Sunday, April 27, 2008

2008 Confirmation Trip to Washington DC

These images are from my weekend's trip to Washington DC with the confirmands of the charge I serve. It was my first time taking the kids from this charge to DC, a trip I first learned to do with Rev. Doug Clark at Shavertown UMC. I've adjusted the itinerary a little in my own version, but it is still a meaningful event.

I also took the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend from way back when I was a winery tour guide in the Napa Valley, and we both marveled at how neither of us expected to be on this side of the country, being in the places in life we are now in. But we're both pretty happy with where we did end up.

The trip is a visit to the Washington National Cathedral in the morning, and the Holocaust Museum in the afternoon. Unbeknownst to me, the town we were hosted in is an important area for United Methodist history, and were were able to give attention to that history before church on Sunday morning. Considering that the trip is part of the educational content for confirmands that I teach, can you figure out what the theme is? They have until May 11 to figure it out.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

No Sermon Posts

This Sunday, April 27, and next Sunday, May 4, I will not be posting sermons. I will be taking my Confirmation class to Washington DC, and then I will be taking a retreat. There may be non-sermon posts in between.

Building the Dream Home

1 Peter 2: 4-8
John 14: 1-7

El Paso is a a city that sits in the very western part of Texas. If Texas was a teapot, El Paso would be at the spout. It sits on the Rio Grande, one of the rivers that make up the US-Mexican border. Across the river is Juarez, and the two cities, in all things except government, are really one. The whole valley is a high, dry desert.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in the early nineties, many multi-national corporations opened up factories in the cities along the US-Mexican border. Computer companies like Dell and HP not the least of them. Workers began to migrate north from as far away as Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to get these jobs, but when they got to Juarez, they didn’t find much housing.

The south side of Juarez, way from the border, is an area that is usually considered the town dump. It’s not a high concentration of trash in bags and stuff, but you will find couches and tires out there pretty regularly. There, in that part of the city, is where these workers started to congregate. The city tried to keep up with them, but Juarez doubled in size in ten years. 3 million extra people in ten years would be hard for New York to handle, so can you imagine the stress Juarez was put under?

People were living in houses made of shipping pallets. They would get electricity by slinging bare wires over the electricity wires up on the poles. Those wires would then run along the ground to the house. I heard more than one boot sole sizzle. Cooking was done with propane on hot plates, or with small open fires.

Missions began to form to build cheap housing for the workers of the Maquiladoras, the Spanish name for these companies that opened up along the border.

The houses you build are one room, one story, two windows, and a plywood and tarpaper roof. Most of the time you add a concrete floor, but not always.

You are building in a desert, and so the ground is primarily hard-packed sand, and the bigger concern is making sure the foundation is level. Once you get down a few feet, the hard packed sand is solid enough for the construction. On one of the houses we built , we had to cut through some discarded carpet that had been thrown away when the area was a dump to get to level. The Mexican construction foremen, would then by signs, hand gestures and halting English, teach the basics of bricklaying, starting with how to mix mortar on the ground. No concrete mixers, here. If the work was shoddy, they would do their best to go back, but American mission workers are a hit and miss lot, not many masons among the office workers, college students and farmers.

But it of course was a much better job if the foundation was level.

When you build a house, any kind of house that you want to last for a while, you pay proper attention to the foundation. The best thing, of course is to build on rock.

A life of the spirit is of course the same thing. The rock that we build on isn’t granite or sandstone, but the word of the Lord. By reading scripture, praying together, discussing the ideas that come forth from these actions with those around us, we begin to build a strong foundation, and the dream home of our spirits takes shape. The outline of a dream home may be all different shapes, but a strong foundation wall, rooted in the rock beneath us, in the truth of God, is a constant.

And then, as we build up, board by board, brick by brick, stone by stone, we can get as creative in the design as we want to be, as long as it can still be supported by the foundation. If the foundation is built right, the weight and architecture can be creative and beautiful, unorthodox and strange, can look like anything you can imagine, and it is still strong in God.

Those houses built in the Sonoran desert outside of Juarez are not the strongest houses physically. They are not going to fall down on the inhabitants, but neither are they going to be there for the ages, like cathedrals. What will stand the test of time is the faith expressed in those buildings, the money and time spent by people who, according to their culture, had much better things to do with both than to go get dirty, sore and tired, sleep in bunkhouses with limited hot water, buy cinderblock and mortar, and avoid scorpions and snakes.

But by going and helping others of God’s children, our brothers and sisters, we build a beautiful spiritual building, one whose foundations are solidly sunk into the rock that is the Word of God. That building will be there long after these maquiladora shacks have disappeared.

The strongest work that a Christian can do, that a church can do, is to dig until we reach the word of God. When we pray or study, we are picking up the shovel and bending to it. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, sometimes it is unpleasant. Sometimes you have to switch to a pick for a while. But finding the foundation stone, the corner stone, is assured. It’s not a matter of digging to search for the stone, it is a matter of digging until you find it. We are assured it is there. And folks, it’s not that far deep, either.

As a congregation, our foundation needs to be that rock. Our corner stone needs to be the one that other builders rejected, but we start our building from. When the foundation is built, then that house of many dwelling places, with enough room for anyone who seeks grace in Jesus Christ, can be built. Any decision that any congregation makes, at any time, needs to be based in how the foundation of their faith is built.

Building the dream home of our congregation is possible, if we will seek God’s leading, listen for what we are called to be in our community, and step out in courage and faith to do it. Sometimes that dream home requires brick and mortar building, sometimes it doesn’t; it all depends on God’s leading.

So the next question is: what are we called to?

Not Playing the Safe Way

Acts 2: 42-47

It’s very hard to avoid being in a community. It’s very hard to avoid people. We have to eat, so we have to go buy food in stores. Very few of us can hire someone to do that. We have to mail stuff periodically, and we don’t always have the right postage, or the thing needs to be weighed, so we have to go into town for that. We sit in audiences for concerts, and we sit in crowds for sports.

Truth be told, we need community. The computer and the internet have enabled a lot of people to spend a lot more time alone, but even that isn’t truly alone—what’s the one thing many people do when they get online? They check the sites of the groups they are a part of, the communities that they have joined online. They check their e-mail to see who has written to them.

Even the earliest hermits of the church, who went out into the Egyptian desert to truly be alone and to wrestle with their sins in the presence of God and no distractions, got the reputation for being very wise, and therefore had the problem of people coming to them for advice. Besides, they needed groceries brought to them, too!

While we need silence and solitude sometimes, we all need people around us. To be human is to need companionship—God recognized this very early, in Adam. To be Christian is to understand the need for fellowship, of people around you who can help you grow in Christ, and whom you can help in return. No one can be a Christian alone, in any sense that means anything.

The early followers of Jesus, who had just had the Holy Spirit descend on them at Pentecost in this mornings’ reading, are living together in joyful community. Together, in the Spirit, they “devote…themselves to apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. . . “

And churches have not been much different, since. Churches have lived together in communes. Churches have died together inside their buildings, as rival tribes or oppressors burn the building down. Churches have lost their way together, and found it again together. In the second verse of a hymn we all know, it says
Sometimes the church is marching, sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes it’s hiding, always it’s learning.

Nearly a hundred and eighty years ago, this church was planted as a local class meeting in this area, in the midst of farmers and shopkeepers and whomever else lived here. They had a mission in mind. True, it was to study and grow in the word of God, but Methodist Class meetings weren’t just classes. They were local outlets of mission and ministry as well, seeking to serve their local communities in the name of Jesus Christ.

In James, it says that:
1:17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

We are the inheritors of a great tradition, the Wesleyan tradition of social assistance and justice being tied to traditional Christian piety and language. One of Wesley’s most enduring legacies is the story of Foundry church, which was a combination church, school, and medical clinic. As Methodists all over the world have planted churches, they have also sought to lift up the people, to take care of earthly needs.

For Methodists, it has always been more than “how can I be saved?” It has also been “how can I reform God’s creation in His name?”

We have before us, at this time and this place, an array of gifts and graces. Some of it may be financial, some of it is the array of talents that the congregation carries within it. What are we to do with it? It is not in the call of a United Methodist church to languish. It is not enough that we go along, show up every Sunday as a habit, spend an hour being pleasantly informed and mildly inspired by word and music, and then go home. We are not called to play it safe. We are called to serve our communities. We are called to adapt to the communities as their needs change. We are called to risk, to we are called to serve, which is not a very popular sentiment in the modern world. Indeed, our community is in existence to serve the greater community in Christ’s’ name.

Many of you have lived here all your lives. You know what the current needs are among those who have less than you. You also know your own needs, and know others who have the same needs. Do we need a school? Do we need a clinic? Are both of those needs being met in this community today? Don’t be afraid of what dream God plants in your head. Well, perhaps, be cautious, certainly discern the Spirits, but don’t be afraid.

I ask you to pray. Read Scripture. Pray again. Listen. Spend some time listening to God, and focus on the life of your church.

How can we be the church together? How can we all follow Jesus, with those from all around the world? And especially right here? How can we be the community we are called to be?

I ask this knowing that the asking of the question is the Lord’s intention—not because I have a direct line to God, but because that question is the question we are always asked, by God. Amen.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Wait, He Was Just Here!

Luke 24: 13-35

3rd Sunday of Easter

I have never experienced the magic of Sky Lake, our church camp up near Windsor, New York. I have never really ever been to church camp, or camp of any kind. I've been camping, but to spend a week in the company of crowds of other people about my same age, sleeping in cabins and swimming in the lake every day, saying crazy graces in dining halls, being curious about the girls at the next table; all that is an experience that I've not had.

When the youth I served at Shavertown came back from their Music camp, they were full of that magic. They told stories of friends, and incidents in the week-long soap opera that is camp, sure, but they were also very clear in describing moments of divinity, clear memories when they could describe the presence of God. They were also very lucky in being able to recognize them as they were happening, because of the God-soaked atmosphere, the open and common expectation that God was present all the time, so it was just simply true that something transcendent would happen.

That's a rare thing. Most of the time, and in most of our lives, we only recognize God in the rear view mirror. Many of us of a certain age can mark moments in our lives that, when we look back, were clearly shaped by the hand of God. All of us remember certain decisions that, in retrospect, we influenced by our faith in ways we could not have named or recognized at the time.

This story of Jesus and the two who are walking to the town of Emmaus today is one of those stories that we can easily recognize. Jesus has been with these two believers all day on the road. It is only in sitting down with him at the meal that they realize who he is, and their realization coincides directly with his disappearing. Not getting up and leaving, but poof! and he's gone. They don't see who he is until he has left.

That's just often the way it is. It's impossible to be able to be aware of every moment in our lives, waiting in expectation of God, not wishing to miss it. That's not our call. We are called to live our lives, knowing in who's presence we are in at all times, but it is more like a long time friendship, with easy rhythms and comfortable silences, rather than a constant outpouring of dramatic divinity, with angels singing and bright light shining down.

You know how there are some friends you can have that you can be gone from for years, and when you meet up again, it's like the conversation never stopped? That's the way it is with God. That easy comfort with friends is as much evidence of God's love as the dramatic entrance of angels.
The divinity and the genius of God is such that mature faith very much resembles old love; the love of old friends of many years, or the love of a couple who have been together through joys and trials, love and pain. It's still vital, and gives off a lot of light and heat, but the sharp edges have been worn off. And it is only looking back in those sorts of relationships that you realize the story has become a testimony for friendship, or love.

Our relationship with God is the same way. There are one or two realization-in-the-moments, but mostly you see God by how your decisions worked out.

Moses only got to see God after God had passed by; Job notes that "He passes by me, and I do not see him". Alan Culpepper, author of one of the commentaries I use for Luke, says it this way: "One of the secrets of a vigorous spirituality and a confident faith is learning to appreciate the importance of meeting God in the past as well as the present."

We are called to always look to the future, as Christians, to always be aware of what we are called to, next. But sometimes it is necessary to look behind us, in our own rear view mirrors, to see what the next thing is. One could say that having the jobs I have had has led me here. One could also say that being here with you now is preparing me for something yet to come. What we have learned in the past leads us toward something we don't yet know. What we have done has trained us for what we will do. Our call is to be faithful to God, to the best of our ability, in the midst of this constant movement.

God is constant, we don't have to be. The men on the road to Emmaus reflected Jesus' story back to him, being faithful to tell the story, to share the Gospel, even though he knew their understanding was incomplete. He shared with them more of the story, and in the social setting of a meal, in public and in a tavern or inn, they realize who he only in the blessing of the meal.

It is in the mundane act of eating after a hard day traveling where they realize God has been in their lives. In such mundane acts like eating or traveling, we find God. God is with us at all times, not just in the sought-for mountaintop experiences, like camp or retreats.

So we can expect that God will be with us in the everyday decisions we make, if we will listen. As St. Patrick says, God is with us; above us, below us, on our left and our right, within us, without us, in our hands and in our sight. God is in school with us, at work with us, in our kitchens, next to us on the couch watching TV, rooting for our teams and our favorite singers on American Idol. And a mature faith is that that thought makes us feel blessed and de-stressed, not paranoid.

It is plenty enough to say that "he was just here!", along with the two men walking to Emmaus. But they were in that period before the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, where Jesus could only be one place at a time.

It is possible for us, all of us, to say "He is here now." And that's true.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Your Middle Name is Thomas.

John 20: 19-31

March 30 was the 5th Sunday of the month, and I have seen other churches use this occasion, which happens 4 times a year, to do something special in worship. At Center Moreland, the two layspeakers spoke a messages of testimony, what God has done for them, either when they came to be with Christ, or how God had been in their lives lately. The music was much more praise oriented.

This sermon was preached at Dymond Hollow.

When you go to seminary, at least to the one I went to, it’s a common phrase you hear when studying the Gospel of John; Thomas isn’t treated by the church fairly. Folks really tend to identify with him. Here is a disciple that was with Jesus for his entire ministry, giving a day or two in the beginning. Here’s a guy that walked the dusty roads, fed a crowd of five thousand with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish, saw a lot of things that no one had ever seen before, and while he wasn’t one of the big three, Peter, James, and John, he had seen enough to know who Jesus was. He sat at the table with Jesus when he heard that one of them would betray him. He saw who it was, and saw that it wasn’t him, which had to be a relief. He ran away from Jesus just like every other disciple did.

So, it’s a week later. Mary Magdalene came running back from his dead Rabbi’s tomb, saying not only that the body has been taken, but that there were two angels there, and Jesus was too, though she didn’t know it was him first. He told her to tell them that he would be ascending to the Father, just like Elijah did.

The next day, the other disciples had met at a house and Jesus had appeared to them as well, coming through a locked door and showing them his wounds, and “breathing on them”, giving them the Holy Spirit.

OK, there are two stories circulating now, both of seeing the dead rabbi alive. Not just a ghost, either, but the flesh and blood, still scarred, guy.

Thomas, of course, is wondering what the deal is. Is there some story that the Big Three and Mary have concocted up to keep sticking it to the Romans? Have they gone insane? It’s too much to ask, to think that Jesus, his rabbi, is actually alive. It’s really too much to ask. He’s got to have proof. He’s from Missouri, here; “show me” is his attitude.

So, the next week, they’re all in the same room, again, with the same locked door, and Jesus does. He does show up, and show him.

“Thomas, come see. It’s really me. Now can you believe?” And of course, he does.

I think the reason Thomas has the reputation he does is the next few words in the John passage: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.

The inference here is that somehow those who haven’t seen and believed anyway are more blessed. But we forget. Thomas was the only one of the twelve not in the room in the first place. The others don’t have to worry about having proof. They only had to wait a day after Mary’s amazing story to get their proof, and the Scriptures are silent on what their attitude was during the time between the Sunday morning and the Monday night.

If the disciples are anything like Thomas, if they are anything like us, then I think they might have been a little skeptical, too.

I think those few words “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, aren’t even meant as a rebuke for Thomas. I think it is an aside to the audience of the Bible—like how Ferris Bueller addressed the movie audience periodically. Stage actors call it “breaking down the fourth wall.” Jesus was only on earth after his crucifixion and resurrection for a short time. The church celebrates it as about 40 days. It’s now two thousand years later.

We don’t get the physical Jesus, who can only be in one place at a time. We get the Holy Spirit, that can be everywhere all at the same time. But to trade infinite access, apparently, we must give up tangible proof. We have to believe, and have faith that the proof will be “in the pudding.”

When one becomes a Christian now, it is generally an incremental process. Sure, there are people who believe wholeheartedly right from the start, but that isn’t the way for most. It certainly wasn’t for me. I do not have the faith experience of a lifetime of incremental steps toward faith throughout my childhood, with small realizations at camp, in Sunday school, and life experience, culminating in an active belief, but neither do I have a sudden, all or nothing, zero-to-sixty-in-two-seconds kind of faith.
When I asked Jesus into my heart, I was alone in a bedroom, and I actually asked three times, because I didn’t feel any change after asking. I knew, however, that Jesus’ coming into my heart was a story that many people had insisted was reliable, all I had to do was ask. So I thought that we’ll just watch and wait, some kind of event or incidence that would show me that something had changed. It took three weeks before I realized that I wasn’t getting angry at idiot drivers. Just that small little thing, that small change in attitude, that tiny resemblance to Christ, was what I needed to give God a little more trust. And so it has grown ever since.

Thomas is my middle name. It probably is yours, too. Don’t think that Thomas is such a bad guy, or that “doubting Thomas” is a negative phrase. It’s just what we all are. But don’t cherish doubt, either, as an intellectual badge. Life is a lot harder when you define yourself and your world by what you don’t believe, or don’t see. It’s much richer when you affirm what you do believe and are open to what you don’t know about.

We are blessed because we believe in what we can’t see. Jesus’ words are true. But really, in the end, when we believe, we do see. Jesus does show up.