Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Whole Enchilada

John 20: 1-18

I’m very aware this morning of this being my first Easter Sermon in this charge, and some folks may wonder what I am going to say.

Well, I can’t say that I have the perfect story to tell, the perfect illustration. Easter Sunday, like Christmas, is one of those days where there is only so much you can do. Easter, like Christmas, is about one thing, and one thing only, and anything that any preacher can say either proclaims that or distracts from it.

Jesus Christ is Risen, and our Christian faith is declared. Let us now proclaim the Mystery of Faith:

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

That’s the whole enchilada.

That’s where we start, that’s where we end. All of the stories about Jesus healing, all of the ethical lessons, all of the miracles are lessons about him, and we get them the rest of the year. Today, and Christmas, we are about who we are, and what our response is to the event that we claim is central to our faith, and to the history of the world. Because of what we claim about this day, men and women for 2000 years have left their families and gone to the far reaches of the earth to tell the story. Because of what we claim about this day, wars have been and continue to be fought.

Because of what we claim about this day, people go to live in foreign countries and teach farming, teach about the importance of clean water, teach about the equality of all people, in all nations and tribes and places.

Because of what we claim about this day, music is composed, poems are written, on all continents and in all languages. Swahili, Ibo, Urdu, Bengal, Irish, English, Japanese, Spanish, in all forms of sign, and computer code.

What do we claim about this day?

We claim that on this day, Jesus was discovered to have been raised from the dead. We claim that today begins the new Covenant, the covenant where God’s love is available to all, where all people are now the chosen people. Even when we fall short, even where we fail, even when we miss the mark, and cause pain and death and destruction, we are loved, and God’s way is the way of peace, reconciliation, creation, and healing.

We believe that God loved the world, and has loved it, all of it, since he created it. We believe that somehow, another part of God, separate but of the same substance, emptied himself, and was born as a full human being, having to learn how to talk, how to talk, how to learn a trade, how to read, how to understand the Scriptures, so that we may know that God loved us in a real concrete way. When that love was rejected, and he was put into danger, the man who the spirit contained did not shy away, but bravely sought to continue to show the love of God.

This showing of love to all, even those whom were not loved by other humans on earth, led to his being killed. When it became clear that there was only one path left for him, he walked toward it bravely, and was killed in the most painful way the ruling body could formulate. That man, loved by God and part of God, was raised from the dead; not just resuscitated, but resurrected to full and tangible life, as the final evidence of God’s love. And when he came back, he taught one thing, as he said it to Peter—Do you love me? Feed my sheep.

We claim that on this day, God’s love was shown to all the world by overcoming death. God is real. He didn’t leave Jesus in the tomb. From this day, we know that he has all the power in the world. And he loves us. And through the man that came to us, and his actions while with us, we now know this.

He loves me. He loves you. He loves us. He loves them. And as the recipients of that Love, and with the help of the Spirit that was sent, our charge is to continue to feed God’s sheep. You. Me. Us. Them. Everyone. All are children of God. God loves Americans, and loves Iraqis. God loves Anglos and Hispanics. Miners and farmers. Men and Women. God loves Jews and Greeks, slaves and those who are free. There is no preference. What we call radical and dangerous, not having learned a thing from Jesus, is normal and expected of God. We are called to be as radial in love as Jesus was, and as God is. In him, we are one people, one creation.

This is the whole Enchilada.

And so, all over the world, this day is celebrated by Christians. Yes, some groups celebrate it on different days. Everybody celebrates it a little differently; some with communion, some with baptism, some with the ordination of priests, some with long worship services, some alone standing on a hilltop. Families have dinners, some have picnics (probably not too many of those, today, around here!)
All to celebrate that the supreme creator of the universe sent his Son, that whoever believes in him, really believes that to love all isn’t radical at all, shall not perish but have eternal life. And when we fail, we are still loved.

This is the whole Enchilada.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hamilton Clemow's Eulogy

On Monday, March 10, I had the privilege of celebrating the life of one of Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow's favorite pastors, Rev. Hamilton Clemow. For those of you who are CMDH expatriates or couldn't make it on Monday, I post my eulogy. Rev. Jackson Cox, the pastor of the Carverton Charge and a longtime friend of Ham and Mary's, also eulogized Ham.

Hamilton Clemow

According to the Wyoming Conference Journal, Ham served the following churches or charges: Lemon, Huntsville, East Lemon, South Auburn, Center Moreland, Dymond Hollow.

He served for 31 years.

He was appointed to Lemon 6 months after I was born.

I have been at Center Moreland Charge, serving Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow for a little over 8 months. Even before I was officially appointed, in the discussions that pastors have during appointment transitions, Pastor MJ was telling me about Ham Clemow. He was a sweet guy, a former pastor who was now sick.

Very soon after I came on, I heard his name from a lot of people, and always with regard.

He was sick, and Mary was very vigilant in making sure that Ham didn’t get exposed to too many things that might make him sick. I think I wore a surgical mask the first time I met Ham. We talked for a little bit of time, and I asked him what the state of his soul was then. He said something along the lines of blessed, and assured of his Savior.

He was a model of how God’s blessing, when accepted and cherished, runs over like that cup in Psalm 23. With Ham, you couldn’t help but get splashed by that grace that runneth over. In fact the line from Luke comes to mind:

37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Luke 6: 37-38, NRSV

I left the house that day thinking that this is someone who would make a good mentor. Yes, it is true that in the church’s hierarchy, I have a higher “rank”. But in the matters of the spirit, I could completely trust the advice he would give me about how to be a pastor. Ham was a generous spirit. Or, maybe he had opened himself to the Spirit to such a degree that God’s spirit shone through him. Yes, I get the impression that whatever was positive about his character, whatever was generous, or kind, or principled, was God reflecting through him.

In hearing about him from the members of the churches I am now serving, it was soon clear that there were a lot of people who were still in contact with him, even 9 years after he’d left as their pastor. The first time I drove out to his and Mary’s house, I kept thinking “Good Golly, this guy lives in the sticks!”

"And these people keep coming out, calling, e-mailing, keeping in touch. Who IS this guy?”

Now, in our United Methodist system, where pastors are moved with some regularity, it’s not exactly forbidden, but certainly discouraged for parishioners to remain in contact with former pastors, and pastors are certainly expected to discourage contact. There are good reasons for that. With Ham, none of them seem to apply. Knowing him just the little bit that I do, he would have encouraged people who might want to complain, or whatever, to come to the new pastor directly, just as Matthew 18 teaches. But he wouldn’t have necessarily quoted Matthew 18 immediately, he would have expressed its spirit, first; and then, probably from memory, quote it to the person he was talking to.

Each pastor has what I call a Pastor of Blessed Memory (PBM). Ham, I think is this pastor for Center Moreland, and probably for Dymond Hollow, too. Ham was generous with me, for sure. We were in a unique situation in that he was the former pastor of the church he was now the member of. He acknowledged the call of the current pastor without jealousy, without insecurity, and with grace. And even now, nine years after he served the charge I now serve, and with his health limiting his ability to be out in the world, his generosity bolstered the special character of these two churches. I would expect that if I were to go to Lemon, or South Auburn, I would expect to find elements of that same Holy Spirit generosity.

Ham is gone now. I didn’t have much time to get to know him. But I appreciated his sense of humor, and the way in which Mary and he interacted with each other as partners, as lovers, and as friends. I appreciated his humility and his sense of faith.

My current parishioners have probably recognized by now that I always preach that it is the call of a Christian to reflect the love and grace of God. I have found Rev. Hamilton Clemow to be an excellent example of that. His ministry was a model of how to influence the lives of his parishioners so that they show God’s love is topmost.

I should hope to be so effective, so loving, or so faithful.

He will be missed by a lot of people, but if we can be assured of anyone now being with God in eternity, it’s Pork.

These Bones Can Live!

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Last year, a book was published that shocked a lot of people. It was the diary of Mother Theresa, the famous Albanian nun and nurse who served in Kolkata, India. To us, she has become the absolute pinnacle of service, to God and to others. Her name is a shorthand word for self-giving, and for faith-based sacrifice. We took for granted her oneness with God, her ability to be able to communicate and be with God. After all, she did an awful lot, a whole lot more than we could have done, so she must be closer to God than us, right?

But we found out from the diaries that were published against her wishes and after her death that she had one transcendent experience, the one that motivated her to go to India, and never experienced God again. Her whole career in Kolkata, the thousands she fed and clothed, the hundreds who became Christian and even became nuns because of the example she set, that work was based not on a continuing dialogue between her and God, but her trying to recapture and please the God she felt had gone missing. By her lights, she never experienced the replenishing, regenerating spirit of God again, after that first time. She walked for 40 some odd years in a valley of dry bones.

John Wesley, the founder of our practice of the Christian faith, was on a ship that felt like it was going to sink soon. He was a failure as a Christian, and as a human being. At least that’s probably how he felt. He had failed as a chaplain to the new colony of Georgia, and the woman he had fallen in love with had rejected him in favor of another suitor. He had had to leave the Georgia colony in disgrace, and in the middle of the night, because of his refusing her communion in response to her rejecting him. The local powers were very angry with him about that, and it became clear that leaving Georgia was a VERY good idea, and soon.

Now, this passage back to England, with no prospects ahead of him, was extremely rough. The storms never seemed to end. And to pour salt into his wounded faith, the Moravians on board were singing hymns and praying with joy in their hearts as the boat was tossed in the rough seas like a leaf in a rain gutter.

Mary and Martha were sad, and a little bit angry; well maybe just Martha. Their brother, Lazarus, had just died, and Jesus, their friend and the messiah, who had performed miracles far and wide, was late in coming. For some unexplained reason he had tarried, and now it was too late. It was hard to understand why Jesus wouldn’t come running when they sent word that Lazarus was sick. But he didn’t and now they had lost their brother, and in some ways, their safety and livelihood. It was REALLY hard for women to live without male family members around in their culture, and they were facing a very uncertain and insecure future.

Almost any Christian, almost any Christian Community, church, mission, experiences times of dryness. There are times in everyone’s life when the faith, the creativity, the closeness to God, doesn’t come easy. Our lives feel dry, monotonous, uninspired. Perhaps something has happened o our health, or in a community there has been a conflict or a death that has taken the wind out of the sails. Sometimes it isn’t even a trauma that occurs, sometimes there are just cycles in lives of communities where there isn’t a lot going on, times of lying fallow, like a farmers’ field not producing.

It is times like these that Ezekiel is experiencing with the people of Israel. He recalls for them the very recent experience of their city, Jerusalem falling to the enemy, and now, having been conquered, they must pass through the fields of battle, where bodies have not even been buried, into an uncertain future in slavery and subjugation.

In the face of this national experience, the prophet Jeremiah preached hope by buying property for a land that was about to not belong to his people. Ezekiel preaches the vision that the dead and lifeless body of Israel will rise again and become strong and alive.

The life of the people of God, he says, can be revived, but only with the power and the help and the grace of God. It is only God who can make these bones live. It is only God who can re-animate that which looks dead and lifeless, with not even muscle or tendon or organ left.

Can these bones live? Yes. But not by Ezekiel’s hands. Mother Theresa did a lot to serve God, but she could not make him return to her like the lover of her youth. Welsey could not re-animate his worldview, and change things back to the way he wanted on his own. Mary and Martha could not bring their brother back to life. It took the power of God in Jesus Christ to bring Lazarus back.

It took the power of God in the Holy Spirit to animate John Welsey’s faith into a more gentle, grace-filled and motivating faith. Even in the midst of her valley of dry bones, Theresa was able to do a lot in god’s name, and she hopefully realized at some point in her life that what she had done, what had been attributed to her work, the size of her mission and the sisterhood of nuns that was now working worldwide, was from God, and not her hands.
The life of ordinary churches can be the same. The lives of ordinary people can be the same. Times of dryness, times of doldrums, times of a lack of inspiration, can end, in the name of that same Jesus, that same Holy Spirit.

This church has been in service to God for over 170 years. Surely there will have been times when things were good, and rich and energetic. There are surely other times when things have been listless, lifeless, even perhaps a little boring. But our history, our Bible, and our lives can teach us that energy, life, ministry can become alive again, in the name of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We gather together to serve God in the name of Jesus Christ. If we are feeling dry, or lifeless, scared, or lonely, we call on Christ, and our mission is renewed.

May we always be blessed by God’s presence, but if for some reason we lose our way and the Spirit of God, may we be blessed by God’s return. May he always renew us, put muscle back onto bone, and reanimate us through His spirit.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Is Seeing Better?

John 9: 1-12

Sometimes it’s tough to see Jesus. Sometimes, it would be easier to stay blind. It’s less trouble, and you know what to expect from life.

The blind man who is healed by Jesus in today’s gospel passage was born so, as the story goes. His blindness has been caused by either his own sin before he was born, or the sins of his parents visited upon him. That’s what the people around him had always said, anyway.

But Jesus had a different opinion. He was born blind, Jesus said. Whether he sinned or someone else did isn’t the right question. A better question might be, how can God’s love be shown to him or through him to others? And then he proceeds to spit into the dirt, rub it together into a paste, and daubed on the man’s eyes. Then he said to go to the pool of Sent and wash that mud off.

So the man goes, and he realizes that as soon as the mud is washed off, he can see!”

Now it gets hard. The people are fascinated with this—this guy was born blind! Has he been forgiven the sins he committed before he was born? Have his parents been forgiven for their sins, the punishment of which he has received? They don’t really even recognize the guy, they keep asking if it is him, or just someone who looks like him. He says that he’s the guy.
“What happened?”, they ask.
“The man Jesus healed my blindness.”
“Where is he?”
“No idea.”

Well, this healing happened on a Sabbath, and the perpetrator was nowhere around, so they took the victim of this lawbreaking to the religious authorities.

“Tell us what happened”, they say.

“Jesus restored my sight.”

And off the religious authorities go.

“Well, this Jesus broke the law. That makes him a sinner.”

But there is argument; “if he is a sinner, how can he restore sight?”

Finally, they remember the formerly blind man, and ask him: “What do you say about this guy?”

“Don’t know the man, but I’d say he’s a prophet.”

For these religious people without much imagination, it can’t be true that Jesus is a prophet, that he would heal on the Sabbath, because that is not what a prophet would do. (We do tend to want our prophets to follow our rules.) And so, the mind not being as limber or as open as it should be, the conclusion becomes “well, this guy isn’t the blind guy after all.” It takes the man’s parents to come in and say “he is our son, he was born blind, but we have no idea how he came to have received his sight. We don’t know who did it. Ask him, he was there, and he’s an adult.”

So they drag him back to the authorities. OK, you have to testify now, and say that this Jesus guy is a sinner. He healed on the Sabbath. Give glory to God and tell us how much of a sinner the man Jesus was!”

Well, our formerly blind hero won’t buy it. “Look, people. I was blind, now I can see. I’ve told you this already. I have no idea whether he is a sinner. All I know is that I can see. Why do you want to hear this story again? Are you looking for him so that you can follow him too?”

“Psh! Follow him? We follow Moses. We don’t know this guy at all.”

“You don’t know him, and yet he healed my blindness? That’s rich! You’re the authorities. You call this Jesus guy a sinner, and yet he opened my eyes, and we know that only the ones who listen to God can work miracles!”

The authorities reply “Whoa, slow down there, buddy. YOU don’t get to teach us about sins and forgiveness. You were born with the sins of your father on you. You’ve got nothing to teach us. Out of this institution you go! You are no longer a member of us!”

Hearing that the man had been kicked out, Jesus went to find the man, who now could see Jesus, but had lost what little religious standing he had. Jesus asked him, “Do you believe that there is someone coming who will provide the judgment of God?” The man replies “yes, but who is he?” Jesus says “Me.” The man says “I believe you”, and worships him. Jesus says “I come to bring light to the world, and those who can’t see it will be treated according to their willing blindness.”

And the religious authorities say “We’re blind? Nah. Can’t be. We’re the authorities.”

When God works in the world, people don’t want to hear it. It’s uncomfortable. When something happens to people who are outside of our safe little boundaries, we don’t believe it. “Because of who they are”, we say, “what they claim can’t be true.”

If you believe in grace, if you believe that God works in all of his children, whether they believe in him or not, then you have to be open to God choosing people you consider to be weird, or dangerous, because of what they do or who they believe. You have to almost expect it. After all, God can’t do much work with those who don’t have any problems, who know everything.

Is seeing better than knowing?