Monday, November 26, 2007

Something’s Coming

Luke 1: 66-79

Zechariah was one of the more respected priests in his order, and among priests in general. He was given the honor of burning the incense at the holy altar when his order of priests was on duty. This meant that he had to go in alone, and stand near the holy of holies. Everyone in Israel was standing outside, it seemed.

He looked up and there was an angel standing next to the altar. He said the first thing that he had always heard all angels say—“Don’t be afraid.” And then he said something that was really interesting. “You’re going to have a son, and you’re going to name him John. He will give many people, you included, great joy, because he is going to be dedicated for a great work. He’ll never drink alcohol, yet he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth. He’ll be destined to bring many people back to the Lord God, in preparation for the One.”

While Zechariah was one of the more respected priests, this event really shook him up, and he responded most un-priestly. “I can’t have a kid, neither can Elizabeth. I’m old, and she’s barren.”

“Well,” the angel replied, “I am the angel Gabriel. I am a constant presence with God, and I am here, telling you this is true. You don’t believe me? Fine. You will not speak until this boy is born, in God’s time.”

And Zechariah couldn’t speak after that for about 9 months. When he came out of the temple, he was unable to speak, so they knew pretty quickly that something pretty significant had happened in there! But, since he wouldn’t even try to describe what had happened with his hands or by writing it down, they didn’t know what it was. But he did walk around for the next few months with a pretty big grin on his face! Then, Elizabeth, his wife, started to show, and they got a little bit of a clue.

There was one other weird story about this baby. She and this other girl from out Nazareth way had a visit—the must have been some sort of cousin. When the girl walked in, she greeted Elizabeth, and Elizabeth felt her baby kick. Hard. Almost like it was jumping around! The timing was too much to ignore—Elizabeth knew what was up with this girl’s baby, and said so. “You’re the one who is carrying the baby my son is destined to prepare the way for.” Oh, God be praised!

When it came time for Elizabeth to give birth, she had a son, but they didn’t follow custom and name him after a relative. On the eighth day, they were about to name him Zechariah, just like his dad, but Elizabeth said no. Name him John, she said. They motioned Zechariah over, and said, “Well, what is his name?” He still couldn't speak, so he asked for a pad and a pen, and wrote down “His name is John”. And then there was this little whoosh, and Zechariah made a noise, then another one, and then he realized that he was able to speak again!

His first words were amazing. He said:
“Something's coming, folks. God’s will is finally starting to work itself out, and in our time! And with my son! The Messiah is coming, and John is the one who will prepare his way! The Messiah we asked for, the one who comes out of David’s clan, is coming! Every bit of the prophecy we have ever heard is coming true, now! Everything from Abraham on down, every bit of prophecy is going to come true, and we’ll feel like the sun has just risen, it will be all so clear! Everyone will see God, everyone will understand, everyone will get what is truly meant by peace!”

And then, of course, we know the rest of the story. John grew up to be a prophet, and began baptizing people in the Jordan river, the same river that his people had crossed to go to the promised land. One of the people he baptized was Jesus, his cousin, born six months later, and he and John were cousins. John did indeed prepare Jesus’ way, getting all who would hear or believe ready for what was coming by preparing them, teaching them, challenging them to get right with God. "The Messiah is here", he said, "among us, and now is the time. You think what I do is holy and filled with God, well, you just wait. I’m not even able to untie the shoes of the one who is coming. He’s going to know who has truly accepted God, and who is just out here in this river getting baptized because it is the cool thing to do!”

So, here we sit, some 2000 years later, in that week before Advent starts, waiting again. Something's coming, folks. The baby has been born, but we must wait for it to grow up. We must wait for the birth of the baby who was born over 2000 years ago. He was born once on earth, lived, and died. But that death is unique among l of the deaths of humanity, because he died for us. Not just his friends or his family, but for all of humanity. He was placed in that situation and that was the choice he made.

Oh, he’s come and gone, physically, but 2000 years later, we talk about him being present with us in the same Holy Spirit that soaked that little baby named John before he was born. That power is now known by millions of people, because of how God worked in the lives of four unlikely people; a carpenter, and a pregnant young girl, not even married yet; and a priest and a wife who found they were pregnant long after their childbearing years, to bring a son to earth who was the announcement of God’s working in the world. The power John displayed as a baby, leaping in his mothers' womb at the presence of Jesus, and neither of them born yet, is the power that came upon dozens of people on the portico of the temple one Pentecost, a power that was still present long after he’d been killed by Herod.

Now the Holy Spirit resides in us. It is quiet, it is loud, it is polite, it is rambunctious. It keeps us from harm, it takes us places we think are too dangerous to go. It wakes us up, it comforts us. This is how we no Jesus and God, now. Reading the Bible and becoming sensitive to the Holy Spirit. That Holy Spirit, the breath of God. The Ruach, to use the Hebrew phrase, was present at the creation of the world; it was there with Moses on the mountain; It was with John the Baptist before he was even born; it was with Jesus, it WAS Jesus, then, and at Pentecost, it came to be with the rest of the world. It is still with us, and still pushing people to serve in God's name. We are all called to serve God, and the Holy Spirit knows the what and the how, and pushes us toward that goal.

So something's coming for us, too.

Happy Advent!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Salt, Pepper, and Two Limones

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Thanksgiving Eve, 2007

Last month, I was listening to the radio, and they were doing a story on an inner city ministry, called Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles. (To listen to the story I refer, to, go in about 25 minutes).

It was a ministry that finds jobs for former gang members, and helps them get their tattoos removed. In the story, the priest who runs the mission, Father Greg Boyle, received a call one morning between Christmas and New Years’ from one of the guys who had left the gang life. His name was Robert. It was a very normal, how are you doing-merry-Christmas-happy-New-year-conversation, until Fr. Boyle got to what Robert did for Christmas. I should say here that Robert, because he had left his gang, had been separated from his family, too.

“So, what did you do for Christmas?”
“I cooked a turkey!”
(surprised) “You cooked a turkey? Wow! How did you do it?”
“Ghetto style; butter, salt, pepper, 2 limones squeezed over it, and then popped it into the oven”
“Wow! Did you eat it by yourself?”
“No, I had other guys from work come over.”
(Boyle often has former enemies working together, and he knew that some of Robert’s former enemies who were also now Homeboy Industries employees were there)
“Well, what else did you have?”
“That’s it, just the turkey.”

Boyle speaks of being struck by the image of 6 former enemies, cut off from their families, standing around in an apartment kitchen, staring at the oven, and then absolutely destroying the turkey when it came out.

With no sides.

Some of us are going to be traveling tomorrow to sit down to eat food with our families. Some of us, frankly, aren’t here because they have already left. Some of us will have people coming to us, and may already be here. Some of us will not be with anyone, because we have to work, or choices we’ve made, or circumstances. But nevertheless, we remember on this day the hardships that we have come through to get to where we are.

Those six “vatos” remembered where they had come from. That silence around the stove was probably filed with memories.
The Pilgrims sat down with food provided by the Wampanoags to give thanks for what they had come through.
Thanksgiving as an observance originated with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to ask remembrance for what the country had just gone through.
And our Deuteronomy text also gives the sense that when the harvest has come n, the Israelites are to give a portion to God not to reseed the fields, but to remember that the land they are feeding from is not theirs, but was given to them by God.

We have many things to be thankful for. This little spot between the Susquehanna, Bowman’s Creek, along 292 is a gorgeous spot in the world. We live in a country that many other people want to live in. When we feel that the country has lost its way, we can still voice our dissent, though sometimes with difficulty.

Thanksgiving is that day where we can give thanks to God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or Vishnu, if we are religious, give thanks to the country, if patriotism is our religion, and give thanks to our friends and family for their presence in our lives. It is not a Christian holiday, but we, as Christians, gather tonight to give thanks in the way we know—praise in song, thanksgiving in communion. We give thanks for all that we have in our lives. Our faith, our lives, our loves. And perhaps we rededicate ourselves to acting out of that thanks, that love, to make the world better. We have known good, we have it within our power to help others to know good. Thanksgiving is that day when we all stand around the oven, like those “vatos”, those former enemies who are now compadres, and remember what is good. And be thankful for it.

Pastor's Report, Center Moreland Charge Conference 2007

Pastor’s Report, Center Moreland Charge, 2007

Rev. Drew Cottle.

Last Sunday, I preached on the text of 2 Timothy 1: 8-14, which was about the importance of and the cost of passing the faith on to those who come after. It reminds us that we are called to a “holy calling”, that of announcing the faith to all who will hear. As St. Francis of Assisi onc3e said, sometimes, we should even use words.

In the sermon, I said that our particular ways of “preaching and teaching are almost like a franchise, similar to any fast food restaurant. And I mediated on what is distinctive about our franchise—when people come into a United Methodist church, what do they expect to see, beyond the familiar symbol of the cross and flame? I began with what all churches, across the spectrum had in common, comparing them to ingredients, the common ingredients to all Christian cooking; the essentials, or the “staples”:
God, Creator of Heaven and Earth—
Jesus Christ, Crucified, died, and buried, resurrected,
Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and is our connection to God now.

And then I identified what we did that was unique to us, and it was Grace that was our basic ingredient. The way we “cooked” up grace was by following the ordinances of God, according to the Rules of the Methodist Societies, from the Discipline:
1. public worship of God
2. ministry of the Word, read or expounded
3. the supper of the Lord
4. family and private prayer
5. searching the scriptures
6. fasting or abstinence.

I identified what those meant to us, naming what would for most folks be the bare minimum: attending worship takes care of #1 and #2. If you were here for communion, #3 is handled. #4 and #5, Family and private prayer and searching the scriptures are more something I said was done at home. If you say grace before you eat your meals, and if you read your Bible, those were covered. If you set aside a time to pray besides meals, even better! Do you fast or refrain from eating or drinking something? This is the one that many of us, me included ignore, but it is as good a tool as anything else!

But then I ended the sermon with the challenge “where do we go next?” How can we use that special ingredient, that “special sauce”, grace, in even more ways?

Both churches are, in my view, solid and grounded. Both are ready for ideas about how to grow in Christ, become deeper Christians. While each church does have it’s own challenges and opportunities, I am confident that they also have the tools and the faith. Dymond Hollow has before it the possibility of needing youth activities, since there are some Sundays when there can be as many as 8 teenagers in the congregation. Dymond Hollow’s strengths include it’s Sunday Music program. Dave Pearn and Larry Sorber together lead worship in one of the most unique styles in the Conference!

Center Moreland is exploring the challenge of how to answer God’s call in deciding between building a new building or refurbishing the existing schoolhouse. They are also exploring a more contemporary expression of worship. Both churches are exciting to attend and as their minister, I receive energy from them as I serve them.

As we grow in faith, I hope to lead both congregations using the forms given to us by Wesley in the Ordinances of God, asking always; are we in prayer? Are we studying the Scriptures? Are we learning about the ancient practices of the faith, even as we go into the future? How can the ancient practices be useful to us in this new world of websites, e-mail, IM and text-messaging?

Are we truly seeking to serve God without being ashamed of our testimony, relying on the power of God? Are we guarding the good treasure, holding to the sound standard?

Are we using the recipes of the franchise we were given? I seek and pray to lead, teach, enable and encourage this charge into a solid yes!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Recipes of the Franchise

2 Timothy 1: 8-14

On Tuesday of this week, we’re having the annual meeting that United Methodist Churches have in order to make our reports and demonstrate our health to the greater Body of Christ—kind of like the annual checkup we go to get at the doctor.

Another way to think of it is like the annual inspection they do at most fast food franchises. Someone comes around, once a year, to every McDonalds, Popeye’s or Subway, and checks to see that the bathrooms are clean, the customer service is friendly, and the stores are attractive. The corporation has designed the stores a specific way, and it is in their interest to make sure that each individual store maintains what is distinctive.

A very important part of that inspection is the food itself. Does the burger griller at the Burger King work properly, so that you can recognize the flame grilled taste? Are both mild and spicy recipes of chicken being served the right way at a Popeyes? Does the red beans and rice taste proper?

You may say that a hamburger is just a hamburger, or chicken is just chicken. But it really isn’t. When you see a Subway sandwich, you know exactly how to tell it apart from a Quizno’s sandwich. Taste tests between the French fries at Burger King and McDonald’s are reported by one or the other (whichever one wins that particular round) with all the glee and joy they can muster.

So, here’s the question. If you were to think of us as the local franchise of the United Methodist Church, what would you say are the things that make us distinctive? If the Cross and Flame out on the wall were our “Golden Arches”, what would you find inside that are our selling points? How can you tell us apart from the Baptists, or the Catholics, or the “nondenominational” folks?

Let’s start with what we all have in common; the common ingredients to all Christian cooking; the essentials, or the “staples”:
God, Creator of Heaven and Earth—
Jesus Christ, Crucified, died, and buried, resurrected,
Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and is our connection to God now.

Then there are the things that are different among us, but not essentials, such as;
the Baptists and the Catholics don’t ordain women, we do;
the Catholics don’t have married clergy, and we and the Baptists can, and
the Baptists don’t have Bishops, and we and the Catholics do.
There is a deeper philosophy at work in each faith expression, of course, but that is too much for one sermon. Here’s what I think is the essential bit that is important to us as Methodists, though: The recipe for good Methodist cooking always must include Grace.

Grace is the main ingredient, for us. It’s like Bubba in Forrest Gump naming all those recipes for shrimp; Grace Gumbo, Grace Etouffee, Fried Grace, Grace Cocktail, Grilled Grace, Grace Fettuccine Alfredo. . .

Every expression of faith in the body of Christ is going to have some measure of grace in it. But Methodists have taken grace and run wild with it. We base most of our recipes on it. You might say that grace is like the beef at Wendy’s, and our question should always be, “where’s the Grace?”

God works in everyone’s lives, and it rarely looks the same each time. Think of the person who hears the Apostle’s Creed and says “well, I can go with the God as creator bit, but I am not really comfortable with God as Father. My father was abusive to me and my brothers and sisters, and I just am not sure that I can believe in a God as a father, with that experience.” Grace is that thing that works in their lives that brings them slowly to an understanding that what God means by Father is WAY different than what their experience was.

Or think of the person who progresses from the belief that they could never be a leader, a singer, a speaker in the church, and are slowly led, through experience, courage and encouragement, to preach, to sing a solo, or to become the chair of a committee. That movement, that progression, that growth, is grace.

Grace truly is what we run on. Grace is also the oil that lubricates the machine that is the body of Christ, so that the parts don’t shear each other off and become useless. But grace is also something that has to be accepted so that it can grease the wheels—the wheels have to allow the oil to penetrate. John Wesley knew this, and had a particular medium for getting that penetrating oil into the system. For the early Methodist Societies, which is what he named the small groups and house churches, they were called “Ordinances of God”,
1. public worship of God
2. ministry of the Word, read or expounded
3. the supper of the Lord
4. family and private prayer
5. searching the scriptures
6. fasting or abstinence.

By observing these Ordinances, somehow, grace is generated, which is our distinctive ingredient. As Methodists, if we are following the recipes, these are the ways we cook. And they aren’t hard. If you’re hearing me talk this morning, you’re taking care of #1 and #2. If you were here for communion, #3 is handled. #4 and #5, Family and private prayer and searching the scriptures are more something you do at home. Do you say grace before you eat your meals? That’s good. Do you read your Bible? That’s good. If you set aside a time to pray besides meals, even better! Do you fast or refrain from eating or drinking something? This is the one that many of us, me included ignore, but it is as good a tool as anything else!

When we get together on Tuesday, we will celebrate a pair of churches that are vital and self-sufficient. The missions might be a little different, the cultures of both churches certainly are, but I think both churches can safely say that they are cooking the basic recipes of the Methodist franchise. Now, where can we go with that special ingredient, grace, next?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Hacking the Cloak

Veterans' Day, 2007

Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the "War to End All Wars" ended. The day was officially commemorated beginning in 1926, originally being called “Armistice Day”. In 1954, President Eisenhower changed the name to “Veterans’ Day”, to honor those who had also served in World War II and Korea. Since then it has expanded again to include all those who have served in the military. It is one of two Official holidays for this purpose, Memorial Day being the other.

Interestingly enough, the day we now honor as a secular, non-church holiday also has a religiously military meaning, for November 11 is the day of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, one of the earliest Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Saints. He lived and died in the 4th century. He’s worth remembering because his legend includes this story;

Once, While Martin was still a soldier (for the Roman Empire) at Amiens, France he experienced the vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised; he has clad me." (Sulpicius, ch 2).

It strikes me, in light of the Deuteronomy passage I read today, that this story of Martin, whose feast day coincidentally is the day we now honor our military, may be the way to navigate our way through some of the uncertainty we feel about war. Gone are the days of clear purpose. In World War II the mission was clear, and defense of the US was the primary task. We had been clearly attacked, we were clearly fighting against foes that would not only destroy our way of life materially; we were, in Hitler, fighting against evil itself. After the war, the best of our character was shown, when our military was then used in the Marshall plan, delivering food and other material to Germany, Italy, Japan and the destroyed areas of our allies. Since then, I would argue that there has not been a clear focus of why we fight. The reasons have been vague, politically motivated, or we have fallen into fights because of a lack of creativity in negotiation.

None of these reasons matter for the soldiers who have fought and died in these wars, police actions and skirmishes. Their bravery has been undimmed, their sense of duty has never flagged. Their country has asked them to fight, and they have, no matter the reasons. They are sent, and they go.

But I know that in some cases, the soldiers who have fought would have much preferred a clear sense of moral purpose. Sometimes, they have had it. Sometimes they haven’t. They would have preferred a plain logical moral reason to fight or to be deployed. They dream of a modern American equivalent of St. Martin’s hacking his cloak in half to clothe the beggar.

They wish to serve God in the way that God is characterized in the Deuteronomy passage:

17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy is the last book of the Torah, the holiest books of the Jewish faith. It is the deathbed speech of Moses, their leader and creator of their nation, and they are going to go into the land to which God promised Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; the Promised Land. It is clear that the Israelites are going to have to fight in many battles, because the Promised Land is not empty. The land which they have been given is occupied by other tribes, who have lived there for generations. But here, Moses is telling the Israelites that their national character is not just military might and skill, their identity isn’t just a matter of victory and defeat. Instead, the people of God will be judged by God on how they provide justice. They will be God’s people as measured by how charitable they are to the people they are about to force off the land they have been promised. And that this is the expectation not just of Moses, but of God, who brought them through the desert, fed them and freed them from slavery.

If we are to be a nation of God, then, we are to be judged along the same standards. If we are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we treat the strangers. If we too are a nation of God, then we too are judged by how we exercise justice in the name of the weak, meek and poor. Jesus said that all the laws and the sayings of the prophets can be hung on one concept. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

If executing justice was our foreign policy, we would still have enemies. If loving the stranger, providing them food and clothing was our domestic policy, we would still be reviled in quarters of the world. We know this is true because we have done these things, and have seen the responses. Food, clothing, protection, justice have been delivered by our military before. Where we do it now, we are respected by the people we have sought to serve, and reviled by those who should have been taking care of this for their people, but haven’t.

And because we have been hated, we still need a military with which to protect ourselves as a people. Today is the day we honor those who have served this country. But we too often have honored them after we have sent them to do errands that have not been a reflection of this country at its best. Too often now, we have not used these brave men and women in ways that allow them to feel proud about their service. Yes, they can be, should be, proud that they answered the nation’s call to serve. It is that motivation to serve one’s country that makes us proud to know them, to have them as our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.

We see them as our best and brightest. They serve with their grandparents, their children, their families in mind—they do not serve because there is the possibility of riches or land taken from the defeated as so many armies through history have done. They serve because they love what is best about this nation, and wish to preserve it. They wish to preserve the nations’ identity as the place of refuge for the poor, and the oppressed. They seek to defend the ideal America, the one of religious freedom, of economic opportunity not to be rich, but to simply have enough. The one that exercises justice humbly and with mercy and grace. The one that welcomes the stranger, and doesn’t just give them food, shelter and clothing, but opens up its heart and welcomes them as one of its own.

Those who serve and have served in our military serve an ideal America. That ideal America reflects the words of Moses from Deuteronomy. That ideal America respects and expects them to be the sort of military that finds ways to hack it’s cloak for the poor and the oppressed. The nation and the military expect the best of each other. Let us never forget what the best of each other is, in the name of God.

Monday, November 05, 2007

What We're Pretty Sure They Know

Ephesians 1: 11-23

We're pretty sure that the ones whom we honor today, All Saints Day, are with God. We're pretty sure that they understand, fully, what we know only in part. We're pretty sure that they are a part of God. We're pretty sure that they know what heaven is.

We're pretty sure that they see us struggle to understand how God wants us to live. Sure, we get the being good, being kind, being faithful parts, but we struggle with the daily living of that. How do we go? How to be good in this situation, that circumstance? We're pretty sure they know what's the right way to go.

For them, the journey is over. The river of their lives has come to it's mouth, they have achieved sea level, and have come to rest. Do they look down over us? Perhaps. But I'd like to think that they are facing God, rather than facing us.

We're pretty sure that when we come to the communion table, and we think of the cloud of witnesses that surround us, we're pretty sure that we have been brought to them by God, in love, not that they have come to us. We have joined the chorus of love, somehow, in this act of eating bread and drinking juice, even when it doesn't feel like we have gone anywhere. For a moment, we are in the chorus of love ourselves.

We're pretty sure they know that we still love them. After all, it is love that makes up the entirety of who they are now. No other emotion exists in God, other than love. So the love of God is in the end, all that we are. That is what we mean by "created in the image of God". Not arms, not legs, not eyes, hair or mouth. But so far as we love, we resemble God. We're pretty sure they know.

We're pretty sure that they know that when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened, we too will know what they know. We'll find that the hope to which God has called us is real, is more solid than the hardest rock, the hottest fire, the most delicious food and drink. The riches of God's glorious inheritance among the saints is the assurance that what we hope for is real; that our faith is not misplaced. That God is real, that heaven is being with God eternally, and that everyone we love is there.

We, here on this earth, honor those who have died, praying to God that they are with God, and praying that we will earn the same reward. That the end of our lives is not in a grave or a pile of ashes, but that we are launched into a bright place of love and warmth, where we no longer seek God, because we are with God.

We're pretty sure they know God, now. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. And where we place our hope, even our faith, we're pretty sure they just know. We're pretty sure that what we hope for is spread right out there in front of them.