gift of five barley loaves and two small fish, is transforming, it’s miraculous!

This is where we find the Passover theme of liberation expressed. The crowd came to Jesus hoping to be fed, and the disciples were all too ready to, like Moses, assume the role of rescuers. Instead, a little boy said, we have all we need right here. Jesus held up the boy’s offering for everyone to see and gave thanks. And it was enough. They were set free from their hunger.

Did the bread and fish miraculously multiply? Maybe. Or, inspired by the boy’s example, did everyone in the crowd look in their satchel to discover they had a little bit of food to share? Maybe. Or, because everyone saw that the boy gave all he had, the one bite each person received was eternally satisfying. Yes, yes, and yes.

Mike Lee’s offer of dried squid was enough. Cliff and Corbin’s invitation to share their stew was enough. Five loaves and two fish were enough.

I saw both models of ministry in action on my recent trip to Uganda.

We visited a clinic that we helped found there over ten years ago. I say, helped found, because the real founder was a Ugandan woman, Faith Mulira. Faith provided the “how,” and First Church helped respond to the “how much.”

While there, we used a small amount of church funds, about $100, to provide porridge to a nearby school. This gift was warmly appreciated by the children who happily posed for pictures with us in front of the enormous bags of cornmeal and sugar. How and how much, that’s the Philip model of ministry.

But before we left Uganda, my fellow traveler Heather Duncan and I had a transforming experience in response to the bread and fish model of ministry. I should preface this story by saying that while in Uganda, out of an abundance of concern for our sensitive American stomachs, we ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and generally skipped lunch when we were out visiting the clinic and the surrounding area. As a result, we had not tasted any Ugandan, or even African food…until the Thursday before we left.

On that Thursday, the clinic director, an extraordinarily gifted and capable woman named Roselyn, purchased her lunch from a woman who lived down the street from the clinic. Kept warm and served in small, stacked aluminum pans, the meal consisted of a few chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce, and side dishes of sweet potato, matoke (a starchy mashed banana), nakati (a local green), and pumpkin. Roselyn offered to share the lunch with me and Heather. Heather gratefully accepted the offer, while I responded, “Oh no thank you, I couldn’t, that’s your lunch.” But as I saw Heather accept a small plate, I realized I was missing out and changed my “no thank you” to “yes please.” We each got a small morsel of delicious meat, and just a little bite of each of the side dishes, not much more than a taste of each. But I can tell you that it was the most satisfying meal Heather or I had during our whole trip. I can also tell you, that though an experienced professional, Roselyn supports herself and her two children on a monthly income that probably couldn’t pay for Sunday brunch at Abigail’s. Like the boy in this morning’s story, Roselyn shared not from abundance, but from scarcity. The result was transforming, miraculous! And we were satisfied.

At First Church we are experts at the first model of ministry, the how and how much when apportioning resources out of our abundance. But we still have a lot to learn from the example of the boy with the five loaves and two fish, from Mike Lee and his dried squid, from Cliff and Corbin with their stew, and from Roselyn’s generous sharing of her lunch.

On September 21st we will begin serving a monthly community supper. This is a great idea, initiated by Sara Batchelder and a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the church. We invite, not only the hungry and those on fixed budgets, but anyone who wants a break from making dinner to come to Palmer Hall on the third Friday of the month for a delicious meal prepared and served with love by our volunteers.

On its surface, the community meal seems like a great example of the Philip model of ministry, but I know there will be opportunities for transformation in the sharing that will surely take place around the table. Come serve, come eat, and come expecting miracles!

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