Monday, January 08, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, January 7

Hi all--here is the sermon from Sunday, January 7--my first of 2007! It's based on Colossians 3:15: "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful."

Ahh, so we are finally here into a New Year. As is our custom, Jill and I spent New Year’s Eve at her parents’ house. We’ve never really been the kind of people who party to ring in the New Year. It always seemed a little bit silly to us, although to be fair we’re not really the kind of people who party anyway. Her parents went to bed early, and Jill and I kept a lonely vigil as we watched the ball drop on Times Square. Then we tucked in too, and our baby woke us up a few hours later.

One of the nice things about the New Year’s holiday is the way that it makes our culture reflect and plan. Most of us are not really very good about reflecting on life; we live moment by moment and never really consider or enjoy the moments. We’re also not really very good at planning or making changes in our lives; we might be good at certain kinds of planning, but when we are dealing with a problem in our lives, we often don’t have any way of really dealing with it in a way that brings lasting change. So sometimes our culture deals with a deep kind of dissonance in our lives. We’re awfully good at some things about life, but since we are not so good at reflecting on it and realizing ultimate meaning in it, and we’re not so good at planning for it to be different, we often are deeply upset with life because it’s not what we want it to be. If we could simply learn to reflect and plan, we would recognize the deep patterns in our lives, we would see God’s hand more plainly, and perhaps be more comfortable in our own skin.

And so this is why the New Year is such a unique holiday; we who do not ordinarily reflect and plan our lives, do so on New Year’s. People thought about 2006, what they did in 2006, things they were proud of, things they wish they hadn’t done. And at the same time, people talked about 2007 still being a blank slate. During 2007, perhaps they would be able to become the kind of person they wished they could become. And so, to become that person, they take on New Year’s Resolutions.

No doubt, many of you have made New Year’s Resolutions as well. We all make them; often to lose weight, or to spend less time working and more with family, or maybe to spend more time working and less time watching TV. Now, oftentimes we’re afraid to talk about our New Year’s Resolutions out loud, to share them with other people. We are afraid of this because we know that if we speak them out loud, we really are committing ourselves to doing them. As long as it’s something that’s just in our minds, it won’t hurt us if we fail to keep it. But if we speak it out loud, other people will know, other people will check up on us, and we may feel guilty if we don’t keep it like we want to.

Still, it can be fun and sometimes helpful to hear what other people have resolved to do for New Year’s. When you hear someone else’s resolutions, you may be inspired to think about whether you too want to do the same thing. It may inspire you to think about your own life in a new way.

And so, this morning, I want to share some of my New Year’s Resolutions with you. You may want them to be your resolutions too; even if you’ve already made resolutions, I hope when you hear these, you’ll think about your own life and the things you do when you leave this place. When I was looking through the Bible, I saw this passage from Colossians that Bruce has read this morning and I realized that verse 15 has the main ideas of three of my resolutions in it, and so it’s kind of my guiding verse for 2007. It’s posted in my office so that I will remember it. “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” There are 3 main resolutions of mine echoed in this verse.

First, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” During 2007, I want to be a more prayerful person. Some people think that prayer is a way of twisting God’s arm, a way of getting God to give you the things that you want. I want a different job, or my father’s sickness to be healed, or my family to love each other again, and so I will tell God about it as often as I can, in hopes that he will give me the things that I want.

But yet, of course, this is not all that prayer is. Prayer is not just some manipulative technique to get God to act like we want him to. Instead, for me, prayer is described by this verse: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”

I love this verse. I love it because it points to how we attain peace in our hearts. Peace is not something that we can buy. Peace is not something that we can earn. Peace is not something we can get even by looking deep inside ourselves for the answers. Peace is not something that comes from following five easy steps to peace. Peace is only something we can get when we give up control of our lives to Christ. Do you see? It doesn’t say, “Be at peace.” It doesn’t say, “Live in a peaceful way.” It says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Get off the throne and allow Christ’s peace to be there!” The only way for us to be truly at peace is to yield our constant need to control things and to instead choose to allow God’s peace to be in charge.

Now this is of course a very threatening idea to us in the suburbs, because we are very used to being in control of things. Our whole lives, we work so we can get to have more and more control over our lives; and the great lie that runs our lives is that if we get more control over things, we will be happier. That thought–that we will be happy if we just get more control–impacts us in so many ways: it makes us workaholics, it makes us addicted to money, it makes us judge ourselves by our achievements–but deep down, it is a lie! It is not so!

Being peaceful is not a process of gaining more control, says this vers; being peaceful is a process of relinquishing control; it is a process of realizing there are things that we have no control over. When we give up the idea that we can control everything, we begin to create a space in our lives where God can take control.

Now what on earth does this have to do with prayer? Prayer is maybe the most important way that we can start to give up control of our lives. Why do I say that? Because when we pray, what we are really doing is offering ourselves to God, giving up our own agendas and taking on God’s agenda.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Suppose you have a father who is very sick, maybe even dying. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and the worry is just consuming you. Daytime, nighttime, all the time, you just worry about your dad. And then you remember that you should pray. And so you do. Each time you worry, you are reminded to not only worry but to pray. Each time you sit down to a meal, you pray. And in that process, what you are really doing is giving it to God. Now that doesn’t happen instantly; it doesn’t happen overnight or the first time you pray about something, usually. But over time, what happens is that you give up control of the process to God. We never have control over things like this. And if we do not pray about it, our lack of control over the situation drove us crazy; it threatened you not to be able to control what happened to your dad. But when we pray, we intentionally give control away to God; as a result, it doesn’t bother us so much anymore that we don’t have control of the situation.

Another example is the practice of fixed-hour prayer. This takes a number of different forms, but it basically means that you set aside three or four or five times a day to pray. The focus is not so much on coming up with things to say; it’s often done with a prayer book. The focus is not on the words you say, but the organization and the discipline of your time. Fixed-hour prayer asks the question, “Are you willing to structure your day in such a way that you can have a few minutes of quiet in the presence of God throughout the day?” Is being with God, just being with God, important enough to you that you are willing to rearrange your life for the sake of having time with God?

Fixed-hour prayer is something that we sometimes think only the Catholics, or the Episcopalians, or even the Muslims, do. But I will just tell you that the most spiritually significant thing that has happened to me is discovering fixed-hour prayer. Nothing else has changed me quite so much as when I discovered that it wasn’t just for Catholics or Episcopalians, it was for me. Now, I haven’t always done it perfectly, and there have been weeks at a time when I haven’t practiced fixed-hour prayer. But I can tell you that during those times when I am praying four times a day, when I sit and quiet myself before God, those are my times when I am truly able to let the peace of Christ rule in my heart. Because when I do that, what I am really doing is stepping back from the work, stepping back from the rush of life, and reminding myself that God is in charge. When I realize God’s in charge, and not me, I’m at peace. It’s kind of like the little poem on the back of the bulletin this week (read it). Fixed-hour prayer gets you to that center place, where all is stillness, and lets you go back out and work hard, but not go crazy. I want 2007 to be a year where I am more able to let the peace of Christ rule in my heart because I am more prayerful.

The next part of the verse continues: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” I want 2007 to be a year in which I better understand the church.

Now what do I mean by that, “better understand the church?” As a pastor, I certainly understand a bit about the church and what it’s supposed to be. But sometimes I think none of us–not pastors, not laypeople–don’t really realize what’s going on here. We don’t really get what the church is about.

For most of us, pastors and laypeople alike, church is awfully–well, I don’t know how else to say it–ordinary. Our church time is generally taken up doing awfully ordinary things. We deal with the realities of church life. We deal with budgets. We deal with administrative issues. We deal with getting people to serve on committees. We deal with church politics, because wherever you’ve got people, you’ve got politics. We deal with conflicts, because wherever you’ve got people, you’ve got conflicts.

Sometimes, in the middle of all these ordinary things, we forget that what we’re doing here is extra-ordinary. We forget that here is the place where the Word of God is held in high esteem, where together we approach the Word and seek to learn. We forget that this is the place where Christ’s body and blood are shared in communion and in the friendships we make. We forget that Jesus does not call us into the church for the sake of perpetuating our church, paying the bills or giving us one more club to belong to. Jesus calls us into the church because it is by the church that Jesus is changing the world. Yes, God touches the world in many ways, but it is primarily through the church that God still changes hearts and lives.

It is an awesome privilege and an awesome responsibility to be part of what God is doing through the church; and so often we settle for less. We settle for it being about politics or getting needs met or getting to do the kinds of music we want, when in reality God looks at the church and says, “I have so much more for you; I have abundant life for you if you would just reach out and live it.” Jesus looked Peter square in the eye, and said, “your name is Peter (meaning Rock). And upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” During the New Year, I want to remember better that I do not just belong to a gathering of ordinary people who just happen to feel like coming to church here on a given Sunday. I am one of billions of people who God uses to touch the world through the church; I am a little drop in a vast ocean called the church; I am privileged to be part of a community that reaches across all ethnic boundaries, and all ages, and all classes, and is united to change the world. I am a part of the church with a capital C–and so are you. And I want to give my life to it, because this is where God is acting. I pray in the New Year you want to give your life to it too–because this is where God is acting. In 2007, I want to be a better part of this body God calls us into, the body called the church.

Finally, this verse ends up, “And be thankful.” In 2007, I want to be more thankful. If you really want to change your life now or anytime, being thankful is a good place to start. Why do I say that? I mean, it seems more like, you know, dropping 20 pounds or going back to school would be a good choice. Maybe taking a new hobby or learning Spanish; but being thankful? How can that change your life?

I’ll tell you how I think it happens, but first, think about something else. Consider, for a second, that the world we live in depends on you being unhappy. I have a laptop computer. I love it. In fact, I typed this sermon on it. It works fine. It does everything I need. Realistically, it does lots of things I don’t really need it to do. It’s got more bells and whistles than I need; all I use it for is typing papers and sermons and using the Internet. But whenever I get a catalog with new laptops, I always think, “Boy, I’d like one of those. My laptop now is...well, it’s OK...but I wish I had one with a bigger screen and one that runs faster.” Now, I didn’t run out and buy a new one, but I guarantee you, some in my situation have.

This is just an example of the many ways in which our culture encourages people to be unhappy. Nobody in our culture cared about having whiter teeth until three years ago, when tooth-whitening products became available. And now all of us check our teeth, and go out and buy new products to make them whiter; why? Because people stood to make money by convincing us that we should be unhappy with our current teeth, and that buying their product would make them happy. This happens all the time; we are made unhappy and told that the way to happiness is by buying a certain car or a certain beer or a certain magazine.

The upshot of all of this is that most of us are desperately unhappy and trapped in our unhappiness. We buy what we want to buy and find that we are still not happy; and so we go out and buy more and find that we’re still not happy. And there’s no way out; we just keep accumulating more and more and finding that we are just as unhappy as we were before, maybe even more so!

This is how being thankful can change your life. When you are intentional about giving thanks; when you keep a journal of things you are thankful for, when you think of five things a day to be thankful for, however you choose to do it–when you are thankful, you interrupt that vicious cycle of unhappiness. As I sat there and typed this sermon on my laptop, I started silently giving thanks for my laptop. Sure, there are faster ones out there, ones with more bells and whistles–but I’m so grateful for this. It’s so amazing in my schoolwork, when you think about it. In the old days, I had to take index cards into the library, take careful notes, and bring them all back to my room, fire up the computer and type the paper there. If there were things I forgot (and there were always things I forgot), I had to trudge all the way back down to the library and all the way back up to my room to write the paper. But with my laptop, I can go into the library and type the paper there. If my research pushes me in a different direction, or I have to go find a page number, I can just go up to the shelf, pick it up, and be right back at work. I’m so thankful for my laptop.

And because I am thankful, I can look at all the new laptops, with all the things I don’t really need, and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” A truly thankful person is a truly free person, because they have the freedom of saying, “No. I don’t need that. I don’t want that.” A truly thankful person gets off the vicious cycle of being unhappy and trying to buy their way out of unhappiness, because they don’t need more things to be happy.

Of course, this is not only true in the world of buying and selling. Our lives are often not what we wish they were. We might wish we were in different circumstances, that we were healthier, that our marriage was better, that we were more beautiful people. So many people are desperately unhappy at their lot in life. Thankfulness also interrupts this vicious cycle. When we thank God for who we are, when we thank God for the life he has given us, even when it’s not perfect, we learn to love our lives more fully. We learn to be content with who we are, even with our warts and blemishes, because we know that living at all is a gift. None of us had a right to be born into this world; to be here at all is a precious, magnificent gift coming down from the Father. And when we recognize that, when we truly are thankful, we are able to be happy, even when things aren’t perfect. And when things are going well, it makes us even that much more thankful. In 2007, I want to be more thankful so that I can recognize the good things God gives us.

So those are my New Year’s Resolutions. While you may have resolutions of your own, I hope 2007 finds you growing in these ways too. I hope it finds you more prayerful, so that you can know the peace of God more fully; I hope it finds you celebrating the church God has freely given you. And finally, I hope it finds you more thankful, so that you are able to enjoy God’s gifts, rather than constantly needing more. Amen.