Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Quieter Glory

Mark 10: 35-45

JRR Tolkien wrote several books about a world of fantasy called Middle Earth, populated by various races, only one of whaich was human. There were talking trees called Ents, there were wizards, who were old men of uncertain race, buit seemed to be human; and there were Dwarves and Elves and a race of small people who loved to eat and were content with comfortable small lives called Hobbits.

Tolkien used this world to tell stories about strength, and ambition, and commitment, and integrity, and the power of friendship. The central story of the main set of books, called the Lord of the Rings, is about a young Hobbit named Frodo who is chosen or chooses to destroy a simple gold ring, which turns out to be the most powerful magic ring in the entire world of Middle Earth. It must be destroyed at the fire where it was created, so that an evil being cannot have the power to complete his ambition, which is to conquer the world and rule it all.

Frodo takes on the task, and is accompanied every step of the way by a loyal friend named Sam Gamgee, who, back in the area they are from, a place called the Shire, was his gardener.

The journey that Frodo takes is unbearably long and dangerous. Many things happen to him and to the people who are around him. He is stabbed by a sword that is poised by dark magic and almost dies; he is attacked and almost eaten by a giant evil spider; he is saved from the ghostly riders that chase him constantly for the ring by the race of elves; and he loses the finger that wears the ring because of someone else's obsessive greed. The trip is made in almost constant fear, in cold and hunger, and it changes him, physically and emotionally. There are times he is under the ring's power, becomes obsessed with it as well, and there are many moments when Sam must help him remember his task, and once even physically carries him when Frodo can't continue. It can surely be said that if he had known all that would happen to him and Sam, he would have refused to go.

Anything that is significant in our lives has the potential to change us in the same way. The job we choose to work can change us, can cause change to our bodies and to our minds. Sometimes that's for the good, sometimes it isn't positive at all.

Think of people who used to paint the little marks on watches that glowed in the dark. They would touch the paintbrush to their tongues to moisten it and make the paintbrush point sharper. The stuff that they were painting, the material that glowed in the dark, ended up being carcinogenic, and they all became sick.

Soldiers will often tell you that the choice they made to join the military was the best thing they ever did, because the experience of basic training and a regulated life in the military taught them the way to live their life in an ordered and controlled way.

When people get married, their lives are changed as well. For some, they see the changes as compromises and the loss of freedom in exchange for something dubiously valuable, and perhaps even unnamable. Those types of marriages seldom last.

A good marriage helps us understand the value of living for someone else, helps us understand that when we learn to live for others, our lives truly have meaning. This is the beginning of love, and even the beginning of understanding God's love in sending his Son to us.

There is a self-sacrifice in commitment to someone else. There is a faith in the other person, and a forgiveness when they do not measure up. There is an openness to pain, and a prayer that that pain may somehow be transformative. It's no accident that we say in our wedding service that the model of marriage is the relationship between Christ and the church. When it works, and each partner lives for the other, it is the closest we can come to understanding the love of Jesus for us.

So when James and John ask for the places to the right and the left of Jesus when glory comes, what Jesus means when he says they don't know what they are asking is that they don't get the pain that is coming. They don't know that they are asking to feel the pain of abandonment on the cross, and the pain of the cross itself. All they see are the "starlight and roses" part of the glory.
They don't see the glory that comes from having been open to being changed. They don't see the greatness that comes from being a servant to all, and to God, an allowing themselves to live according to God's will. It's a less visible glory, but at the end of the story, at the end of their lives, outside of our record in the gospels, we can assume that James and John, if they did take a drink from the cup that Jesus drank from, the cup of commitment and sacrificial love, they would see truly what glory is.

There are no parades. There is no confetti and the ceremonially being seated on a throne. There is instead a quiet moment when you look on the face of the person you have devoted your life to, in God's name, and realize that, deep down in your darkest parts, in the deepest recesses of your heart, that you have loved well, have loved as God would love, and that person knows the depth of God's love because you have been that face for them. You have shown them the love of God, and they believe, and they know.

That's true glory.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Many Recipes, Same Burger

Mark 9:38-41

The other day, I was in Valley Seafoods, down in Wilkes Barre. I had been buying shrimp baskets for Donna on the Fridays of her radiation treatments to commemorate the end of each week. I'd gotten to know a particular worker there, enough that we would chat during the cooking process. Somehow, we got onto religion, and I told her that I was a pastor. "Oh," she said, "I was once a Catholic, but now I'm Christian".

I've heard this before, and I have never understood it. Catholics are Christian. They can say with anyone else that Jesus Christ is their savior. They can say that there is a Father, son, and Holy Ghost, and all three of them are one person. Their Bible, though slightly larger, is still recognizably the same Bible we use. Catholics are no less Christian than we are.

I served a church in Trenton, Texas for two years. It was a town of, if I remember correctly, 692 people, and when Josiah was born and we brought him back to Trenton, I considered petitioning the town to change the number on the sign to 693. There were three churches; Southern Baptist, United Methodist and Church of Christ, or what some would call "Campbellite". One Thanksgiving, we wanted to do a community-wide thanksgiving Service, and the Southern Baptist preacher and I called and invited the Church of Christ pastor. "No, I won't be participating", he said. "You all don't preach a true gospel." Wow.

Now, I understand that we as United Methodists are not necessarily the most comfortable place for fundamental preferences, but I was really surprised that he would say that about Southern Baptists! Or maybe he wasn't, I don't know. But it seemed a sweeping generalization to say that because we didn't believe has he believed, we were somehow not Christian. We also believed, as he did, that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and was resurrected again three days later.

The essentials are the same, all over. You go up to a person in one of those churches in Ethiopia that are carved thirty feet straight down into soft volcanic rock, who wear turbans and Jewish prayer shawls, and they'll tell you that they have been redeemed by the cross. You go into a highly painted and gold embossed church in Russia, where there are no seats, and you have to stand for two hours listening to the liturgy, and go to an elderly woman wearing a babushka scarf on her head, and she'll tell you that Jesus Christ died for her.

In the essentials, we are all the same. In the essentials, we are all for Jesus. We all have different practices or habits that give us different flavors, like fast food burgers. I believe that if you were blindfolded, and had one each of a McDonalds, Burger King, and a Wendy's burger put before you, and you took a taste, you'd be able to tell which one was which.

Churches, at their best, are the same way. You can tell what is Catholic by how they talk in church, what the church looks like, how the leader is dressed, and their emphasis on the mother of Jesus. You can tell a Southern Baptist church by the way their church is decorated, what the minister wears to lead worship, and their emphasis on the Bible.

Some of you of course re now wondering "well, what makes us distinctive? We emphasize the Bible, but the preacher wears a robe like a Catholic priest".

United Methodists have a great set of things that make us unique. We understand salvation to be an ongoing process, a matter of growth and development, rather than a simple "once saved, always saved", declaration. Yes, we are justified in Christ, which means that we are covered, just as every other human being on earth, by the sacrifice Christ made in our name. But our focus is on becoming sanctified, or growing into a person, through education and prayer and living a holy life, which resembles Christ on earth. We're darn near the only Christian group that speaks this way this strongly, about striving constantly to become Christ-like.

Our songs are unique, and we have as part of our recipe the strong tradition of music to both teach the faith and bolster the faith of those who sing our songs together. The first UM church I ever joined, Newark UMC in Newark, DE, titled the book of history of that congregation "Those Noisy Methodists on Main Street", because of their habit of singing hymns loudly early on a Sunday morning as many others were sleeping off the night before in the boarding houses around them.

We have a specific recipe, one that, at our best, is as easy to pick out of a crowd as a Burger King burger is from a Wendy's. The Church of Christ is just as Christian as we are, we are just as Christian as Catholics are. Christ is still our savior, God is still thought of in three person, but one being, and the Gospels are still the best way to understand Jesus' life.

Jesus's disciples saw a guy they didn't know going around using Jesus' name casting out demons. They told Jesus they tried to stop the guy, but Jesus said, "Nah, you don't have to do that. I am one of the essentials, and if he is using my name, he'll soon learn more about me, and will be one of my people".

Today is the day (one week late) we are celebrating World Communion Sunday, a day to remember what it is we have in common with the other followers of Christ, the ones who we don't necessarily know, but are working in the name of Christ too. Let's remember that even though they are strange to us, they are not to Jesus, and he has said that we are not to stop them.

Everyone has their favorite recipe, and we congregate on Sunday mornings according to the recipe we like best. There are many recipes, but they are all the same burger, in the end. Jesus Christ is still the core. Clergy robes, music instruments, standing or sitting, all of them are just spices and styles of cooking.

Jesus is the core, the idea, what we all gather for.