Monday, June 30, 2008

God isn’t Retired

1 John 4: 9-16

When I was in seminary, I once attended a midweek worship service at St. Luke community UMC in Dallas. (That's the one in Texas). It was primarily an African-American congregation, and I had gone because I was curious about what church was like with my preaching professor as the minister.

I didn’t get that objective checked off. He wasn’t there that night, this service was run by a fellow seminarian. But I learned a lot more.

It was a testimony service. There would be a song or two, then the mike would get passed around from person to person, and anyone who had cause to speak of God’s working in their life that week spoke. Then there would be some more music, and another testimony. On and on it went, until the service ended with one last song.

There was no other purpose to the service than for fellow Christians to witness about God’s latest work on earth, and it happened to them! It was a great reminder that God isn’t retired, and that God isn’t behind the scenes.

This kind of worship of God in Jesus Christ has a long and healthy history. Scholars and historians think that there was an element of testimony in the earliest worship of the church, down in the catacombs. Methodist services in the early days made use of an exhorter, or a person that was not theologically trained, as the wandering Elder was, but led most services in the local church, weekly, as the Elder only would come around once every 3 months or so. The evolution of the exhorter brought us to the jobs that Carolyn and Jeff hold for us at Center Moreland, and Bob holds at Dymond Hollow. They would organize the service, lead the service, and parcel out the scripture readings, songs and testimonies. It was up to them to encourage the class meeting, or the congregation, which is what exhortation means.

As the church has evolved, it has become the preachers’ role to do a lot of this stuff, as they have become pastors of single churches or charges of just two, three or four churches. But I think something might have been lost when the opportunity to speak to each other about God’s working in our lives was made less common.

John writes to his community that “God is love”, and that “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”.

Today, you are the carriers of the message of God’s love to each other. God isn’t retired. He was worked in the lives of people who are here today. What stories can you tell?

This story is from Sheryl Phillips, of the Center Moreland church.


When Pastor Drew asked me to speak today, I thought, OH DEAR! This is out of my comfort zone, way out. Then he said just 3 to 5 minutes. That means I will be talking real slow. He asked me what is going on in my life, how is God working in my life? A testimony!

It is always a privilege to speak about our Lord and how & what He is doing in ones life, although I never did it this way. My comfort zone is with my Jr. High Sunday School class. But, I can do this because it tells me in His Word, "I can do ALL things through Him who gives me strength." Phil. 4:13. So here goes.

Like Carolyn (Patton), who last gave a testimony, I had to look up the word testimony. I used our "big" World Book dictionary. It said; Testimony: a statement used for EVIDENCE or PROOF. Also, an open declaration of faith or profession of one's faith. A key word is "evidence." What evidence do I have to testify of my faith? I think back of when Bob and I had to "testify" in a court of law, which I pray I will never have to do again esp. now that it is getting harder to remember just what happened yesterday let alone months or years ago. That experience was a question and answer thing. Today with my testimony, my evidence, there is no one asking questions, just me giving a testimony, or evidence. You folks are the jury I guess and the Lord is my judge.

I consider my testimony a walk, my life travels through time, down the road of life with all its highs, its lows, the mountain top experiences and the valleys.
YESTERDAY, TODAY & TOMORROW are very important in my walk. I will start with the yesterday.
My family was not what you would call church goers on a regular basis. We went, we were Easter and Christmas people, at the special times we would go. I remember being picked up to go as a child & youth by Richard & Marion Brunges and sometimes Verna Weaver. Sunday School teachers were "Aunt" Gerry Blizzard, Genevieve Besteder, Elaine Dymond, Verna Weaver to name a few. They were planting seeds in my walk. I pray that I am doing that with my Sunday School class now, planting seeds.
One of my first encounters, recollections with Jesus, was on a cross in a very small church in Falls located across the street from the Falls UMC. The church is not there now. Every Sunday night my grandma would visit a friend and she would take her to church. In the church was a big cross and on it was the words, "JESUS SAVES." Many times a night the pastor would ask, "are you saved?" Sometimes he would be a bit loud. As I look back of that learning that "Jesus Saves," I can put that on my testimony resume.
In the early 70's a group from our church and others attended a bible study. We would never miss. Through this study and the Lord using a faithful servant, Glenna Rozelle, I accepted the Lord as my personel Savior and all the seeds that had been planted began to grow into my walk, and lead to my testimony of today.

Where am I today on that Testimony Road? My passion in serving the Lord now is through mission. Getting His Word out, wether it is collecting food, supporting our missionaries in KY who are feeding His Word there, the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes, sending Bibles around the world, Souper Bowl of Caring and so many other mission needs that the Lord sends to us. We can not do it all but we can make a difference.
I thought I was a giver but lately I have had to be a receiver. That I must say is hard both being a giver and a receiver. I had to learn to turn over ALL that I have to the Lord. All the hurt & pains that the world brings to us. We ALL have them. When you think all is well, boom! What does one do? You PRESS ON and ask to receive His peace, comfort and strength with His love and grace to see you through. That brings me to another today.
In my "older" age, I should say our "older" age, Bob too, a new ministry has come along. We do a music ministry at funerals. I consider that a special gift to be able to do it and do it with Bob. NEVER in my right mind would I think we would be doing that in this time of our life, playing and singing at funerals of dear friends & family. Someone asked me,"how can you do that?" We can't, but God can! Remember Phil. 4:13; "I can do ALL things through Him who gives me strength." I consider this evidence, a testimony to my faith.

My tomorrow: We don't know what tomorrow will be. I tell my Sunday School class that just about every week. I myself can testify to this when we received the unexpeted phone call about Georgia on Jan. 4th of this year. That night is now a past, a yesterday. The today, we are still coping with the situation and have come a long way with many answered prayers and some unanswered as of yet, with much love and support from our church family. That is your testimony. The tomorrow is our faith and trust in the unknown. Our tomorrow is to PRESS ON in the today for the tomorrow.
Phil. 3:12-14; Not that I have already obtained ALL this or have already been made perfect, but I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I PRESS ON toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

I would like to close wth the words of one of my favorite songs by Selah, PRESS ON.
When the Valley is Deep, When the Mountain is Steep,
When the Body is Weary, When we Stumble and Fall
When the Choices are Hard, When we're Battered and Scarred,
When we've Spent our Resources, When we've Given our All,
In Jesus Name, We Press On, In Jesus Name, We Press On;
Dear Lord, With the Prize, Clear Before our Eyes,
We Find the Strength to Press On.

Sheryl Phillips

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Imus, Again

Listening to the radio this morning, I heard that Don Imus, freshly back onto radio after a hiatus of some months, made a statement yesterday regarding "Pacman" Jones.

A refresher: Adam "Pacman" Jones is a football player, recently signed to the Dallas Cowboys to play defensive back. He has had a rather difficult past few years, having had multiple run-ins with the police. It is in fact, true that he is more known for the incidents than for his play on the field, though he is reportedly a talented player.

So, on Monday, Imus, who lost his last job over ill-advised comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team, asks his on-air reporter "what color is he?", the reporter replies with "black", and Imus' response is to say "Well, there you have it." How they got to that point, the course of the on-air conversation, is not something I've been able to find online yet.

Imus has since said that what he was meaning was that if Jones was arrested for doing something wrong, he would more quickly get a reputation for such things than a white player. His quote is that "What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason".

It is certainly true that African Americans do have a higher rate of arrests in this country than whites. It is certainly true that there is a much higher rate of African Americans who are in prison that whites. Imus, in his own defense, speaks true statements.

It is also true that folks are going to hear Imus a certain way. Because of what he has said, and what he has been portrayed to say, when he does refer in any way to American race relations, people are going to sit up and notice, and not positively. Because it's Imus, others have seen fit to comment (including, admittedly, me, here.) Sharpton has weighed in, and Jones has said that he will be praying for Imus, that it was disappointing. For Jones, it probably was dissapointing, whether Imus meant to get mileage and comedy fodder out of Jones' troubles, or that Imus had reverted back to his earlier attitudes. Either way, Jones is again not getting attention for his on-field skills.

Imus may have meant exactly what he says he meant, that he is remarking on the inequalities in the American jurisprudence system, in a sarcastic manner. His court ordered sensitivity training may have actually taken root.

But it seems to me that the wiser course may have been to not say anything at all. He must know full well that there is a segment of the population who is monitoring his speech for more evidence of racism. Like it or not, until he joins the church triumphant, he will be known as a racist. When he does pass, every obituary of him will refer to the Rutgers incident somewhere in the first two paragraphs.

It definitely needs to be highlighted, every day, that African Americans still have a tougher slog than Anglos. The possibility of an African American president has caused an uptick in white supremacist website traffic and calls of curiosity and interest. The Secret Service was part of Obama's entourage earlier than any other candidate in US history. Our nation still has prejudices, and we still have to talk about them, deal with them, eradicate them. We aren't doing it quickly, forcefully, or efficiently enough.

Imus, whether his defense of his original comment was honest or not, just isn't the guy who gets to make offhand sarcastic comments about race relations in America. He's just not the right guy.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Matthew 10:32-39

A few months ago, now, there was an article about how Warren Buffett, the richest, savviest stock investor in the US, has made a specific provision for his children after he dies. In March of this year, Forbes magazine ranked him #1 in the list of richest people on earth, with a net worth of about $620 billion. That’s with a B. The provision is not that this wealth gets to be split evenly among his children. They will inherit some, but not enough to live on. He is very clear that they feel they should make their own way, and they all agreed with him. That is quite an inheritance.

Inheritance has a lot of cultural baggage, doesn’t it? Nowadays, daughters can inherit land and property equally with sons, and it is left up to the discretion of the bequeather as to how the assets should go. Earlier cultures were not quite so open—they had much stronger rules for how the disposition of property should be handled when the landowner dies. In medieval times, the daughters could not inherit anything except in very specific cases—most times, they them selves were considered little more than property. The first born male was the primary inheritor, and while some things could be given to other sons, the duty of continuing the land ownership in the family name was generally understood to fall to the oldest son.

For those who weren’t noble, usually the father made the decision to split his lands equally among his sons and daughters, through their husbands, so that they would be able to live somewhere.

Further back in time, during the time of Moses, the law was set in Deuteronomy that the first born should receive a double portion of land and holdings, including slaves, and only males could inherit. It is the value of this inheritance, but not the inheritance itself, that the younger son asks for in the story of the prodigal. If he had actually received his inheritance, he would have received, I assume some land, and the end of the story could very well have been his returning to his own land and farming it after his adventures.

Inheritances are funny things. People can be assigned things that aren’t the usual bits—think of Leona Helmsley’s Maltese, who inherited a trust fund of $12 million. Two of her grandchildren got nothing.

When Jesus says that he will turn father against son, daughter against mother, and set all family members at odds to each other, it is a statement about inheritances. He requires that our primary loyalty be to him. Not to family—not to brother, not to father, sister, or even wife and child. It all must come second to him. This is a hard statement, because for one thing, in popular American Christianity, the stable family is the evidence of a strong relationship with God.

It’s seen as in bad taste to have someone in the family speak the language of choosing Jesus first, over father, mother, family. Good American nuclear families don’t send missionaries. Sure, perhaps they will go volunteer together at a soup kitchen somewhere, and perhaps the more adventurous ones will go on mission trips together, but speaking the language of Jesus first, family second is “just not done”.

True Christian Discipleship requires sacrifice. When Jesus says “I come not to bring peace but a sword, I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother. . . “, the ultimate sacrifice of his time was to surrender, to sever family ties. Family was everything, what tribe you were from meant everything. The tribe of Levi meant that you were a certain kind of person, and had to live a certain way. Here’s another way to think about it: Go down into the valley here, and see all the nationalities that still publicly declare themselves. Drive through north Wilkes Barre and see the Lithuanian and Slovakian flags. Go into South Scranton and main street in Avoca with all the Irish flags. Tribes still mean something to a lot of us.

Now imagine this scenario. By saying that your primary identity is as a Christian, above and before being Irish, for instance, there are implications. If you follow Christ, there are certain grudges you have to let go. If you follow Christ, you have to act differently with regard to the Troubles that were so much a part of Irish life both in the US and in Ireland. If you follow Christ, Protestants and Catholics become more akin to brothers and sisters. Acting as if this was so would certainly bring strife within your family, if they were not all inclined. To claim loyalty to Jesus over the side you were born into in Northern Ireland would certainly put you in harms’ way.

To claim Christ over family in these circumstances is certainly to lose your life as it appears. But to claim Christ in such an environment is to acknowledge him before others. To say that the way of peace here is the way of Christ, even against your own family, is to perhaps lose your life. But in that environment, what have you lost? Hatreds, old enmities that you have inherited but never participated in, the memories of old battles, some over 400 years ago, that you are bred to resent the loss of.

Not all families have such deep and clear animosities as these, but all families do have expectations, and growing as disciples in Christ puts us at odds against them. It may be as simple as choosing to do something at church instead of going to dinner at a relatives’ house.

When you choose Christ, you lose that life, and find the real life in Christ, the life of peace, the life of the Kingdom. This doesn’t mean a peaceful life; no, the life of Christ is often one that puts us at odds with the world. Instead, the life of Christ gives us the strength of belief in what’s right. We know that love is better than hatred. We know that love is stronger than anger. Giving up all that we are born into, in favor of being born from above in Christ, gives us the path to true life.

Our inheritance, therefore, is not based on our birth order. Our inheritance, in Christ, is equal to everyone else’s, without regard to whether we are son or daughter. There’s no double portion for being eldest. We are all adopted, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We all inherit the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness.

Seek Ye First, the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness,
And all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Job Description

Matthew 9: 35-10:8

Last week, I talked about how we have to find out who we are, our core two or three things, and organize our lives into ways to do that stuff well. I talked about how Jesus realized that, in his human form, he was limited in his capabilities, and at the end of that story last week, found that he needed to empower the disciples in his name to go out and heal, exorcise demons.

Now, it’s kind of fun when the Thursday Bible study covers the same story that the Sunday lectionary does. Luke’s version of today’s story is what we covered, this week. In Luke, they are sent out to cure disease, exorcise demons and proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom. In Matthew, this morning, the job description is to “proclaim the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near, and to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”.

William Barclay, the author of the Thursday study we’re in right now, makes a distinction between apostle and disciple. An apostle is one who is sent, from the Greek apostolos (according to Barclay; I don’t know much Greek, other than gyro and baklava). This isn’t just sent in the sense of “you, go there”, but where they go, they are the representative of the one who sent them. They are like ambassadors, in that tan apostolos has all of the power and authority of the one who sent them. Note that it isn’t the authority that they have themselves, but they operate only under the authority of the one who sent them.

A disciple is a learner. So, in this study, one who wants to be like Peter, and Andrew, and the other Disciples, must be both a learner and one who is able to be sent under God’s authority.

You can’t just hear the message and run off repeating the message. In our world, that’s essentially doing the job that an iPod could do. Press play, repeat message. No asking questions of it, no discussing with it, just repeating the message. That, I think is part of the problem with the way evangelism and the preaching of the kingdom is done—people go out without the training, wisdom, and maturity that God requires. It is an incomplete witness. They just go out and repeat what they’ve heard or memorized, and get flummoxed when someone becomes interested, but has questions.

Barclay says it properly, I think. You have to spend time in the presence of the Lord. Here’s his line: “The missioner must be with Jesus before he goes out for Jesus. We can never introduce anyone to someone we do not ourselves know.”
There’s more to Jesus than the salvation moment. There’s more to being saved than just the moment after the Jesus prayer. Why is it that we can understand that it takes time and practice to learn to play piano, to ride a bike, to run the machines on an assembly line, but becoming a full, mature Christian can come instantly? Even Paul had to spend a good deal of time in the presence of the community at Antioch before he was allowed to go out and build churches.

There is a time of training, and the true disciple of Christ, I think, understands that they are always in learning mode. One should always be humble about that they know, because they don’t know it all. They also should hold no knowledge as suspect or with contempt, because Jesus has worked in the lives of humans all over the world, not just the ones we understand. That’s a true disciple.

In that learning, God decides when it is time to become an apostle, an Ambassador. And when you do, it is important to make sure that you understand what you are being sent for. It is a matter of prayer and discernment to figure out what God is calling you for. It would be great if God would fax a list of duties to us, but he doesn’t. It takes a matter of paying attention; what are you good at? What are you excited about? What opportunities lay before you? How easy is it to get into them? This is why Christians pray, and journal. In that journaling, in that paying attention, an idea about what you’re called to emerges. This is the job description.

Those first twelve Disciples had it easy. Jesus was standing right in front of them, flesh and blood and voice and breath, telling them they should go, how, what they should take, and how to handle rejection. It’s actually a great speech that takes up our passage all the way through to the end of Chapter 10. We don’t have it so easy. Our leader isn’t a flesh and blood Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit. The miracle of the Holy Spirit is that we all can connect to God at any time through her, but hearing her message takes rather a bit of practice and prayer.

As a Christian, we have a job description. The job isn’t to believe in Christ. In corporate terminology, that’s the philosophy of the organization, but not the mission. We are not called just to believe. Disciples learn. We are always learning, if we are truly in Christ. No, the job description, armed with our knowledge of Christ, our discernment about what we are called to do, and our humility in knowing we do not represent ourselves, is to go and serve Christ in the world. Sitting here on Sundays is the discipling bit. Going out there, doing VBS, going out in missions to other communities, meeting people telling them about the Kingdom, metaphorically healing and exorcising and raising the dead, that’s our job description.
How we go about that in our lives is the reason we pray and meditate and talk with our soul friends. How we go to the plant and do this; how we go to roof a house and do this; how we cut hair and do this; how we do this when we are retired, or still in school. This is why we pray.

Our job description is there for us. The Holy Spirit holds it for us. In this post-Jesus-on-earth age, part of our job is to figure out how we are to heal the sick, exorcise demons, raise the dead, and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. In other words, what is the mission before each of us, in the name of Christ? That will be our job description.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Sometimes You Can Choose

Matthew 9: 9-26

Today’s passage is about Jesus healing, and raising the dead. It’s part of a longer section of two chapters of Matthew that tells many stories of Jesus going to and fro, teaching and exorcising demons, and healing.

The story begins with Jesus eating at Matthew’s house. Remember here that even though it is a simple meal, it is still ministry, because of why Jesus is there. Yes, he needs to eat. But he is also called to teach, and to minister to the people. His purpose here is to break down the artificial barriers that his society has placed between those who do “good” work, and those who do “bad” work. So, in a sense, he’s killing two birds with one stone.

He’s eating at a tax collector’s house, which of course makes the Pharisees a little tense. While he is there, his meal is interrupted by a leader of society, a “ruler”, according to Matthew. This probably makes the Pharisees even more tense. This Ruler has; #1, entered a tax collector’s house, and #2, knelt before this guy who they really don’t trust. His purpose is to ask Jesus to make his daughter well again, and alive. The text says that Jesus and the disciples get up and go, in the middle of dinner.

On the way there, a woman comes up behind Jesus and touches his cloak. The story is told differently elsewhere, but it is still true here that Jesus feels her do it. He turns, sees her, and tells her that her faith has made her well.

Then, they get to the man’s house, and the mourners have started up. Music is playing, and people, I assume are wailing and all the usual doings around a death; giving voice to the sadness they all feel. He comes in and says, hey! Stop! She’s just sleeping! And they think he’s pretty weird, and laugh at him. But he’s right; she walks out of the house.

Now, when you read the commentaries written by the scholars, there are good solid theological statements being made here, things that we can say about the deeper meanings of Jesus’ words and actions. But I have to say; when I read this passage, and understand that it is part of a larger framework of stories about Jesus doing ministry, I hear more about the interrupted meals, the multitasking, the people thinking you’re nuts, and the traveling.

In other words, I identify with Jesus today, because he had a hectic life at times, a lot like ours. In this story, he may as well be driving a minivan! Everybody wants a piece of him, and he knows that he is supposed to give of himself, and time is short. It’s no wonder to me that at the end of chapter 9, he delegates the disciples to go out and do work in his name. He’s realized that he can’t be everywhere all at once, at least not while he is in a human body. I think he learns from this that there are limits to the flesh. The body needs food, the body needs rest, the body needs water. When he was the Logos, hovering over the waters at the creation of the universe, the one who was God and the one who was with God, he didn’t have to worry about his limits. After he had died, and been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes, he could actually be everywhere all at once. But right now, in this part of his story, he can’t.

And folks, neither can we. If we’re connected to life, there is more life available to us than we can handle. There are more things that we would love to do than we can do. It therefore becomes a spiritual discipline to prioritize. To be able to say, “I love this, I really want to do this, but I know how badly I’ve felt before when I try to do too much. Here is how much I have to sleep, here is how much I need to spend shopping, cooking, and eating good healthy food, here is how much I need to spend supporting and participating in my family, here is how much time I need to spend working. I just can’t do that, too”. That is a spiritual discipline. It takes strength to be able to say “I just can’t do that, as much as I would love to”. It’s a spiritual discipline to identify what is the core of who you are, and to act out of that identification.

We have jobs. Sometimes our jobs are careers, they are part of who we are. Sometimes they are just the means to a paycheck to keep body and soul together.

We have families. Sometimes we have children and spouses, sometimes we are single and caring for elderly parents.

We have ourselves, and maintaining ourselves physically is a spiritual need as much as maintaining ourselves spiritually through prayer and study are. (Think about your next trip to the grocery store as a spiritual exercise. What foods do you choose to stay available to God for ministry? It’s a great way to avoid the aisle the Pringles and Slim Jims are on!)

Some of us identify ourselves as moms. Some as dads. Some as teachers, some as retired, some as businesspeople. What are the things that you are? And once you’ve found those, how is your life organized around those roles?

Jesus knew that he was, at core, the Messiah, the son of God, and the teacher and modeler of what God’s true love looks like to the world. And he was about his business while he was limited by a physical human body, but even he had to delegate, eat, and rest. Even he had to set limits. Even he worked really hard, but then he did rest; but then he did take time to be quiet and away from folks. And he was the Messiah.

Those of us here in this room who are not the messiah must logically have limits, too. As you set those limits, it’s a good idea to remember which roles you are at your core.

When we stay with who we are, we are where God wants us to be, and God can work through us better. There is a lot of our lives that we can’t change. Kids are still with us, parents are still needing care, and it all must be done. But we are more than chauffeurs, cooks, laundry workers, farmers, assembly line employees. Once Jesus became what he became, many things got chosen for him, too. Once he flicked a certain switch, the switch of his accepting God’s call, many other dominos fell, too.

So he gets it when we flip our switches, too, and logical conclusions follow. He gets it, he gets us, because he knows what the limits of the human existence are. He couldn’t do everything when he was a human being, so we should be OK with not being able to, either.