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.