Monday, April 23, 2007

A Really Great Fish Story

John 21: 4-19

Second Sunday after Easter, Year C

Coming in off the water, the smell of grilled fish, fresh bread, and a fire must be one of the best smells on earth! And you have to believe, that because it's Jesus, the fish is cooked perfectly, the bread is moist, and the fire is warm. You've just come in, after fishing all night, your mind on the things of the recent past; your denying him, his death, the claim that he's not dead after all, the appearance in your midst in the upper room, his coming again for Thomas' benefit, and now, he appears again, this time with breakfast?

You know, a person could get used to this! Peter, one of Jesus' closest followers, still has a bit of reserve about him. Something seems to have happened between them that Peter seems to feel sorry about. Could it be that Peter feels a little embarrassed about having denied Jesus the strongest of us all that night?

But here's Jesus, with cooked fish and bread on Peter's home fishing beach. Peter seems ready to show whatever is necessary to show Jesus he is sorry, not even waiting to get to land. It's proper to take your robes off to fish in, because they might get wet and weigh you down, but it is also proper to be dressed before your Lord, and Peter solved that quandary right quick, didn't he?

Right into the water he went, but only after putting his clothes back on. Better to be wet and dripping in the presence of the Lord than to be there naked, I guess.

So we had a great breakfast. The fish was great, the bread was good, and the company was, shall we say, heavenly!

Now, I remember that time, way back when, that Jesus first met Peter, and said "you are Simon, Son of John". Jesus remembered that moment, and called out to Peter using the same phrase. Jesus is trying to build the bridge here, and Peter must be so comforted that Jesus remembered that. Now they can really talk together. "Do you love me?"

Peter almost had relief in his voice when he was finally able to say, to Jesus himself, Yes Lord, you know that I love you".

Feed my Sheep.

Boy oh boy, their eyes were locked together when Jesus asked it again. Peter, with no trace of anything other than seriousness in his voice or on his face, answered it. Again.
But then Jesus did a strange thing. He asked it again. Peter didn't quite get the reason, because he had already answered it twice, and now, he was aware of his friends sitting around the fire. He was beginning to wonder if Jesus kept asking because he didn't believe him. So when he answered again, he was even more insistent and intense.

"Yes Lord, you know that I love you." And Jesus said, again, "then feed my sheep."

And then Jesus talked in another parable that must have been meant for Peter, and then he said the same thing he said when we all met him. "Follow Me!"

Somewhere along the way, Peter must have figured out that Jesus gave him three chances to claim his love for Jesus, one for each time that Peter denied him that night. And boy oh, boy, did Peter prove it later!

It is no fish story to say that we serve a God that comes to us. When we express doubt, he works to help us understand. When we feel ashamed because of our denials, the times when we fail, he comes to us with whatever our grilled fish and bread on the beach are. He looks us in the eyes and gives us every opportunity to claim our love for him again. And then he gives us our work. He reclaims us.

That's the kind of love he gives. He gives that kind of love to everyone. Everyone. That's no fish story either. He gave it to Peter, who did the worst thing you could do--deny you knew the man you knew somehow was the Lord.

God loves the ostracized as much as the accepted. God understands that it is a hard thing to claim God when your life doesn't seem to need him. You got a nice car, a nice job, your kids are decently fed, clothed, schooled. Your insurance is paid up, your money makes it to the next paycheck with even some opportunity for savings. You might even be able to invest some.

But ask the folks who follow Christ in the midst of all that-- it gets harder to follow Christ when everything is going well, doesn't it? Somehow, rather than it being all because of what God gave you the gifts to do with it, it becomes more about what you've done. That's the hardest thing to fight against, the idea that somehow you've done it.

It is easier to see, or hear, God when you are in need. It's easier to follow God when you have been in a place that you need his forgiveness.

Most of us have probably been there. When there is no other place in the world to go, and you want to change. Don't let the image of an angry or vindictive God get into your head. It's not true. What we know of God we know most clearly from the stories of Jesus, who was God on earth.
And when he was forsaken, when his friends left him to die, fell asleep waiting for him, denied, him, he came back to them though they did not deserve it. He showed up for Thomas. He showed up for Peter. He later even took Saul and made him into Paul. He'll show up for you. He showed up for me. He's shown up for lots of folks here.

When you have painted yourself into a corner with people who can't really stand what you have to say anymore, he'll show up. When you have alienated people with your anger, he'll show up. When you have traveled far from where you started, and you aren't sure who you are anymore, he'll show up.

It's no fish story to believe this. You have two thousand years of people who have felt this, despite what the culture might have said, despite what the churches themselves might have taught, you have people who know this. And they know that it is no fish story, either.
They may not be the accepted ones, the ones with the clean and styled clothes, they may not look like us. But again, they may look exactly like us. If theirs is a message of love, and their actions are loving actions, then they aren't telling any fish stories. They've heard Jesus say to them, "Follow me!"

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Wrestling with the Big Questions, Part 2 of Whatever.

Another of the books that has caught my eye this spring, as I come closer to being a solo pastor of a church is the book I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church by Paul Nixon. The central concept of the book is the making of six choices. They are:

Life over Death The church has a reason for living, and it isn't habit or chaplaincy of an elderly congregation.
Community over Isolation: Choosing not the community in the church, but the community outside of the church.
Fun over Drudgery
Bold over Mild
Frontier over Fortress: blow up the building if it isn't suiting the purposes of the mission
Now over later: If not you, who? If not now, when?

Each of these choices are not made by the pastor alone, but with the pastor and congregation together. So, the pastor needs to be the kind of person that is a coalition builder, but also a person with a clear vision and the assurance of success. It helps if they are personally committed to Christ, assured of Christ's commitment to them, the love of God, to the growth of people into Christ. He calls people like this "apostles".

I actually love his description of what makes up an apostle. He bullet points 10 characteristics, and I will boil them down even further.

Personal experience of Christ that is a foundation for the person
attracted to the folks on the margins of the church (or outside of it)
Clear sense of mission
what we offer renews human lives and communities
Sent by God to this place at this time.
clear awareness of the institutional church's shortcomings
need to push the church into new places
bored with maintenance and routine
finds more energy in short term projects than marathons
Communicator, able to get others to buy in to the vision.

Humbly speaking, I truly feel I carry most of these characteristics. I do not feel that I am what he calls a "business-as-usual" or "caretaker" or "manager" pastor.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Wrestling with the Big Questions, Part 1 of Whatever.

So, I've been forced by my knee ailment to bed for two days. Timing couldn't be worse, as these particular two days were Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. More of these days are coming. Easter morning, I will be there, but I will be in a wheelchair.

I've decided to spend this forced down time asking myself the question: "What kind of pastor do I want to be?" when I move to a new church in 3 months. I have some opinions regarding the future of the United Methodist Church, my ministry, the role of clergy, but I also know that I have very few answers to a lot of questions. To address these, I have to dig even deeper, and begin to ask, "What is my Hermeneutic?" Or, in other words, "what set of lenses do I use to begin to answer these questions?"

Part of plumbing the boundaries of my theology so far is to read some books that I have been meaning to for a while. One that I had read but not really "inwardly digested" was the book "The Phoenix Affirmations", by Eric Elnes.

I have found this book, and the 12 Affirmations that it contains, to have largely put into words the feelings of my heart, the type of Christian faith I affirm. And, it does so in a positive way. It doesn't fall into the trap that so much progressive theological thought falls into, that of "this is what we DON"T believe." I have bought some 30 copies of this book and handed them to certain colleagues and parishioners, and the response has ranged from "OH, My God, I wish I could have heard these years ago" to "WOW, I have to really wrestle with this one".

Below are the basic Affirmations, which apparently have changed slightly, though not substantively, from the ones published in the book. They are cut and pasted directly from the website

I have also supplied the Scripture readings that are used to base the text in Christian thought. They come from I am still working on reflections based on what I have read, so I'll just post the basic starting material for now.

The Phoenix Affirmations
The public face of Christianity in America today bears little connection to the historic faith of our ancestors. It represents even less our own faith as Christians who continue to celebrate the gifts of our Creator, revealed and embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Heartened by our experience of the transforming presence of Christ's Holy Spirit in our world, we find ourselves in a time and place where we will be no longer silent. We hereby mark an end to our silence by making the following affirmations:
As people who are joyfully and unapologetically Christian, we pledge ourselves completely to the way of Love. We work to express our love, as Jesus teaches us, in three ways: by loving God, neighbor, and self.
Matthew 22:34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Mark 12:28-31
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Luke 10:25-28
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
Deuteronomy 6:5
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Leviticus 19:18
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Christian love of God includes:
1. Walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths God may provide humanity;
2. Listening for God's Word which comes through daily prayer and meditation, studying the ancient testimonies which we call Scripture, and attending to God's present activity in the world;
3. Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God's Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human;
4. Expressing our love in worship that is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.
Christian love of neighbor includes:
5. Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God's very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class;
6. Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others;
7. Preserving religious freedom and the Church's ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of Church and State;
8. Walking humbly with God, acknowledging our own shortcomings while honestly seeking to understand and call forth the best in others, including those who consider us their enemies;
Christian love of self includes:
9. Basing our lives on the faith that, in Christ, all things are made new, and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imagination – for eternity;
10. Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth;
11. Caring for our bodies, and insisting on taking time to enjoy the benefits of prayer, reflection, worship and recreation in addition to work;
12. Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose; a vocation and ministry that serves to strengthen and extend God's realm of love.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Man We Mean

Maundy Thursday Noon Service

1 Corinthians 11:23 26 (read at beginning of service)
Matthew 26: 17-25 (read right before message)
Matthew 26: 26-29 (read after message, later in service)

This is the man we mean. When we say Jesus, we mean a man born of a woman, raised as a baby through childhood and adolescence into manhood, a man who knew the stories of his religion and culture, a man who ate, drank, breathed, bathed, and hurt every time he slammed a thumb with a hammer.

This is the man we mean. When we say Jesus, we mean the man who sought company, friends, and good times over food. We mean the man who enjoyed weddings, who laughed and smiled, was angry and cried.

This is the man we mean. When we say Jesus, we mean the man who sought to do what God wanted, to a degree that many of us wish we could, but often don't. This is a man whom we admire. We mean the man who saw one of his friends drifting away, and was saddened by it. This is a man who knew that something large would be expected of him, and perhaps thought as Judas left the meal, "so that is how it begins."

This is the man we mean. When we say Jesus, we mean a man who was baptized by others, who grew in faith as we all can. It's just that he did.

It is a man like this, like us, flesh and blood and bone, that saved us. This is the man we mean. When we say Christ, we mean the man who came down to us from God, who was with God and who was God at the beginning of the universe. When we say Christ, we mean the one who came to be a man through emptying himself of his divinity for the love of us.
He emptied himself of his God-self so that we would know God. And as his ultimate expression of love for us, he submitted to trial, beatings, misunderstanding and ultimately execution. This Man, this Jesus, of flesh and blood, son of Mary and adopted son of Joseph, cousin to John. He was also the Christ. Were he not so, truly we would not be telling the story on this cold sunny day in April in Pennsylvania, an area he and his time did not even conceive of.

This is the man we mean. Jesus, the Christ. It is his meal that we remember when we have communion, and it is his life we remember as we eat and drink now. We submit again to the new covenant in His name, the covenant of
. . . (putting)(His) law within (us), and (He) will write it on (our) hearts; and (he) will be (our) God, and (we) shall be (his) people. No longer shall (we) teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for (we) shall all know(him), from the least of (us) to the greatest, says the Lord; for (he) will forgive (our) iniquity, and remember (our) sin no more. Jeremiah 31: 31-34, NRSV, pronouns changed.

This is the man we mean. This is the Christ we mean. To understand God's love because it was demonstrated by another of our kind, flesh and blood and bone.

This is the man we mean, when we say Jesus.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Choices He Made

The opening gambit has been played. The symbols of the Messiah have both been achieved, and have been subverted from what the people are looking for--no White Military Charger, instead there is a donkey.

Now comes the closing. This is going to leave a mark. Here comes the last supper, where Judas begins his work. Here comes the garden, where Jesus prays and is arrested. Here comes the Sanhedrin, the midnight show trial, the battering, the dragging of the cross, the nails, the lifting, the blood and water, the earthquake, the death.

John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word WAS God. Life came into being through him, and all the light of the world came through him. He was in the world, but the world did not know him.

He chose to come to us, so that we would know Him, and know God through him.

Philippians 2: who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

He humbled himself; he was not humbled by anyone or anything else.

He was baptized by John, and John protested that Jesus should be baptizing him. "John, cousin, let it be this way for now", he said. He humbled himself.

Luke 22: Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’

He chose to participate in the scheme, knowing that the love of God could only be shown with his sacrifice.

Luke 22: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief .

He knew it was coming, and like any human being would was anticipating the pain and terror of what death meant. Our faith in God was his certainty, no faith required, because he was God and he was with God, at the beginning. Yet he still did not relish the pain.

Luke 23: Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.

Jesus was a human being, and he was God. In the beginning he was with God, he was God. He died, and yet he lived. God died, but yet he didn't. Thus we declare the mystery of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

When he died, he chose humanity. He chose us.

When he rose, he chose us.

When he comes again, he will be choosing us.