Friday, December 28, 2012

Little Brown Jobs

Christmas Eve 2012

Luke 2: 1-20

For Christmas Eve, some preachers, aware that they will get some people in church they don’t normally see (those people who come on Christmas and Easter, which we call C&E’s, or Chreasters), take two tactics; one way to go on Christmas eve is to tell the whole story of Jesus, from birth to death, and what his story means. In other words, catechism with candles.

The other way to go, it seems to me, is to assume that everyone in the church already knows the significance of the event, the date, and at least a tenuous grip on the significance. Otherwise, you would not have come out tonight.

I’m one of the latter, so no crucifixion story.

There’s a story that I learned when I lived in Texas, and I can’t remember where I learned it. I can’t remember from whom I learned it, either. But I like it a lot, so I wanted to share it.

Once there was a man. He was a good man, supported his family, worked hard, was not held up by traditional roles. So we see him silhouetted in the kitchen window of his house one windy, snowy Christmas eve. He was washing the family’s dishes after their traditional Christmas eve meal, and the rest of the family had gone off to church for services. As he washed, he absentmindedly looked out the window, seeing the barn light shine in the yard in front of the barn door.

What caught his eye was a flock of birds, nothing remarkable about them, they were what birdwatchers called LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). They were pecking the ground under the light, and not finding much, since that was usually where the chickens would peck, too. They were hungry, they looked cold, and were dislodged by any decent gust of wind.

The man felt bad for these little insignificant birds, and dried off his hands. He went into the mudroom to get his coat and hat, a handful of chicken feed from the can by the door, and went out.

It was cold. He shivered, and he had on a coat and hat. The birds must be freezing.

He walked out the barnyard, and scattered the feed. The little birds swarmed the food and scattered it everywhere, some even blew away. Some did get eaten. But not enough to the man;s liking. He also felt the wave of heat that came off the barn, and he knew that all the horses and cows inside were making the barn nice and toasty. It would be great if he could get the LBJ’s inside. He walked back into the house, and grabbed some more feed, and began trying to set a trail for the birds from the yard to the now open barn door, which gave a brighter light.

With that light he could see that every time he tried to set a trail for the birds, they would swarm and scatter the feed, destroying every trace of a path. He tried several times, getting more frustrated every time. Then he tried to scare them into the barn, opening his coat and flapping it at the birds, trying to scare them into the barn. They flew everywhere EXCEPT where he wanted them to go. All he got was more frustrated, and a wet front to boot.

“Why can’t these birds just see what they need to survive? Why can’t they go into the barn like I want? Are there brains really so small? If I could just become a bird, I could convince them, and lead them into the barn…

And then he realized why Jesus was born.

That is what we celebrate on Christmas. We were given a fellow LBJ to follow into the barn.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

December 23, 2012 Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:57-66

At this point we’ve all probably been to a concert, or a play, or a movie, so we’re all familiar with that feeling of anticipation we feel at that moment when the lights go down, the symphony has stopped tuning, or the warm up music in the area has turned off, but the performance hasn’t started yet.

That is what the fourth Sunday of Advent is. All the preparations have been made, all the players have been put into their places, but the drama has not yet started. But it’s about to.

John has been born. John has been named. He will grow up to play a specific role at a specific time, but that is in the future. It hasn’t happened yet.

When I was eight, or so, my father directed Godspell in the high school where he taught. (He taught at a high school in Napa CA that really is called Vintage High School, even now, and their colors really are burgundy and gold). I remember seeing the young man who played John, who seemed so old to me, even though he was all of seventeen, standing in a spotlight in the dark theatre, near the back doors, and doing a vocal approximation of a shofar. The he begins to sing:

Pre-hee-pare Ye the Way of the Lord, Pre-hee-pare Ye the Way of the Lord.

The fourth Sunday of Advent is just before that starts.

The curtain goes up on Christmas. And the play that teaches the world about the love of God starts then. The play that tells the world that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Because we didn’t understand. We needed to have the Word embodied for us. Wee needed to have a human being tell us, and not just tell, but show us the love of God, and show us that someone of flesh and blood could pull it off. Emmanuel, God on Earth, yes, but also a human being who could stay connected to God. And whether we feel we can pull that off too, or not, we know now that it is our job to try. That is who Jesus is for us. And that play begins at Christmas.

May you believe what you hear in the play. May you understand that WE are to prepare the way of the Lord as well, even though the actual play happened two thousand years ago, our play is about how Jesus Christ can be born in us, and carried into the world through us.

We are now the seventeen year old boy singing in the theatre. It doesn't matter whether we can carry a tune (well, it does a little, you don’t want to say just anything, present the gospel in a way that damages the message so it’s worth thinking about) but it doesn't change the fact that this is our call. We are the feet, the hands, the mind, the eyes and the heart of God. This is our call.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Bravery of a Young Girl

Luke 1: 26-38

Advent 2

Now, we come to Mary. Last week, we talked about Zechariah and Elizabeth, and how the angel came to him, in the innermost chamber of the temple, and how, when he disbelieved what the angel said, he was made mute.

Now, we’re six months in-Elizabeth is six months pregnant, and Zechariah is still unable to speak. And another angel shows up.

Do you see what’s going on here? The first angel appearance was made to someone whose own husband said she was getting on in years. Now, there’s an angel again, but this time appearing to someone not much older than your average eighth grader. The culture is a little different from Mary’s time to us. Marriage at this age is not unusual. And she’s already engaged, and Joseph is a good deal older; maybe 20-25? Marriage, then was also different. Joseph and Mary are engaged, but not in the sense we understand it-they have a legal contract, and Mary is already legally attached to Joseph, but they are still living in separate homes.

The angel comes. The first thing he says is “greetings, favored one!” What’s the second? The same line every angel seems to need to deliver in these stories, the same line an angel would definitely need to deliver if one came today: “Be not afraid.”

Her response, in the Common English Bible translation, is: “She was confused by these words, and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Confused indeed, I think that’s being polite. Then the angel says “be not afraid!”

The angel tells her what the plan is, who the baby will be, and Mary’s response is “Um, ok, I know I’m young and all, but how am I going to carry a baby without that first bit? And the angel says to her: Remember your cousin Elizabeth? She’s 6 months pregnant. I’m sure we've got this part covered.” And Mary says “ok, let’s go!

Isn't it great to have this amazing, omnipotent God who can do thinks like give Elizabeth a pregnancy in old age; give Mary a pregnancy while still a virgin; to have all this power, but God asks first? Imagine it was Zeus: “Wham! Oh my goodness! I’m pregnant! Gee, Zeus must have been by…”

But here comes an angel, and he says to Mary “hey, we have an idea for you…” nd she says “let it be according to thy will.”

Let’s remember what Mary is signing up for. She’s 13, and she’s already engaged. And she has just agreed to carry a child. She knows what that will do to her in her society. She and Joseph are not supposed to be having relations yet. And of course Joseph is going to know it wasn't him. We know that story-he plans on divorcing her, until an angel comes to him and says, . . .yep, that’s right! “Be not afraid!”

Mary knows what she’s signing up for, and she still says yes. She knows how her family may react, she knows how her village will react, and she’s pretty sure how Joseph will react. Now, she may not know who it is she’s carrying; she may not fully understand-the Angel was pretty clear, but a few words do not explain a lifetime. She doesn't know what Jesus as the Messiah will be, she doesn't know the great and terrible events to come. However, she does know she’s going to have morning sickness; she’s still going to be breastfeeding. She knows she’s going to be raising a child, and it is not yet clear whether she’ll be doing it alone, as a marginalized single teenager, yet, or not.

And she still says yes. The bravery of a teenage girl is what we honor when we talk about Mary.

What is it that you are being asked to do in God’s name? Perhaps you have something in your heart, which calls you into a new service. Perhaps you look at your preacher, and wonder what it takes to do that? Maybe you want to change jobs, to something. Maybe you would like very much to retire, but the budget doesn't fit, or you don’t know where the money will come from. There are as many scenarios are there are people around you, plus 10-12. But we are called at time to step out in faith; to be like Indiana Jones in the third movie, when he has to get across the chasm. He has to step out into thin air, based not on what he sees but on what he knows. So he closes his eyes, steps out and…there’s the rock bridge.

As followers of Christ, this sort of faith is what we are called to do every day.

Do you have the bravery of a 13 year old girl?

Do you have the confidence in God? I betcha, somewhere, you do. It just can take some time to find, sometimes.

Think about what it is you are being called to do. Think about what it is that you could be if you followed God one step deeper.

And hear the angels’ voice say to you as well, “Be not afraid!”

And you own voice saying back “let it be according to your will.”

Monday, December 03, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper (Padawan)

Luke 1: 5-25
For Cheryl:

Advent 1

Imagine, if you will, a sanctuary like the one you worship in now, or where you may have worshipped at one time, or one you may remember seeing at a friends’ wedding. But instead of maybe their being a rail in front of the place where the preacher normally stands, or at the place where there is a step up, you see a blank wall. Inside that wall, there is still furniture and such related to worship, but you don’t know that. What you know is that there is a priest that goes behind that wall with incense at one point of the worship of God, and comes back out a few minutes later. You’re out front praying, or chanting psalms, or singing something.
Now imagine your minister (or whomever you’ve put into that role) going in, just like every other week, to do the duty of the incense, but he’s delayed in coming back out. It’s confusing, and maybe the psalms or the prayers trail off…until it’s silent.

Then the minister comes out, and its obvious something’s wrong, because now, he is unable to talk. He motions to his throat, to his mouth, his eyes are all wide, and he can’t say anything.

How weirded out would be? How would you feel? Would you be scared as you sat in that pew? Would you be irritated? Would you wonder what went on behind that wall?
When this happened to Zechariah in our story today, it was obvious to the congregation then that something supernatural had happened, but they couldn’t know what, because old Zechariah couldn’t tell them. But while they would have said something supernatural happened, we would want to send our minister to the psychiatrist. If your minister couldn’t speak, what would be the point in his or her staying in the job?

Now Zechariah’s situation is different-he wasn’t required to preach, like we are. He could perform his duties without his voice. His worship was different, in that the Temple was the only place where this worship could be performed. The only place where sacrifices could be made.

So if Zechariah comes out unable to talk, his congregation is pretty savvy, and it’s clear to them that something happened in there. It’s just not obvious to anyone what that is yet.

It’s not anyone’s radar that this is the opening step in the story that will culminate in the Messiah’s birth. That a couple, “getting on in years”, suddenly find themselves pregnant, and that this child will be the sign of who is to come after? That is TRULY not on anyone’s radar. In facts folks won’t figure that out until after Jesus is almost gone, and they start looking back at the prophecies.
There are lots of wierdnesses in the present, lots of things people don’t understand. The unknown is happening. Why are they happening? No one knows. For some people, that’s scary, and they want answers to settle their minds. Sometimes we buy into the interpretations, and the interpretations are usually wrong. Sometimes they are true, but usually not.

We’re in a time of preparation. Advent is time where we are to remember the need to sit and wait and watch. Some of my colleagues flip out a little bit when their churches want to sing Christmas carols in this time, and we know we’ve been hearing Christmas music in retail stores for weeks now.

We’re not good at waiting. We’re not good at ambiguity. We’re not good at trusting that things will happen in their time. We’re not good with delayed gratification. We can now eat Mac and Cheese in 90 seconds. Popcorn in about 2 minutes. We can download a full album of music in about 5 minutes, with a decent internet connection.

When Van Halen’s album 1984 came out, I was in high school. I had been looking forward to it for weeks, and the day it was released, I rode my bike up to the record store (Wonderland, in Newark, DE), in the rain, with a plastic bag inside my backpack, so I could buy that album on it’s release date. It was something I’d looked forward to for months, and would have gone through a wall to get it that day! I was so excited! Today, I might still be excited, I might still wait anxiously, but now I can just buy it through iTunes and never even have to get a drop of rain on me. ( Further illustration: as I was preaching this sermon at Throop UMC, I couldn’t remember the name of the album. While I continued with the sermon, one member pulled out her smart phone and Googled it for me, and was able to tell me the title of the album before the end of the sermon!)

We don’t have times of waiting and sacrifice and effort like that as much anymore. So Advent gets to be harder, and harder for us. It becomes almost a spiritual discipline to task ourselves with waiting, and watching, and praying. To actually have to wait for something; to wait for a roast in a slow cooker? To smoke a good brisket for 24? Fugeddaboutit.

But the story of advent asks us to wait. It tells us that things will become clear in time. Not now. What’s weirder is that we are waiting for something that has already come. We are commemorating events that have already passed. We know all the answers to the questions that the people in the story don’t. We are not really waiting for the baby Jesus to be born.

Advent is a time of waiting. But for us in this time, it is also a time of learning how to wait. And it is good to wait. It’s hard to l know this, hard to prove this, but it is good to wait. It is good to notice that Zechariah can’t talk. But while we will know eventually why he lost his ability to speak, it is good to not know immediately.

It’s good to let things simmer. To let things ferment. It’s good to wait.
May this Advent season teach you a lesson or two about patience.

Monday, November 26, 2012

For Folks Who Don’t Get Kings

John 18: 33-37

Christ the King Sunday

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent starts. It’s located that way to remind us that, as Jesus is being born, in the most humble way imaginable; as a child of an unwed mother in a backwater town of the Roman Empire, not even a citizen of that Empire, but rather a native of an occupied country and people, he is still the King of the Universe. No matter how small, how pitiful, how out on the ragged edge this child gets, we know where he ends up.

We talk about mangers, we talk about shepherds, and censuses (censusi?), we talk about all the trappings of poverty and dislocation, but the story ends up with the baby being the savior of all humanity.

This is an easy enough concept if you live in medieval times, and I’m the only one in the room who can read, and the women are all on one side of the church, and all the men are on the other side, but we don’t live in medieval times. Families sit together, everyone can read, and the church is lit with electricity.

We live in a country that, 200 years ago, spent a lot of blood and treasure to NOT have a king. It’s instructive that, when I asked a child in the children’s sermon what a King does, he said he couldn’t remember. You’re never going to find a British kid who says that. You’re never going to find a Saudi kid who says that. We, as Americans, don’t really know what a king is for. For some of us, having a federal government and a President is bad enough. To have a king, who owns us and all of our talents, and gifts, and all of our output, down to the children we bear? That’s not going to happen. I don’t think any American would buy that, no matter what political persuasion.

So, what does it mean to have a King? So what does it mean for Jesus to be our king?

Can I suggest to you that perhaps the reason why we reject royalty, as Americans, is because we value our own decisions? We value the fact that we can rise and fall on our own talents? Our own choices? Yes, we make bad choices, yes, we make difficult decisions that affect the rest of our lives, but generally, it is our own choice. This makes us a little more noble; gives us a little more dignity. If we’re told what to do, or where to do it, or how fast to do it; if we’re told, like Pharaoh told the Israelites to makes the mud bricks without straw, knowing full well the bricks are inferior, we lose dignity. But if we don’t do it, we know we’ll be killed, so we do it, knowing full well it isn't our best work. This is why we don’t trust kings.

But when we say that Christ is our king, can I suggest that perhaps we can say this because Christ alone is trustworthy enough for us to give that assent to? He says “My Kingdom is not of this world”. The kingdom of Jesus Christ is the universe. It doesn't work like civil government does. It doesn't work like England, or Sweden, or the Sultan of Brunei. To act as if we are loyal subjects can be a spiritual discipline.

Imagine you are a medieval blacksmith. You sharpen plows, make horseshoes, and other maintenance. But in time of war, each of those projects are set aside, and you are compelled to make swords, build armor, and other weapons. In times of castle construction, you are required to make grates for windows, hallway torch racks, and such like. You are compelled because your kingdom requires it of you. You can sell some stuff, you can create some stuff, sure, but if the local royal needs something, your stuff is set aside. The trade off is already arranged-the local royal owns your house, your lands, and your materials. You eat food from fields the royal owns. You can’t hunt in the forest. Your work and all your output is not yours, but it is the royals’.

Now, because we were born in a country that has not had a system like this for 230 some-odd years, we’re all thinking in our heads, Nope, that’s not us!”
But can I suggest to you that this is exactly what we are called to do in the name of Christ? All that we have, and all that we are, are to be put into the service of the Kingdom of God?

That may not sound too palatable, given the picture that I just drew. It’s probably not a great tool for describing the positives of being a Christian. But if we are the people of God, that means we have pledged ourselves to serve God, and we have salvation.

In fact, here’s a difference; in an earthly kingdom, we receive the protection of the local royal in exchange for the service we provide, though with extreme coercion. In Christ, we offer our gifts and talents in service to God in gratitude for the salvation we have already received, and are assured of.

All that we have, and all that we are, will not be used to make war with anyone. Instead, it will all be used to share that message of grace with everyone.

Say you have a job as an accountant. There are two ways to do the job; one is to do the work shoddily, and never check your work, and to not care when mistakes are made. The other is to be conscientious, to check your work, and do everything you can to give the best, fairest, and most honest tax return you can. Which way gives glory to God? Which way is a testament? This is true about homework, about care giving, about fighting fires, about any output we generate, down to the cake we bake, or the turkey we smoke.

For us, the good way not only gives testament to the love of God, it also marks us as loyal subjects of a kingdom. The subjects of a king who is the ONLY one we will ever serve. It’s a good thing to know that this person we have pledged our loyalty to is the only perfect person. And when we serve this one being, the output is always love.

Isn't that a fair trade? Only love, only grace, only forgiveness, only peace. That’s a pretty good king. And we’re loyal subjects when that is what we spread in the name of the kingdom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stone Unstacked Upon Stone

Mark 13: 1-8, 1 Samuel 2:1-10

These passages sail the shores of emotion this morning. The song of Hannah is a prayer of thankfulness for the lifting of what in those days was the curse of barrenness by a woman who has had a child, and that child having being dedicated into the service of God.

Contrast that with the worry and the concern with the end of the world, which is coming, in the context of Jesus saying that there will soon be a time when the temple will be destroyed, and not one stone will be left upon another. This is the scariest thought possible for the Jews of that day.

It’s hard to read the Bible sometimes, when here is such a spread of emotion. We read the Joy of the song of Hannah, and we think of people who have not had that joy; who have gone through months, maybe years of in vitro fertilization, spending thousands of dollars; who have gone through years of trying, and perhaps have even been stonewalled while trying for adoption.

We read that song, and then we read immediately after this the Mark passage, which talks about destruction and fire and the end of the world, and the cornerstone of the Jewish identity at that time being destroyed, and we find ourselves more familiar with the Mark passage. Perhaps it is hard to think about, but effectively, the end of the world is more comfortable to think about than the joy of a new mother.

We have all had loss in our lives. Somehow, somewhere, there are people we have lost. Parents, spouses, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, and we can’t also ignore that some of us may have lost friends that were closer to us than any family member.

Frankly, it’s easier to get our heads around stories of loss in scripture than stories of Joy. We distrust joy, don’t we?

We live in an area of the country that has not had a positive economic forecast for 60 years. The Knox Mine disaster happened, and the economy craters. Then comes Hurricane Agnes, and the crater gets deeper. This area has never recovered completely. There are efforts, and they do work partially, but don’t you find yourself expecting wonderful economic efforts, civic improvements; don’t you expect them to fail at some level in your mind? It’s easier to hear bad news; we’re more used to it here.

But let me tell you a story about this. Outside of the narratives we have in the gospels, and Acts, the story continues. Yes, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed. Stone was indeed unstacked from stone, and there was fire and broken walls. When you see people today lined up in Jerusalem against what’s called the Western Wall, praying and putting pieces of paper into the chinks on the walls, that wall isn’t even a wall of the temple. It was the retaining wall that enclosed the temple. The temple was destroyed so utterly, that the best remnant we have is just the enclosure, not even the temple itself!

And with the loss of the temple, the idea of how to be a Jew ceased to be possible in the old way. Many, many people lost their faith because they lost their practice. No more temple sacrifices, no more priests.

But oddly enough, there were already synagogues and rabbis present, and in the absence of the sacrificial ritual, the religion shifted to knowledge of Torah, and Judaism rebuilt itself fundamentally. In that complete redesign of how to be a Jew, new joys were created, new moments were sanctified, and God was shown to still be with the people. Even after something that cataclysmic, God was still present.
Imagine the collective state of mind after the towers fell on 9/11. How shocked we were, how angry we were, what our thoughts of doubt were. Now add to that the component of something like that being the ONLY religious outlet for a whole religion, the focus of all faith, being destroyed like that.

But the faith did not die. It changed, it metamorphosed, it grew. There were other dangers in the history to come. We can talk about Pogroms, we can talk about the Klan, we can talk about the Holocaust.

But there is still joy expressed in the faith. The Song of Hannah is still sung by those who feel joy in God. So it is with them, so it is with us.

Yes we have all lost friends, we have all lost family. But the sun does rise the next morning. There are new joys. Life changes, but it continues. There is always a new joy to look forward to. Perhaps the prospect of grandchildren. Perhaps success in a job you don’t even hold yet. Perhaps friends you don’t yet know that will hold your heart in their hands, and will bless you.

They are always coming. We are always becoming.

Sometimes, the anticipation of the worst thing that has ever happened to you is worse than the actual event. We don’t always know it’s coming. Car accidents, heart attacks, are always sudden traumas. But if we have sat with loved ones in their illnesses, and watched them decline, the actual event of their deaths is sometimes less a blow than a relief. We’ve thought about it, we’ve stayed up nights worried about it, we have seen lawyers and funeral directors to prepare for it, and that is usually worse than the actual passing.

Sudden or lingering death, a divorce, a job loss, all of these are traumatic. They are all major changes to our internal narrative, the story we tell ourselves about how the world is going to go.

But we know from our faith and this book that there are joys ahead of us. Our faith tells us that the end of the road is joy, no matter how much pain there is in the meantime. In the end, Revelation tells us, we don’t go to heaven; heaven, the new Jerusalem, comes to us!

There is always tomorrow. The sun always comes up, and god is always with us. Even when we can’t see God, even when we don’t want to see God, God is still with us and understands us.

After all, God lost a child, too.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crack in the Windshield

Mark 12:38-44

There’s a story I read this week about a little boy who had not been buying his milk at school. The father, who found this out eventually, was concerned about bullies, or more, that the boy was squirreling away the money for candy or video games or something. So he confronted the boy about keeping secrets, and sent the boy to his room.

The boy’s teacher called the next day and told the father that she wasn’t sure if he knew, but that his son had been, all week, dropping his milk money in the collection box the school had set up for Hurricane Sandy relief.

We live in a world, and in a time, where it is a good thing to be known for the gifts that you give. Twice a week, while I am at The University of Scranton for school, I go buy coffee and a snack from the DeNaples Student Center. Last week, I went to see a famous comedian at the F.W. Kirby theatre in Wilkes Barre. Some of us will go see Mannheim Steamroller or a Penguins game at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

I’m not so sure that’s a bad idea. It’s good to be known for something. It’s good that we know that Bill and Melinda Gates have given two BILLION or so dollars for poverty relief in Africa. There is no way that we, in this congregation, even if we sold the church building, all of our cars, all of houses, liquidates every last asset and emptied out the kids’ piggy banks, there is now way we could even come within miles of two billion dollars. So for the folks who can, they should, and if they want to honor someone with the gift, like Ross Perot did with his friend Morton H. Myerson in Dallas when they build the new symphony hall there, so be it! It’s fine.

But under no circumstances should we think we can do it all ourselves. Not even Bill and Melinda, for all that money, have made a major dent in poverty in Africa. Two billion dollars is just a rock chip in the windshield of the car that is African poverty. Not even the United Methodist Church has helped to completely eradicate malaria. We’ve contributed to halving new cases of the disease through the Nothing but Nets program, yes, but it isn’t completely gone.

To support a congregation takes the congregation. To support a fire company takes the whole fire company. It is a sign of participation.

And, yes, while that widow has given what she could, the rich folk bring in their large sums, and make their big shows, in this story, what is in common between them is Jesus’ lesson. It’s not about supporting institutions; money spends like money, whether it’s sacrificial giving or a tax write off.

To me, why Jesus points out the woman to the disciples, is that she gives all. She gives her last copper coins. She is serving God out of a perception of abundance, not of scarcity. There are times, in our lives, when we can afford to great and generous spirits. Say your child has left the house; they’ve gone to college or to their own place, and while your disposable income has increased, it is also true that your available time has increased. Say you add to that mix that you have retired. Disposable income, and time on your hands. It is no surprise then, that many people choose this time in their lives that people do mission trips-most of the trips I’ve been on have been populated by people of late middle age, with time and discretionary income. When you get the chance, you will support the things that important to you.

We are called, as followers of Christ, to give. In the United Methodist Church, we try to think in terms of Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Mission.

Serve the church, lift up your church with your prayers.

Give to the church with your presence. Be present. Be active.

Gifts: this can be your talents, yes, but it can also be the things that you are involved in, like donating Avon to a homeless shelter, or making a basket of spa items for a silent auction. We all have many gifts.

Service: when the church needs help, as an organization, to serve on a committee, this is what they mean. When a friend calls and says she needs help cooking lasagna for the mission down the street, this is what is meant by service; service to Christ, in Christ’s name.

Mission: What is our mission? To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To show God’s love to a world that is eternally in need of it. To invite them to experience God’s love.

Everybody always wants to make the “Widows’ Mite” scripture one about pledging financial support to the church. It falls at the right time every third year, right about when churches (the ones that do such a thing, anyway) program their stewardship campaigns. But Jesus sees more in the woman than just a poor widow dropping her last bits into the donation box. He sees a generosity of spirit, he sees a spirit of abundance, and he wants the disciples to take note.

This is our lesson. We have nothing to be afraid of. Some people have lost power since the storms last week, there are a few that have not yet gotten it back. But it is a matter of days or weeks, and then we will quickly take it for granted then. Some had their food-and-housing secure lives interrupted for a while, but the status quo for them is that they are secure in where they live, they do know where their next meal is coming from. We DO live in a world of unimaginable abundance. We don’t have to imagine, more than we can even think of is right here.

We have been blessed. And because of whom we have been blessed by, because we have everything we need and more, that “More” is to be used for others who are in need. Whatever we define as more; financial, material, spiritual; however we are led by the spirit, we should keep in mind that that excess, that surplus, is meant for the world. It can be something as simple as energy. As complex as managing a portfolio or providing psychological counseling in a free clinic on our free days; and yes, it can be money, too.

But because we have been given our lives, because we have been given reassurance that when we are gone from this earth, that is not the end. The things of this earth are given to us to support ourselves and others.

This should be our whole spirit, not just our checkbooks. The widow, according to Jesus, understood this, and was able to give all: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Mission.

What are your gifts, and where will you direct them?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

I would like to extend an apology for the interruption in regular postings here on FryerDrew. I was without a home computer for a couple weeks, and so I am a little behind. The sermons for October 21 and 28 will be posted soon, but I wanted to post my most recent sermon first. Sorry for any inconvenience!

Grand Hotel

Preached November 4, 2012, in the Dunmore/Throop charge

Revelation 21: 1-6a

We really don’t know what happens after we die. We know that we feel some things in this life, and death sometimes alleviates pain, and suffering. We don’t know what happens next. We have some ideas, there have been people over the years who have written books about what happens next. Going into the light, coming back from the light…We just don’t really know, and we don’t like to feel sad, and we don’t like going to a funeral, and seeing the family, and not knowing what to say.
And if you’ve ever been on the other side of that; if your spouse has died, or a parent, or a sibling, or a child, and you’re the one receiving the line. It’s brutal. You have to open yourself up enough to accept the grace and well wishes of many, many people all in a row, and endure some really boneheaded statements because they mean well.

I remember that when some people would try to comfort me, they would say some things that would make me very angry, angry enough t want to lash out. “Well, God just needed another angel in heaven”. “Well, her spirit had learned all it needed to, and it has gone back home.”

Yeah. I’ll be honest. I wanted to swing at someone. God didn’t need another angel more than my son needs his mother. Her spirit wouldn’t have quit midstream just because it was done.

At the same time, they were doing their best to say something of comfort in a terrible situation. I knew that, too.

What I believe is that in most cases, God does not call people home. What I believe is that God accepts them freely when they arrive, but there is no grand calendar by which we live and die according to a schedule. My God is a comforting God, an accepting god. My God is not a God that causes death, or pain, or cancer, or car accidents, or heart attacks or aneurysms. These are just our bodies at work. And God IS ALWAYS ready to accept us home when we arrive, though God is sometimes surprised to see us there.

The 14th chapter of John speaks of this, where Jesus says “where I go, I go to prepare a place for you; in my fathers house are many dwelling places…” Like the Grand Hotel on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with great green lawns. And Jesus says, “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

We as Christians, we do not believe that death is an end. We believe that death is a change, and a positive change. Everything that we receive from God and Scripture and tradition tells is that when we die, we return to God. This is not the final place. This is not even the best place. Where we’re going next is better. Where we’re going next is to be with God.

Now, another thing: when we talk about death, and All Saints, we talk about heaven, we have to be honest and also talk about hell.

When we read our funeral liturgy, what you hear in the service passes only very lightly over hell, though you will hear it mentioned. What you gather from that is that hell is never a permanent place; and I think this is Christian orthodoxy. I think this is right. This is just not what Jesus is about.

But we have to deal with it in our culture, because there is so much popular or folk Christianity out there that says, “bad people go to hell”, and “good people go to heaven.” And some people get it so twisted up in their minds that they end up not being sure where they will end up. Some say “all non Christians are going to hell”, and “All Christians who didn’t do what they were supposed to” are going to hell. Well, maybe so. But I don’t think so.

One of my friends is a pastor who once had to deal with the idea that had taken hold of a congregation that said that people who die in suicide all go to hell. Then someone in her congregation did so, and she had to deal with the dismissive-ness and anguish with the people who now believed that their friend has kissed her guarantee to heaven goodbye in one irrational act.

Northing in scripture supports this. If someone commits suicide, they are in a huge amount of pain, and they make an irrational snap decision. It’s different when someone is suffering from a terminal illness, the treatment may be worse than the disease itself, and all treatments give you a half life measured in months. That’s not suicide in the sense that this colleague was dealing with. There is nothing in scripture that deals with this, so there is nothing that permits us to go against the loving spirit of God in saying that that person has sent themselves to hell, permanently.

Hell might be there, for all we know, but right in the beginning of our funeral liturgy we say that “Jesus holds the keys of hell and death.” What that means is that whomever might be sent to hell, they are not there permanently. The power of the redemption of Jesus is such that he can open the gates and redeem everyone inside, as well!

This is what we believe. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than hell. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than death; we know this because of the resurrection of Jesus by God at Easter.

There’s a church tradition (I’m not sure how Scriptural it is, I know it more from the original Apostles’ creed, but I like it) that in those three days between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, Jesus also went to hell, and he had keys made for the gates, so to speak. Because he’s coming back, he’s unlocking those gates on that day, end everyone inside is coming home, Olly Olly Oxen Free.

Even the father who beat your mom when he was drunk and you were a kid. Even the mother who abandoned you. Even Hitler. They will all be redeemed, they will all be changed, they will all be brought back into God.

All of our relatives are part of being in God after we die. These people will join them at the right time, and Jerusalem will descend from heaven, as a symbol of God coming to be with us. There will be one place, and we will all be with them.
This is what we understand heaven to be. Because of the love of God, in Christ, we can be assured that we will end up here, too when it is our time to die. Deny that idea all you want, ignore it, push it away; but we will all die. It is inevitable. But take comfort and reassurance that the next stop, the destination, is a better place, and we will all be with God. We will all be reunited with those whom we love; we will all be reconciled to those whom we hate, and we will all be in one place, together.

Where we’re going is not scary. Where we’re going is love. Where we’re going is home.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Fence Around the Torah

Mark 9: 38-50

I don’t know if you have heard, but there is an election coming. Surprised? I’m driving up Highway 29 taking Josiah to his camping trip with the Boy Scouts, and there were signs that just seemed to have come out of nowhere, with names like Romney and Obama on them! Anyone ever hear of these guys?

The word of the day today, is hyperbole. The non-dictionary, Fryer Drew definition of the word is: emphatic speaking to make a point. The scripture that we have here today is full of hyperbole. Scriptures like this are why we do NOT take the Bible literally. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. And the first one, the one about the millstone: if any of you put a stumbling block before any of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

Anyone ever been to a mill, where they have a millstone? Millstones are large, sometimes very large carved rocks, granite, I guess, that have been mounted horizontally, like a turning table, and grain is crushed on them by another rock laying above it. These millstones can sometimes be 10 feet across, or bigger, and Lord knows how many tons one like that weighs. That is what Jesus is describing being hung around your neck and you being thrown in the sea with.

Hyperbole. Of course that’s not going to happen! It’s harder for us to understand hyperbole in our own modern day; it’s also harder to use it in conversation, because people want you to be accurate, and reasonable, commonsensical conversation. It really just takes the fun out of talking!

When’s the last time anyone said “I love ice cream?” Hyperbole, right?

I love my car. It’s a 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid, tough car with good mileage, I’ve put 70,000 miles on it in two years. But I loved it a little less last week, when I took it in last week for a 100,000 mile checkup.

Did you know, no hyperbole, that those suckers take platinum sparkplugs? Ka-ching! $877. A price that was also no hyperbole.

Speaking with hyperbole is a way to be able to make an extreme point about something much smaller. From the commentaries I read this week, this is an ancient way of speaking. When you go into the book of Proverbs, for example, there’s hyperbolic statement after hyperbolic statement, and all they really are all saying is “don’t be dumb!” “Have some common sense!” “Think it through! Think about the other person.”

When Jesus talks to us in hyperbolic terms, here, he’s using hyperbole. Even in the first part, where he says that “whomever is not against us, is for us.” Whomever heard that you are a Christian and brings you water, or brings you water and could care less what you are, Jesus in Mark here is telling his disciples that they will receive a reward. For nothing but hospitality.

Wouldn’t it be easier to live that way? Wouldn’t it be easier to say to someone “Oh, you’re not a Methodist, you’re a Presbyterian? You go to a synagogue? You go to a mosque, but you are not against me? Well, that must mean you are for me, then.” Words of Jesus, folks.

And then he talks, in the second half, about believers who are not quite as ‘developed” as others. And if you say or do something that is distressing to them, causes their faith to be troubled or inhibits its’ growth, it’s your fault. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to censor yourself. But it does mean that you have to be aware that, sometimes, the people around you might not believe the same way you do, or even if they are Christian, may not have the same level of understanding that you do; not everyone is a friend of books. Not everyone is a friend of reading or studying. But they still have a faith that lives, that needs t obe lived out, and nurtured. So Jesus is giving us a hyperbolic statement here: if you do something that causes one of these to stumble, cut it off.

Well, of course he doesn’t mean it literally. Of course we’re not supposed to be plucking out eyeballs, or cutting off feet or hands.

There’s a Jewish way of speaking about this same concept that is rather more gentle. At the root of the Jewish religion is the Torah, which for Christians is the first five books of the Bible. And all of the stuff, traditions, interpretations, etc. that has been gathered around it is the oral torah. And in the written and the oral torah, thee are rules to be followed that help Jews understand how to live and understand life with God. And what they speak about isn’t hyperbolic: “don’t break that rule, or we’ll have to do something drastic!” That’s what Jesus is doing, but what they say is “here are the Rules, don’t break them. To help you not break them, we put up a fence around the rules, so you will be even less likely to break them, because you are further away. “Putting a fence around the Torah” is the description they use.

There are people who believe differently than you. There are people who may have less developed beliefs than you. And you may like them, you may even love them; but when you get into the theological thickets with them, or the moral heavy questions, the absolutes, or even, heaven forbid, the politics, your feelings toward them may lessen. You may find yourself being angry with them, and it’s only because they disagree with you. They are not less of a human being, not because they want to hurt you; they just believe differently than you. So in this time of politics, (there’s only a month left! We can stick it out!) you know that there are people you just can’t talk to.

Put a fence around them. Still love them, still eat their cooking, still enjoy them. But don’t go anywhere near health care with them, or national defense, or the coal based energy policy. We all have them in our lives: generate peace in the world by not discussing tension filled topics with them. Put a fence around the Torah. Be hospitable. There’s a time and place for theological, or political discussion. But never at the cost of relationship.

Put a fence around the Torah.


Pastor Drew
Sermon preached 9/30/12, Throop UMC

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tongues Starting Fires

James 3: 1-12

Raise your hand when you recognize the song:

Now I know that I had to borrow, beg and steal and lie and cheat, Trying to keep you, trying to please you, ‘Cause being in love with your face ain’t cheap
Now I pity the fool that falls in love with you, well, I’ve got some news for you; Oh, I really hate you right now.
I see you drive around with the girl I love, and I’m like, Forget You; I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, I’m like forget you, and forget her too

This is a pop song by an artist named Cee Lo Green; if you watch TV talent competitions, he’s the African American guy with the bright glasses, on The Voice. It’s a song about after a breakup, when someone is angry, and someone is disappointed, and someone is hurt. Essentially, the singer has been jilted because the other guy can spend more on her.

(Note: I am not posting the video, because of the chance you might inadvertently receive the "other" version of the song, which has slightly different language. If you know the song, you know what I mean!)

Words can hurt, but words can also lift you up;

Baby I’m Amazed at the way you love me all the time/Maybe I’m afraid at the way I love you.
Baby I’m Amazed at the way you pulled me out of time, hung me on a line/Maybe I’m Amazed at the way I really need you.

Both of these songs are made up of words, words that come from our minds, and are physically shaped by our throats, our teeth, our lips, and yes, our tongues. It could be said that they are just words, yes, but what is intended by them is what causes that great forest fire.

Words, and the manner in how they have been presented in a film, made in California a year ago, with the trailer to the film languishing on YouTube for a year, when translated into Arabic, became powerful enough to kill four Americans in Benghazi last week. Others of various nationalities have died as well. The words denigrated the central figure of one of the major world religions. And whatever you may feel about Islam, whatever you may believe about Christianity in relation to Islam, I would hope that we could all agree, that nothing we say is worth the loss of life.

Words carry weight. How many different ways can you mean the phrase “I love you”? “I love you” to sons and daughters, “I love you” to siblings, “I love you” to parents and grandparents, “I love you” to spouses and lovers; “I love you” to friends whom you’ve known for 30-35 years or longer, and know every single skeleton in your closet. They all carry different connotations.

All of them are appropriate uses of those words. But they can still sometimes breed confusion. If you say that phrase to someone, and they mean it differently than you do, they everyone’s confused, twisted up. On the other hand, when you don’t say it, or show it, for a long time to someone, problems inevitably result.

What James is saying to us today is not for us to avoid speech; no vows of silence here today, thank you very much! But if the tongue is the rudder of a ship to use James’ image, then the brain and the soul is the pilot of the ship. And just like a pilot, we want to steer ourselves clear of dangers, shoals, sandbars, and other hazards, and arrive safely into harbor with just as many passengers and crew as what we left with.

The rudder can only be used for certain uses. It can’t see storms; it can’t see rocks, it can’t decide how to turn into the wind. Our brains and spirits are what are in control. It’s more than just speech, too; it is our brains and spirits that decide whether to post or pass forward inflammatory or hurtful words on the internet.
This is also controlling the tongue. We all have political opinions in this room, some of them strongly felt and held. If we are to air them all without thought or care, we’d all have black eyes! What keeps us civil in this room, this sanctuary, isn’t our tongues; it’s our brains. The tongue is the tool. This is what James means-drive the ship properly.

“Maybe I’m Amazed at the way I love you” is a much better thing to say than “Forget You”. Let us be people of “St.” Paul McCartney. While Cee Lo is talented, the ethic of that song is not how we should live.

Our spirits and our brains drive the rudders that are our tongues. Let us drive responsibly, in the name of Christ.


Pastor Drew, 9/16/12, Throop UMC

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Going to the Beach Without Any Money

Mark 7: 24-30

As you read this text, it is a source of some uncomfort, because it seems that Jesus is actually being corrected by someone. And not just anyone: someone who is not a Jew. Someone who is not a member of the “Chosen People”; this woman is a gentile. Add to that, Mark’s description of her as “Syro-Phoenician”; it meant that one of her parents was from Syria, and one was from Phoenicia.

In our culture, we’d call her a mixed child; perhaps a mixed race child.
She was not Jewish, and there was no claim of “pure” blood of any sort at all.
Jesus has gone to Tyre, along the Mediterranean coast, outside of the boundaries of Judea, maybe to catch a little beach time, certainly to escape from the pressures of his ministry; maybe somewhere that his cellphone signal won’t work, and it’s foreign enough that it’s an expensive call internationally by land lines. He’s not taken his iPod, so he doesn’t have to worry about email.

But this woman knows about him, and hears he is coming. She finds him, as asks him to heal her daughter.

Now whether you believe in demon possession, or rather, that what this woman is describing as possession is really what we would call mental illness, it really doesn’t matter; This woman is looking for a supernatural cure for her daughter from this stranger who has a reputation as a healer.

And what does Jesus say to her when she asks?

Let’s get the words exactly right: “He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27, NRSV)

It’s very hard; as much as you may want to, it’s very hard to take this as anything other than ugly. He’s calling the woman a dog.

Now, if you tell me how you interpret this passage, and I’ll tell you who your Jesus is. There are two basic ways you can go here. Some say that this an example of Jesus’ struggle with his human side, struggling as the son of God with the prejudices and biases he was surely raised with as a member of the Judean culture of the first century toward their neighbors, especially neighbors of mixed culture. And his comment is an example of the bigotry that the Judeans saw their neighbors through.
The other way this could go is sort of the same way that he’s portrayed in the Gospel of John, where he will intentionally say something, so that someone else will say something, and then he’s presented with a teachable moment. This method allows us to believe that Jesus is completely in control of the situation. (Problem is, John always tells us that this is what Jesus is doing, and Mark doesn’t here.)

His statement is that his gifts and graces, his call, his vocation, is to only serve the Chosen people. They are the children of his statement, and they are, as he says, to be fed first.

What happens next, however, is the crux of the story. The woman refuses to give up. She’s a feisty one! She’s quick, she’s smart, and she’s desperate to help her daughter. Her attitude is “are you really going to come in here, to our land, which is NOT yours, and not give us even a little of the gifts you have? Do you often to go the beach and not spend any money? Really?” She says that “even dogs can eat the crumbs from the children’s table.”

Now here is where whichever version of Jesus you prefer comes into play; does he then save her daughter because he’s changed his mind at her argument? Or has he, according to some, made the trip into Tyre for the express purpose, besides picking up some beach fries with malt vinegar, and some saltwater taffy, of spreading the gospel to those who are not of the chosen people, and this woman is the linchpin of that effort? Does he say the ugly prejudicial thing just to get a reaction, just so he may then present the gifts of God?

You tell me about your understanding of this passage, and I will tell you about your Jesus.

She gives her tart reply, and Jesus either says “excellent, here’s my opportunity”, or “oh, my. I have acted shamefully! I must address my own biases.”?

Either way, whichever way his internal monologue goes, the lesson of the text is that, to be a follower of Christ, our gifts are not to be withheld from ANYONE.

Imagine someone like the Syro-Phoenician woman in our time and place. Not only someone who is of mixed race or culture, and female, but a little insistent and assertive and bossy. Your first impression isn’t going to be that positive, is it?
But the gifts of God that we have been given are not to be withheld, not even from the people who work our last nerve. The people whom we don’t trust; the people who smell funny; who speak a different language, who have another color skin.

So when you go to Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and he has that sign that says you can only order in English; that attitude is exactly the opposite of Jesus’ teaching here.
As followers of Jesus Christ, as people of the Way, our blessings are for the whole world. No exceptions.

Our blessings are for Iraquis. Our blessings are for Iranians. Egyptians and Libyans. They are for Chinese. But they are also for the Poles who live next door to us on the one side, and the stuffy Welsh on the other side.

Our blessings are for the whole world. And that moment when you feel like it’s just too much? That you just can’t go that far, however far that is? Just remember, Jesus had that moment too, and look what he did to overcome it.

The Christian model is to struggle and to finally overcome and defeat our prejudices.

Xenophobia, Sexism, Racism (though I don’t like to use the word race, it’s an artificial structure anyway, we are all one race, the same way that Dalmatians and Chihuahuas are both of the same race)

Our call, our vocation, is to overcome it all, because we are to share the love and the blessings of God with the whole world.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Runners' World

James 1: 17-27

I was reading an article last week from a magazine called The Christian Century. In it, the author was writing about a childhood memory, one that meant a lot to him growing up.

In it, he says that he remembers her offering envelops in her church having six boxes to check each week. They were: worship attended, Bible brought, Bible read daily, Sunday school lesson studied, prayed daily, gave an offering. For him, growing up, faith was a matter of making sure each box could be checked every week.

He writes in the article that as he remembers this fact from his childhood, he also thinks about how many adults, people who have had every opportunity to have a living, organic breathing faith, still live their spiritual lives as a matter of making sure their boxes are checked every week?

How many of us live our lives with the belief that; if we have read our chapter of the Bible every day, or read today’s Upper Room devotional, or some other sort of devotional, that we can now go on with our days? "Whatever else happens to me," we may think, “I’ve prayed, I’ve read, and I’ve had my coffee.”

What James is telling us in this Scripture passage is that it is not enough to be able to check the boxes. If you read a chapter of Scripture, read your devotional, maybe even sit in silence for a bit, and then go on with your day, it is not enough. It is, he says, like looking at yourself in a mirror, and when you step out of its view, immediately forget what you look like.

It may seem hard to believe, but it can happen. You can be distracted with worries about children, or money, or other matters, and absent mindedly look at yourself, and miss the bit of omelet that stuck to your beard after breakfast, and walk away. You may not feel it either, so then you literally end up walking around the rest of the day with egg on your face!

What James means by this is that it’s going to happen to the best of us, the deepest of us. We all lose momentum. We all can forget, sometimes, who and whose we are. If we do our devotions, but do not take that lesson or idea into the day with us, we are forgetting who we are.

The old Benedictine rhythm of prayer 7 times a day was a corrective for this. If monks, spiritual giants as we see them, needed 7 times a prayer a day, balanced with work and study and rest, how much more do we need that reminder?

James says that the best way to remember who we are isn’t to go back and pray again and again; prayer is important. Reading Scripture is important. But just as you do not keep yourself healthy merely by going to the table again and again and again, because we need food, reading Scripture and devotional texts alone does not keep us spiritually healthy.

In fact, if it is our only practice, it will actually make us unhealthy, just like eating too much, even if it is the best organically produced, complex carbohydrate, lean protein food you can buy. Yes, the monks prayed seven times a day, but they also worked in the fields or in support of the monastery creating items for sale. And they also studied.

James is calling on us to do the same thing. We need balance. Reading about it isn’t enough. I subscribe to Runners World magazine, and it is a great source of inspiration, food tips, training ideas and injury treatments. I could rub the magazine all over my legs and everywhere else, but unless I am running, it isn’t doing me a whole lot of good.

We need to be experiencing ministry, working for it, finding the setbacks and then returning to our devotional lives to see about how to handle issues.

We are not Christians because we read. We are Christians because we do.

We are Christians because we serve, we share. Religion that is pure, according to James, is that which serves widows and orphans. Not what we read. What we do.

You hear sometimes the phrase “spiritual, but not religious”. It’s a reaction to religion being seen as an exercise in standing up, sitting down, giving money, singing boring songs, whatever. That’s just not what brings them to God.

But what religion really is, when it is good, or “Pure”, to use James phrase, is spiritual practice that works for people.

Church in many ways, is like going to the gym. It in itself is not the point of the game. Neither is a devotional. All of it is like practice, or training camp; what we hear in here and in these books prepares us for what is out there. For where our Christian identity really means something.

Church isn’t the goal, it isn’t the point. Church, bible, prayer, they are all the means, they are all the preparation for what we are truly called to do.

To share God’s love, to share the good news.


Pastor Drew
Sept. 2, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Metaphor and Meaning

Ephesians 6: 10-20

It’s really too bad that the local Christian bookstore closed last month. Besides all of the supplies that could be obtained there; besides all of the Bible covers, and the wall hangings, and the Cd’s of music and the DVD’s, they had a toy section!
I loved going into that section, and seeing the Veggie Tales Noah’s Ark, or their Nativity scene (which I still kinda want).

But one thing you would always find in that section was what looked like a child’s make-believe gladiator suit. There would be a chest protector, a helmet, a belt, a sword. And the chest protector would have the word “righteousness”; the sword would say “spirit”. The helmet, which was always too small for any but the youngest heads, would say “salvation”; anf the belt, of nylon, or pleather, or whatever, would say truth.

It was a toy that taught this sc ripture. It’s too bad that we have to send for this stuff by mail order, now, because I really could have used the toy set this morning. It helps us remember what it is that we are supposed to be carrying forward vinto the world.

Paul was working with what he had. This was the bronze age (I think). Only certain cultures had the wherewithal to be able to make these items. They didn’t play sports back then, not any that required protection, and maybe the blacksmith had a leather apron. There were not a lot of needs of protective gear.

Imagine: if one person is wearing metal breastplate, and a helmet, and maybe shin guards, and everyone else is wearing woven cloth, and throwing rocks and swinging sticks, guess who wins the fight?

I don’t know how they’d keep bees, if they did-maybe they just ran up, grabbed a piece of comb, and ran for the hills.

My point is, if Paul had lived in a culture closer to ours, he would have had more options than just the militant one provided to him by the Roman army. He’d have available to him beekeeper’s net hats; he’d have mechanic’s gloves that for so well that he could pick tiny screws up while wearing them; he’d have those plastic shields that surgeons wear on tv that make them look like welders, and oh yeah, welders’ helmets!

For me though, the best image that comes to mind, as a substitute for warlike imagery, are football uniforms. Take the helmet of salvation (which of course will have a 49ers’ emblem on it!), and the forward pass of the spirit; and the thigh pads of truth, and the shoulder pads of faith.

I’m not saying that military imagery is bad for everyone, but I do know that there are people who would prefer their religious metaphor to be more peaceful. So we can play around with the more modern choices.

Paul is of course employing metaphor, teaching about what it is that we need to carry with us out into the world; truth, righteousness, faith, and and salvation, and we always are accompanied by the truth that we carry into the world is that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son; it isn’t necessarily the most important bit that the gift was made; rather, that God does love us, that is the important part; that God loves the world now is the message we give.

And as far as righteousness goes, Paul doesn’t mean self righteousness, the arrogance and pride that so many of our co-religionists exhibit. Instead, he means the humility and humbleness of knowing that our work is never ending, and that it is true, but we are imperfect messengers, unable to get the message perfectly as God intends.

Truth. Righteousness. A drive to share the gospel of peace. Not a gospel of division; not a gospel of Methodists are better than Presbyterians, or Catholics; instead, a gospel of peace, saying that we are all children of God. And this is also how we are to live together.

This is what Paul is saying. It’s a metaphor. And we can change the metaphor to what works for us! It doesn’t have to be the armor of Roman soldier; it can be a bicycle helmet, it can be a beekeepers’ net hat.

Paul is talking about a mission; and in a mission, you have to wear what you need to get the job done. Whatever you require to share the love of God is what is necessary.
A preacher I read in the past, in seminary, has a line that fits here. Barbara Brown Taylor writes of the concept of preparedness. She writes that if the church were serious about being church, they would issue crash helmets, and the pews would have seatbelts. Ordinands and confirmands maybe should be given boots and backpacks.
To do church right is to support each other in bringing the love of God to a world that obviously needs it, but doesn’t always want it. We are not here to force the message, but we are here to share and be open with the message. We all know that there is pushback to our message, largely because it has been presented so imperfectly over time.

This is why we need protection and padding.


Friday, August 24, 2012

The Ick Factor

John 6:51-58

It’s a hard thing, to hear this passage. “You cannot be one of my people unless you eat of my flesh.”

How many people when they heard me reading this, had a little bit of an “ewww” feeling?
It’s a hard thing to hear. And it has probably been a hard passage to hear ever since
Jesus said it, way back then.

I don’t know if you know this, but before Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire, in the 4th century, it was considered a minority religion, and in some places, an illegal religion. You’ve heard stories of Christians being thrown to the lions; this was why! Because they were considered anti-government by believing in Christ. Some folks were even considered atheists, because they did not believe in the official pantheon of roman Gods. And so they were “picked on”, oppressed.

I said last week, in another part of the service at the other church, that the reason there are acolytes as a traditional part of worship is because back in the days of Christian oppression and secrecy, the children, the ones who would be above suspicion, were the ones who would lead Christians to secret places of worship, sometimes even down into the dark and scary cities’ catacombs, where the city of Rome placed their dead.

There were always spies who were looking for Christians, and one of the things that Christians were always being accused of, one of the things that they were sent to the lions for, was the charge of cannibalism. Texts like this morning’s gospel passage were often evidence against Christians.

Yet another dangerous effect of literalism.

Christians understood that this passage is not literal. Christians understood that we don’t sacrifice someone, and then eat their bodies. This is not the Donner party at church.

When talks about “eating of my flesh”, and “drinking of my blood”, he is talking about participation in the body of Christ. You are the body of Christ. You’re here this morning, this makes you the body. “Where two or three are gathered, the body of Christ has been constituted. “

But we are not, at communion, sitting down to a meal of each other. We are sitting down to be the body of Christ.

When we do communion, we do it with a very specific set of language in mind. When we come to the rail, or to the cup, and stand, or kneel, or whatever, we take a little piece of bread, and a little drink of juice (or the bread is dipped in the juice). That, for us is the symbol of being the body of Christ, or participating in the body of Christ. But we in the United Methodist church believe that “stuff,” that bread and juice, that flour, and that sugar, and that yeast, and that salt, and that product of mashed grape berries; we do not believe that that stuff becomes the actual body in blood of Christ. There’s no need to go into a discussion of consubstantiation, or transubstantiation; all that’s necessary to know is that we understand a more symbolic meaning in the act of communion.

When we take communion, we may think of old Sunday school teachers we used to have, old preachers, our parents, perhaps spouses who have passed on, and in some terrible cases, children who have preceded us in death. And as we take communion together, those people in your memory are swirling around over our heads, this is what we call the “cloud of witnesses”. When we take communion, we also participate with them, in doing what it is that Jesus told us to do.

Next time we take communion, listen for the language that we use: the night Jesus was arrested, he sat with his friends, his Disciples, and he lifted a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends, and said take, eat, this is my body which has been been broken for you. He used the past tense, but it would not happen till the next day.
“this is my body”.

Then he passed around a cup, and yes it was wine; Louis Pasteur had not been born yet. He gave thanks to God, and passed around the cup, and said “drink from this, all of you:, this is my blood which has been shed for you and for many for the forgiveness, of sins.” Again, the past tense, for something that was going to happen the next day.

“Each time you do this, do so in remembrance of me.” That is the command that we follow. This is our purpose in taking and giving communion, to take and to receive, to remember. To remember our cloud of witnesses. To remember those who are at the rail with us in that moment. To remember the sacrifice of Jesus.

But what it isn’t, despite this morning’s passage from John, is cannibalism. It is a participation in the body. It is a command by Christ, and it is a remembrance of those who have come before, and for some of us, maybe it is even a promise, a renewal, every month, to make sure that the faith is passed on, even to little babies baptized.

I encourage you to go back this week, and read this passage again, with this symbolic passage in mind. Help it grow in your minds, past the initial “ick” factor, Perhaps that will be your growth in faith.

What we do is a symbol. It is a bonding action for all of us together. And only a misunderstanding of the language, a literal meaning, should be what turns your stomach.


Pastor Drew, August 19, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rehabilitation and Memory

John 6: 41-51

When people read this passage, Most of the time, the interpretation and proclamation centers around the concept of Jesus being the living bread. Sometimes they’ll even carry on into next weeks’ passage, which continues the concept of Jesus as the body.

But Friday night, I was the preacher at the Wyoming Valley Rescue Mission, and in thinking about that message, another part of the passage caught my eye: verse 42 says “They were saying ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say “I have come down from heaven’?”

Have you ever done something, when you were a kid, that people 50 years later still remember you for?

Have you ever done something dumb, that, when you go back to your hometown, it’s the first thing they refer to you by?

When I went back to my 20 year class reunion, I had changed a good bit. I had twice the belly and half the hair I have now. I was also engaged in a vocation that was not high on my list of careers when I was 17. I got to the reunion, and there were a few people who didn’t recognize me. Not until they saw my eyes. So at the end of the night, I received the award for “most changed”, which is still stuck into the back of my senior year yearbook.

I am not sure if I received the award because of the way I looked, or because of my answering the call to ministry, which was so far away from what I was telling people I was going to do when I was 17.

Sometimes, we live under the oppression of expectations of people we know from our youth, or our families.

Some of us may have gone on a joyride, borrowed a car without their permission, and went driving around town. Who knows what it may have been. But what seems to be true is that when they see you after not seeing you for years, that’s of course the first thing they refer to.

Now, think back to the people who I spoke to on Friday night, the people at the Rescue mission. These aren’t folks who are out for an early meal before they go dancing. These are folks who are on the ragged edge. Some may have just gotten out of prison, and are trying to restructure their lives. Others are suffering under the weight of addictions, addictions that have ruined their lives.

And in our society, for all of the official language of “serving their debt to society” and “being rehabilitated”, what most folk actually believe is that once you have made that mistake, that is what you are for all time. When you have had an addiction, society expects you to fail, to fall off the wagon again.
They are even more oppressed by the expectations of others than those of us who have committed youthful indiscretions.

Jesus can identify with this. In this verse 42, here are people who have known Jesus since he was a child, who knew his parents, and who now find it impossible for him to be claiming these things he’s claiming. “We knew him as a child; I changed his diapers…” You know the comments.

When you change someone’s diapers, do you really believe that when they grow up, they can perform miracles? In another Gospel, Mark 6, the story is expanded to include the statement that “he could do no deed of power there, (in his hometown)”.

It is hard to live beyond what people expect of us. It is hard to break the bounds of where people have us pegged. Sometimes we have to start fresh in order to succeed, in order to expand to be what we are capable of. And Jesus knows what this feels like.

We believe in a Lord of redemption; of regeneration; of change; of maturity; of growth. We believe in a Lord that demonstrates all of these things.

So, while you may think it’s unfair to have people only remember you for something yu might have done while you were young and dumb, think about how many times you’ve looked with distrust at people who are in Anonymous meetings? How many times have you heard that someone has a prison record and felt fear and distrust?

I don’t even think we hear the language of “rehabilitation” and “paying our debt to society” anymore. More often, we are sounded by people like Javert from Les Miserables, who believes that once you have committed the sin, you will always be a sinner, beyond the reach of grace, even for a sin as small as stealing bread to feed your family. That, I believe, is the operative attitude in our society.
But we believe in a Savior that does rehabilitate. Who redeems.

Let’s put truth to our words. If we believe that we have been regenerated by Christ, then can’t we also believe that the Christ that lives with each of us is also working in each of us? Shouldn’t we believe that those who are seeking to recover from addictions can be successful?

We are not in a position to mistrust. We are not in a position to judge. There but for the Grace of God go us.

Jesus himself had to deal with people’s preconceived notions, and memories. So do we, so do they, so does everyone.

Let us be the people who believe in redemption, in rehabilitation. Let us be the people who believe in second, third, fourth chances. Let us be the people who believe that everyone we meet is Jesus.

In Matthew 25, the saints ask “when did we feed you? When did we clothe you?”. And Jesus says, when you have done this to the least of these, you have done it to me.
Every person we meet could be Jesus. Including those with addiction, including those with prison records.



Thursday, August 09, 2012


Ephesians 4: 1-16
This past week, on my Facebook feed as well as other news sources, there was one primary subject that just got everyone all riled up. I just have to say the words “Chick-fil-a” and everyone’s got a reaction, and opinion, or a story. This is not a sermon about the evils of homosexuality. This is not a sermon about how homosexuality is a lifestyle that needs to be eliminated, as sinful. Neither is this a plea for acceptance, or a lesson in biblical interpretation regarding hat one Biblical scholar called “the clobber passages” of the Bible with regard to homosexuality. It’s also a moot point as to whether anyone here participated in the day of support last week, because there’s only one Chik-fil-a in the Scranton area, and it’s in the food court at the Univ. of Scranton. What matters here is that there are Christians on all sides of the issue, and that they are all earnest and seeking to do their best in witness. And there are just some times when we’re going to differ. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Ephesus, which is in what we know as Southern Turkey, along the trade road between Athens and Antioch, that “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift…The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to maturity and to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 7, 11-13, NRSV) In there is an allusion to the Body of Christ, which Paul says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 12) that the whole body of Christ needs parts that do different things, ears and eyes and feet and stomachs. There’s a reason why there are so many denominations in the world—they all have different ways of understanding the word of God, the call from God, and how that is to be lived out in this world. For Methodists, our “23 herbs and spices”, our “special sauce”, is our understanding of salvation. We do not believe in “once saved always saved”. We believe in three ways of understanding God’s grace. There is prevenient grace, in which we are guided by God before we even acknowledge God’s presence. There is justifying grace, which is the moment when we accept that God’s grace works in our lives, we become one of God’s own and begin our journey to deepen our faith. That lifetime journey toward what Wesley called “entire sanctification” (which he believes he never himself reached), is led by what he called “Sanctifying Grace”. This is the journey toward resembling Jesus in our hearts and actions, becoming fully human in the process. But because we understand salvation this way, it does not mean that others must agree with us, or be lesser. Presbyterians have a slight different take, a different recipe, and so do Roman Catholics, southern Baptists, and Egyptian Coptics. And all of us together make up the Body of Christ. What is also true is that that same difference making up the whole is true of individual congregations. To fill out that allusion, there are parts of the body that not only can’t do others’ jobs, there are also parts of the body that when they have come to contact, do not do well together. When blood comes into contact with brain cells, the result is not very healthy for the brain cells. There may be Christian beliefs that you disagree with. It may be the church’s position on homosexuality. It may be the position on war. There may be some Christians whose beliefs you are “allergic” to, some that make you angry, and some that you merely consider less important than others do. But to follow Paul’s analogy, they are no less the body of Christ for all their differences from you. And in the midst of all this kerfluffle over Chik Fil A last week, it is good to remember that those you disagree with are still children of God, and have within them a spark of God. Even if you think they are flat wrong and dangerously misguided. We can argue, we can plead, but what we can never do is dehumanize them; we can never deny the spark of God within them. So your “homework” this week, your growth in discipleship, is to go to lunch or have a conversation with someone who makes you nuts. Amen. --Pastor Drew

Monday, July 30, 2012

Faith Beyond Visible Resources

John 6: 1-21
One of the most precious memories I have of Donna is the mission trip we took together to Guatemala. She went twice as part of a medical team, and I went once, with her, and went to Guatemala another time, driving through Mexico. Doing a mission trip is an expensive proposition, true now, but true then, too. The plane tickets were, I think, about $1500 each, and there was also the medicine that needed to be bought, and the equipment that needed to be brought with us. We each were responsible for 2 suitcases, but our clothes and stuff only went into one. The other bag was medicine or eyeglasses. And all of that gathering took money. I was a starving seminary student, and both Donna and I were going, so we were in some need of help. There were 10 or so people on the team, and while some of them were able to pay their own way, by no means did everyone have the ability. So we had fundraisers. The biggest one was an auction of items donated by supporters. We all were responsible for the finding of items, and came up with things like gift baskets, a handmade quilt, gift certificates to Dallas area restaurants (and Dallas is a GREAT restaurant town), and the like. Then we got a call from someone who wanted to donate their boat. Stuff came from places we didn’t expect, and the auction was a great success. Now, when we went to Guatemala, I was darn near useless. We had an optometrist, the leader was a dentist, a doc, and a Nurse practitioner, who would do the women’s medicine behind held up shawls. The dentist had limited tools, and couldn’t fill cavities the way he would back in the U.S. so he had to just pull really bad ones. He “slicked up” quite a few people that week. We took sunglasses to help with the UV-induced blindness the farmers in mountains that high that near the equator suffer from, and prescription glass for those who were tested by the optometrist. We had a pharmacist who dispensed lots of Bactrim and sulfa drugs, the cheapest meds we could take. It was a wonderful trip, and for the people we met, we helped. Did we help every Indian in the Guatemalan highlands? No. But we were mighty important to the ones we met. None of that trip would have been possible if there hadn’t have been an idea, and a trust in faith that our resources did not control our ministry. We had faith beyond the visible resources, and through God’s grace, it got done. And Phil, the dentist and leader, did this trip about 6 times before finally moving down there. Jesus is the epitome of trusting beyond the available resources. Philip’s eyes get all big and saucerish when he sees all of these people coming to hear Jesus and be healed by him. Jesus is almost teasing when he asks Philip, “well, how are we going to feed all these people?” Andrew pipes in saying “well, there’s this kid with five loaves of barley bread and two fish.” So Jesus takes one and breaks it in half, and hands one half to someone. Then he breaks it in half again, and hands that away. Then he breaks it half again, and then again, and then again. And so all of these 5000 people are fed. And remember: in Biblical times, those counts actually counted just men: there were more, because there must have been wives, and children along, too! So they discover that, out of lunch for 5 people they have fed thousands. And the crowd wants to make Jesus king right then and there. And he disappears up the mountain rather than allow that. Later, when the disciples are crossing the lake, he’s walking along on top of it, and they want him to get into the boat with them. He makes the boat go immediately to the far shore, like Josiah will sometimes open automatic doors in grocery stores with his “Jedi” powers. God will not be controlled. So the story is for us that we can do great things in the name of God, through the power of God, if we will follow God. If we trust beyond our available, visible resources, we can do great things. Imagination is one of our greatest gifts from God. What are the needs of this community? How could we creatively address them? Do not think first of budgets, or resources. We know from this story that if it is of God, the resources will come. So what is needed? What can this church do to serve the Kingdom of God? --Pastor Drew, 7/29/12.