Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pentecost 14-C Sermon: The wisdom of Pooh

Lectionary: Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112;Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14

Our readings today raise up two important concepts for us to consider: humility and friendship in community. The reading from Proverbs and today’s Gospel point out how different the concepts of honor and humility are when examined from a heavenly perspective. And the letter to the Hebrews contains one of the simplest, most beautiful bits of advice ever given to followers of Jesus:

Let mutual love continue. (13:1)

As I did my research for this sermon, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading what some of the greatest thinkers and theologians have said about humility and friendship – Aristotle, Aquinas, St. Benedict, Rahner, C. S. Lewis, Vacek, Hauerwas (to name a few). In fact, it was Aristotle who once described friendship as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” (Ethics) Beautiful!

In the end, however, I found the best description and living out of these important concepts from a less well-known source of wisdom who said this about friendship: “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.” And… “It isn't much good having anything exciting, if you can't share it with somebody.”

He also said this about living humbly in community: “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” (House at Pooh Corner) So true!

Yes – the wise one of whom I speak is none other than Winnie the Pooh. And the story that articulates these concepts so well is the story of Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. In this story, Pooh wakes up hungry one day only to find he is out of honey. He spies some honey bees flying nearby, and though he is admittedly a bear of very little brain, he concludes that there must be a hive nearby which would have the honey he needed to satisfy his hunger.

Sure enough, he’s right. Pooh finds the tree where the bees had built their hive and he climbs up to get some of their honey. He didn’t ask the bees first, though – he was not being a very considerate bear.

For whatever reason, the bees didn’t want to share their heavenly honey with Pooh so they swarmed him and chased him away. The bees clearly didn’t know what it says in the letter to the Hebrews:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers… Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have. (Heb 13:2, 16)

Not willing to give up on finding a way to satisfy his hunger, Pooh remembers his friend Rabbit who almost always has honey. Showing up at his house unannounced, Pooh imposes upon his friend Rabbit for lunch, eats too much honey, and proceeds to get stuck in the entrance to Rabbit’s house.

No amount of pushing or pulling could get Pooh un-wedged from “the great tightness” as Owl called it. All they could do was wait until Pooh got thin again.

As they waited, the friends all took their turns keeping watch with Pooh: “Day after day and night after night… the friends tried to cheer him up. Christopher Robin read stories to Pooh. Owl taught him long words. Kanga and Roo brought Pooh a bright blue scarf to keep him warm. Even gloomy Eeyore tried to make Pooh feel better.” (Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree)

It’s important to notice that no one got mad at Pooh. No one made him feel ashamed like he ought to leave the Hundred Acre Wood. They stood by him and loved him as he suffered through the difficult consequences his selfishness and weakness had brought him.

Sometimes, when someone we love sins, all we can do is wait while God acts to redeem. But true friends wait together - in friendship.

…the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. (Ps 112:4)

When he was finally thin again, the friends all gathered up and pulled Pooh free. Do you remember what happened next? “Pooh shot out of the hole! Like a big bear-bird, Pooh soared through the air and whump! ...landed right in the honey tree scattering the bees and helping himself to “handfuls of heavenly honey.”

It’s true that Pooh learned a lot while he was stuck, but when it was all said and done, he hadn’t changed much. He still didn’t have much sense when it came to eating honey. But he did know he had friends – true friends – who loved him anyway. Friends like Rabbit, who didn’t want to invite Pooh to lunch but did because they are neighbors in the Hundred Acre Wood. He knew that Pooh was a bear of little brain and he invited him anyway.

Sure enough, when Pooh got stuck, his “pudgy posterior” interfered with Rabbit’s comfy home and routine. “Why, oh why did I ever invite that bear to lunch?” Rabbit lamented.

Jesus would answer him – because it was the right thing to do as a friend and as a host.

…when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. (Lk 14:13-14)

There is much more wisdom to be had from the bear with very little brain. For example, though he wasn’t speaking specifically about evangelism, Pooh says this very wise thing:

“You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Pooh also seems to share Julian of Norwich’s perspective on truth: Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known. (Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne)

Finally, here’s a word from Pooh about friendship. I share this one because it is so reflective of Jesus’ words to us about our friendship with him:

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.

Living humbly as friends in community… if a bear of very little brain can do it, so can we.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pentecost 12-C Sermon: Send Us!

Lectionary: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Introduction: I offer you today a sermon that is being preached at churches throughout Cleveland County. The outline was written by the Rev. Tony Tench, pastor of First Baptist here in Shelby. Local pastors have agreed to personalize the basic message to fit our individual parishes. The idea is to speak with one voice, in solidarity, for the benefit of our whole community. The sermon is entitled, “Send Us.”

With Major League Baseball in full swing and area football teams beginning their pre-season preparation, it’s time for a rousing rendition of that ‘between-inning’ chorus: “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play, today!”

But this chorus extends beyond the dugouts and sidelines of local diamonds and gridirons, it also echoes across our town as a call to action in a struggle that will have rewards to surpass division pennants and state trophies. This struggle is a team effort to impact the lives of children who live around us.

Put me in coach” is reminiscent of the tone of the voice of a man of character from the Hebrew Scriptures. His name was Isaiah and he lived in a day when God wanted a prophet to stand up and address the devastating events of the day! Israel had not honored God with their lives. Their community was in shambles all about them.

God wanted a faithful word proclaimed in the midst of it all! And Isaiah, at worship before the Lord, heard God’s request for such a prophet and this was his response: “Put me in coach” - well actually, Isaiah said, “Here am I, send me!”(6:8).

Today, God is looking for a new prophet, in fact a whole task force of prophets who will live the truth of the love of God for the sake of the future of our community! This future is visible in the faces of the children who live around us.

The Shelby Star reports:

• Children are devouring their school lunches because many haven’t eaten since they left school the day before.
• A 14 year old boy says he’s not afraid of guns because they are so common in his neighborhood.
• Living in a shelter with her grandmother among drug addicts and victims of domestic violence, a teenage girl says, “I’ve lost all hope.”
• A boy in northeast Shelby says he wants to leave his house every night to sleep at his grandmother’s house because he’s afraid someone will come into his house during the night and shoot him.

Olivia Neely, reporter for the Shelby Star, tells why she wrote the series of articles entitled, Who Got Killed? In the video produced and shared by The Shelby Star (and linked on Redeemer’s website), Ms. Neely shares her shock at how shootings have become so normalized for these children that when they see the response teams on their block, they ask very matter-of-factly, “Who got killed?”

In Isaiah we see that the people of Israel had a similar problem: They’d looked away from the Lord and things in their community had become dangerous and hopeless as a result. And they were doing little to nothing to make it change.

So Isaiah speaks prophetically about a vineyard planted by God on a fertile hill. God worked hard to make sure this vineyard could be fruitful – clearing away the stones, planting choice vines, building a watchtower and a great vat to hold the wine that would come.

But there was no fruit, no wine. The vineyard in this story is the people of God – and God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry – a cry that I think probably sounded much like the teenager who said, “I’ve lost hope” or the children who asked: “Who got killed?”

But, when God called for a prophet to speak a word of hope and to do something to make things change, Isaiah’s responded, Here am I send me! Then Israel was on its way to recovery, on its way to a new place where hope and encouragement could be found.

The same thing is true for us – right here, right now. Our children need a word of hope. They need things to change. Isaiah’s word to his people can also be our word today as we look to the Lord in worship together with the whole Christian community in Cleveland County and say, “Send Us!”

We can let the children of our community know these three things:

1. There is hope – there is always hope! As we heard in the letter to the Hebrews: By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land… By faith the walls of Jericho fell… By faith, Rabah… did not perish… because she obeyed the will of God and received the spies in peace.

Kimberly Johnson, a local author (who will be at the Fairgrounds on Aug 21, reading and giving away her books) says, “I open a book and I open my mind to things that are kind. Like forests and trees and rivers that run. Like people and places and things that are fun. I travel the world wherever I go. And if I open a book, I’ll get there, I know.”

Ms. Johnson encourages children to see the possibilities in this world through reading. The world God created is beautiful, exciting, and fun! And the people God created are kind – or at least we can be.

This is good news we can share with children who live around us! There is always hope!

2. The strength we need is found in God! As the prophet Isaiah says: God gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. (40:29-30)

When we look to the Lord for strength then we make our way up from stumbling and our way out of falling. But this message will only be heard by the children who live around us if those of us who believe it with all our hearts are willing to share it by our presence, our encouragement, and our love in action!

Through relationships such as mentors, lunch buddies, guardians ad litem, tutors in school and after school, we who are believers in Jesus Christ have the opportunity to point children to the strength of God and the reality that God’s love, God’s strength is enough to redeem even the worst circumstances they may face.

3. There is promise for your day!

Believers know what happens when we wait and hope in the Lord: our vision is joined to God’s and we see the way clear to a new day; we remember that God’s power is real and really able to overcome the temptations that lead us away from God’s plan of salvation for us; and we remember that God will help us put one foot in front of the other, that God will send us friends to walk with us toward goals that make our lives joyous and purposeful.

We know this - and so we can be witnesses of it, prophetic proclaimers of it… compasses that point the way for a child who needs to know it too.

As Shelby Star reporter Olivia Neely said: “It is a simple thing to give one hour a week for a child.” Imagine the difference that could be made if each one of us decided to agree with Olivia and give one hour a week for a child.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said: “…the world will not remember what we say here but what [we] did here.” These children in need will not remember what we say, but they will remember what we do right now. So it is up to us to step up and be that task force of prophets who will say to the Lord, “Here we are, send us!”

And we can do that this Saturday, August 21, from 10 am 2 pm at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds. The event is called Connect, Commit to Change and it is a Community Help Fair sponsored by the Shelby Star and other agencies that encourage children in our community. The idea is to connect needs with volunteers who will commit themselves to doing something to help children – so that change becomes real in our community!

We need to be there.

Groups and agencies that care for children will be there with a list of what they need from us: time, talents, lunch buddies, mentors, tutors, equipment, supplies. These groups will be saying: 'Here’s how you can give your one hour for a child.' They will be looking to match up their needs with people like us who can give our time; people like us who are believers, who have been sent to love our neighbors as ourselves.

God has a plan for our children. One day they will soar as on eagle’s wings, and we can encourage that by putting our love and our hope into action, reminding them:

1. There is always hope.
2. The strength we need is found in God.
3. There is promise for your day.

Now that’s a good news word that can only come from us who know it to be true! But saying it isn’t enough. We must also put our love in action. So, with Isaiah I hope we will all say, "Here we are, Lord, send us!"

Put us in coach, we’re ready to say [this good news] – we’re ready to DO this good news today! Amen.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mother Valori's August article for The Shelby Star: The kind of Church we are

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

During a recent phone conversation, I was asked a question that got me thinking. “What kind of church are you running there?” the frustrated caller asked. The context of the conversation was my advocacy for a poor family being treated with disrespect and in violation of the summary of the law Jesus gave as well as the laws governing landlords in North Carolina.

Having worked as an advocate for the poor and homeless for decades now, I still find myself surprised by the amount of depersonalization I confront. The “poor” are made into an idea, a concept. Then “they” can be dismissed or blamed or condemned for the trouble they represent.

In this economy, however, our comfortable definitions of the “poor” are being disrupted. If there is redemption to be found in the current economic reality, this might be part of it. Suddenly people who have always been able to provide for themselves (and judged those who could not) are finding themselves on food assistance lines, facing foreclosure and sudden job displacement. They are experiencing what it feels like to be exiled to the fringes of society where dignity and identity are lost. They are no longer who they were. Now, they are “them” – the poor.

All of us who witness this process are forced to remember that the poor aren’t a concept, they are people: mothers, fathers, children, sisters, brothers. These are the least who are members of our family.

While advocating for the above-mentioned family, I visited two homes they were trying to rent. In one house, the floor in one room was covered in dead bats, the back porch infested with rats, the main power line to the house broken by a tree branch that still lay against the house. In the second home, the kitchen and bathroom had electrical wires stretching across the sinks and raw sewage leaking up into the porch behind the kitchen. My heart broke.

I contacted the landlords who have begun responding to these issues, but the question for me remains: why would anyone think that it is okay to let a family move into a home like that in the first place? Why should there be a need for advocacy?

The answer is: because humans sin and systems get used to exploiting the poor and powerless who have ceased to be people to them. It’s always been that way. Jesus confronted the exploitive systems of his time during his earthly ministry, then gave to us, his followers, the command to do likewise. Remembering how the systems responded makes this command a bit fearful, so we focus instead on the bigger picture, the final outcome – the resurrection (heaven’s response) that followed the crucifixion (earth’s response).

The exploiters and the exploited are beloved children of God. Our goal as Christians is reconciliation. So to answer this person’s question, “What kind of church are you running there?” I would say: “A Christian church – one that advocates for the poor and defends the dignity of the least who are members of God’s family.”