Sunday, February 8, 2015

Who Knew?

A sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21

Not quite two weeks ago I received an email from the Rev.Josh Heikkila, the Presbyterian Churchs regional liaison to our partner denominations in West Africa.  Josh was an associate pastor at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul when I began to serve here in Hudson, so we have had a friendship for several years.  Having served in a short term mission in Ghana almost [gulp] twenty years ago myself, I am always interested to hear what is going on in the life of the church in that area of the world. 

Josh was here at First Presbyterian Church last spring, leading one of our Lent Bible studies and sharing about the state of the church and the churchs ministries, particularly in Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger.  He ignited some interest among some of us who heard him about what we might do to partner with brothers and sisters in faith around the world.  He also shared with us some pictures of some of our churches banners that were now hanging in churches in West African churches - - worship banners like the one you see here now.

This is a banner that was made by members of First Presbyterian Church probably at least 30 years ago under the direction of Thelma Nagel.  We have a huge collection of these banners that served to enhance our worship space, particularly in the older building, but that just dont quite fit the needs of our current sanctuary for any number of reasons.  In 2012, Josh contacted churches of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area to see if any of us had banners like these that werent being used anymore.  If so, he wrote, the churches he worked with in Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger would love them.

In the mission field these days, most responsible leaders do not encourage blanket donations or handouts that can feel paternalistic or even do more harm than good.  Huge donations of used clothing and shoes, for example, can actually destroy local business people who are trying to make a living and build the economy.  However, when a specific request for something like a worship banner that can connect two worshiping communities on different continents comes in, something that can give new life and enhance the spirituality of two congregations at once, it isnt difficult to try to fulfill the request.  Knowing we had several banners that we werent likely to use as often as a church in West Africa would, the Spiritual Growth and Mission Outreach Ministry Teams worked together to pick some banners to send to Josh and pay to ship them to his home in Accra, Ghana.

Over the last several years, Josh has hand delivered our banners and banners from the Presbyterian church in Plymouth, Minnesota to congregations around West Africa.  Periodically he will send us pictures of our banners adorning the sanctuaries of partner churches.  We have shared those pictures with you in newsletters and announcement slides when they come back to us.

In his email last month, Josh related to me two stories about some of our banners.  Last year in a trip to Niger, a landlocked African nation directly to the north of Nigeria, Josh was able to deliver banners to congregations of the Evangelical Church in Niger, our partner denomination, in the capital city of Niamey.  Less than 1% of the population in predominantly Muslim Niger is Christian, with less than 0.1% of the total population identifying as Evangelical or Protestant Reformed Christian.  What seemed to us to be a relatively easy gift to give was to the church in Niger a connection to brothers and sisters in faith, a reminder that they are not alone, a witness to the broad love of God that binds us together across distance, race, and culture.

In the aftermath of a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Mohammed that was published by Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine, there were protests in a number of Muslim communities around the world, particularly in Algeria, Niger, and Pakistan.  Niamey, Niger experienced some of these protests some of which grew violent and even deadly.  On January 17, almost a week after the publication of the cartoon, Josh posted this call to prayer on his Facebook page, Friends in Niger have had to leave their homes for safety, and many Christian churches, schools, homes have been burned ... because of what's happening in Paris. In this world of ours, foolish actions instigate foolish responses, and the innocent suffer.

In the end, the church where this banner was hanging was burned.  The cement walls still stand, but the pews inside, the appointments like the banner, and anything else that could burn, was burned.  A picture from the French Press Agency shows the outside of the church as it was still smoldering with some of the contents that were part of a bonfire in the foreground.  All that is left inside are the metal frames that held together the wooden slats of the pews.

Another church in Niamey that was attacked by what I have to be sure to point out was a small minority of very angry people who were Muslim they do not represent all Muslims in Niger or around the world any more than so-called Christian members of the KKK represent all American Christians or Christians around the world was also a recipient of one of the banners from our presbytery.  Josh had intended to return this spring to take a picture of it hanging in the sanctuary to identify whether it was from our congregation or the congregation in Plymouth, but that had not yet happened.  Either way, the story of what happened with that church and that banner from our presbytery is extraordinary.

When word that angry protesters were moving toward the church with intent to destroy it, some of the churchs Muslim neighbors went out to meet them, placing themselves between the church and the young men.  The Muslim neighbors negotiated a different resolution to the protest, bringing out the pews and the banner which were burned symbolically, in exchange for sparing the church building itself.  The banner was lots, but it in essence saved a church.  As Josh said in his email, I'm sure no one imagined this when they were being made!  God works in mysterious ways???

Who knew?  Who knew thirty years ago that a banner made to aid the worship of Presbyterians in Minnesota or Wisconsin would eventually be repurposed to aid the worship of Christians in Niger?  Who knew an act of loving creativity would adorn our sanctuary and then adorn theirs?  Who knew the work of our hands would be such and poignant sign of our unity in Christ across generations and across many miles? And most definitely who knew this small act of love that brought together a few women around a sewing table in the United States would eventually, through its sacrifice, would save a sanctuary for Christians in turmoil, distress, and danger?

In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 today what we heard about was an act of love.  Jesus had love for the crowds that were following him and were likely hungry as the day was growing late.  He knew they needed to eat to fill their bellies as they were waiting for their souls to be filled, too. The disciples knew of five loaves and two fish on hand, but that wasn't going to come close to feeding the crowd.  They could have held onto it because what difference would it have made any way.  How could such a small offering make any sort of dent in the need in front of them?

But it did.  Who knew?

So many times we have choices before us, choices to make about simple acts of love and compassion that may not seem like much at all - filling a backpack with food for elementary school families in need, increasing our giving to the church or special offerings for disaster relief or assistance programs, providing soup for a simple supper, serving dinner at Grace Place or networks. Youth ministry, teaching children in our Sunday School or leading them in a Camp in a Van.  So many times we have opportunities to be a part of simple loving acts, but so many times it is hard to see what difference they will make in the long run.  But they do, whether we see the results or not, our acts of compassion can change the world for individuals whose names we may never even know, for communities we may never even see.

A family receiving food will be fed and nourished for another day because of the food delivered in a backpack.  An otherwise unchurched child or youth in our community will hear the good news that he or she is a beloved child of God because of the ministry we provide.  A home will be rebuilt and shelter provided after a devastating storm on the opposite side of the globe. We can hardly begin to imagine what these simple acts will mean in the lives of others, and neither could the disciples when they handed over two fish and five loaves.

Who knew five loaves and two fish would feed a multitude?
Who knew a banner would save a church?
Who knows the long reach of simple acts of love, but God who reached far to love us first?

May our days be filled with simple acts of great love in the name of God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.  Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Treasures in Heaven

A sermon based on Matthew 6:7-21

Two weeks ago the NPR news website reported on an announcement that was made by Christian publisher Tyndale House. Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy's story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said [the week of January 15] that the story was all made up.[1]  The book had been promoted as a supernatural encounter that would be sure to give new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.  The Washington Post considered it one more addition to an emerging genre of books in the heavenly tourism category.

The book and all related products are being pulled out of print after Alex Malarkey wrote an open letter to Christian bookstore, LifeWay, and other retailers who sell Christian books admitting,
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.  I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.  Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.

A lot of Christians have a lot of curiosity about heaven.  What does it look like?  Who will be there?  How I can be sure I make it?  We have a lot of ideas about when and how we will get there, but as theologian N. T. Wright says in his book Simply Good News, The Bible says remarkably little about what happens to people, even to Gods people, after they dieat least, immediately after they die.[2]  In fact, it seems like the Bible says so little about what happens immediately that people feel compelled to write and publish spiritual memoirs that fill in the blanks.

And while the Bible says precious little about what happens in the moments after death, the Bible is not silent on heaven.   Theres a difference between the two, you see, especially in Matthews gospel.  Matthew uses the phrase kingdom of heaven thirty-two times in his gospel.  Including those he talks about heavens or heaven a total of eighty-two times.  We heard one of these two weeks ago in Jesus own first proclamation in ministry, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (4:17). Heaven comes up three times in the Beatitudes and twice in the prayer we call the Lords Prayer.

Heaven is a central idea in this telling of the good news of Jesus, but its one of those words that may not mean what we think it means.  When Matthew talks about heaven he isnt talking about pearly gates, streets of gold, and choirs of angels singing at the throne of God.  Remember Jesus himself says that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  He didnt say this because precious metals replaced the dirt of the roadways in Galilee.  He said this because he came near.  He said this because in his birth, in his life, in his ministry, in his good news, and eventually even in his death and resurrection he ushered in the presence of God, the purpose of God.  He brought heaven to earth.

Heaven, when Jesus talks about it in Matthews gospel, isnt so much a location as it is a way of living.  Heaven isnt so much a place in the clouds far away where those who have gone before us reside.  Its the summation of what all of creation is and will be when things are going according to Gods will.   Well hear a lot about this when we move into the parables during the season of Lent later this month and next, but it has also come up today when we hear that we are taught to pray that Gods will be done on earth as it is in heaven, when we are taught to store up treasures in heaven.

What do these things possibly mean if heaven isnt a place up there, but a reality down here, right now?

A friend of mine, Matthew Miller, a pastor in Albuquerque, New Mexico said this:
I often tell people, "I'm not an afterlife Christian." Meaning, I don't believe this stuff to get in on cosmic dessert for eating a lifetime of vegetables. Jesus was pretty clear, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Often people spend a lot of faith time and energy trying to figure out exactly what needs to be done, what needs to be believed, in order to get to heaven.  Im with my friend, Matthew, the pastor, not the gospel writer, although I think hed agree, too, and think that this mindset is missing the boat.  A lot.  The life of faith as Jesus describes it and hands it down to his disciples is never about trying to craft a cosmic escape from life on earth for some cushy heavenly palace.  Likewise the life of the faithful on earth can never be about chasing and amassing earthly riches and pleasures. The life of faith as Jesus describes it is about making heaven on earth now.  The life of faith as Jesus describes it is about learning Gods intentions for all of creation and being a part of making those intentions a reality.

Remember the Beatitudes?
        Blessed are the peacemakers - - Gods will is for peace
        Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness - - Gods will is for justice-bringers
        Blessed are the meek - - Gods will is for humility
        Blessed are the merciful - - Gods will is for mercy
The life of faith is full of these kinds of treasures and working for them, for peace, for righteousness, for mercy, is storing up treasures in heaven. 

Often this passage about treasures in heaven is used for a good old fashioned stewardship sermon.  The idea goes that we can spend our money on things of earth toys and cars and houses and clothes and rich food or other luxuries or we can spend our money on things of heaven, namely the church.  Right?  Thats how weve all heard at least once or twice.

I think thats too limited.  This is about more than just to whom we write the check.  This is about investing our whole selves in things that are of God.  Think about how easy it is to waste away a day stuck in front of a TV too disinterested to do anything else.  I do it!  I may have done it yesterday!  When it happens I have no idea how much time has passed.  And when it happens, sometimes it ends up just feeling rotten, like being eaten at by moths or rusting away. 

But I can also lose sense of time when I am in the middle of a pastoral visit or working in our church garden or planning worship or in conversation with the Faith Quest confirmation students or talking to my friends from the kids school about this strange thing our family is a part of called church. I imagine the same happens for many of you when you are involved in serving a meal to the guests who are homeless at Grace Place, or teaching Sunday school, or leading in worship, or sewing for infants born in poverty, or shopping for food for families in need. But when this happens, when we lose ourselves in these activities, it doesn't have that same feeling of being chewed away at.  In a sense it makes our lives feel larger, stronger, fuller.  Theres a difference a palpable difference when the treasures of time and even mental energy are stored up in things that are of God than when they are stored up in things that are not of God - - when they are stored in heaven and not on earth.

What does it mean to store our treasures in heaven when we've just prayed 'thy kingdom come' and Jesus recently said "the kingdom of heaven has come near." The kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand, and storing up treasures in heaven isn't about banking stuff away for the great escape from this world. It is about investing in what God's doing here to make the kingdom come now.

We get no better reminder of this when we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as we do this morning.  At the Lord's Table we have the mixing of heaven and earth.  We have bread and juice made from the gifts of the earth.  We use our senses of taste, touch, and smell in the very earthly experience of eating and drinking.  But at the same time what we do is an experience of heaven on earth.  It is a preview, an appetizer of the great banquet that is described, that is promised to the world when God's reign is fully realized.

When we share this meal we are sharing an experience of heaven of God's holy intentions for all of creation -  where all are fed, the bread and the cup are plentiful, where no one goes hungry, where all are welcome.  When we share this meal we are practicing what is done on heaven while we are here on earth - we are practicing acceptance, we are practicing hospitality, we are practicing peace and justice.  When we share this meal we experience the blessings of God, we are given the gift of Jesus and his example of humility, of mercy, of grace.

It is a piece of heaven on earth and it sends us out from this place to be heaven on earth, to do the things that are of God, to store our time, our energy, our resources, all of our treasures in the purpose and mission of God.  For where are treasure is stored, our hearts will follow.

[1] Accessed 2/1/15 6:11 a.m.
[2] Quoted by Scot McKnight on Accessed 2/1/15 7:45 a.m.

Cloud photo credit: _ \ ! / via photopin (license)