Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Luke 21: 29-33
Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Earlier this week, I was thinking it was going to be hard to think about Christmas. I was driving around with my window down, all my jackets hanging in the closet, no hat on, and it was after Thanksgiving. It’s beginning to look a lot like Texas!

Then, Wednesday or Thursday, the ice storm hit Dallas, and closed up the airport. You have to understand, ice storms are not unknown in Texas, but they occur once every few years. SMU, where I went to seminary, has photos of a snow covered Perkins Chapel that they use for a lot of advertising, but the photo is from the 80’s. It just doesn’t happen every year. And ice storms are a lot more common than snow.

So, winter came to the Great Plains. And then Friday, we got a humdinger of a thunderstorm here in Northeastern PA, especially for the folks up in Mountaintop. They’re pretty sure that they got an F2 tornado, and from the damage to the grocery store up there, they probably did. Three hours after the storm passed, the temperature had dropped 30 degrees.

I needn’t have worried about the weather. I live in Pennsylvania, I live in hope and expectation that winter will get here eventually. It may not look like I think it should. Winter isn’t usually announced with a big thunderstorm and a tornado. But winter is now here. It just took time and patience.

When you speak of hope and expectation of something, human nature is to construct a scenario where it will happen. Perhaps you live in hope and expectation of getting into college. You may construct the scenario in your mind you walking down the sidewalk between gorgeous ivy-covered buildings, book bag on your back. Well, the dream happens, but maybe you live off campus, and become much more familiar with the parking lots and the shuttle busses than you do the sidewalks.

Or maybe you like in hope and expectation of being cured of a disease. You might construct a scenario of never taking your health for granted, exercising better, eating correctly, and living life more fully, however that may look for you. But it happens that the cure for the disease works, but it also leaves you disabled, or altered somehow.

Or maybe you live and hope and expectation of being a grandparent, and then it finally happens. But it happens to you by kids that live 2000 miles away, or maybe it happens that you for some reason raise the grandchildren yourself.

Hope and expectations have a way of growing scenarios around them that don’t end up being true. We then find ourselves being disappointed in the midst of the achievement of what we hoped for and expected.

So it was for many who were hoping for a Messiah. The Messiah that Israel was hoping for and expecting for was a Messiah of wisdom, of strength and of power. But for those who follow the Christian faith, a Messiah of wisdom, strength and power came in the form of a baby, grew to be an adult the ordinary regular way, did not free the political entity of Israel that was under the yoke of Rome, and died as a criminal on the cross.

Not the scenario anyone would build a round a Messiah of wisdom, strength and power. But exactly as God intended, because hope grows. The things that are important, that affect us the most, are the things that grow over time.

Our children are big wrapped up bundles of parenting mistakes and successes, biology, experience and environment, the result of which we sometimes don’t see for 30 years. Professional training leads us into avenues we could not have imagined when we began our educations.

Hope grows. Scenarios fall away, and what is left is God’s will for our lives.

What scenarios are you cherishing right now? A perfect Christmas Currier and Ives scene with sleighs and snow and singing? A Norman Rockwell painting of family around a table? A Kinkade painting of Christmas trees shining through the windows of houses on rainy foggy nights?

At times, me too. I love the feeling of coming out of church on Christmas eve, near or after midnight, and the sky is clear and starry, the air is crisp and cold, and people are hollering Merry Christmas to each other as they get into their cars to go home. Their red taillights blend in with the lights on the houses they pass.

I freely admit that there’s a moment where I hope and expect that will happen. But it is a scenario that has nothing to do with Christmas as it is meant to be.

Christmas is meant to be the church’s celebration of the sending of a Messiah that will save the world. That it happens in December, which coincidentally happens with snow on the ground, makes Christmas, in our minds eye, into a scene of cold, snow, and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in the background. It is the scenario we build around a very serious idea—that the world has been saved by the birth of a baby. This is Christmas, when we celebrate that we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, who was born as a baby and raised as a human being, who is one with the Father, who will, as Jeremiah says. “execute justice and righteousness in the land”, and who will, on Good Friday, die to save us. And who will, on Easter, be raised by God to overcome the power of death and sin.

It’s tough to build a scenario around that hope and expectation, but in the end it is that hope and expectation that can be relied on. And so we begin that time of thinking about and waiting for the moment this year when we see it, we get it, we feel it, again. This is Advent. When Hope grows into faith.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Truths that Aren’t Truthy

John 18:33-38
Revelation 1: 4b-8

“Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”—The American Dialect Society

On late night TV, there are sometimes shows that are significant for various reasons. When I am up late enough, I like to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show that comes after it is one I am not such a great fan of, but it does have its moments. It’s called The Colbert Report, and it is “hosted” by a former “correspondent” on The Daily Show, named Steven Colbert. If you’ve seen the most recent cover of the Rolling Stone magazine, these are the two guys I am talking about.

Colbert discovered a word that has caught fire in some circles, a world that he used the night his show premiered. The word is “truthiness”. The American Dialect Society defines it like this: “Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

We live in a time when people sometimes choose to trust their beliefs rather than discover or acknowledge what the truth is. A lifetime of belief, or a course of action based on that belief can sometimes turn out to be less than what is actually true.

Beliefs like the one that if you work hard, educate yourself, you can become whatever it is you want to be.

This is part and parcel of the American dream, the basic credo of who we are as a nation. When we list the qualities we most admire about ourselves, becoming who we dream we want to be is pretty high on the list. Our grandfathers and grandmothers, perhaps even our mothers and fathers, perhaps even we, came here to the US with this promise in our minds.

We can control our own destiny, if we learn how to rely only on ourselves and the gifts we have. This is very truthy. Most of the time, it is even true. From all I hear these days, we are still the beacon nation, the nation where people go to improve their lives, to have the possibility of improving ourselves and our children—a place to escape from the castes of the homeland, the brutality of a government, the ironclad cultural roles we long to break out of. From the Pilgrims to the landed gentry of Virginia, the indentured servants to the miners from many countries in Europe who populated this valley and these mountains, all came to improve their material status. We have become a great nation because we are the mix of the talents of everyone who came to our shores.

It’s truthy, it is even partly true. But only partly. Many people have dreams that circumstances will not allow them to realize. Their dreams may not match their talents. Their circumstances may not allow them to achieve everything they planned for.

But as Christians, we believe in more than just the American Dream of material success. When I say “material success”, I do not mean the kind of material success that allows us to buy the Playstation III as soon as it is released. Most of us, frankly, aren’t in that place. We want to provide food, housing, education and some measure of comfort to our families and ourselves. We live in a culture where we are told that if we work hard, live right and be patient, we will succeed in these matters. Many people in many countries do not even have this possibility, and that is why we are still so attractive to so many people, imperfect as we are as a country.

But as a Christian, success has a different definition. As Christians, we are not rewarded for the strength of our backs, the quickness of our minds, the power of our portfolios. We are rewarded for our obedience, expected to do all in our power to let the other succeed with our help, even when it affects our material success. Ultimately, to use some midieval terms, we are called to surrender ourselves, body and soul, willingly, to someone else. We have talents, gifts and graces, and our willingness to offer them for the benefit of someone else is the measure of our success.

It’s a truth that doesn’t sound very truthy. It doesn’t feel right to us, raised as we are to be self-reliant, independent and wary. In an era of democracy, we Christians are to use the language of kings and subjects. Christ is our King, we are his subjects. You’re probably thinking that that sounds rather distasteful, and I agree with you. I like to feel as if I became a minister by the virtue of my own labor and the support of Donna and our parents, that I somehow “earned” it. And truthfully, all of that helped. But the truth is that if God didn’t want me to be a minister, I wouldn’t have become one. That’s the non-truthy bit.

Pilate was a man who probably believed he had earned the right to be the Roman leader of Jerusalem and the area round it. He was Roman, he believed in whatever the culture believed created him as a successful leader. Jesus, to him, must be a threat, because he claims that he is a king, but he is confused about what sort of King that is. He hears the truth in the statement “if my Kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But my Kingdom is not from here”. He understands, perhaps even feels the leadership or the divinity of Jesus.

Pilate’s been around leaders, and this sorry, beat up specimen of a man feels like a king. But he is not acting like a king should. Whoever his people may be, there is no organized uprising of Jesus-backers in the city. “For this I was born”, Jesus says, “and for this I came into the world.” For this? For trial? For execution? A King? For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”.

What is the truth?
The truth is that because we are Christians, Jesus Christ is our King.
The truth is that because we are Christians, we are his subjects.

What is Truthy?
If the American Dialect Society is right about the definition of truthy, that truthiness refers to preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true, then it is very truthy that we somehow are Christians by right.

We are Christians by the grace of God, not by right. And there is no truthiness there!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Baby Eyes

Newsletter Article for Shavertown United Methodist Church, Dec. 2006

In the Prayer book Celtic Daily Prayer, there is a short essay about Advent. One line in it struck me. It says that “the door to the stable where the Christ Child has been born is very low—and only those who kneel find access.”

Great. Another time when I’m being told that I need to be humble to find God. Another instance when I am told that I need to get over myself in order to grow in Christ. We’re called to serve. We’re called to be kind to those who aggravate us. Oh, bla bla bla. Can’t I just once get mad, follow through on it, and it be God’s plan? Jesus got to turn the moneychanger’s tables over in the temple, I bet that felt really good. Can’t I just once?

There are times when we just know we are right. Problem is, we human types will take what is right and run way too far with it, making what was right into a sin, through pride, prejudice, insecurity or any of the other ways in which we are imperfect when compared to our brother Jesus Christ. So, yes, we need to be reminded more than one six week period a year that we must be humble in the face of the one God who created the world and loves us perfectly.

So, no, I don’t get to cut loose. None of us do, because no matter how much we may believe it, we are just not close enough to God to do it God’s way. Jesus is our model, and he only got to do it once!

Maybe that’s why he sent Jesus as a baby. We want to be our best selves around a baby, for some reason, especially for parents. It’s true for almost everyone, though.

So, as a way of keeping ourselves grounded and humble, whenever we get steamed or aggravated, maybe it would do us some good to think about how we look to a baby. Do we really want a child to see what we’re doing and learn from us that this is how to function in the world?

That may be the best lesson of Advent: to act as if a baby is watching and learning.

Merry Christmas!!

Pastor Drew

Monday, November 13, 2006

Love from the Center of Who You Are, Don't Fake it!

Wyoming Conference Youth Alive 2006
Camp Ladore, Waymart, PA

Love From the Center of who you are, don’t fake it!-Romans 12:9a, The Message

So, I have finally caught up with popular culture and have seen Napoleon Dynamite. I’ve been able to recognize the lines for a while. “Get your own tots!” “It’s a liger.” “Vote for Pedro” shirts. I’d read enough reviews to get the themes of the movie, but I’d never actually seen the thing. And here’s what I saw. I saw a guy that looks a lot like I felt at times in middle school and high school. The girl bailing on him at the dance brought back especially bad memories!

I saw a guy who was a lot like I felt, though I didn’t look much like him. And I’d expect that there are a lot of us here who have also seen the movie and something resonates.

Guys like Napoleon are socially difficult. Family situations are different; we have honest interests that aren’t part of the mainstream, we may have a lack of physical coordination, or we’re short, or round, or thin. We may have a laugh that is too loud. We may have an accent. There are a million ways in which culture marks us as different and “other”. And for those of us who are here, we also have this problem of being Christian, and some of the choices we make also set us apart. The culture makes us instinctively ashamed.

But who we are on the outside is very rarely who we really are. When I went to my 10 year high school reunion, I was voted most changed. In high school, I was nice enough, I guess. My freshman year picture, as my youth group will testify, had me with hair parted in the middle and feathered back. The part in my hair had gone over to the side by the time I graduated. I was in drama and choir, didn’t do sports, and got average grades. I was VERY interested in girls. Ten years later, I was round, bald, and had become a minister. More than one person didn’t recognize me.

How we look changes. How we look is not who we are. Hopefully not, anyway, because that is not what God intends. God intends our lives to be journeys to the center of ourselves.

Who we are is a bunch of layers. And the work of growing up is a process of digging through those layers, down to the place where we find out who we really are, who God designed us to be.

Here’s the top layer, the layer that people see first—the ominous “first impression”. Important to some, but not to us, not to God. For Napoleon, it’s the layer of glasses, hair, and jeans.

Here’s the next layer, the layer of who you are when no one is looking. Here’s our nose-picking, dancing-in-the-mirror, secret-dream selves that only a few people know about. This is Napoleon’s dancing in his room to the old videotape. It’s the Liger level. It’s your favorite food, your secret enjoyment of disco music. This is where some folks place the expression of their faith.

The movie stops there, but there are deeper levels. He and Kip live with their grandmother. Where are their parents? Why is Kip so much older? Why is grandma so grumpy? We never hear that story, but we know it is there, because every one comes from somewhere.

How did your parents raise you? Where was it? How do you remember that place? Does it show in what you do? Does it show in how you talk?

Then you descend through deeper layers. How you were loved, how you love, the stuff that happened to you that makes you angry, sad, depressed fall down to here. The way you act when you’re pushed, or provoked, or set off comes from here. The needs and addictions we have also sprout from here.

Then there is this layer of how we love, and who we love. It’s almost to the center, because this layer is the cover for the center of who we are. It’s the layer that shines like a light bulb, glowing but the light comes from a source inside us.

And then, at the very center, there it is. A small, glowing element. That small bright light. Remember the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? That scene next to the lake in the woods when Sirius and Harry are being attacked by the Dementors, and a small white light floats out of Sirius’ mouth, then is sucked back in? It’s like that.

That small white light is love. That is the center of who we are. The center of all of us is love. That’s the place where God is, and our lives are the journey to the place where we find it. As Christians, we have the advantage of a better map than most, and names for where we’re going.

Now that we’re there, and we’ve named it, what do we do with it? What is love? What does our road map say it is?
“Love never gives up,
Love cares more for others than for self,
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.”
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7, The Message)

That is the little tiny piece of God that is at our very center. Sirius is dead without it. Harry’s love keeps him alive.

And that’s the funny thing about this little spark of God. It burns much brighter when it is in contact with other ones with as little block as possible. It works like a magnet. It cannot be blocked from other sparks, no matter how many layers there are around it, but the less junk there is, the brighter it is.

Each of us here, each of you, truly do have this spark in side of us. And we can tell that we’re getting closer to it when we feel more like that list of what love is. We all have that potential. We all have that spark.

So when we really “love from the center of who we are”, we’re looking like God. We’re looking like Jesus.

Now I know that none of us are going to look like that all the time. But the closer we get, the more we look like God. And that is what he asks. Because we are his face on earth.

Harry sent out his Patronus spell from his center. Napoleon danced for Pedro’s skit out of that center. God is in our center. God is in your center. Each of you. And your life journey, your walk with Christ, is to get to that center. That’s where His heart is. That’s where He is.

Love from the Center of who you are. Don’t fake it. But drive for it. Strive for it. Get to it. That is our call as Christians.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Banquet of Glory

John 11:32-40
Isaiah 25: 6-9

Last Tuesday night was Halloween. My wife and I took our son to trick or treat with his best friend and his family. It was a very good time—we got to know some new friends, and the boys had an out of their minds great time. They zipped from house to house as Batman, Anakin Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, and the guy from the Scream movies all banded together to save the universe.

I think the Scream guy even had Jedi powers at one point, but I'm not sure. Sometimes they even forgot to trick or treat. But when they did remember, they were very enthusiastic. They would hide, and when the door opened they would jump out and holler "Trick or Treat!". The boys certainly honored the feast of all Saints in the most enthusiastic ways young boys can.

And when they got home, boy, was the haul great! Candy of every kind and flavor, and the trading began. The boy who had the peanut allergy gave away all of the Reese's Peanut Butter cups and the Snickers, and got more bags of chips in trade. There's a new candy that I am sure is made just for young boys—gummi-type candies that are modeled after some of the things people have to eat on the TV show Fear Factor. Each boy had to try one of those.

Halloween, for young boys, and I would imagine young girls, too, is a feast of fun and all of the foods they don't get every other day of the year. They would like nothing more than to plow through the whole bag as soon as possible, eating candy for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks until it is all gone. It's a childhood version of a heavenly feast. And it isn't even so much about the candy itself as just the freedom to do stuff they normally can't do.

That feeling of freedom, that feeling of unlimited joy that the boys showed on Tuesday night is, I think a foreshadowing of the joy that we will feel when we move from this world into the next. I had occasion this week to also meditate on our ultimate destination because on Halloween morning, I was privileged to celebrate the life of one of our parishioners. She was 92, survived by her three sons and one grandson; she lived a long life, and died rather suddenly. She was a long-time member of the church I serve, and knew that she was loved by God, and believed in Jesus. She was also loved here, and it was my saying "If you think you are loved here, you just wait!" that gave her sons the greatest comfort. They, as at times we all are, were unsure about where she was headed—is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is there just a lightening of a physical body by thirteen grams and then a burial, with nothing to come after?

Well, we don't know for sure. Despite all the stories of going into and coming back from the light, we don't have documentary evidence of what happens next. We believe what we believe on faith. We believe, as Christians, that there is a heaven. Most of us believe that there is some sort of place other than heaven. Some of us Christians spend more time thinking about that other place, and the Bible calls it hell. But you know what? The word hell only appears in the Protestant Bible 13 times. Only twice is fire associated with Hell, once in Matthew, once in James. Heaven appears over 800 times. Which do you think God wants us to concentrate on?

If the evidence of Scripture is to be accepted, our face is to be turned toward heaven, because that is where God is. And of course, where your face is turned, there your travel goes. We acknowledge that there is a place where there is not God, and that is the place Scripture calls hell. But it doesn't help us or anyone else to fixate on what we shouldn't do in life. We are much more strongly guided, and in tune with God, when we concentrate on what we should be doing. Sure, a warning very now and again is useful. But a steady diet of threats and frights is not guidance. It is intimidation. This isn't how God works. We can be guided by Jesus to see God in a clearer way, the deeper we become God's people. Our goal, God's goal for us, is not to avoid hell but to achieve heaven. We fall short, but we behave much better when we are assured of God's love and forgiveness than if we are threatened by God's withdrawal from our lives. God is not a bad parent. God is not stingy with His love for us. He does not withdraw it from us when we fail. He reaches out even more, because we are his children, He loves us, and wants us to come to Him.

He wants us to come to Him freely, and by our own choice. He wants to be with us in a place that he has created, in a place where it is so good, so joyful that John writes about it in Revelation as a city of gold and precious gems. Isaiah writes about it as a banquet with rich food and well aged wine, where there is no hatred or death. And to get there, as Jesus says to Martha, if you believe, you will see the glory of God.

If you believe that Jesus came to save you, you will see the glory of God.
If you believe that God can work changes in you, you will see the glory of God.
If you believe that the Holy Spirit can lead you to greater and richer relationship with God, you will see the glory of God.

If you believe. That's a very sweet thing to say. Our believing depends on the day, doesn't it? If the morning coffee was good, no one made us angry this morning, and we feel competent in what we do during the day, saying we believe is easy enough. But there are times where we want to echo the words "I believe; help my unbelief!" There are times in our lives when it is exceedingly difficult to believe in God. God knows that, and the solution is to reach out to God more then. I know how hard it is to remember that in the middle of the problem, I've forgotten more than once, too. But there is no greater proof of your belief that to remember that belief in the midst of our trials. And that proof is just for us. God knows our true hearts, and is just waiting for us to figure it out.

If you believe, your faith will grow, your joy will increase, and when the time comes, you will feel joy like a seven year old boy trick or treating. You will be in the glory of the banquet, where the food is rich, the wines are clear, and all the candy is yummy, even the Fear Factor gummi-worms.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Parable of the Grand Ship

Once there was a grand ship. It was the largest in the fleet, with the largest engines and the fastest time across the ocean. It held the most passengers, and scheduled the most activities for the passengers while on board ship. It was mighty and strong, and was able to withstand all the storms that were so regular in the ocean.

One day, the ship was sailing along, and it was said that there was not enough coal in the holds to run the engines. The bins next to the coal furnaces were indeed lower than they should have been, but in the storage areas, there was plenty. Somehow, the coal wasn’t getting to the bins, and therefore not getting into the engines. It seems that there were a few of the coal carriers who had decided not to carry any more coal. “We’re using too much coal, it’s needed in other places on the ship. The younger coal carriers aren’t carrying as much as they should, and we don’t like the places the ship is taking us. There is plenty in the bin for engine #1, you really just need to turn off engine #2. We don’t need two, anyway.”

Since the carriers were insistent on their need to use the coal in other parts of the ship, coal which the ships’ manifest clearly said was there, the rest of the crew decided that it was indeed Ok to continue with just one engine. They turned the other engine off, and they even moved some of the coal from engine #2,’s bin over to #1. The next time they were in home port, they removed engine #2.

Things proceeded well for a while, the grand ship continuing to sail across the ocean. It was going a little bit slower, yes. Some of the passenger’s activities were curtailed, also true. But it was still a grand looking ship, with a freshly painted hull, including a brightly painted red line at the waterline, and bright flags hanging off the smokestacks.

However, as regularly happened, a storm came up. To move out of the storm, they increased engine #1’s speed, and the ship did move forward more quickly. The storm moved even faster, however, and overtook the grand ship. This happened again and again, as the ship continued to sail. The flags were ripped from their lanyards, and blew away in the wind. The brightly painted hull soon became pitted with salt and sand from the storms and the waves. To make matters worse, engine #1 began to miss cycles, began to wear out from fighting the storms. The coal carriers, seeing that engine was slowing down, and beginning to fail, said “we must cut back on the coal intake for engine #1, because it isn’t doing the work for us it needs to. We must keep the coal in the hold safe against waste. See, the storm has overtaken us! It is the engine’s job to power us out of the storm!”

Seeing that the ship was no longer grand, no longer shiny, no longer fast, and had a failing engine, the passengers failed to come aboard anymore. The ship seemed to get caught in a storm every time it sailed, and successive engines could do nothing to clear the ship from any storm it came across. The ship was still floating, but it remained short of coal, because there were now fewer passengers.
To continue to make the crossings, without passengers and replacement engines that took less coal to run, but were weaker, the coal carriers suggested that they cut the ship exactly along the formerly bright red line along the hull, and remove the top half so that the bulk of the ship would no longer overpower the new engine.

This worked well, with the formerly grand ship powering along with great speed, taking very few brave and weather-beaten passengers and its load of coal back and forth across the ocean. Then came a storm. The formerly grand ship, now basically a keeled raft and open to the sky, was quickly swamped by waves that it used to power through with its strong hull and mighty engines. The ship sank quickly, its small engine driving it toward the bottom of the ocean and its hold full of coal giving weight to the descent.

The coal carriers, looking down into the ocean from life rafts floating on the surface, cursed the shipping line that gave them such a bad ship and such a small engine.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Brothers and Sisters?

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2: 5-12
Psalm 26

Last week I was on a retreat. I went to a place called Weston Priory, in south central Vermont.
This was my first experience with monks up close, following a modified version of their daily routine. I attended worship 4 or 5 times a day, depending on what they had scheduled. The first service was at 5 AM, and the last was a vespers at 8:00 PM. I took communion with them, which is very unique—regular Catholic churches rarely allow non-Catholics to receive communion, and never both forms.

All of their worship services are led by the assembled company at the priory, of course all men, who spanned the range of mid 20’s to probably 75 or so. They sing together, accompanied by two guitars played by brothers. It is very gentle song, meditative or fast moving, occasionally with drums.

The songs all seem to have the same outlook, which to me was striking. You see, their lyrics have much less of a confessional “we’re not worthy” aspect to them than what we sing here.

Here’s an example:
When bread is on every table,
all will know that Jesus is risen.
Then the poor of the world will feast,
and their children will sing “Alleluia”


We waited, we waited for you, O God
Then you came to meet us and set us free.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I know we have songs that affirm our faith in God, and reinforce our assurance that Jesus died for and saved us.

But I have to say that it is rare to hear an ordinary Methodist believer have so clear and quiet a belief in God in their lives. Maybe it is the difference between living in the world and following God; the struggle that Paul describes as “being in the world and not of it.” These monks are still in the world—they sell music, they make and sell maple syrup and have to go into town for supplies. They wear shoes and pants when they are not in worship, just like anyone else. When it was cold, they wore sweaters and fleece jackets, and when it rained they wore rain gear. They are not self sufficient. But they somehow have this quiet, blessed assurance that God is with them. They seem to have a quiet assurance that Jesus is their brother.

Jesus is their brother. For some of us in the walk with Christ we have chosen, calling Jesus brother seems, somehow presumptuous, doesn’t it?

And yet, we just read assurance in Hebrews, verse 11, that: For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. . .

Yes. If you believe that you are sanctified by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the action of God, then you are one of Jesus brothers and sisters. You are on His level. Or rather, by freely submitting himself to drink the cup that God had for him, he brought himself to be on our level, down here a little lower than the angels. If we believe, He comes to our level, too.
Down to the level of worrying about the next test.
Down to the level of trying to stretch the family budget for another week.
Down to the level of worrying about how to buy prescriptions.

And when you think about it, that changes the way we can talk to him, doesn’t it? Instead of reverential and respectful, we can be plain and clear and honest, even when we cringe inwardly at what comes out of our hearts.

He understands our worries about our children—“Will they go to college?” “Will they make the right choices?” “Does he have a learning disability?”
He understands our worries about our relationships—“Why did he stop loving me?” “Why can’t I get ahead at work?” “Am I too angry for people to get close to me?”

He understands our worries about ourselves—“Why can’t I stop smoking?” Am I depressed?”
He understands our concerns throughout our lives, both the noble and the selfish.
He understands. Because he was human, too.

It is a blindingly positive outlook on life to have Jesus on our level, isn’t it? Some may say, “Well, perhaps that is true and is all pretty and everything, but I do not feel worthy for this. Jesus cannot have come to the level I truly am, the secret me I keep hidden from myself.”

Yes, he can. Yes, he has already. In His love, he met you there. I don’t know how—I don’t have a degree in heavenly fluid dynamics. The Holy Spirit will move where it will, like a wild goose, like the wind, like a nasty 12 to 6 curveball with movement. But I saw that those monks just KNEW that they were Jesus’ brothers, and it affected their whole way of living life, of their way of praying. And I think it affected me a little bit, too.

Those guys can say, and probably with less doubt than we can, that they have trusted in the Lord without wavering. They can ask for God to prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.

We are the children of God. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. We have a proud family heritage, and within us is the power to continue to show our inheritance from God, the one we share with Jesus. We haven’t earned it, any more than Prince Charles earned the right to become the next King of England. Jesus was strong because of the way he had faith in God, which means that we can, too.

So, my message is to trust in the inheritance we have received—to trust in the words we read and hear, when we are told that we are God’s children, that we all are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. And you don’t have to be a monk in Vermont to live it, either. You can live it in the life you already lead. You see, blood is blood. No matter where you go, you still carry the name. Into the office, into the daycare, into the drive through at Burger King, into the dance club, into the classroom, into the field, onto the court. Everyone you meet is a Child of God and a brother and sister of Jesus.

And when we fail, we are forgiven. And we are still the children of God, the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Still.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Keeping the Fire Down

Sept. 16/17, 2006

James 3: 1-12
Mark 8: 27-38

Second week of August, I was on vacation with my family down at Mauch Chunk Lake, just above Jim Thorpe. It was a great week! We cooked s’mores most nights, except for one night when Donna made these great banana-chocolate-peanut butter things that you wrap in foil and throw into the fire. We canoed almost every day; we biked down the Switchback trail one day, and generally hung out. Very restful!

All except for the last night. We were in the cabins near the lake in the campground, and the last night, two of the cabins were rented by some young men of late High school/early college age. One was directly across from us, one was right next to us.

I started getting nervous when I was one guy drive a pickup truck up to the cabin across the way and dump out a whole bed load of construction scraps. Then there was another. While we were out, probably two more.

Once it got dark, the fire got lit, and was at least 6 feet high, at times. We were up most of the night with the music and the loud talking and the glow from this bonfire.

For me, it was a real lesson in “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

When I was studying the passages for today one phrase seemed to be hidden in the James one, and caught my eye. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Wow. Ouch.

I think of all those times I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet and perhaps said something I shouldn’t have. All those times I was tired, or just tired of it, and said the first thing that came to mind. The times when I thought up something clever, and found a way to say it, blinded by the cleverness and didn’t notice how mean or ignorant it was.
And I bet when I read that passage, y’all probably did some of that remembering, too.

I wonder if Peter regretted, later, whatever it was he said to Jesus. We don’t have the words in Mark, but we do have the description of Peter pulling Jesus aside and “rebuking” him for talking about being killed and rising again, and being rejected and all that. Can you imagine what Peter wanted to say?

“Come on, Jesus, old buddy, let’s tone down this rejection and death talk. You’re starting to spook the disciples, and besides, I just told you that you are the Messiah. You won’t die, you’re going to claim Israel back from Rome and make us great again! Oh, and when are we starting that, by the way?”

Now, Peter wasn’t meaning to, but Jesus might have been a little bit tempted by that. He’s got the power, Satan has already shown it to him during his 40 days in the wilderness. Thing is, Peter could have sounded a little bit like Satan, here. Thus the sharp language from Jesus.

“Huh-uh, I know what my path is, I can’t let your tongue change my course!”

After it was all done and clear, some time after Pentecost, I wonder if Peter ever thought back on that and regretted what he said?

We all stand in the need of grace, here. We’ve all opened our mouths and inserted our feet, or worse. You, me, the folks who aren’t here today. We’ve all popped off every now and again. We’ve all been well intentioned about something, and have had the wrong idea. The ones closer to God here aren’t the ones who do it less; they are the ones who forgive themselves and others when it does happen.

What James is attributing to the tongue, I think we can really lay at the feet of our sinful selves—the times we center on ourselves. The times we just naturally assume we’re right, and “all right thinking people” naturally agree with us about whatever.

Then there are the times when we think we are serving God, and it is contrary to God’s intentions. With regard to societal conventions and “should do’s”, sometimes it is God’s will for someone to fall in love right after a divorce. Sometimes it is necessary for people to divorce. Sometimes you do have to speak up when someone is being hurt. Sometimes it is necessary for people to leave a church to find themselves.

But on the other hand, we aren’t ever called to gossip, or to say inflammatory things for entertainment. If you ever have the feeling in your heart that equates to “hey, watch this”, it’s probably not God. If you are quailing in your boots, and yet can’t do anything other than speak up, then we’re getting closer to God’s intentions.

Just because we can say something, doesn’t mean we need to say something. James says it beautifully earlier, back in Chapter 1, we read it here a couple weeks ago:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Honesty is good. Plain speaking is good. And all of those things are things we are capable of and do every day. Fire is good. Being Passionate is good. We all have things we are intensely interested in. Passion and fire and honesty are all good things. But just because we can be plain, or passionate, doesn’t mean we need to make a bonfire out of it. Folks disagree. Folks will disagree forever. It’s how we go about it that make us visibly Christians. It’s how we disagree, be passionate and plain-speaking that shows God’s light in the world.

May we all, me included, be who God means for us to be!
And may my words have been the Lord’s intention this week. Amen

“Spinach, Wheaties and Gatorade”

John 6: 24-35
Ephesians 4: 11-16

“I’m Popeye the Sailor Man, (toot toot!)
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! (toot toot!)
I’m strong to the finish, ‘cause I eats my spinach,
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man!(toot toot!)

When I was a kid, the old Popeye cartoons were rather easy to find on TV, especially in the afternoons, after school. I think you don’t see them around as much anymore, because in our age, they raise troubling questions about violence, the objectification of women, and well, frankly, as an advertising ploy for spinach, they rather overstate their claims! Spinach does not immediately strengthen you to superhuman strength, balance and endurance.

The old Popeye cartoons do, however, remind us that there is strength in the food that we eat. We can find out all the information we want to find about what food can do for us. We can find out more than we want about how bad some foods are for us. This is not a sermon about keeping a proper diet, and frankly, I am not the person to be giving such a sermon.

But I can remind us of all the foods that claim to have special strengthening properties. If you are my age, you can remember how powerful we were told Wheaties would make us, and, indeed, the cereal still has a strong connection to athletics. It still is a measure of an athlete’s success when they can be on the front of the Wheaties box.

I can remind us all about the claims for Gatorade, that it replenishes body minerals that have been depleted through exercise, giving athletes greater stamina with which to defeat their tiring opponents. We see Gatorade, or Powerade, or some other type of “performance beverage” at every time out in almost any game, when the players will run to the sidelines, listen to the coach, while the trainers drape Gatorade towels on their shoulders and hand them cups marked Gatorade from big 5 gallon Gatorade coolers.

Most serious successful athletes, and many who wish to be successful, will hire both a nutritionist and a chef, who work together to provide meals that will help the athlete perform to their best standards. Steroids aside, this concentration on food is probably why so many modern athletes play longer and better than the ones of years past.

They want to play better or longer. If they are basketball players, they need food to give them stamina for four quarters of constant running up and down the court, with jumping and quick side to side movements. If they are football linemen, they need food that will bulk them up without adding too much body fat, (though for them, some body fat is an asset). If they are runners or cyclists, they need food that gives stamina without adding bulk. And modern dietary science can provide them with most of that information.

But what about us? What about those who are not highly specialized and trained athletes? What if our goals are less to swim the 50 meter freestyle in world record time, and more to get through a day of driving, working, thinking and being? The ones for whom the food pyramids were designed for?

And what about those of us who seek to do God’s will according to the gifts that Paul names in Ephesians 4? Are their specialized foods for prophets? (Please Lord, don’t let that answer be “Yes, locusts and honey”!) Are their specialized foods for apostles and teachers?

We have a whole dietary range of foods of the spirit, both ones that will help us endure, and ones that will give us quick energy. Some of them are specialized for teachers, some for apostles, some for prophets. But all of them involve various combinations of reading and studying the Bible, praying, being together in Christian fellowship, and as John Wesley would call it, Holy reading.

And one more, one that we actually physically eat. Now, I know that as Methodists, our first reaction is to say “potluck?” No, it is a smaller meal, one that Wesley ate on average every five days over his lifetime. When we gather together for communion in a few minutes, we are doing nothing differently than those basketball players gathering on the sidelines. We are coming to listen to the coach and to get a little replenishment. The calories we receive from this meal are slight, physically. But we know, we believe, that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” It is truly the Breakfast of Champions to our souls. Through communion, we are reminded of God’s gift for us, and we become “strong to the finish”, no less than Popeye. We rehydrate, replenish, and refuel our souls to go do God’s work in the world.

When we eat properly, in Christian love and fellowship, then we are promoting a healthy whole body that is, according to Paul, “joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Communion is our spinach, our Wheaties, and our Gatorade.

So when we gather for communion in a few minutes, gather your hearts and minds to your task in God. If you are a person who knows your gifts, have them in the forefront of your mind as you eat. You may kneel at the rail after taking communion if you need a few extra bits of direction from the coach. If you do not know what you may have been given by God for God’s service, you may also wish to kneel to ask what you may do.

And let us all be in the attitude of a team. We have disparate and conflicting personalities, it is true, every team does. But the best teams are the ones that willingly choose to subordinate those personalities to the mission, and the mission of the church is to spread the love of God.

I pray that my words have been the Lord’s intention this day. Amen.

The Ordaining Spirit of God

June 24-25 2006
Isaiah 6: 1-13

(practice singing)
We are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around;
let us praise Jesus now;
we are standing in his presence on holy ground.
From “The Faith We Sing”, #2272

I received the Ordaining spirit of God three weeks ago. I received it, in our Methodist tradition, by the laying on of hands of the Bishop, our wonderful, brave, retiring Bishop Morrison. It was an honor to be ordained by her, because she is one of my heroes in the faith. She washed my feet, laid hands on my head, she covered my hands as I placed them on a Bible and pledged to serve Christ through the church. Then she placed a stole around my shoulders, red for the flames of Pentecost.

There were three of us that night being ordained. Linda Sweezy, who serves Gouldsboro and Thornhurst in the Scranton District, and Cindy Wenzinger, who serves Kirkwood up in the Oneonta District were the other two.

I can say that I don’t remember a lot about what happened to them while they were up on the riser having their feet washed, and having the Bishop lay hands on them. When you are in that position, kneeling in front of the bishop, there are others who are around you too. A pastor from Haiti was there, the chair of the board of Ordained ministry was also there, and the two pastors who presented me also were around me—Bob Herrala, who served as my mentor pastor when I moved to PA., and Pastor Doug. A couple of steps behind them were Donna and Josiah. So there was a crowd around me, just as there was around Cindy and Linda. You can’t see much.

But when I was in that circle, they brought a big pulpit Bible over for me to lay my hands on. I laid my right hand on it, the Bishop laid her hand on top. Then, I laid my left hand on top of hers, which might have surprised her a little bit. I clutched that hand and looked right into her eyes. It was my way of saying to her and to God, “Here I am, Lord, send me!” Many of you have often heard me say that it has been a twelve year road to get to that point three weeks ago. There are some who have received that ordaining spirit, and considered that the culmination of their lives. What it has done for me has been to give me confidence that I am who was called by God. Me. Baseball fan, preferrer of secular music, friend of gays, bald, overweight, messy desk me. And I received the confidence to be me, because God and the church now agree that somehow, I have something to give to the church, and whatever that is, it will only come from the authentic me, the best of me.
It is a strange feeling to be both called out by God and humbled by that call. It is a real sense that for me, I now walk with, and have responsibility for, the people who God may also call. And I get this feeling deep within my heart that I better not mess it up by following my lesser angels. God wants my best, and my best is good enough for God. That is enough proof that my ministry is now on Holy Ground.

(sing) We are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around;
let us praise Jesus now;
we are standing in his presence on holy ground.

One of the longest struggles I had as a candidate was to figure out what exactly an elder is ordained to. Time was, it was an easy statement. I would be a figure of authority, a pillar of the community. In one of the small towns I served in Texas, one of my predecessors was even the mayor and the judge for a while.

But today, authority is a difficult thing. Some people still receive practical authority to do their jobs, but the community’s respect is harder to achieve. Some would say that Nixon screwed up all up for us; others would say that the student protests of the 60’s were to blame. This is not the time or place to debate that, but what is true is that there is a certain distrust of what used to be authority figures. In the church, we have done it to ourselves as much as it has been done to us. I mean pastors who do not honor their marriage vows, TV preachers who abscond with millions of dollars, ones who use the bible for narrow political advantage, and all the rest.

So what is authority? The Book of Worship states, in the examination portion of the Worship services for Ordination that elders:
. . . are called to share in the ministry of Christand of the whole Church:
by preaching and teaching the Word of Godand faithfully administeringthe Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
by leading the people of God in worship and prayer;
by leading persons to faith in Jesus Christ;
by exercising pastoral supervision of the people committed to your care,ordering the life of the congregation,counseling the troubled in spirit,and declaring the forgiveness of sin;
by leading the people of Godin obedience to mission in the world,to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people;
by taking a responsible place in the government of the Churchand in service to the community;
and by being conformed to the life of Christ,
who took the form of a servant for our sake.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul speaks of what sort of character an “overseer” (The NRSV reads Bishop, which I certainly am in no way prepared to do!) should have, and in 1 Timothy 5, the role of Elder emphasizes teaching.

In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul writes about the perseverance piece of being a leader, in language that can be heard very similarly to what the second half of our Isaiah passage says. We overhear Paul writing to the Corinthian church that

. . . as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

So, to distill all this together, I am called to serve the whole church by teaching and leading to the best of my gifts and graces, and to keep my character as upright as possible so as to avoid muddying the message of God. And I have pledged to do so, knowing full well that my idea of upright character may not match someone else’s, that like so many before me, I will make mistakes, and finally that I serve a forgiving God who loves me and picked me, as God called out Samuel, and called out Peter, and called out Isaiah. I have been touched by the coals of the angels, and have been cleansed to speak the word of God. I pray that I can stay cleansed. I pray that I may always remember that I am always walking on Holy Ground.

(sing) We are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around;
let us praise Jesus now;
we are standing in his presence on holy ground.

So, enough about me. What does the ordaining spirit of God have to say to you, people who have lives that are called into the service of God but not to ordained ministry? Are you ordained, too?

In a sense, yes. Most of us here are baptized, most of us here have pledged to serve God with our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. We have been elected, to borrow that old Reformed term. But we have been elected in a way that elects everyone who chooses to accept Christ’ grace in their lives. And we have not been elected to be more righteous, closer to God, or in any way better than those around us. We, like Jesus’ disciples, have been chosen to be a blessing to others.

We are the ones who will go, the ones who say “send me!” People on mission trips, people who take flowers to shut-ins are doing the same work as those who cook for VISION and welcome the dirty, smelly, drug addicted, neighbor into our midst. The ones who come out and sweat to put in trees to make unhappy neighbors happy, and the ones who come and speak a devotional into an answering machine for our prayer line. There are a million ways in which we serve, and yet there are still more things that we can be called to do.

We are chosen, which means we are blessed. We are blessed to be a blessing. God has called, and we have said Here am I, Lord, send me! In small ways and in large, we have. And our journey is to know more, to do more, in whatever ways we are able to. Ultimately, it is to say that “we are yours Lord, do with us what you will”. That is the sanctified attitude. And make no mistake; though I have had all of this happen to me, my journey to perfection in love is not yet done. But, as I pledged, and as I believe, I am going on to perfection in love.

Will you come with me? Will you receive the Ordaining spirit of God through his grace? Will you come stand, and walk forward into Christ’s service, on Holy Ground?

(sing) We are standing on Holy Ground, and I know that there are angels all around;
let us praise Jesus now;
we are standing in his presence on holy ground.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Making the Travel List

Mark 6:6b-13

July 8-9, 2006

One of the books I have enjoyed the most recently is a biography of a man named James Holman. http://www.jasonroberts.net/holman.html. He was born in England lived in the years that bridged the 18th and 19th centuries. Like many memorable people of that time, he was an explorer, an adventurer, and a naval officer. His greatest feat was being one of the first people to circumnavigate the globe as a civilian, or at least not in the service of a military mission. But what sets him apart as being worthy of remembrance is that he walked, rode horses, sailed and did all that he did through Siberia, Africa, South America and Asia, and all the oceans in between, blind.

As a junior officer in the North American squadron of the British Navy, he developed rheumatism that caused him to lose his sight. He was declared disabled and came to live in a place called Travers College, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. He and six other similarly retired or disabled men, the Seven Gentlemen, would be housed as they led “a virtuous studious and devout life. . . “. Their only requirement was that they attend worship daily in the chapel at Windsor Castle. They would be called the Naval Knights of Windsor.

The thing about this was that Holman had been bitten by the adventure bug. He was raised by a father who was an apothecary (what we would call a pharmacist), in a port town. So he grew up in the midst of exotic smells and substances and in regular contact with sailors and travelers who could tell stories from all over the world. He had even originally joined the navy to, as our own Navy used to advertise, “see the world”.

Losing his sight in his twenties was a blow, but it did not stop him. He resolved to travel around the world on foot as much as possible, and his first attempt led him through Europe into Siberia, and only when he was in the last major city before the Bering Strait did the Russian government retrieve him and expel him westward into Poland.

Because he was on half pay from the British Navy and received only a slight stipend from the Naval Knights of Windsor, he was obligated to walk for many of his travels, and was also obligated to eat very simply. He was a great storyteller and has the ability to listen as well, not the least of which enabled him to learn languages well. So he was welcomed into many places, through many cultures in his travels. He carried little other than a length of leather string at times, which allowed him to walk beside a carriage or cart. He also carried a walking stick which he used similarly to those white sticks that many blind people use now. The stick he carried had scorch marks and a partially melted tip from a nighttime sojourn up the side of Mount Vesuvius.
Though his story is not an explicit story of discipleship, traveling the world to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, his story does hold much instruction for those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ.

The Disciples, sent by Jesus to do his work, were instructed, at least in this Mark passage, to take nothing for their journey except a staff. No money, no extra clothes, no luggage, no snacks for the road. Just go and do what you are commanded to do by God. This sounds a little imprudent to our ears, (what about a little bottle of Purell? What about some water? What about sunblock, a hat, extra can of gas in the trunk. . . .), but one commentator explains it this way: “. . . A second tunic would have provided protection from the cold night air. Rather, they are to trust God to provide lodging each night. . . The disciples were required to depend on local hospitality.”. The command to shake one’s dust off of one’s feet was not so much to cast a curse upon the town that had rejected the message, but rather to say to oneself that the town refused to hear the Word of God as this human disciple has presented it, and it is time to move on.

Holman’s story is instructive because it tells us that courage, intelligence, wisdom, good humor, and a genuine curiosity about the world will overcome any handicap or obstacle. It also tells us that we must follow our nature—we must pay attention to how God made us. For Holman, it was only when he was traveling that he was at his healthiest. He never regained his sight, but his rheumatism and other ailments disappeared in travel, even when he was in a climate worse than where he was stationed in the Navy, which caused him to lose his sight.

So too, we must follow our natures. For those who nurture, we must find ways to serve God with courage, intelligence, wisdom, good humor, and genuine interest. For those of us who study and teach, this is no less true. For those of us who build and repair, it is still true. Any of the ways that we can see our lives following certain patterns are the ways that we have been made to serve God. And just as the disciples would walk their roads with faith, so must we, not knowing what is around the next bend, who we will meet, whether they will like us and what we have to give to the world, or not, but trusting that we will indeed find places that will be open to us and to our God.

We are all called to God’s service to journey with his love, but we are also called to refresh ourselves in God and in each other. We must remember that are not sent out once for all time, never to return to the fold. Later in Mark, the disciples return from their sojourns in ministry, and Jesus entreats them to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while”. We should not think we can be any different.

So we come back here to worship and to share with each other our stories. We come to study the Bible, or fellowship with each other. We go on retreats alone, or with others. Then we go back out into the service of God.

James Holman was a man who accomplished a lot though following his nature. He took periods of rest, took the time to participate fully in whatever culture he was in, but because he was a traveler, he traveled.

What is your mode of discipleship? What is your nature? How can you serve God, make Jesus known, in your journey through life? How can you contribute to the ministry of this church, or to the church in the Wyoming Valley, or Pennsylvania, the US, the world?

Sometimes it is as simple as contributing something positive to the world. A talent for quilting in its time and place is as powerful as forceful diplomatic peace talks. A quarter in a strangers’ parking meter is in it’s time and place as powerful as 30 billion dollars of foreign aid. All we do to make a loving, caring, powerful God known, including trusting in him to provide basic shelter and care, is to the good.

So, what do we take with us in God’s service? What do we put on our travel list?

(At this point, I pull some items out of a knapsack)

Courage (toy lion), intelligence (tour guide book), wisdom (Bible), faith (cross), our best natures (Angel statue), good humor (Joke book), curiosity (magnifying glass) and love of the world (globe).

Well, OK, perhaps a toothbrush.

Relying on God to serve God says more to the world about God than any gift we could give, any thing we could say, any distance we could walk or drive or fly. The only things that truly need to be on our Travel list are the things that God has given us to do his work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fishing with the United Methodist Pole

Mark 1: 14-20

What a wonderful image we have today- Jesus fishing for people, enabling others to do the same. Jesus by the lakeshore, walking in the sand. Jesus crooking his finger and the disciples come running.

But fishing not the greatest vision, if you are a fish. You either get hooked by discovering that the shiny little pretty or the tantalizing bit of food turns out to be nothing but a hook in your mouth and a bit of rubber and feather, or you do get a little bit of food, but you still get the hook. And the hook hauls you to a place where you can’t breathe, and you either die there, or some large being takes the hook out of your mouth and throws you back.

If you are lucky enough to be thrown back, you hope that you never bite into a piece of food that hurts you ever again. It would be enough to put you off eating.

What you have just read is an over-analyzed metaphor. Jesus’ metaphor was clever, and it gave his mission very quickly, it is also our mission as a church- we are called to fish for people, which is half of the two interpretations of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

What I would like to do today is to think big picture. It’s January, the time when a lot of pastors think or talk out loud about the direction of their church. January preacheritis. I have succumbed to the disease, and i'm going to do that today. I am going to think about the denomination as a whole- The United Methodist Church. And I want to think about the kind of fishers of people that we are.

Who are we as a denomination?

Are we the church that allows pastors to bar people from becoming members for various reasons? Are we a church that demands that people who join us agree and sign a paper that says they believe certain things about God, Jesus the Bible and heaven?

Or are we the church that loves everyone, that allows people to freely come and go, as they see fit, because God works in each person’s life, and we are there to shepherd them as they come to us, and expect no support in exchange for the good we do?

Or are we the church that stands as an institution? Are we a bulwark in American society strong enough to be able to say that I am Methodist, I stand for something?

We are all of these things. We are also a lot more. We are also a lot less.

The truth is, in this time in American History, in World history, it is not easy to say anything about who we are. The terrain has changed. We are not the middle class American, anti-Communist, church any more. As we have grown out of the 1950’s, we have sprouted aspects of what used to be the characteristics of Baptists only. We also carry aspects of what used to be called Episcopalian. As a denomination, we have always bridged that gap, but now it has seeped far deeper into our character.

The world has changed. Church has changed. What makes us unique, as Methodists, now?

I believe that the thing that makes us unique isn’t our style of music. You go to energetic, vital United Methodist churches around the world, and you will hear fantastic organs and chorus of voices that sound as perfect and angelic as anything you’d hear in Westminster Abbey. You’d also hear the sounds of African a capella voices. You’d hear the quiet contemplative singing of acoustic guitar and voices, and the sharp electric guitars and thump of drums. And all of it is beautiful, and United Methodist.

Maybe you can tell who Methodists are by the way the clergy dress. Nope, sorry. White albs, black academic robes, suits, dresses, denim shirts and khaki pants, saris.

How about the way the laypeople dress? Nope. The people in the pews are more varied in their dress than the people behind the pulpit are.

To say that as United Methodists, we are all Christian is not enough. We have a unique flavor that you should be able to find in every Methodist church, Shavertown to Seattle, Montrose to Mozambique. Here is what I think that is.

First, we understand that God works in the world not to divide, but to unify. God sent Jesus into the world not to separate the sheep from the goats, but to get God’s people to believe that they are all sheep. We are all worthy of the love of God and the promise of heaven. Jesus came to make the all world understand that we are “we.”

Second, if you believe in God, and seek earnestly after his wisdom in your life and actions, you will go to heaven. No strings attached. Blessed Assurance, indeed!

If these sound obvious to you and perhaps a little disappointing, let me say to you that there are a lot of churches that do not believe one or the other.

Those things being said, here are the things that, I believe, we are not, or shouldn’t be:
The Republican party at prayer.
The Democratic party at prayer
Middle class, white, self centered seekers of our own salvations.
Absolved of any responsibility to take care of our fellow humans in the world.

The stated goal of the United Methodist church is to make Disciples of Jesus Christ. The best thing about that mission statement is that it is pretty universal. It can mean both that we are called to evangelize the world, or that we are called to Christian formation of those who have already been baptized. And I believe that our call is to both.

We are called to do both. God loves the world, and wants the world to live closer to what God had planned. We, as his adopted children, are the people to act on his behalf.

We are not called to make the whole world Methodist. We are not called to force the whole world to become Christian. We are called to understand Wesley’s phrase “the World is our parish” as a guideline for our own lives in Christ.

When Jesus walked along the beach and called James and Andrew, and went to all of those other places and called all of those other people, he started a chain that has led to the people of our denomination. It is called, as are all others, to serve Christ, and we are called to serve Christ from our unique understanding of how God works in the world. We are called to serve from our Wesleyan understanding.

We are called to fish with a Wesleyan pole, as it were.

We are called to lead with grace, with acceptance, and with love. There are no people who are outside our message of the Gospel, our welcome to God’s love, or eligibility for membership in our churches. Or at least there shouldn’t be. Where we have made less than loving choices, we have fallen short of the glory of God. We have switched the bait for the pain of the hook.

We are an international church, who seeks to welcome those of all nations into our churches. And this is the right thing to do. Let us continue to seek God’s grace and guidance to remain this way, and let us seek God’s forgiveness when we have fallen short of his plan for the world. And I pray, serving this church in this place, that we do our part to make sure that God’s universal love in known to all who hear of us. and when I see the best of the church, I see that it is very possible.