Sunday, July 22, 2007

Maps Don’t Lie, . . . But You Have to Know How to Read Them

Colossians 1: 15-28

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's.

. . . provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised the gospel that you heard. . . (v. 22-23, NRSV)

So, I am driving around on Friday, taking Joe to camp. After I drop him off at Harvey’s Lake, I look on the map and decide to take a back road to 8th Ave to get to the District office in Pittston; I need to get the projector screen for this week’s Vacation Bible School. I’m right there on 309, but of course I want to see if it is shorter taking the back way.

I still don’t know.

Maps are great, but not so easy to read when you are trying to drive, too. And what makes it worse is that the scales of these maps are different. In Texas, I was used to having a few miles between turns, but here, things are just closer together. I have yet to find Wyoming St. off of Hildebrandt Road. I eventually found my way by going around Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Maps can be like that. They are handy, but they are also limited in their information. They don’t tell you where the hills are. A line on a piece of paper doesn’t tell you that the road you are looking for is the one surrounded by brush. Topographical maps tell you what the land looks like, but they are REALLY hard to read while driving windy roads.

So, as often happens, sometimes maps are better used at helping you find your way once you have gotten lost, rather than preventing you from being lost. I probably pulled over three times just to look at the map without trying to drive, too. It would have been a lot faster to just go down through Dallas to the Cross Valley, get off at Plains, and drive north.

But I wouldn’t have learned anything.

I think our lives in Christ are like that. We can hold to the roads we’ve been told are the best, and never explore other roads. We’re safe, but bored. Or we can deviate from the path, learn about ourselves and God, and develop. We can learn to love God more deeply because we have experienced his love and his guidance in real, tangible ways. We hear that God is “the head of the body, the church”, but until we have absorbed that into our own lives, we are thinking in theoretical terms. We are operating under assumptions, not under proven essentials.

When we read this part of Colossians, we have this understanding that Paul is describing something that is a proven essential—Christ is many things, but in this case, Christ is seen cosmically. Perhaps this is because he is responding to a certain sense of star worshipping in the Colossian church.
As is so often the case, we don’t have the letters from the churches to Paul, we only have the letters back to the churches from Paul. But Paul is seeking here to project Christ as a cosmic Christ—not just among the stars, but the creator of them. It is that sense that we also got in the beginning of John, the sense that Jesus is more than am an on the earth, but he is also God, somehow—present and working with God in the creation of the universe. If he created the stars, Paul seems to say, then we can do a lot worse than to acknowledge his power and follow him.

Paul would perhaps be shocked that the Christian church took so many of his letters and made them Holy. He himself, it seems clear from all of the letters we have, considered Jesus to be his leader, and all he was doing was to point to what was God and what wasn’t. In a sense, he was pointing to, teaching his readers how to read the map. I am rather sure that he did not intend for his own writings to become part of the map we call the Bible. His writings, I expect, were not meant to be put onto the same pedestal as the Gospels.

When you look at a modern map, there are the lines on the map, there are the names on the roads, there are the features like forests and rivers and oceans. Then there are the pencil marks showing detours, the doodles in the large empty areas, and the drawings marked “Aunt Millie’s place”. If the words of Jesus and the Gospels are the map, the letters of Paul are the helpful, but personal, markings. The life and work of Jesus is the point of the map, the pencil marks are the markings that help us read the map.

If I had had the pencil mark “three arrow signs, turn right” or some such description written in, I think I would have been able to make that turn to get to Wyoming St.

Similarly, if we understood that Paul is trying to give good directions from one place to another within the understanding of Christ, his words would take the proper place in the Bible as important, but not definitive over and against the work of Matthew Mark, Luke and John. It’s almost as if we can hear Paul saying “let me try to describe how god can be Jesus and Jesus God”. and the result is verses 15-20 of Colossians.

I guess what I am trying to say is this—Christ is the primary reason why we read the Bible. Understanding his words, his life, his actions is why we read. Paul is there to help us understand Jesus, but his directions sometimes have ideas that don’t apply to us. If I need to get from Harvey’s Lake to Pittston, I don’t need directions that start in Tunkhannock. So if I have directions that do start in Tunkhannock, they aren’t useless, but they aren’t what I should follow, word for word.

A while back, you used to be able to buy Bibles that had Jesus’ words printed in red. They are less available now, but I think they are making a comeback. When you type in “red Letter Christians” into an internet search engine, you get a large amount of returns. This idea represents, I think, a return to prioritizing a Christian faith based on what Jesus taught, and a de-emphasis on what Jesus didn’t speak on. Jesus said, Love thy neighbor. Jesus said, when you fed the least of these, you fed me. Jesus said a lot of things, and just paying attention to those things is enough for a pretty strong lifetime of ministry for any Christian. Paul in his letters helps us pay attention properly.

So when Paul says that . . . provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised the gospel that you heard. . .

He isn’t saying that they follow the gospel that he wrote, but rather that they follow the gospel of
. . . the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul says at the end of the passage, And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

He himself is not the Gospel. He is a servant just like you, just like me. He is trying to read the road map just like us, and his markings are helpful to us.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Better than Me

Psalm 82, Luke 10: 25-37

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC’s
July 15, 2007

So, about a week before we moved up here, a bulk mailing came to the house from an organization called Doctors Without Borders. They are an organization based, I think, in France, and they are one of those groups who go into global trouble spots, like the Sudan or Central America to treat refugees and displaced persons, who have no other options for medical care.

I really admire their work, and their willingness to go into really dicey situations and do what they do. And I know that it doesn’t matter to them who they treat. Christians, Muslims, animists, indigenous religions, it doesn’t matter. I really admire that. I admire the fact that they provide treatment without strings attached, and that their volunteers go because of their commitment to the people of the world. It is a commitment that may, in individual cases, be religiously or spiritually driven, but the organization, as a whole, is explicitly non-religious.

Now I have had conversations with people who wonder what the motivation is for “secular” people to do these things. Some say that it is really God working on them without their acknowledging it, and the motivation is really God pressing on them. Some Methodists even call that “Prevenient Grace”. Others say that you don’t need God for that, all it takes is the growth of empathy for those who suffer, and some even say that the religious motivation actually gets in the way. But the fact remains that we Christians see people who are not “us” doing work in service that we feel we should be doing. Somehow it is our responsibility, our jurisdiction, our bailiwick. If it was another Christian, maybe that would feel better. If it was another Methodist, that would be OK, because likely we’ve at least helped pay for their work through our ministry shares.

But when it is someone who isn’t Christian doing what we feel is the work of the Lord, there is sometimes a little pang of guilt. And it is that pang of guilt that Jesus is evoking from the young lawyer in our Gospel passage today. Let’s review the story a little bit. A member of the young man’s own ethnic group (we assume—Jesus never identifies his ethnicity) is mugged and left to bleed by the side of a road. Two religious leaders walk by, avoiding the man on purpose. Both are highly respected by the hearers of Jesus’ tale, one a priest and the other, a member of the tribe responsible for priests and religious law. The one that stops, helps, cares for and supports the beaten man is considered unclean, alien, strange. He’s the Red Sox Fan in Yankee Stadium, he’s the civil rights activist at the Klan rally. He’s the least likely to care for the beaten man, at least in the hearers’ minds, he’s the one you would expect to pass right by.

The choice that Jesus leads the young lawyer to is uncomfortable for the young lawyer, because he has to admit that one of the enemy, the convenient scapegoats, one of the untouchables, is the guy whose role is held up as proper.

Yes, part of the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we should stop and help those who have been beaten. Yes, we should learn that religious hypocrisy is something to avoid. But I think Jesus is also teaching us here that good motivations to help others are not solely the province of those who explicitly follow Him. It is said elsewhere in Scripture by Jesus that “Those who are not against me are for me.” God’s work is wider than those who declare themselves followers. He is the creator of the universe, and all were created in his image, not just the ones who call themselves Christian.

The last bit of Psalm 82 says it this way; “Rise up, O God, and judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you.” It’s the last line of a psalm that places God at the head of the council of gods, and he holds them in judgment. This is where God judges us; “How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak an the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the week and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

It’s not by the quality of our singing, it isn’t by the spiffiness of our Sunday clothes. It’s very little with what we do on Sunday. It matters a whole lot how we act the rest of the week. And yes, sometimes, there are people who aren’t Christian, who even sometimes have very little use for any organized religion, who are doing things that are obviously to us God’s work. And we aren’t there.

And that’s OK. We all have our stages of life. Some go, and others stay and support. Some are called to mission in foreign lands, some are called to rebuild after hurricanes, some build and rebuild for the poor or the elderly.

Donna and I have a good friend named Phil Plunk who runs a permanent medical clinic in the mountains of Guatemala. When he was moving toward that phase in his life, he led numerous week-long trips to conduct roving clinics up in the mountains, shuttled around by van.

Donna and I have each been to Guatemala twice on mission trips led by Phil. Our motivations for going were varied, ranging from religious convictions to simple curiosity to the pure excitement of travel. But it was enough to get us to go, and Phil didn’t care what motivated us or anyone else. He didn’t demand religious beliefs of the people on his teams, and I’m pretty sure that that’s true now of the people who come to work in his clinic. But he knew that once he had you there, religious or not, you were doing the Lord’s work. And when you went back home, you would be changed, religious or not.

Here’s a bit of truth for you. Rarely, if ever, do people make whole careers out of groups like Doctors without Borders. The doctors who go will spend a season, a certain amount of time, and return to their own world, culture, where they came from. They may be changed, and their awareness of the world is wider, and more compassionate, but very rarely do these doctors make a life out of helping the poor and needy. The same is true for most religious missionaries. They are called to it for a season, a year, a few years, but their whole lives are rarely spent in such service. In short, they are no better than you are, they are just in the phase of life that allows or impels them to service.

To everything there is a season, Ecclesiastes says. God judges us not on just on the travel and mission fields. God judges us on the compassion we feel and show in the midst of our lives, no matter what phase of that life we are in or how we act upon it. No matter our religious convictions. I doubt that the Samaritan was on a mission looking for beat up and bleeding Judeans. He just was there and acted upon what he saw.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Many Parents, One Father

Galatians 6: 1-10

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC’s

I have been a member of only two United Methodist Churches.

When Donna and I moved to Dallas (TX!), we found what to me is still a model United Methodist Church. Its name is Northaven. While we were there, the church made some significant decisions regarding its witness to the wider world and to the rest of the denomination, and, as a congregation, they came to these decisions while keeping many of the people who disagreed with the decision. It was a great example of how a congregation lives with each other in the midst of differences—significant differences.

They acted as a family in Christ should act. Deliberate attention was paid to all voices, Time was taken for discernment, no one made any hasty moves, and there was plenty of opportunity for open conversation, but not so much that the plan was stymied. Sure, there were passionate opinions, sure there were difficult moments of anger, misrepresentation and fear, but as each incident happened, all involved found ways to forgive each other and not to break relationship.

It’s this idea of relationship that Paul is encouraging the church in Galatia to learn. It seems that there is a group of teachers who have come to Galatia and taught that the truest way to follow Christ is to adopt some of the practices of the Jewish faith. They specifically refer to circumcision. Paul’s’ argument is that one need no longer follow the law, that this person named Jesus has released everyone from such observances.

These Galatians, these descendants of Celtic mercenaries now living in Central Turkey, are not of Jewish descent. Yet they have come to believe in Christ crucified and risen, and are naturally asking questions about how to practice their faith. Paul’s point to them is this: it isn’t in the outside appearances, in the ritual or in the membership of the institution. It is in our adoption as a child of God, and as a brother to Christ.

So it doesn’t matter what their parents believed, or who they were, or what they looked like. What matters is that they have accepted our adoption by God, and are now brothers and sisters to each other, and to Jesus. Though they have many parents, they now have just one Father in God.

Paul gives guidelines for the Galatians, ones to live by, all based in not the law, but on love. Richard Hays, who teaches Bible at Duke and wrote a commentary on Galatians, has extracted seven “broad strokes” from Galatians, seven ways in which Paul is trying to help the Galatians to apply the Love of God to life in their congregation.

1. The Church is a family of extended responsibility; this means that we bear one another’s burdens, care for one another, and count ourselves responsible for the common identity we all share. When I read this, I have a question—which identity do I share with you here? Yes, we are Christian. Yes, we are United Methodist. We speak of John Wesley, sing from a hymnal that is special to our tradition, and use the cross and flame symbol. But what is the identity of the particular church we share, in either Center Moreland or Dymond Hollow? What makes us unique? What makes us different from other churches in our area? This is what I am excited to learn!

2. Following in Christ’s’ footsteps, or “The Imitation of Christ; Hays has a great line in his commentary, here. “Only when the Law is read through the lens provided by the cross does it become the law of Christ.” A strong church has members that choose one another before themselves. Jesus was at his most Christlike on the cross, choosing us over life. It is when we do that for each other in all the ways, small and large, we can, that we put on the image of Christ.

3. Renouncing rivalry and conflict; Paul sees that when we base our identity and measure of success on “fleshly” practices, conflict results. If our success is instead based in our approaching the image of Christ, conflict disappears. What does he mean by fleshly practices? For the Galatians, it was the argument over circumcision. For us it could be a thousand things, anything from the color of the church carpet to excessive pride in your Bible cover! In all things, we are to choose self-sacrifice over self-inflation, and that refuses conflict.

4. Personal accountability; With what I have just said above, it then stands to reason that examining ourselves and opening ourselves to others’ observations is valuable. As much as Paul is aware of how people might want to control how they appear, Hays thinks (and I agree) that it is probably worse now. Ask some folks, both outside of the church and inside, and you’ll probably find that for some, it is all about the image. We make judgments based on first impressions, and they are never completely accurate, and they are often way off base.

5. The church is under the judgment of God; All of this talk of self image leads to one realization—ultimately, we do not judge each other. God judges us. I don’t say this to put a spooky, scary feeling about “God watching you” into your hearts to make you behave. It isn’t our job to judge someone by their actions or their appearance. It is our job to show God’s love to everyone we meet. Yes some people may make us uncomfortable. Yes, some people’s choices are self destructive. But people at base are still Children of god, and carry a spark of God within them. Our response is to love, not to judge. Judging is God’s job.

6. The importance of teaching; All that we have said is not automatically installed into us when we accept Jesus into our hearts, like software into a computer. It takes growth, maturity, and the leadership of other Christians who are wiser than we are. It takes teachers. From Nursery Church to Confirmation to Sunday School to Bible study, teaching is an important part of a church’s life.

7. Trusting in the Spirit; As Christians, we make choices about our community. Sometimes we have to make choices that we know are right in God’s eyes, but aren’t safe according to “responsible thinking” in the world. Christians sometimes make crazy decisions when measured by the world’s standards. Granted, sometimes they are crazy, but there are also times when we must “step out in faith”. We must cast the seeds of trust in the spirit, so that that we may reap the benefits of trusting in God. (Hays’s imagery, not mine, unfortunately!)

Now I am not yet aware of much regarding the lives of these two new churches in my life. I haven’t even talked with many of you yet, anything more than “Good morning”, “peace be with you”, “glad to be here”. I don’t know the recent or personal histories. But I will. And I expect that I will find a combination of seeds sown in the spirit, and seeds sown in our own self interest. As you get to know me, you won’t find anything different about me. It is true for all of us. But Paul has given us some broad strokes to work with, and we must keep ourselves reminded of this one true thing—we are family, we have one father, God, and one brother, Jesus, in common. We may have different parents, but we have one Father, and we were adopted in love.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Who is This Guy?

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist Churches
July 1, 2007

Psalm 77
(John 1:1-18
Acts 10)

This seems like an odd scripture for a pastor's first sermon, doesn't it? Why begin with a lament that God has left the author? "What is this new guy trying to say? Didn't he want to come here?"

It's nothing like that. I picked the Psalm out of the lectionary passages for today for a couple reasons. First, it is the Lectionary, which keeps my discipline of weekly Scripture study intact. Second, what is being said in the first half of the Psalm is what we all say at some point in our lives. We all wonder at times whether God is paying attention to us. I feel that way sometimes, I am sure you do too. So it's a place to start, a feeling we've all felt.

Sure it's true that we have all come from different places--I am not from here, some of you aren't either, but some of you are. Sure it's true that we have different problems going on in our lives. Sure it's also true that there are different joys that we are all feeling, as well.

But I am pretty confident in saying that we all remember a time or place when we thought that God had left us, or was punishing us, or somehow was silent. And we've often used words that are exactly like these words in Psalm 77. We just know we've done something wrong, and we remember the good old days when God was with us, doing great deeds.

Then comes verse 11:
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.

What Scripture is it that you remember when you recall God's mighty deeds?
For me, there are two stories from Scripture that could almost be considered "totems". Two mighty deeds that remind me that God is good, and that God is with me. With Us.

The first is from the Gospel of John. It's the first 18 verses. What this scripture reminds me of is that Jesus was present with God at the beginning of the universe, and helped create the world. "The Word was with God and the Word was God". The Word of God becomes the man Jesus Christ at the time God chooses. We are His people.

For me, this gives me comfort in troubled times because the Christ, present at the creation of the universe, has also been where I am, in the body of Jesus Christ. It's like the genie in Disney's Aladdin: "Great, Colossal, cosmic powers, Itty bitty living space!" And the Christ chose to squeeze into that space for us. For you and for me.

The second scripture that keeps me honest comes from Acts 10. It is actually the beginning of the story that becomes the theme for the second half of Acts. It is the Story of Paul going to the Roman Centurion Cornelius' house to speak the Word, and have it accepted by Cornelius. What's fascinating and scary for Peter is that no one outside of the Jews has really heard this new word yet in the way the Jews are telling each other, and Peter's not really interested in telling it to this particular instrument of the occupation. But in a vision, he is told that what God has created, no one shall call profane. The indication is that Cornelius is also created by God, and therefore eligible for this new salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What God has created, let no one call profane. Think about that for a second. Is there any person, any human being not created by God? Any human being on earth? Sit down and watch the news sometime with this in the back of your mind. Paris Hilton. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Vladimir Putin. The President and Congress and the Supreme Court. Immigrants. Once it starts sinking in, the way I feel about people change. God has created every single one of these people, and so I get uncomfortable calling them profane.

So who is this guy, this Jesus Christ? Who is this person who has great cosmic powers, came to live in a human body, and calls me to love or at least refrain from hating?

I think I have an idea of who he is. I have my relationship with him. So do you. None of our experiences are wrong, but none of us understands fully what claim Jesus has on our lives. That, I think will be what our time together will be--living together, walking that journey together, supporting, challenging each other, growing together.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.

May God display his might, may he work his wonders among us. May we meditate together, for His way is holy.

May my words have been the Lord's intention this day. Amen.