Archive for October, 2010

Exalting Ourselves–Luke 18: 9-14

Grace and peace, everyone. What follows is the sermon from the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Exalting Ourselves”

Luke 18: 9-14

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 24th, 2010

I really should wear a sign around my neck when I travel saying, “Beware of what you say around me.  You might end up in my next sermon.”

Last week while I was waiting for my flight to Illinois, I just happened to be standing near a group of “elite” fliers – those people who have racked up so many frequent flyer miles that they get to walk red carpets, board the plane early, and enjoy services that the rest of us schmoes only dream of.   Among this group of elite travelers was a woman who caught my attention because she wanted my attention.  She was about my age, attractive, dressed professionally, perfect teeth.  She was the type of woman you look at and want to be.  And I think she knew this because, speaking loud enough for everyone around her to hear, she struck up a conversation with nobody, or anybody, by saying, “Well, I’ve got a half a million miles on one airline and a half a million on another, but I don’t have a million on one, so I can’t walk down their silly red carpet!”  She caught my eye and smiled as if I would understand her plight…I smiled back even though I, as someone with zero miles, really had no way of understanding.  Getting little encouragement from me, she then zeroed her conversation in on one of the other elite fliers standing near her.  I heard him say to her, “You don’t want to walk down their silly red carpet, you don’t want another half a million miles, because then you’d never get to see your family.”  To which she responded by laughing and then declaring with obvious pride, “I already don’t see my family.”

After overhearing this conversation, I boarded the plane, pulled out my bible to prepare for this sermon and read Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted, said Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is a new form of exaltation in our society today.  I’ve been noticing it more and more lately and the woman boarding my airplane to Illinois reminded me of it.  More and more I keep hearing people who exalt themselves by declaring that they are SO busy.  I am so busy, they say.  I have so many miles.  I never see my children.  I am always on the go.  And when they say these things, like the woman boarding the airplane, they say it in a sort of mock lament….like they lament the fact that they are so busy….but you can tell by their tone that they are actually pretty darn proud of it.  They are proud of being busy because our culture has taught us that being busy means being important…it means you are valued and needed and wanted….it means no one else can do what you do…and therefore you must do everything.  So being busy is a source of pride.  Flipping open our calendars and showing off all of our appointments is today’s form of exaltation.

Now to make sure you understand that this is a sermon that includes myself I must make a pulpit confession here.  And my confession is that on occasion I catch myself doing this.  On occasion I catch myself rolling my eyes, flipping open my calendar, and exclaiming for all to hear, “Oh!  I am so busy!”

Now in my defense, I need to say that there are a lot of misconceptions, a lot of assumptions about how a pastor spends her time during the week.  You’ve all heard the jokes about the pastor only working on Sundays.  I’ve heard them too…again, and again, and again, I’ve heard them.  So sometimes you just feel like you need to justify what you are doing…you feel like you need to justify your own existence.

For instance, I have this certain someone in my life, a certain someone who really doesn’t understand what I do for a living.  She is also a certain someone who has a knack for calling at exactly the wrong time and then saying exactly the wrong thing.  “Oh, you’re busy?” she’ll say after I have grown impatient with her poor timing.  And then she says these words that simply send me over the edge… “Well…what do you have to do?”

What do I have to do?!  What do I have to do?!  I’m so upset by her asking that I can’t even think of what I have to do!  And so I just say, in a prideful and exalted tone, “I am busy…I am just SO busy….I can’t talk right now…because I am SO busy.”  Her words and her tone make me feel like I have to justify myself, justify how I am spending my time, justify my very existence.

Thinking again about that woman who I met in the airport, I wondered what was missing in her life that made her feel the need to justify herself and her existence to a group of strangers who really couldn’t have cared less.  What is missing from our lives that makes us need to exalt ourselves?  Do we need more attention?  Maybe.  Do we need some affirmation and some recognition?  Probably.  Do we need to be understood and known and loved by the people around us?  Most definitely.  But we don’t always get our needs met by the people around us.  So we seek to meet our own needs by exalting ourselves.

But according to Jesus and according to his parable for us today, this approach simply doesn’t work.  We don’t get our needs met by exalting ourselves.  We don’t feel better about ourselves.  We don’t feel affirmed and encouraged.  We don’t feel understood or known and loved.  And we don’t justify ourselves and our existence.  Who knows what that Pharisee needed that day in the Temple.  Who knows why he felt the need to exalt himself in such a grandiose way.  The important lesson for us to learn is that he did not leave the Temple justified.  As hard as he tried, he simply could not justify himself.  And neither can we.

The tax collector took a different approach.  The tax collector was honest…with himself and with his God.  He had apparently done a lot of soul searching the night before and he knew exactly what he needed.  He also wisely knew that he couldn’t meet those needs by himself.  So he went to the Temple to pray.  He poured himself and his needs out to God.  He needed mercy.  He needed attention.  He, like all of us, needed to be understood and known and loved.  So he was honest and he was humble and in the end he was the one who left the Temple justified.

Justification is a big word in our Christian language that means “to be made right.”  When we have been justified, we have been made right with God.  Our relationship with God (which is often not right) is made right through justification.  Justification is not something we can do for ourselves.  It is something that God does for us.  Justification, then, is a gift to us, an unmerited gift, offered from God’s infinite grace and unconditional love.

The tax collector left the Temple justified.  He received the gift.  His relationship with God was restored and made right.  But the Pharisee tried to justify himself.  He was trying to do what only God can do.  He was playing God.  Therefore he went home at odds with God and with God’s desires for his life.

Just like this Pharisee and this tax collector we, too, come to God’s Temple today full of needs.   We are in need of mercy.  We are in need of attention.  We are in need of being understood and known and loved.  Our scripture lesson today reminds us that we cannot fulfill these needs on our own.  We cannot play God.  But the good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to.  All God asks is that we come and that we are honest.

So let us search our souls today and lay our needs at the feet of our Savior.

Are you in need of a little attention?  Do you need to be recognized for all that you do?  Do you feel like no one notices and no one cares?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of someone who knows you, who understands you, who ‘gets’ you, and genuinely loves you?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of someone who will tell you the truth, who will be honest with you when being honest is really hard, who will tell you that you are wrong in a way that doesn’t demean or devalue you?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of a new lease on life, of a new beginning, a fresh start?  Are you in need of a new life, of restoration, of renewal?  Are you in need of hope for the dark and dreary days that lay ahead?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Come.  Come to the Temple.  Come and be honest before your God.  My friends, there’s no need for us to exalt ourselves.  There’s no need for us to feel like we have to justify ourselves and our own existence.  There’s no need for us to play God.  Because God is here, for you, for me, for all the humble souls willing to acknowledge their needs.  God is here to give us the gift that we cannot give ourselves.  God is here to make things right.

Now to this God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Thank You Note

His black hand was rough, really rough, when I took it in mine after he had asked for prayer.  The sun was shining warm upon us as we sat together on the steps of my church.  He stops by to see me every once in a while.  He’s never asked me for more than a little food, although I can tell by the color of his eyes and by the way his hand shook when I held it that food wasn’t the only thing his body was craving.  I prayed my heart out for this man, my friend, and wondered if it made any difference.  Afterwards he thanked me and said, somewhat apologetically, that he wouldn’t come back for a while.  I told him I was moving and that I hoped to see him again before I left.  He was surprised and sad.  Then he said, “I’m really going to miss you.”  And I could tell he meant it.

What have I done for this man, I thought to myself, except give him a bag full of canned goods every now and then?  But I imagine it was about more than the food for him.  It was certainly about more than the food for me.  There is something so incredible, so awesome, so grace-filled, about two people sitting and talking on sun-drenched church steps when those two people live lives that are worlds apart.  I don’t often rub shoulders with people like him.  I don’t often get the chance to talk to and know someone whose life is so different from my own, whose life is such a struggle.  But when I do I know God is there.  And I know that I have so much to learn.

So thank you, my friend, for coming to see me.  Thank you, for holding my hand while I held yours.  Thank you for sharing your life and your struggles with me.  Thank you for bringing God to my sun-drenched steps.  I’m really going to miss you too.

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Practicing Gratitude

Thanks be to God for this beautiful day!  What follows is the sermon from the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  I will be on vacation next week, then back to the blog for Sunday, October 24th.

“Practicing Gratitude”

Luke 17: 11-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 10th, 2010

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything [God] has given us—and [God] has given us everything.  Every breath we draw is a gift of [God’s] love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from [God.]  Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God.  For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience.  And that is what makes all the difference…”  Thomas Merton.

I started this week off in a bit of a funk.  I was tired, didn’t feel good, stressed, and just generally off-balance.  I had already planned on preaching on gratitude this Sunday.  But I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful.  My mood just wasn’t right, which was ridiculous because I have so much for which to be grateful.  So I said to myself, “Teri, just make a list.  Make a list of everything you have to be grateful for.”  And I did.  I wrote a list in my journal.  And I added to the list every day this week because doing so brought me back to life.  It awakened me.  It renewed me.  It improved my funky mood.  It brought me back to the grace of God that is constantly embracing me.

In today’s scripture passage Jesus meets ten men on the road to Jerusalem who are in a serious funk.  The life of a leper in 1st century Palestine was a life of misery.  First of all, just imagine contracting a disease that disfigured your face and limbs in such an alarming, grotesque way that people looked on you with horror.  You and your monstrous appearance were the stuff of nightmares…your own and anyone who happened to meet you along the road.  If the disease itself wasn’t bad enough, though, your community, then, by law had to evict you until you could be made clean.  Any person with a leprous disease was required to live on the outskirts of their camp, or village, or community, and they had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” if anyone accidentally came too near.  To say, then, that the ten lepers Jesus met along the road to Jerusalem were in a serious funk is obviously an understatement.  These men were miserable.  They had no life.  They had no love.  They had no grace in which to enfold themselves.  Leprosy had claimed their lives and marked them for dead even though they were still living and breathing.  Can you imagine?

But then along comes Jesus, a man who wasn’t afraid of those deemed “unclean,” a man who wasn’t afraid to approach the unapproachable.  The ten miserable men called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.

I wonder how far they had gotten from Jesus before they realized what he had done?  I wonder at what point they realized that they were no longer lepers?  Maybe they knew it immediately.  Maybe they didn’t know their flesh had been made whole until they stood in front of the priests who had to give their stamp of approval before they could go home to their families again.  Well, wherever they were in their journey, it is interesting that only one of the ten found his way back to Jesus to say thank you.

I don’t think it would be fair to label the nine who did not come back as “ungrateful.”  I’m sure they were very grateful, they just didn’t think to say thank you.  They just didn’t think to express their gratitude.  Haven’t we all done this at times?  Haven’t we all failed to express our gratitude, even though we were grateful?

One did return to Jesus, though.  One did think to say, “Thank you.”  And this one, a Samaritan, got more out of that simple act of gratitude than he could have ever imagined.  He returned to Jesus, kneeled at his feet, and thanked him for caring enough to heal.  Jesus seemed surprised that the other nine didn’t return as well.  But he quickly turns his full attention to the man kneeling at his feet and he says, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

To understand the full significance of these final words of Jesus, you need to know that “Your faith has made you well,” can also be translated as “Your faith has saved you.”  Ten lepers were healed on the road to Jerusalem that day.  Ten lepers were cleansed of a disfiguring, horrifying disease.  But only one, one of those lepers was saved, was made well, was brought back to life by faith and by gratitude.  We may all be grateful, but those who express their gratitude or practice it are the ones who are brought back to life.

It really is amazing how practicing gratitude can transform your life and your perspective.  Practicing gratitude changes how you see the world and the context in which you live.  Practicing gratitude awakens you to all that you already have and to all that God has given you.  Practicing gratitude opens you up to life and to the beauty that can be found everywhere if only we will notice and give thanks.

I recently read a prose poem about the gratitude Dietrich Bonhoeffer practiced while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  As a political prisoner who had dared to speak out against Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew he would eventually be killed by his captors.  He knew what his fate would be.  So to survive such knowledge and to survive each day he lived imprisoned, Bonhoeffer intentionally practiced gratitude.  He practiced giving thanks for every little thing.  And by doing so, Bonhoeffer was awakened to beauty even in a place of death and he was awakened to the undying graces of God that saved him when no one else could.

The prose poem, written by Robert Cording, is entitled simply, “Gratitude.”

In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer is thankful

for a hairbrush, for a pipe and tobacco,

for cigarettes and Schelling’s Morals Vol. II.

Thankful for stain remover, laxatives,

collar studs, bottled fruit and cooling salts.

For his Bible and hymns praising what is

fearful, which he sings, pacing in circles

for exercise, to his cell walls where he’s hung

a reproduction of Durer’s Apocolypse.

He’s thankful for letters from his parents

and friends that lead him back home,

and for the pain of memory’s arrival,

his orderly room of books and prints too far

from the nightly sobs of a prisoner

in the next cell whom Bonhoeffer does not know

how to comfort, though he believes religion

begins with a neighbor who is within reach.

He’s thankful for the few hours outside

in the prison yard, and for the half-strangled

laughter between inmates as they sit together

under a chestnut tree.  He’s thankful even

for a small ant hill, and for the ants that are

all purpose and clear decision.  For the two

lime trees that mumble audibly with the workings

of bees in June and especially for the warm

laying on of sun that tells him he’s a man

created of earth and not of air and thoughts.

He’s thankful for minutes when his reading

and writing fill up the emptiness of time,

and for those moments when he sees himself

as a small figure in a vast, unrolling scroll,

though mostly he looks out over the plains

of ignorance inside himself.  And for that,

too, he’s thankful: for the self who asks,

Who am I?—the man who steps cheerfully

from this cell and speaks easily to his jailers,

or the man who is restless and trembling

with anger and despair as cities burn and Jews

are herded into railroad cars—can

without an answer, say finally, I am thine,

to a God who lives each day,

as Bonhoeffer must, in the knowledge

of what has been done, is still being done,

his gift a refusal to leave his suffering, for which,

even as the rope is placed around his neck

and pulled tight, Bonhoeffer is utterly grateful.[1]

Practicing gratitude can save us each and every day.  Practicing gratitude awakens us to that which we cannot see or know unless we are grateful.

It worked for me this week.  Practicing gratitude worked me out of my funk.  Inspired by the grateful Samaritan and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I made a list this week of all the things for which I am grateful.  Here are just a few…

I am grateful for…

A new day

A new day that begins with a son who likes to cuddle in the morning

My daughter’s infectious and toothy smile


I am grateful for…

A long morning run on a soft trail

Reading something that inspires me

Work that I find meaningful

Opportunities to be known and let my voice be heard

I am grateful for…

A husband who inspires me and challenges me to be more than I thought I could be

Parents who support me

A church who loves me through all the ups and downs of life

I am grateful for…

The God I know and experience

In you

In the countless graces I receive every day

In the beauty of this amazing world

In the knowledge that love exists

I am grateful.  Each and every day, I am grateful.  Even for those days when I am in a funk, I am grateful because the funk reminds me that I am human, that I have limits and limitations, and that I am alive.

So what’s on your list?  For what are you grateful?  Let’s practice gratitude together today so we might all be awakened, and renewed, and saved.

Now to the God from whom all blessing flow, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Robert Cording, “Gratitude,” published in The Best Spiritual Writing 2001, edited by Philip Zaleski, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pgs. 42-43.

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World Communion Sunday

My congregation went high-tech yesterday for World Communion Sunday as we viewed a video of street musicians from all over the world performing the song “Stand By Me.”  Visit www.playingforchange.com to learn more about the folks who produced this video and watch it again here. .

Special thanks to my friend Elizabeth Michael for writing me a beautiful email from South Africa this week that became a major illustration in my sermon. It’s good to have preacher friends from whom you can “borrow.”  What follows is the sermon from World Communion Sunday.

“Serving and Being Served”

Acts 2: 43-47

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 3rd, 2010 – World Communion Sunday

You have always been so kind to oblige my creative and sometimes crazy ideas here in worship.  A few World Communion Sundays ago, I decided to change things up a bit and have you serve each other in the pews by passing baskets full of broken bread and little pottery cups of juice in which you would dip your bread.  I thought the idea was a liturgical masterpiece.  One of you described it as a disaster waiting to happen.  Which, I will admit, it was.  When I first thought of the idea, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to hold, and pass, and dip and serve, without spilling bread and juice all over the sanctuary carpet.  But you were patient and willing and careful and so it worked.  It remains my most favorite World Communion Sunday memory because it beautifully symbolized what Holy Communion and community are all about….serving and being served.

In our scripture passage for today we are reminded of the ideal to which all Christian communities strive.  Acts 2 describes a community of faith in which all things were held in common.  They shared everything.  No one would go without because whenever someone was in need someone was quickly there with a loaf of bread, or a cup of juice, or a little extra cash, or an offer to care for the children so some much-needed work could get done.  It was a community that sought the goodwill of all people by serving and being served.  It was Holy Communion that saved people each and every day.

Today, our understanding of Christian community has grown.  No longer are we a small group of apostles with a handful of followers gathering in a single home.  Now we are a global community that stretches from one end of the earth to the other.  In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  In today’s global community, these words ring true and remind us of the power of God’s love to find us and know us no matter where in the world we might go.

Many of you know and remember my pastor friend, Elizabeth Michael, who has been here a couple of times to preach.  Recently Elizabeth was offered a wonderful honor to be the guest preacher for the General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.  A few years ago, before Elizabeth graduated from seminary, she spent a summer internship serving a Presbyterian Church in Johannesburg, South Africa and apparently Elizabeth made a good impression, because when the pastor of that church was elected the new moderator of their South African denomination, he invited Elizabeth to be their preacher for their week-long assembly.

Over the past year or so Elizabeth and I have been talking about this series of sermons she would preach.  As you might imagine, the whole thing made her incredibly anxious as she struggled to discern what to preach, how to preach, and how she might speak a relevant and inspiring word to brothers and sisters in the faith, yes, but brothers and sisters who live in a completely different culture, with different issues and different desires.

Well, Elizabeth just returned from this fantastic trip and while she was there she managed to send me an email describing her experience.  I want to share with you a little of what she wrote.  Elizabeth writes, “I am here as a guest of my friend George Marchinkowski, who on Saturday was installed as the moderator of the General Assembly.  I feel like a White House intern who has stumbled into the Oval Office and been invited to stay for a week!  The moderator is a highly esteemed position here, complete with fancy robes, a huge ring, and plenty of pomp and circumstance—there are actually a few people who bow or curtsy each time he enters the assembly hall!  Like the president at the State of the Union, the moderator is announced before entering the hall for each session, and people stand and wait for him and his party to process in.  You would all laugh (I laugh myself!) to see me processing in with the five most prestigious people of this denomination.  (Don’t worry…so far no one is bowing or curtsying when I enter a room!)

“Today was the third day of the assembly,” Elizabeth continues, “but only the first of the five mornings that I will preach.  I think the sermon went ok today…but I still have great anxiety about the task.  One of the greatest gifts of my time here [though] has been getting to know one particular minister and former moderator of the assembly.  His name is Rod Botsis, and he is a wise and kind pastor from Cape Town.  He is serving as the moderator’s chaplain for the next two years, which means he is there to assist George in whatever he needs.  Thankfully, one of his responsibilities is also to care for me!  He has assisted me in planning the worship services (prays the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard) and has waited on me hand and foot, bringing me tea in the mornings and leaving small presents at my dinner place along with notes of great encouragement.  I am so humbled to watch a person of such power and influence [in this country] behave as such a humble servant.  Rod is just one of many examples of the way I have been met with overwhelming hospitality and graciousness.  This whole experience has reminded me of the verse from Ephesians, where the author prays that the recipients might ‘have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, just how high and wide and deep and long’ the love of God is.”

In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  Our understanding of Christian community has grown.  We are a global community, extending God’s love from one end of the earth to the other.  We are a global community that gathers Sunday in and Sunday out in order to serve and be served.

I mentioned earlier that the World Communion Sunday when I asked you to pass and hold and dip in such treacherous fashion was one of my most favorite communion memories.  I won’t do it to you again, I promise, but it did work because it forced all of us to slow down, to take care in passing the elements, and to help each other out.  We lived out our calling to serve and be served in that one single meal together.

I distinctly remember sitting and watching you all passing the bread and the little, slippery cups of juice, and (I’m going to pick on BP here) for some reason poor Brandon got both the basket of bread and the cup of juice at the same time.  With both hands full it wasn’t possible for Brandon to dip and eat.  So what does Brandon do?  He looks up, and just loud enough for the people around him to hear, he says, “Help!”

And within an instant helping hands arrived, hands of grace, hands of love, hands of humble servants ready to help Brandon eat and drink.  The communion service continued (without a hitch) and we were all reminded of our Christian calling to serve and be served in a place and a community where the risen Christ is close enough to taste.

World Communion Sunday is a wonderful occasion reminding all of us how far God’s love stretches.  World Communion Sunday is also a wonderful reminder of our Christian call to service and our Christian call to community where we will be served by a living Christ embodied in hands that offer us love and hope in the form of bread and juice.

Now to the God who unites all of us in this fellowship of love, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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