Sunday, January 29, 2012

Preaching Like a Scribe

Mark 1: 21-28

In our modern world, when preaching among most people who consider themselves believers, reading this particular text is sometimes problematic. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. What do we do with Jesus’ healings? What do we do with demon possession? The aspects of the Gospels that are overtly supernatural are hard to deal with. We don’t practice them here, we don’t keep them as part of our tradition as Methodists, and such things in our culture are fodder for either movies like the Exorcist, TV Evangelists who ask for money, or country barn churches. Not for us middle class, hardworking, practical, reasonable people.

I have never performed a healing in the sense that a person’s physical health was changed after I had prayed for them. I don’t believe that it is impossible, and it may signal that I do not have enough faith, but it has never happened. I have tried.

It’s a hard thing to say, but that has not been one of my gifts. It is not where the source of my authority lies.

When we read this whole chunk of scripture (scholars call them “pericopes”), the question is about authority. Jesus’ healing of the demon possessed man is one example, but the leading example is that he stands up in the synagogue and teaches, not like the experts, but as one with authority, and they were all amazed.

What does that mean? Teaches with authority? How does he teach not like the scribes; or better asked, how do the scribes teach?

If it is a matter similar to how many people preach, there is a sense that sermons and Bible studies are a matter of “this is what scholar said, this is what that scholar said”, and allowing the weight of scholarly opinion, combined with one’s own opinion, to sway you to one side or the other. The source of authority there, then, isn’t what is clear and true, because sometimes that’s just not so easy to see. So the Scribes waffle, because they just don’t know, because none of their research provides a clear leading of what’s right.

Jesus teaching with authority, though, may have been a matter of knowing more than the scribes, and then providing a resolution with a clear leading for the people of God. What was unclear is now made obvious through his teaching. Authority then, is lodged in knowledge and a well reasoned conclusion based on that knowledge.

This, I think, is what the people mean when they said “What is this? A new teaching? And with authority?” Jesus had laid it all out, step by step, in language that was so clear and basic, As Thomas Jefferson once said “so as to command their assent.”

Having received such respect, he then handles a disruption in the worship service, as a man comes forward and starts shouting about Jesus being the son of God, and Jesus calls the spirit out of him.

Now that would be a pretty interesting Sunday morning, wouldn’t it? As the people go off into the restaurants and brunches after church, they talk about what they’ve seen: Wow, this new guy, he preached like he actually knew something, and then he healed crazy old Mr. Smithers!” And the people around them overheard their conversations, maybe asked what had happened, perhaps other posted it on their Facebook statuses, others twittered, and maybe someone was lucky enough to film it with their phones.

How many people would be impressed with the healing, and how many with the authoritative teaching?

I guess what I would say to you is that both are way that Jesus is beginning to introduce himself to the people, to the world he is about to overturn. Some people respond to the flashy healing, some people respond better to a teacher who has such a grasp on the Scriptures and their commentators, and rather than just demonstrate his knowledge by presenting all the varying opinions, he presents what is necessary to provide the clear answer of God.

Between the two, I’d rather have the teacher. It seems a mightier task.

What is the nature of authority? What is it that causes you to respect one preacher, and not another? When a new preacher comes, is it their robes, their voice when they sing, their comfort in the pulpit? I like ones that sing well, can provide good engaging music, can teach me with knowledge tempered by mercy, and loves me, but that’s my opinion. What do you want? What changes over time? Does their authority grow or shrink as you see them preach, organize worship, the hymns they choose, when they sit in a meeting, be around people? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, or do they have to start at zero and grow in your eyes?

At the risk of teaching like one of the scribes, I’m not going to tell you what you should prefer in a teacher or a preacher. You’ll like some, you won’t like others. Jesus was a great teacher, and a healer, and many things besides, and many, many people didn’t like what he did. Many people didn’t accept his authority, and you’d think, being the son of God, he’d be the one everyone would agree on.

But they didn’t, in the end, did they? So, what then is the nature of authority?

I’m not giving a lot of answers today, and I am asking a lot of questions for you to wrestle with on your own. But what I can suggest is that at root, the authority we as Christians should look toward is the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God that lives with us, in, and seeks to connect us with each other. Whatever your authority may be, let it be based in grace, in mercy, in kindness, and in wisdom. This is how the authority of God is exhibited to everyone. Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fishing With John Wesley's Net

Mark 1: 14-20
Preached on January 22, 2012, in the Center Moreland Charge

An update of a sermon preached in 2006.

What a wonderful image we have today- Jesus fishing for people, enabling others to do the same. Jesus by the lakeshore, walking in the sand. Jesus crooking his finger and the disciples come running.

Jesus’ metaphor was clever, and it gave his mission very quickly, it is also our mission as a church- we are called to fish for people, which is half of the two interpretations of making disciples for Jesus Christ.

What I would like to do today is to think big picture. It’s January, the time when a lot of pastors think or talk out loud about the direction of their church. January preacheritis. I am going to think about the denomination as a whole- The United Methodist Church. And I want to think about the kind of fishers of people that we are.

Who are we as a denomination?

Are we the church that allows pastors to bar people from becoming members for various reasons? Are we a church that demands that people who join us agree and sign a paper that says they believe certain things about God, Jesus, the Bible and heaven?

Or are we the church that loves everyone, that allows people to freely come and go, as they see fit, because God works in each person’s life, and we are there to shepherd them as they come to us, and expect no support in exchange for the good we do?

Or are we the church that stands as an institution? Are we a bulwark in American society strong enough to be able to say that I am Methodist, I stand for something?

For better or for worse, we are all of these things. We are also a lot more. We are also a lot less.

The truth is, in this time in American History, in World history, it is not easy to say anything about who we are. The terrain has changed. We are not the middle class American, anti-Communist, church any more. As we have grown out of the 1950’s, we have sprouted aspects of what used to be the characteristics of Baptists. We have also grown aspects of what used to be called Episcopalian. As a denomination, we have always bridged that gap, but now it has seeped far deeper into our character.

The world has changed. Church has changed. What makes us unique, as Methodists, now?

I believe that the thing that makes us unique isn’t our style of music. You go to energetic, vital United Methodist churches around the world, and you will hear fantastic organs and chorus of voices that sound as perfect and angelic as anything you’d hear in Westminster Abbey. You’d also hear the sounds of African acapella voices. You’d hear the quiet contemplative singing of acoustic guitar and voices, and the sharp electric guitars and thump of drums. And all of it is beautiful and United Methodist.

Maybe you can tell who Methodists are by the way the clergy dress. Nope, sorry. White albs, black academic robes, suits, dresses, denim shirts and khaki pants, saris.

How about the way the laypeople dress? Nope. Some wear suits, some wear button-down shirts, some wear t-shirts, and some wear football jerseys. And that’s just here. Think of what United Methodists in churches in India, in Nigeria, in Korea would wear. The people in the pews are more varied in their dress than the people behind the pulpit are.

Of course, to say that you are United Methodist is to say that you are Christian. But when you are trying to describe us uniquely as United Methodists, you need more. We have a unique flavor that you should be able to find in every Methodist church, Center Moreland or Dymond Hollow, Seattle, Seoul, or Sudan. Here is what I think that is.

First, we understand that God works in the world not to divide, but to unify. God sent Jesus into the world not to separate the sheep from the goats, but to get God’s people to believe that they are all sheep. We are all worthy of the love of God and the promise of heaven. Jesus came to make the all world understand that we are “we.”

Second, if you believe in God, and seek earnestly after his wisdom in your life and actions, you will go to heaven. No strings attached. Blessed Assurance, indeed!

If these sound obvious to you and perhaps a little disappointing, let me say to you that there are a lot of churches that do not believe one or the other.

Those things being said, here are the things that, I believe, we are not, or shouldn’t be:
The Republican party at prayer.
The Democratic party at prayer
Middle class, white, self centered seekers of our own salvations.
Absolved of any responsibility to take care of our fellow humans in the world.

The stated goal of the United Methodist church is to make Disciples of Jesus Christ. The best thing about that mission statement is that it is pretty universal. It can mean both that we are called to evangelize the world, or that we are called to Christian formation of those who have already been baptized. And I believe that our call is to both.

We are called to do both. God loves the world, and wants the world to live closer to what God means by love. We, as God’s adopted children, are the people to act on God’s behalf.

We are not called to make the whole world Methodist. We are not called to force the whole world to become Christian. We are called to understand Wesley’s phrase “the World is our parish” as a guideline for our own lives in Christ.

When Jesus walked along the beach and called James and Andrew, and went to all of those other places and called all of those other people, he started a chain that has led through John Wesley, Francis Asbury, through our grandmothers and fathers, our teachers, our preachers, our parents, through us, to our children. We are called, as are all other Christians, to serve Christ, and we are called to serve Christ from our unique understanding of how God works in the world. We are called to serve from our Wesleyan understanding.

We are called to fish with John Wesley’s net, as it were.

We are called to lead with grace, with acceptance, and with love. There are no people who are outside our message of the Gospel, our welcome to God’s love, or eligibility for membership in our churches. Or at least there shouldn’t be. Where we have made less than loving choices, we have fallen short of the glory of God. We have switched the bait for the pain of the hook.

We are an international church, who seeks to welcome those of all nations into our churches. And this is the right thing to do. Let us continue to seek God’s grace and guidance to remain this way, and let us seek God’s forgiveness when we have fallen short of his loving intention for the world. And I pray, serving this church in this place, that we do our part to make sure that God’s universal love is known to all who hear of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Claim on This Side

Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord
Preached January 15, 2012, in the Center Moreland Charge

There was a time when I believed that when I was baptized, God would save me from my sins. There was a time when I believed that to be baptized meant that God would reach down into my heart and change me, take away the things about me that caused me to hurt people; that caused me to judge. Being baptized, becoming a Christian, was going to bring me God’s intended partner for my life. Baptism was going to help me lose weight. Baptism would help me get a good job, because I was obviously now one of Christ’s’ own.

So I asked to be dunked in a backyard above-ground pool by a pastor of an independent church in Napa, CA, in 1991.

And almost immediately wondered if I’d made a mistake.

The church that I had joined was in many ways a good group of people. Many of them had a good heart and helped me out greatly in a difficult time in my life.

But they were a church that I quickly found out was on the opposite side of many of the issues of that day from me. And, stubborn as I am, I did not accept the teaching of the leaders as higher than the feelings of my own heart. I knew that the people they told me were going to hell were good people, and I loved them. They embraced the world, embraced creativity, and honed the gifts they had been given, in contrast with the people who I had now thrown my lot in with, many of whom saw the world as dangerous and evil, and any gift given by God was either to be used by God in church or was not really a gift.

So now I was in conflict. I believed in my baptism, but by becoming associated with the baptized, at least these baptized, I was setting myself up in opposition to all whom I’d known before, all that I’d known before. And while it’s true that becoming a Christian in many stories is the story of beginning to reject the evil powers around us and becoming better, in this case I began to feel the reverse was true. My baptism had put me on the wrong side of my heart, and I was beginning to think my baptism had put me on the wrong side of God.

There were quite a few life events immediately after the day of my baptism, and within a few months, I had moved away from Napa and back to Delaware. I was in crisis, wondering if my baptism was valid, and it was in that frame of mind that I followed a friends’ advice and checked out the Methodist Campus ministry at Delaware, where I was soon to resume my studies.

Ahhhh. Here were people who were not afraid of gray. Here were people who lived in the tension of not always knowing immediately what God wanted, and were willing to study, pray and listen until God’s will became clear. And here were people who said to me that even though I was not the kind of Christian of whom had baptized me, my baptism was nonetheless valid, and I was still one of God’s children.

Here was a place for me to grow, explore, and change, a place where the Word could be discussed rather than dictated, and the simple reasonable pleasures of life were not always tests of one’s commitment to God.

It was in that environment that I began to wonder about God’s call on my life, the leading of the divine, and my eventually being encouraged by my peers and the campus minister to explore seminary.

There was a time when I thought baptism was going to change me. And it turned out that I was right. I just was wrong about how, and in what ways. Baptism didn’t help me to lose weight. But it did put me in a situation where I was able to find my life’s partner, and the mother of my son. It did set me on a track toward a vocation of service to God. If you want to say that baptism brought me a wife and a good job, though, that sounds a little incomplete, a little shallow. I would say that baptism has brought me my life. It wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t easy, the journey from there to here has been painful at times as well as joyful, but I do not think my life would have been as rich or as full, or would have taught me as much, had I not been dunked in the above ground pool back in 1991.

Baptism is the one unifying symbol of one’s status as a Christian. Catholics baptize as infants, Baptists baptize as adults; there ware many ways to understand baptism, many way to perform the ritual. But the symbolism is universal, Egyptian Coptic, Guatemalan born-again, Italian Catholic, Alabama Baptist or Pennsylvania Methodist: We are marked as Christ’s own, we are claimed by God and the people around us as a child of God.

It is such an important symbol to the people around us that Jesus even demanded baptism from John for the visible symbol it represented to those around him, and even though John was reluctant, it was done.

What does your baptism mean to you? Are you baptized? If you aren’t please come talk to me after the service if you feel moved, and we can discuss how and when and why. If you are baptized, what does it mean to you? I would encourage you to think about it as more that just your ticket to heaven, your safe passage to what’s next. Baptism is the mark of God’s claim on this life, too. What does that mean for you, to have God’s claim on your life on this side of death?

Where Do You Stand?

Epiphany Sunday, Year A
Matthew 2: 1-12

Preached January 8, 2012 in the Center Moreland Charge

There was once in Kenya a local priest who was trying to get his parishioners to resist tribal urges, and act for God. He said this in a rally in a park that was organized to protest the appearing election fraud that allowed the majority tribe to maintain its hold over the government: "It is not enough to kneel and pray," he says. "We tell parishioners that whatever they do, they must do something that will affect peace somehow."

It might be difficult for us, here in this area of the world, to understand exactly what is going on in places like this. We have not had tribal warfare in Northeast Pennsylvania ever since the Revolution. Perhaps you might say that the tensions between labor and management were tribal, or the ethnic tensions between Irish and Welsh, between Italians and Irish, between everyone who is already here and Hispanic who are now migrating here, may constitute tribal warfare, but that is perhaps a little bit of creative metaphor. During the American Revolution, it was a mess, with whites fighting Native Americans, settlers from Connecticut fighting Pennamites (ones from Pennsylvania), and American colonists fighting the British. All at the same time. It’s been two hundred years since we’ve had trouble even remotely like what Kenya suffered four years ago, what the Sudan and Ethiopia are suffering from now.

Religion is a part of it, economics are a part of it, but there is also a strong tribal component. Then, as now, I’m sure you could find ministers preaching war and extermination, supporting Sullivan as he marched upriver from Wilkes Barre to exact revenge on the Native Americans who had attacked settlers in the Battle of Wyoming, but I am also sure you could definitely also find ministers and priests saying to those settlers, as Sullivan began his march up the river to New York, burning villages and killing Indians as he went, that "everything you do in these times must affect peace, somehow"?

Desperate times call for specific measures. Sometimes there is no sitting back and watching. God acts for the benefit of the world, and those who stand to lose materially in the kingdom of God, the one that is to come, react in self interested, evil ways. Ruling tribes, wherever they are in power, act much in the way that Herod did all those years ago, when a threat is perceived. And the Christian response is to do more than kneel and pray.

It was magi from the east who came to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. Their reasons were certainly news to the current king, Herod. He was not aware that he was to be replaced. He was not aware that there was any problem. He just knew that he was king, he was serving Rome well, he was getting rich, and though there were occasionally squabbles with the local Jewish population, it wasn’t anything that he and his soldiers couldn’t handle.

The magi probably didn’t know they were stepping into a political mistake. They were theoretical sorts, all full of knowledge about the skies and of prophecy, but not exactly your most astute political operators. It might not have occurred to them that coming to a king and asking where to find the king that has been born would sound to Herod as "hey, we've come to honor your replacement!" They were, I guess, a little clueless, and what they did proved to be a little problematic.

Of course, the one they are coming for was Jesus, the baby, just born. During Advent, we named him as being the son of an unwed mother, living in an occupied territory. But the magi showing up also reminds us that he is one searched for by the wise, wished as dead by kings, saved and protected by God, and led by prophecy. No ordinary disadvantaged child, this one!

The Magi look for the child, find him, honor him, give him their gifts, and then "warned in a dream", leave by another road. They don't show back up at the palace, and when Herod realizes this, his plan to kill the usurper to the throne goes by the wayside. Time to go to plan B, as we talked about last week. He kills every kid in the Bethlehem area who is two years old or less. Not just the male children, but all of them. And so it is done, but Jesus escapes through his father Joseph having a dream telling him to run to Egypt.

See, this is the way it is. Good is all over this world, and those who are threatened by it seek to destroy it. We are the people of God, and it is our responsibility, even in our sinfulness, to stand against those who would destroy others for their own gain. It is in the name of Jesus that we must act to stop the massacres and oppressions of these days. There are people who stand against the powers of the world, and it is our call to stand with them, in the name of the baby who was threatened by a king, and in the names of all the children who died because they were from the wrong town and were the wrong age.

It was not God's will that those children die that day. It is not God's will that anyone dies violently. It is not God’s will that anyone dies. God acts for the good of the world, and evil responds in its own self interest. God knew what Herod was capable of, but Herod's order to kill the children was Herod all by himself. God chooses the poor over the rich. God chooses the oppressed over the privileged. The rich and the privileged respond out of their own self interest in evil ways.

It is our call to stand with the poor and the oppressed. We are the people of God, and it is our call to stand with those who are in harms' way. And the Kenyan pastor is right--it is not enough to kneel and pray. We must stand between power and its victims. Christians have stand between Jewish soldiers and Palestinians, wearing red baseball caps. Christians today stand between armies and the tribes of Darfur. Christians today stand between hunger and the people of Appalachia. Christians today stand between AIDS and the children of Africa. Christians today occupy parks, sleeping in tents, and seek to call American big business to account for their excesses. And American Christians stand between their own need to be powerful, to defend their lifestyles, and the incessant call from Christ to lay aside their privilege and serve the world in his name.

It is not enough to kneel and pray. Whatever we do must affect peace somehow. We must act, and as Christians, it must be in the name of the baby who was born, and in the names of the babies who were killed when evil lashed out in self interest.

Where do you stand?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A World Filled Only With “Us”.

Matthew 2: 10-18

I’m sharing with you all today a scripture that gets passed over a lot. It only is mentioned in Matthew, and is what causes Jesus to fulfill another scripture, and to conform to an archetype that the Bible uses a lot, that what happens that is the most important for the people of God often begins by leaving Egypt.

I have taken it out of story order to be able to talk about it this Sunday, the first day of the year, the first Sunday of the year. The lectionary would have us talk about something else, and the traditional Sunday for the wise men is the feast of the Epiphany, which falls next Sunday. After that is the Baptism of the Lord, and I don’t want to skip those, so we talk about this scripture today.

The traditional title for this text is “the Slaughter of the Innocents.” It is a particularly disturbing scripture, up there with Jephthah’s daughter in terms of senselessness, and it may well be another one of those texts that make you say “that doesn’t beoming in there”. But there it is, and old old minds made sure the story was told, so it’s up to us to pay attention.

This occurrence, sad to say, is certainly of a piece with the rights of rulers at that time, and there are even times today when we hear of similar things, such as Saddam Hussein unleashing poison gas on a whole Kurdish village during his reign. Perhaps that is one of the things that we can be thankful for, as Americans: no matter what you may think or feel, no matter what your chosen media outlet may lead you to believe, eliminating an opponent by killing all of their children is not within the scope or capabilities of either Republican or Democrat.

But it was within the religious and governmental rights of Herod. The wise men, the Magi, the astrologers, whatever, they had told him that a king had been born in Bethlehem, and it had been foretold in the stars. Herod was, I would expect, not a biblical scholar, so he was not aware of the prophecies of the coming messiah in the Hebrew scriptures other than what he was told, and to those who are of an undiscerning mind, astrology is the same as prophecy is the same as history, and all of it can be truth.

As is typical of the rulers of that day, and to a certain extent of our own, they are jealous of their reign, and hypervigilant in watching for rivals. It is a ruler for life, and to be able to pick one’s own successor is an expression of the continuing power they can wield. To be visited by foreigners, intelligent foreigners, probably smarter than you, and told that a king has been born in your region, and for it not to be your son? Can you see how threatening that would be to Herod? Back in verse three, it says Herod is frightened, and in verse eight, it says he sends them to Bethlehem, and tells them to report back to him where they found the new baby king.

To be clear, they don’t. Perhaps more lives would have been saved if they had, because when Herod realizes they have gone home by another road, he chooses to send soldiers to kill, as the Scripture says, every child under two years old in and around bethlehem. The Bible does not say every male child, but every child.

And his doing so was his right. There was no concept of human rights, there was no worldwide court for human rights. In part the religion of his region allows him to make such decisions, and there is no law against what he did.

Religion, in the form of a patchwork of astrology, prophecy, and something akin to what later cultures will call the “divine right of kings” is what gives him the right to issue that order.

Religion can make us do funny things. It can give us guidelines for how to think and act about difficult ideas, it can give us guidelines for how to live. But it can also get in the way of being a decent human being. Ironically, religion and faith can get in the way of being a good person.

I read a quote this week that expresses this perfectly. It’s attributed to Karen Armstrong, who is an author and a religious scholar. Here is what she says:

“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.” ― Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (pv)

What does religion bring you to do? Does your personal faith in God impel you to love God’s people, or are there people you exclude from that? Does a relationship with Jesus Christ lead you to help the poor and weak, feed the hungry, and share what you have, or is being a Christian a way of knowing who is in and who is out? Is being saved a matter of knowing who to vote for?

As we start this new year, I would ask that you review the assumptions you have made about your faith. Has your relationship with Christ made you kinder, gentler, more respectful, more caring? Has it made you more active? Has it caused you to express sympathy with people that others mock? Has it made you more aware of the plight of so many people in this world?

That is what faith in Jesus is supposed to do. Help us, drive us, open our eyes, to the needs of the world. It is not meant to separate us from a scary world, a world filled with “them”, but to engage us in a sad and needy world, a world filled only with “us”.

Faith calls us to love the whole world, no exceptions; to be the light of God, to be the evidence of Christ, with strength given by the Holy Spirit.

Happy new year, and God’s blessings for you in 2012!