Sunday, August 31, 2008

Taking the High Road

Romans 12: 9-21

In this week's sports section, there was the report of the guy who is chosen to second at quarterback. There was the report last week of the sprinter who ran the semi-finals of the relay, but was replaced in the final by the gold medalist at that distance. There's the manager who is passed over for the new job, the soldier who isn't promoted in rank, the guy who loses the girl to someone else, the politician who loses the election.

Disappointment is part of life. There are always things that we wish for, hope for, work for, that don’t happen to us. There’s always going to be stuff we want that we don’t get. It’s true now, and it was true in Paul’s time, too. There were other disciples who were more popular, other preachers who gathered more crowds and maybe weren’t in jail so much. But Paul preaches, here, the high road. He preaches humility. He preaches grace.

It’s a hard thing, grace. When there are others who do our job, or volunteer in our committee, when there are others who seem to do what we do, but better or more visibly, it is a human thing to struggle with envy and doubt. When there are people who attack us, we naturally want to do more than just stop their attack, sometimes we also want to destroy them, somehow. Don’t you think Paul felt that way about those preachers who came around to his church in Galatia, telling them that to truly be a Christian, the men had to be circumcised? Not only did Paul disagree, he probably felt very mama-bearish about that church, as if to say “Don’t mess with MY people!”

But that isn’t what he says. Even if he is writing in what may be interpreted as a tone of anger, he lays out in Galatians the reasons why being a true Christian isn’t a matter of physical change, but spiritual. No, he wasn’t exactly kind to his opponents, the Judaizers, but neither did he lay waste to their reputations. Paul says, here in Romans, that one must carry on in the path that God has laid out for you. All Christians are called to specific things, to “live in harmony with one another, do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Easily said, harder done. In a fallen world, wisdom is usually seen as speaking the correct opinion, expressed as a judgment. Wisdom is rarely seen as the ability to keep our mouth shut about that which does not directly concern us. To the world, wisdom isn’t the complimenting of your opponent in a dispute. Can you imagine the scenario of a talk show on Fox or whomever, and the two or more talking heads ever saying at any point “that’s a very good point, I am going to have to think about that?” Mc Cain did something like that on Thursday, suspending his political advertising for a day to allow Obama the room to claim his place in history, and running an ad congratulating him. That’s class, that’s taking thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

Pelagius, in the 4th century, wrote a commentary on this part of Romans, and he has a few interesting points. In the 15th verse, it says “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Why is it, Pelagius asks, that we weep with those who rejoice, and rejoice with those who weep? Why are we angered or dismayed at other’s success, and cheered and happy at others’ misfortune? I’m sorry to say, but it is a very insightful question for us all. It is a very fallen trait, but one that we all share. I am jealous at another pastors’ success. I am dismayed at another church’s expression of the Gospel, feeling as if we should have done it first, bigger and better.

It’s not just church, either—there are many ways to raise great kids, and I feel sometimes as if I fall short of them all. We all have those moments, and Paul’s response is to say that that’s not the way of Jesus. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, it says, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Even our actions in response to someone else’s success is a witness to Christ. Our nobility in response to success shows the face of Christ no less than others’ success itself.

Verse 20 is one of my favorite lines of the Bible: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Heh, heh. Love that! I will cause my enemies pain by being nice to them, which will confuse them!” but Pelagius, and Paul both would probably say that I am interpreting that one wrong. My interpretation, unfortunately, is against the spirit and tone of what Paul has been writing, and Pelagius says this; So that when he has realized that that the coals have been amassed upon him through your undeserved mercy, he may shake them off, that is repent, and may love you, whom at one time he has detested.

Paul preaches kindness to our enemies as a matter of grace, not revenge. Yes, the goal is to bring that one over. But not over to your side, instead it is over to God’s side. Do not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good, so that God’s face may be seen. A face of grace, humility, caring and respect.

Our posture should be one of carrying the gift of forgiveness, not of wielding the sword of righteousness. What makes people our enemy often is that which we let grow in our own minds. People disagree all the time, but only when we let resentment and fear grow in side of our souls do disagreements become bigger. Wars start through countries not talking and listening, and it is no fault to try to “walk a mile in another’s shoes”.
Taking the high road isn’t easy in this world. People want disagreement, they want pain, they want Jerry Springer, they want Hannity and Colmes. But that isn’t God’s way. God’s way is humility, grace, and wisdom. Yeah, I know, boring. But I think that if we really did try it, it might change the way we think about what exciting really is! It may be a different view from the high road.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


There will be no posting for next weeks' sermon for me, I am going camping for a week. The next sermon will be posted after Aug. 31, the next time I preach. See ya!

The Corn Laws

Matthew 15: 10-20

I’m sure you are all aware of the recent announcement by our General Conference that beginning January 1, 2009, corn will be considered unclean. This is a rule declared almost unanimously by the board of Church and Society. It was declared in response to a number of issues:

Corn is assumed to be a food that increases the human body’s resistance to insulin. In short, eating corn makes one’s blood sugars go higher, promoting the onset of diabetes.
There is a great danger inherent in the cooking of corn for the purpose of it popping. Flying hot oil is an unnecessary danger, and the promoting of heart healthy popcorn is seen to be a lie, since the only way that popcorn can taste good is by using oils, salt, and butter.
Corn is a crop that takes an unnatural amount of fertilizer and water to grow.
Most of the corn grown in the world is grown for feeding livestock instead of people, so it is reasonable to assume that corn is not a food fit for humans.
This reasonable attitude is also supported by the fact that corn has recently spiked in price as it has become a raw material for making fuel for automobiles.
Corn syrup is seen as a contributor to the high rate of ADHD in children, especially young males.

United Methodists are encouraged to desist from the consumption of corn and corn products. Therefore this afternoon’s corn roast at Center Moreland will instead be a broccoli and tofu roast.

General Conference hereby creates a commission that will review of the consumption of beef, pork, wild caught fish, poultry, and all wild game, and a board has been constructed to study these issues in the next quadrennium. During these studies, all United Methodists are encouraged to eat oatmeal and spinach and the aforementioned broccoli.

Now, of course there is no anti-corn declaration. All of the things that I listed above are concerns among food scientists about corn, but no one has made the radical step of banning corn. So this afternoon, Center Moreland can eat its steamed corn in joy and comfort!

Jesus had a point in this morning’s scripture. While there can sometimes be reasons to avoid foods because of personal issues or allergies, or parasites, it is an individual decision, and there is no food that can actually rot the soul of a person. Not even alcohol is evil—it is our over consumption of it, and our refusal to avoid it among those for whom it is unhealthy, that is evil.

No, the evil in the world comes not from what we eat, but by what we think. All food passes through our mouths, and digestive systems, and as Jesus so delicately puts it, into the sewer. But what goes the other direction, the stuff that comes out of the mouth is what defiles. How we talk to each other, how we talk about each other. This is what defile means:

1. to make foul, dirty, or unclean; pollute; taint; debase.

2. to violate the chastity of.

3. to make impure for ceremonial use; desecrate.

4. to sully, as a person's reputation.

Can you think of anything more defiling both to the speakers and the subject than breathlessly reporting on a gossip website the latest misfortunes of pop singers and movie stars?

No, what defiles is how we speak to and about each other. Jesus says “from out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” These are what defile us, not what we eat. Food can be defiled, but it cannot defile us.

When we speak ill of others, we defile them just a little. Now it is possible to honestly disagree with a person or a group, and generating a list of issues with that person or group is not defiling them; but to call into question their humanity, their right to exist, is defilement. One can disagree with people. One can reasonably have a worldview or opinions that differ wildly from each other. But to take your opponent and portray them as stupid, or evil, or any other way than as a fellow child of God, is not our way as followers of Jesus. Even when Jesus spoke in anger, he used words that described attitudes, like hypocrite, not descriptions of people, like idiot.

What comes out of our mouths is what defiles. The way of Christ is to live as much in harmony as possible with others, not based in an effort to be nice, but because in the end, those whom we disagree are children of God, created in the image of God, just as we are. And, as we do not wish to be degraded by others because of our politics, our ethnicity, our gender, or our employment, so to we should not do so to others.

The evidence of Christ in our lives is not in the rules that we have created, or in the people we associate with—the evidence of Christ in our lives is how we talk about, treat, and interact with those who are most definitely NOT us.

The evidence of Christ isn’t in how we avoid corn, or meat, or venison, or pork, or even tofu. It is how we share it. It is in who we eat it with. It is in what we talk about when we eat it.
So enjoy whatever it is you have for lunch today, and may your conversations over that food be, as John Wesley used to describe his conversations, holy.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympian Focus

Matthew 14:22-33

So, the Olympics started Friday night. I am a great fan of the Olympics, and not just rooting for the American team. I love all stories that come out, and I have to say that I do believe in the Olympic ideal. The Olympics to me are one of those examples where people can come together for a common goal, become one in the sense of being one human race, and still maintain their distinctiveness--They are Olympians, but they are still Costa Rican, they are still Korean, they are still Zimbabwean. And being American is something to be proud of within a context of other countries being worthy of pride, too.

I feel proud for Park Tae-Hwan, who was a swimmer for South Korea last night. Four years ago in Athens, he mistakenly fell into the pool off the starting platform, and he was disqualified for false start. He was only there for one race, and a mistake he made caused him to miss the race. But four years later, he is back, and won the gold medal last night. That's focus. That's seeing yourself as a swimmer fist, and doing what it is that swimmers do. Swimmers practice. They push themselves, they eat properly for their goals, and they go to the Olympics. That's just what they do. That's focus.

I am looking forward to hearing stories from many countries, many athletes who will have overcome great odds to be able to be in Beijing. What they will all have is focus. Not just an ability to shut out distraction for the duration of their event, whether it be 50 seconds in a 50 meter freestyle swimming race, 2 hours for a marathon, or three or four days as you go through the events of a decathlon or the gymnastics all around.

No, there is a deeper focus, one that carries you from day to day, the focus that is the maintenance of your self-image. It's seeing yourself as what you want to be, and becoming that, over time.

Our passage of Scripture today is about a guy who lost focus, and one who didn't. Peter, who is probably my favorite Disciple because he is so inconsistent and so promising, all together in one package, is here with Jesus, walking toward him. The thing is, he's walking toward him on the water. The other people on the boat, Disciples and others, are totally freaked out by this vision, this suspension of reality. This miracle. Peter, he of the great potential, gets a clue, however, and says "Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you out there." Jesus does so, and Peter gets out of the boat. He starts walking on the water, too. But then something distracts him, and he realizes where he is, what he is doing, and loses focus, and begins to sink.

He had a moment of realizing that he shouldn't be out there on the water, this is messiah territory, and he begins to sink. He's not ready yet, but he eventually does become who God intends, at Pentecost and after. Peter becomes what he wants to be, through several disappointments, several setbacks, and a few successes.

Athletes have this same focus--not on who they are, but on who they want to be. It's a matter of seeing yourself as who you want to be. If you want to be a singer, you sing. You learn music. You find a way to get vocal lessons. You find people who are where you want to be, and you be with them. You begin to think of yourself as one of them, and eventually, you become one of them. It takes time, and it is a struggle to maintain focus, but it eventually comes. It takes a lot to maintain faith in who you think God wants you to be. There are times when you do doubt, and a thoughtful review of what you want, who you want to be is expected. That's not what Peter's doing out there on the water. I can almost hear what he's thinking as h begins to look down at his feet:

"OK, there's Jesus, he wants me to come to him, and I am. But wait, that wind is pretty strong. Why is it so strong? It's because we're out on the water, wind is always stronger out on the water. We're out on the water. I'm out on the water. The boat is behind me. THE BOAT IS BEHIND ME. What am I doing! I'm standing on water! So's Jesus, does that mean I am like Jesus? Whoa, I don't think I want that."

And down he sinks. What gave Peter the power was the faith that he had in Jesus, and his willingness to follow Jesus, anywhere, even those places that seem impossible. Who would Peter have become had he walked all the way over to Jesus and just stood there? How would we have seen him then? We'll never know. But his faith in Jesus would have gotten him there.

We all have ambitions. We all have goals. Many of us have tucked them away because of circumstance, or because we doubt their value, or doubt our ability to reach them. Sometimes it's as simple as perfecting the recipe for a blueberry pie. Sometimes it is the goal of becoming a doctor. Sometimes they are hobbies, and sometimes they are the actual leadings of God into the life we are called to lead. But either way, it calls for focus. If you want to be a certain kind of person, begin to act like that person. If you find value in praying three times a day, then set your watch or your alarm clock and carry the prayers with you for when that happens. Make ways to have that occur. If you want to learn an instrument, you have to make time to practice it, and find ways to play it.

Jesus knew who he was. Jesus was the Messiah, and realized that as long as he relied on God, he could do a lot. If others would concentrate on God, have faith in God, they could do a lot, too. There were times, Scripture tells us, that he could not heal people because they or the people around them did not have enough faith. On the other hand, as long as Peter stayed focused on Jesus, he was walking on water.

As long as we stayed focused on God, and let ourselves be changed by the consequences of our commitments, we can become who we are called to be. We can become an Olympic Athlete. We can become a doctor. We can become a singer. We can be all that God has built us to be.

If we maintain an Olympian focus, we can walk on water, too.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dear Principal Vernon

Matthew 14: 13-21

Recently, JC Penney has run some ads that re-create scenes from one of the most iconic movies of my generation, the one behind the baby boomers. It was called The Breakfast Club, and the ads recreate those scenes with their actors wearing JCPenney clothing.

It got me to thinking about the movie, and that got me to remember the point of the movie. It was a movie about five high school students, all of whom have been given all day Saturday detention. Each kid is a stereotype, as the movie starts; a jock, a brain, a beauty, a “basket case”, and a rough kid. As the movie progresses, though, they learn about each other, and realize that they are not all so different. At the end of the movie, the brain writes a letter that fulfills the detention assignment for all of them, and reminds the principal of their basic humanity.

The gist of it is this: You see us as you want to see us. To you we’re just a jock, a princess, a basket case, a brain, or a criminal. But we know that we each hve a little bit of each of those within us. --Signed, The Breakfast Club.

This morning’s Gospel message is a similar one. Jesus, at the end of the day, sees 5000 men, and women and children besides, hungry and tired. The villages around them have food, but that many people would, I would think, pretty much exhaust the food supply of that whole side of the lake. So he tells the disciples to feed everyone.

And, to their wonder, they do.

Now, I need to remind you all of something that Donna reminded me of, this week. In Matthew, this happens twice. Once here, in the lands of his people, and once, a chapter or two later, in foreign lands. Just like the Spirit coming twice, once at Pentecost to the Disciples and followers, and once to Cornelius the roman Centurion and his household, God has included both those who are “his people”, and those who, in earthly terms, aren’t.

Those earthly drawn lines are devilish things, aren’t they? They are around us all the time, we can’t help but be tripped by them, and sometimes we act according to their boundaries so deeply we can’t even see them. We act in ways that truly are evil, and we are de-sensitized to their presence. Think of the current situation down in Shenandoah, where those three or four high school boys beat the young Hispanic father to death.

We live in a current climate of distrust toward people of Hispanic descent. Many of us in this area consider it acceptable to think that when one sees someone of Hispanic descent, that person could very well be here illegally. And the cultural climate of the area, one that distrusts outsiders, makes it a little more Ok to feel like that person “doesn’t belong here”. The headline in the newspaper could have come from any period over the last 150 years of local history.

The Welsh resented the Irish, the Irish resented the Italians and the Lithuanians, and they all now resent the Hispanics. You’ll even occasionally hear people whisper “Mexican”, as if someone’s nationality is impolite to mention, like a mole or a bad toupee! Somehow, the people that move into a new area for jobs, mining or otherwise, in a depressed economic region, are seen as a threat. And sometimes, fueled by ignorance, bravado and alcohol, those threats are met by violence.

And a young man ends up dying just because he is Hispanic.

These are human lines, not God’s lines. There was nothing Christian about what happened to Luis Ramirez. The Bible tells us to welcome the stranger. Jesus performs the miracle of feeding two multitudes, one for “us” and one for “them”. The Holy Spirit comes to “us” and to “them”.

If we are truly Christians, then our hearts can have no room for feelings like this. Jesus is clear, the Bible is clear. Welcome the stranger, for you were once a stranger. You might even be unknowingly entertaining angels. We were once all immigrants. Only Adam and Eve are truly native to any one place. Even the people we call “native Americans” came from Asia. We may as well welcome those who have come after us, because they are pretty much us, too.

The letter to Principal Vernon in the movie says it this way—Each of us has a little bit of the jock, the pretty girl, the basket case, the smart kid, and the tough kid.

There is very little that separates us from people like Luis Ramirez, he was just like us in many ways. And our salvation isn’t in drawing those lines brightly and clearly, but in our welcoming those who come into our lives as angels. As merely ourselves with different looks. Each of us has a little bit of the immigrant, and the angry teen. People are not evil because they are from somewhere else. People are not evil because they don’t have the right papers in their pockets. They are opportunities to show that we do believe what we preach, that God died for all, that we welcome the stranger in our midst. I was told that you all have understood this, because one of the more fondly remembered pastors of this charge, Rev. Munoz, once preached a sermon from this pulpit about his coming to America from Mexico illegally. You can put a face to this problem. If there is an inconvenient paper problem, it is an opportunity to help them fix the problem. That is how we show that we are saved. This is how we show the love of God.

They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our deportations.