Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pray Uppity

It seems to me, as I reflect on the week I spent at the St. John's Monastery in Minnesota, just how much I have prayed 3 times a day with brothers (or sisters at St. Benedict's in St. Joseph), and another couple times a day, plus a time each day of Lectio Divina with my own brothers and sisters in the dispersed community of St. Brigid of Kildare.  At some times in my life, that amount of prayer would have equaled a years' effort. 

 What first struck me a couple of years ago, when I went to St. John's the first time, was the silence.  Most people don't know what to do with silence.  Some just can't stand it.  They will turn on a TV or a radio not to be entertained or informed, but just so that void can be filled.

But in this week, silence was a constant companion, and for those used to it, a companionable one.  We each had our own room, or “cell”, I guess in monkish terms, and that was a place of quiet and peace.  The brothers would walk in silently to pray, and walk out just as quietly. 

The main structure of Benedictine prayer is to pray the Psalms, all 150 of them, in a week.  Each Psalm is either recited or chanted, and there are always three or four, plus other worship elements.  And there is at least a full minute of silence between each element, between each Psalm.

Being comfortable with silence is something many of us human beings grow into.  For us in the developed world, silence doesn't feel natural, the way it might for the vast population of the US. 

Now this is not a sermon about how “I am such a better pray-er than you.”  We were all raised, those of us who were raised in the church, anyway, to believe that prayer was a requirement, a duty.  Maybe, for some of us, it even became a chore. 

When prayer feels the same to you as doing the dishes, we've missed the point. 

We're trained by our culture about what prayer should be.  We assimilate the proper ratio of praise to petition, and to use poetical words.  We've all learned the way to do it.

Have you noticed, though, that the Lord's Prayer does it wrong?

Have you noticed that the Lord's Prayer rushes through a perfunctory praise section, and gets right to the asking for stuff? 

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done...”

“All righty”, we say,  “got that done, now to the petitions, which is the point”

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Don't you think that's kind of odd, that the language seems to put a one-to-one equivalency between what we forgive and what we're forgiven for?  That isn't what it means, I think.  I think it means that we are to forgive as God forgives, meaning, in the same manner, with the same generosity and the same forbearance. 
  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil...”

In other words, “please God, keep us fed, don't let us be punished as harshly as we might deserve, and help us to be graceful with the people who have hurt us.”  oh, and keep us safe.

And then we get a little more praise at the end.

Jesus prays it wrong, according to the ways we were taught as Christians.


Jesus then goes on to talk about persistence in prayer.  He tells the story of a man who goes to his neighbors' house at three in the morning, because he's just received a guest, and the guest is hungry.  The man has no food in the house, so he goes to the next door neighbors' hoiuse and says “help help!  I need some bread for my guest!”  Well, the neighbor of course tells him he's not going to get up, it's three in the morning, the door is locked, all the kids are asleep.

But Jesus tells us that if we are persistent, the neighbor will of course get up.  There's another story of the same type, a few chapters later in Luke, which Jesus tells the story of a woman who is persistent in her complaint with a Judge, and the judge finally grants her her justice just so she'll stop bothering him. 

Where I grew up, the word “bold” was generally a positive term-you could get bold flavors, paint in bold colors, or someone had made some bold (and therefore admirable) decisions.

Then I move to Northeastern PA, and learn that it is a negative attribute here.  It means “uppity”, or “impolite”, or “rude.”

Folks, this text is telling us to pray boldly.  We're being told to pray impolitely; we're told to pray persistently.   
There's a quote that I want to share with you all, which was very new to me this week, but is apparently an old chestnut, from George Buttrick:

“If God is not and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly: it were noble to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”

What he's basically saying is:  If God doesn't exist, prayer is a self delusion.  We
re hollering our worries and joys into a vacuum.  If God does exist, and yet we don't know anything about God, God is just a great big unknowable entity, then prayer is pathetic and sad.  We don't know whether God cares. 

But if Jesus can be seen as evidence of God's character, if we know about God because we know the stories of Jesus, then we know we lift our prayers to someone who hears and cares. 

Now, of course, Buttrick believes the third choice.  Scripture tells us that Jesus is indeed a reflection of God; the term “Emmanuel” means “God with Us.”  Everything we know about God's character, we know through Jesus. 

It pays, therefore, for us to pay attention to the words of Jesus in the Bible.  It behooves us to attend to what Jesus tells us about prayer.  They are the answers to the test!  It is God telling us how to pray to God!

And God's telling us to be bold... to be impertinent.  God tells us to be uppity!

God tells us to be persistent.  This is how we are supposed to pray.  Not lady-like, or gentlemanly, but whooping, and crying, and sighing and groaning.

Thy will be done, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others, and don't let us get into trouble.     


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tree Stumps and Tombstones

Preached July 14 in the Throop and Dunmore UMC's

This is the very beginning of Romans.  You may remember in your Bible studies about Romans that this book is the pinnacle of Paul’s theological thought.  Of all the letters that Paul wrote to the churches in the Mediterranean sea region, Romans is the one that is written to a congregation that he did not start.  It is an existing congregation that he is introducing himself to.  He doesn't know the context, as he would in Corinth or Colossae. 

He’s presenting his bona fides to the Roman Christians.  So the first part of this letter is a very basic understanding of the Christian faith, one that he builds on later, but is simple here. 

2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, (NRSV)

All of this statement is basically orthodox (and did anyone else notice that, even though it is 5 verses, in this version of the text, there is not a complete sentence in it anywhere?  It is one fragment), and nothing that the Romans would see as controversial.

Until you get to verse 5, where he states that gentiles can also be part of the body of Christ.  That might be a little controversial in Rome, or anywhere else, for that matter.  That was a relatively recent decision to the believers, certainly within 30 years.  And here’s Paul saying this is what Christians are called to do and be, and this is what I am about.

The most operative part of the verse, however, is the second half of five, where it says that “we have received grace and apostleship…”  In the Common English bible, it says it this way:

Through him, we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be Apostles.

When Paul says “we”, here, he isn't talking about himself, or Peter, or James, or John.  When he says we, he is talking to his audience.  We are Apostles.  And while yes, he may or may not have been thinking about future generations of Christians, it is nonetheless our entry into this text.  We have the same access to grace through Jesus Christ into the love of God.  It would then make sense that we, too, are called to be Apostles. 

So, now that we are all Apostles, let me tell you about another one.  The founder of our practice of Christianity was named John Wesley, who was born in 1702, and was an Anglican priest.  (Anglican means Church of England, which in America is today called the Episcopal church). 

He had a difficult ministry, I don’t know if he ever had his own parish.  His spiritual journey is well documented though, though his own diaries and sermons.

For all his being raised the son of a priest and a wonderfully inspired mother, he still was in doubt about his salvation.  It took a difficult sailing voyage and recent failures in his life to put enough stress on the question of salvation, however, and the answer began to be seen in watching German Pietists sing joyful hymns and pray in peace while on the same ship.  (According to Free Online dictionary, it is A reform movement in the German Lutheran Church during the 17th and 18th centuries, which strove to renew the devotional ideal in the Protestant religion.)

He began to seek earnestly for that same sense of peace, and it took a few years.  But one evening, he went to a Bible study run by these Pietists, and found himself assured of his salvation in a way he had not ever had before.  Methodists call it his ‘heart strangely warmed” experience.  He knew that, if he were to die, he knew that where he wanted to go, he would.  And he wanted to share it with the world.

So he began to preach this new message wherever he could, guesting in other pastor’s pulpits.  But after a while, he rubbed to many people the wrong way, and was not asked into pulpits anymore.  He decided then to become “more vile”, and began to preach on top of tree stumps, or wagons, rock ledges, or stacked boxes.  One time, he even stood on his father’s crypt to preach. 

When he changed the venue, he changed the audience, and the movement started among working class and the poor.

They did not know, had not heard, about the grace that God extends in Christ.       

This is who we are, as Methodists.  Yes, we are Christians, just like Paul writing to the Romans, we believe in the essentials of the faith.  We believe in the Trinity, We believe that Christ was the son of God, we believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.  Everything else in the Christian faith is discussion and opinion.

Nowhere in our faith do we have a political requirement.  Nowhere in our faith do we have a requirement to maintain a social status quo, Nowhere are we required to defent our society when it deviates from the gospel.  In fact, we are called to extend grace to those to whom grace is not extended.   

What do we do when people are hungry?  Tell them to pick themselves up and go get a job and some self respect?  Not if you are Christian.  Not if you are Methodist.  You walk by a beggar in New York city, he’s got a buck after 6 hours in the cold. 

We can find ways to help those who are in need without enabling behaviors we don’t want to support.  My old internship church in Dallas would do food bags for the homeless that are so much more prevalent in warmer places like the south-we would take plastic newspaper bags, toss in some tuna that could be opened with a pull tab, some crackers, carrots or celery or something, and a Gatorade, and keep them in the car for when we came to street corners.

We've always had great ideas as Methodists, as Christians.  Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, once, “Thank God for the Methodists!  No religion has put more soldiers in the field, and more nurses in the hospitals (not an exact quote).  It meant that Methodist acted on their convictions, and they knew their actions were their evidence of faith.

This is who we are, this is who we've always been.  As Methodists, we emphasize grace, over almost everything else, while holding to the basics.  Everybody is entitled to grace.  Everybody is entitled to the love of God.  The only way that gets communicated is by our actions.  We can sit in church and feel all warm and fuzzy about the folks at the local soup kitchen, or addicts’ recovery house, or veterans’ home, or children’s home,  but until our bodies are in their presence, until our feet are on the same floor, our hands are building or cooking or making what they need for life, there’s no witness. 

This is who Methodists are.  This is who we are.  The guy who founded the movement, preached off of tree stumps and tombstones, preached the message of grace and love.  It is possible to have a relationship with God.

Paul said, we are apostles.  Just like his people, and there is no difference between us and them, other than that we are not wearing togas.      

Monday, July 08, 2013

Naaman's Road (and ours)

Preached on July 7 in the Throop and Dunmore churches.

(Naaman's Road is a major road in Northern Delaware, near where I have a lot of hometown ties.  This has nothing to do with that street!)

It’s an interesting story to think about, when you put it into our context.  Essentially, a foreign and sometimes enemy official is advised by a captured prisoner of war to travel to the prisoners’ native land to be healed of a disease that the officials' own country cannot cure.

We hear of world leaders going to their allies for medical care, like Chavez to Cuba before he died, but not often their enemies.  But that is what this official does.  And this official isn’t just going to a healer.  He is going to a religious leader, and the cure involves the God of his enemy. 

When you put it into our context, it becomes a little hard to believe, doesn’t it?

To take it a step further, how would you feel if the country was the United States, and the foreign dignitary was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the recent president of Iran?

Wouldn’t we be seeing this on the news for days?  Wouldn’t there be debates between those who would want to bar him entry, and those who wanted to extend grace?

I have no doubt that, as a nation, we would ultimately do what was necessary, do the right thing, but you would probably agree that there would be a fair amount of fuss.

What I think is also true, unfortunately, is that Ahmedinejad has talked himself into such a corner with regard to the US that he could never accept the invitation to be healed here.

There are two things going on in our story.  Yes, it is true that Israel offers an enemy healing, but it is also that Naaman must accept that Israel (or at least, Israel’s God) can heal him.  It means that his Gods couldn’t.  What makes it worse is that, as we’ll see, the program that Elisha puts him on is so easy, he reacts by saying he could have done it at home. 

But apparently not.  Apparently he needed to make the journey.

What is true is that there is something about Israel and Israel’s God.  Something that even their enemies knew about. 

The King of Israel doesn’t seem to be in this loop.  He receives the letter from the King of Aram, and somehow he has forgotten about Israel’s God, and it’s prophets, because his first thought is that the letter is pretext for war-Naaman, this great Aramean general comes, cannot be healed, perhaps he accuses Israel of damaging him further, and off to war they go. 

Naaman knows Israel’s power.  Naaman knows that Israel fights, as the boxers say, “far above it’s weight.”  He knows that Israel’s God is powerful.  But what he is about to learn is that Israel’s God is also compassionate and merciful.  And this God has such a hold on the people who worship that this slave girl, this prisoner, still believes even though she is far away from home. 

So, based on the slave girl’s word, Naaman asks his king if he can go check it out.  The King assents, and sends along gifts and an introductory letter-doing the diplomatic thing, you know?

Naaman goes to the King.  Then he’s told to go to this prophet out in the sticks, and then, when Naaman presents himself outside the house, Elisha doesn’t even come out.  A bit of a blow to Naaman’s stature and ego, wouldn’t you think?  That’s certainly the impression he gives in the text.

I would imagine Elisha’s take is something along the lines of “piece of cake.  This is hardly any trouble for our God, I can even do this one by messenger.”

Naaman’s a little angry, wanting incantations, fire, fireworks, and it takes Naaman’s own servants to calm him down, and say to him “what’s the harm?  Easily done, taking seven baths in the river.  Why not try it out?”

So he does, and it works.  It doesn’t say how the Arameans and the Israelites’ diplomatic relationship improve after this, we don’t know.  But we know that there was an Aramean general who had a soft spot for the small adjoining country after this. 

You may not be aware of it, but we live in a world with many Gods just like Elisha and Naaman.  If you are of a certain age, you may not be aware because your social circle is probably filled with people who are similar to you, in belief and education and economic class. 

But when you go younger, into the 20’s and teens, you can’t take someone’s faith for granted.  There are people in these younger age groups who have never been to church, or synagogue, or mosque.  And it’s not a big deal, they’ve never been to France, either.  And maybe the trips seem equally daunting.  But there is no God as church people know God, so they are replaced with other Gods. 

Maybe there has never been divine experience at all, and they may call themselves atheists, but they are really agnostics. They’re people from Missouri’ they say ‘show me” when it comes to God. 

But we who are here this morning, and everyone in other churches, we all profess to believe in a God.  When you hear the Naaman story, and there is talk about “our God” and “their God”, it makes me wonder; Are we presenting our God properly?  If we

How do we talk about God in our everyday lives?  I’d be willing to bet (if Methodists bet, which they don’t) that we talk about God and our faith little to none.  It’s not polite.  It’s not seemly.  We don’t want to be known as Jesus freaks.  There are people that we can have a high level of trust with, and we may share our faith with them, but in general, we don’t talk about our faith.   You know, that’s ok, sometimes.  In our world, people do not do it well, and often, being asked about your faith is usually a pretext for that person to tell you about theirs.  I’d rather keep to myself, too.

But our God is relational.  Our God has a relationship with us.  Our best sharing of God is in a relationship with others.  The best relationships in our lives are ones of give and take.    

Let your lives be evidence of your belief.  Let your life be a witness.  Let your lives be lived in such a way that people want to know what that inner light is.  Live your lives in such a way that people have to ask why you do what you do.  Why do you go down to that place where the people are weird and smell funny?  Why do you give to that charity?  Why do you take a week of vacation to go to Mississippi to rebuild houses?  It’s your vacation!  Tell me at least there was one drink with an umbrella in it!

It’s just not what we do.  Vacations are not a bad thing, but our actions show our beliefs. 

Let your light shine.

That is who we are.  Let our lives be such that foreign dignitaries come to us for help and healing.     

Let our lives attract our enemies to our grace. 



Thursday, July 04, 2013

Setting Your Face Toward Jerusalem

Preached June 30 in Dunmore and Throop UMCs

Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  That means more than he pulled out a map and traced his route, marking all the Stuckey’s restaurants where he could pick up nut rolls and Bolsa blankets.  It meant more than he called AAA and ordered up a custom triptych.

He set his face toward Jerusalem.  He knew that the time had come for the climax of his ministry. 

It was a pretty direct route, because he doesn’t avoid Samaria.  Historically, Samaria and Israel didn’t get along.  In a nutshell, here’s why:

Once, Judea and Samaria were one country.  The ten tribes of Israel in the north were conquered by the Assyrian empire, and were culturally and religiously influenced by their conquerors, and their expression of the faith as given by Moses became different than in the south. 

A couple centuries later, The Babylonians conquered Assyria, and all their land holdings, including the ten northern tribes.  Babylonia kept going, though, and conquered the two southern tribes, too.  So now here were two people who couldn’t avoid each other, being in the same empire, but their faith expressions had changed enough that they were alien and foreign.  There had been intermarriages in the north which were literally un-kosher in the south.  One had Mount Zion for its holy mountain, the other Mount Gerzim.

It would be as if someone who was born and raised in Northeastern PA, Scranton area, were to move to New Mexico.  Same nation, but different culture, and good luck finding a pierogie there! 

The Samaritans and the Israelites had many different understandings of faith, but used many of the same terms.  Perhaps then, it is understandable that this particular Samaritan town doesn’t take to Jesus, once it’s known he has set his face for Jerusalem.  He’s not there for them.  He’s not stopping to preach, not stopping to heal, he’s on a schedule.  So they aren’t very hospitable. 

James and John then ask if they should rain fire down on this village.  Remember, earlier in chapter nine, they have seen Jesus transfigured by God, and in the air with both Elijah and Moses.  They remember Elijah doing that same thing once, so they ask if he wants it.  And he tells them to knock it off.  He was “stern” with them.  That’s not why we’re here.

Then in the scripture, there are a series of small stories in which three different situations are presented of people wanting to join Jesus’ ministry.  One says “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus warns that one that there will be no home, no roof nowhere to rest.  We don’t know if that guys joined up after that or not.

The second one is invited by Jesus; the man replies that he has important family obligations.  Jesus tells him to go and proclaim the kingdom of God; presumably at the funeral and after. 

The third one says “let me say goodbye, and I’ll join you”.  Jesus tells that one he must be focused on one thing.  He uses the image given again by Elijah, this time when he calls Elisha to follow him, and Elisha drops everything, and leaving the plow in the field. 

Do these situations sound fair, frankly?  Is Jesus really telling this man to leave everything, the possibility of wife and kids, to follow him?

Some might say that this young man is putting family above Christ, and he is a fool.  But others might say that this man has family duties and responsibilities, and Jesus is asking this man to shirk them. 

Each one of these stories give us a certain amount of trouble.  I don’t know how I’d answer each one, and one could very well say that, because I am a clergyperson, I have already answered this call.

It is a troubling set of stories.  But I think the key for us in understanding the greater picture, the application in our lives, is to go back all the way to the beginning of today’s periscope.  To look at the beginning where it says “Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem.”  He was focused on his goal.

When Jesus was on earth, bodily, there was cause for urgency.  Cause for people to drop the plow and follow.  To leave a parents’ burial journey and follow.  It was very short term. 

We do not have that urgency.  We have a Holy Spirit that is always waiting for us, standing behind us, flinging lit matches under our own spirit, waiting for something to catch fire.

While the urgency is not the same, with someone standing before us saying “you, come with me,” the call is the same.  We are still called to serve.  We are called to expend ourselves in God’s service.

We are called to set OUR faces toward Jerusalem.  We are called to be like Jesus.  Can we do this while we are burying our parents?


Can we do that while we are plowing fields?


Can we do that while making sandwiches for our grandkids?


Can we do that while mowing the lawn, or working on homework? 


Can we be shining lights for Christ, no matter where we are or what we do? 

Yes.  If we keep our faces pointed toward Jerusalem. 

This lesson does not teach us that we are failures because we have duties. Our duties separate from explicitly serving God are not distractions.  What we are being taught is that the goal of imitating Christ, the WWJD of it, is to keep our faces pointed toward Jerusalem, no matter who we are and what we’re doing.  To unify our lives into one wrapped in and directed by God.

To keep our faces pointed toward Jerusalem.        




We Are Descended from Bible Moths

Preached June 9, in Dunmore and Throop UMC's

England in the 18th century was a very tough place.  Especially in the early part, there were strong economic disparities, lots of distance between rich and poor.  It wasn’t uncommon to wake up in the morning, in certain neighborhoods, and find that there had been people who had died during the night.  Not of alcoholism, not of drug use, but from simple hunger.

The way the church worked at that time was that you rented or bought a pew to sit in, and you were a member of a parish whether you went to church or not-it was by government design what parish you belonged to. 

People were moving from the countryside into the cities, as this was the beginning of the industrial revolution.  Coal was not yet a big part of the revolution, it was still about 80 years in the future before they learned how to burn anthracite down in Wilkes Barre.

Church was something that you did as part of being middle class, or respectable.  You rarely found the poor in church, unless they were filling an obligation.  It was just too expensive.  People who were hungry and sick probably found it hardtop care what was being said from any pulpit.

Into that mix, culture time, was born one of 19 children, ten of whom achieved adulthood, named John Wesley.  His father was a priest, and so he was what we called a PK, or “preachers’ kid”.

Their mother Susanna was the one who instilled spiritual discipline in the children, insisting that all the boys AND the girls learn how to read and write.  She believed that it was through reading and writing that her children would become better instruments for God. 

John, who they called “Jack”, went to Oxford and became an Anglican priest, as well as his brother Charles.  They and a group of friends together began to have regular meetings where they would pray together, study Bible together, talk about problems, and go out and do acts of charity and compassion together. 

The other students at Oxford mocked them for this, calling them the “Holy Club,” “Bible moths”, and the worst one of all,


Yes, our worldwide denomination of 29 million people were named by college boys who were mocking our guys.

They were regular, and they were doing a lot in the community.  They would visit those who were sick and in prison.  They would feed the hungry.  And they would study and pray, at regular times.

John and Charles were invited, after college, to go to the colony of Georgia to chaplain the colonists.  It did not go well, and Charles left after a few months.  It was worse for John, who fell in love with a woman named Sophey Hopkey who did not return his love.  When he chose another to marry, he refused her communion, and the colonists chased him out of town-he had to leave Savannah in the middle of the night to get to Charleston SC, to get a boat home.

On the way back to England, in doubt of his faith and depressed, the ship passed through some terrible storm.  Now, on top of everything else, John was not just in doubt of his faith, he was in doubt of his salvation.  But on that ship was a group of German-speaking Christians, Moravians, who were singing hymns and were generally unconcerned with their plight.  He was fascinated with their faith.

He wanted that.  He visited them a number of times, both in England and Moravia, over the next decade or so, and it is finally at one of their Bible studies, on a street in London called Aldersgate Street, he has what we call the “Aldersgate Experience”, when John received a strong feeling of assurance, for the first time, of his salvation.  The reader that night was reading out of the preface or the prologue to Martin Luthers’ commentary on Romans, and something in those words about salvation by faith alone, freely given and unearned, spoke to Wesley in a new way.  We say, in the Methodist Church, that “his heart was strangely warmed.”

He was 34 by this point.  He’d been clergy for over a decade, and had preached hundreds of sermons.  But he just now gets what assurance means.

He has no parish, so he begins to preach the availability of this assurance to anyone who will listen.  We know of his preaching in the open air a lot, once being chased out of a field by a bull that been let loose on purpose, once standing on his own fathers’ crypt.  He would preach to miners coming out of the shaft, he would preach to seamen getting off their boat in the harbor. 

He’s not preaching to people who go to church.  He’s preaching to the lower classes, the ones who are not sure of God knows them.  He’s giving the reassurance of Christ to people who had not yet heard it.

As he is heard more and more, and people want to grow in Christ, he organizes them into class meetings that meet during the week.  So, in a church of 40 today, there would also be four groups of 10 each that would meet during the week. 

When this movement came to the American colonies, there were preachers commissioned here to travel up and down the countryside, starting around Baltimore and Philadelphia, and expanding north and south, called circuit riders.  These were single men who had power to marry and baptize.  They would be assigned to geographic areas, called charges, which is where we get that term from, though we no longer have strings of 20 or so churches.

The most famous of those circuit riders was named Francis Asbury, and his diary has records of him preaching in all original 13 colonies, and Kentucky and Tennessee as the US spread west.  We have record of him preaching in Berwick and in Clarks Summit, using what we now call Route 11.

The United Methodist church has its roots in a faith that takes the Gospel to the people.  It takes the Word out to where they are.  They don’t wait for people to come to them.  They go out and feed the people, visit them, care for them, show compassion and charity, where they are.

In this modern time, when we as church institutions are trying to recapture what it is that made us so vital, we borrow terminology from advertising, and talk about “branding”, and “re-branding”, and “our market”, this is who we are: we act out our faith by serving those who need it-those who need help, because the Word of God is not as important to them as recovery, food, clothing, housing. 

We come to church to be refreshed in that work, to encourage each other in our work, and to be reassured of Christ’s love for us.  But our work is not here.  It is OUT THERE.  Wesley claimed the whole world for his parish, and we are called to that work as well.

There is nothing in what we believe that says that all of Christianity must believe and act like us.  There are hundreds of Christian expressions, and we are but one.  We are no more and no less than any other expression.  But our special recipe, our method of being followers of Christ, is to study, read Scripture, pray, and be in mission to help the last, the least and the lost.

Just as Zen is a technique of how to be Buddhist, Methodism is a technique of how to be Christian.

Our faith is demonstrated in our walk.  We may talk about it as well, depending on our personality, but it is clearest in our actions.

This is who we are, this is who we are trying to become. 

Methodism does not make you more or less Christian, but it does give us the tools with which to be authentically Christian.

The Faith Available to Us

 Preached June 2 in the Throop and Dunmore churches

There are a few things that we need to make clear, that aren’t immediately clear.

 I am no Greek scholar, but a number of different commentators note that the word used as “servant” in our translation is generally more clearly understood as “slave”.  So the Centurion is concerned about someone he owns, rather than someone works in exchange for wages. 

So that makes it all the more interesting to note that the centurion would ask Jesus for help.

About that Centurion:  We’ve heard other stories about centurions who become “god fearers”.  The term in modern parlance, I think, is that this centurion might be accused of having “gone native”.  The commentators speak of this happening because, probably, their disappointment with the decadence and incoherence of their own Roman religious culture, as well as it’s wider society.  The Roman culture at the time of Jesus was, shall we say, complicated.  In contrast, the Jewish culture, which had been oppressed and suppressed, you might say squashed down into its essential elements, had become simply stated, and its ethics were clear.

So this Centurion, just like the one in the tenth chapter of Acts, is attracted to the Jewish faith enough that the Jews start to call them “god fearers”.  This particular Centurion was particularly respected by the Jews of Capernaum, enough so that, or because of, he had built their synagogue.  He also has good enough contact with the Jewish leadership of Capernaum that he asks them to ask Jesus to come heal his slave. 

So often, and so many times, we hear stories that complicate our simple, black and white view of the world.  So often we’ll hear of people who repudiate or reject their native culture in favor of one that is clearer of somehow better in their sight.  Think of the movie Dances with Wolves, in which the Union soldier played by Kevin Costner becomes so much a part of the great plains Indian tribe near his abandoned fort that, when the fort becomes active again, and begins to make trouble for the local tribe, he stands and fights as a member of the tribe instead of the Union. 

We all know stories where this happens, and this Centurion may very well be another of these.

While this Roman soldier could be considered exemplary for his ethics, he is still someone who needs Jesus to save the life of this slave he cares for so much. 

So it is very interesting to Jesus that as he is traveling toward the Centurion’s house, he is met by another group of people sent by that Centurion, who then relay the message that the centurion believes:  “Jesus, I am a soldier and a commander.  I tell people to go, they go, I tell people to retreat, and they retreat.  I tell my slave to serve, they serve.  I understand command, you command God’s healing power, and so I know you can stand where you are, without demeaning yourself by coming to my house, and command my slave to be well, and he will be well.”

I can think of another occasion or two where Jesus heals at a distance, but each of the rest have been for Jewish people, never for a “foreigner”.  And we can also think of occasions where Jesus has no power at all, because of the disbelief of the people around him, most notably in his hometown.

In Nazareth, no one believes that Jesus can do what he claims, all they can see is the man who used to be the boy running around the yard, barefoot and in his swaddling clothes chasing chickens.           

For Jesus to do his work, then and now, it takes our faith.  It takes our action.  It takes our belief.  And it is a hard thing to do.  Jesus lived before the Scientific Revolution.  Jesus lived before the Enlightenment.  Jesus lived before telescopes, and planets, and string theory, and quantum physics.  He lived in a world where it was generally understood that the world was flat, and that heaven was on the other side of the blue shell we called the sky.  We know it isn’t a shell.  We know what’s beyond it, we’ve even sent stuff billions of miles beyond that shell that have sent back photos.

It is therefore SO much harder to have faith for us.  We know so much more about the universe.  Faith is harder for us, because of those facts.  But in the ways of life, such as making sure babies have enough water on hot days, such as teaching the young in the ways that they should go so that when they grow, they will not depart from it, those things haven’t changed at all. 

Faith is harder, but faith is something that hasn’t changed.  What was available to those in Jesus’ time is available to us.  But for us, on this side of the Scientific revolution, it does take more work.  More work reading the Bible.  More work praying.  More work doing the things of God, such as feeding the hungry and cothing the naked.  This is how we get to where they were.  We read the things that uplift us, feeding our minds with what is possible, rather than just reading the news and filling our minds with wht is impossible.  Knowing about the world is important, but knowing how to be good in the world is just as important.  Maybe more. 

When we pray, we should spend half as much time talking as we should meditating.  Two ears, one mouth.  We were designed that way to remind us of this! 

It takes work.  It takes carving time out of your calendar, and awake time at that, no counting your prayer time as when you go to bed after the light goes out: “Our Father, who art in heavzzzzzzzz…”  Of course you can still pray then, but that isn’t your primary time. 

It takes work, but the faith that the centurion as is available to us.  It is.

I have seen it.  Trust in God.     

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Like A Hen

Preached May 12, 2013, at Throop and Dunmore UMC's. 

On my Facebook page the week before Mothers’ Day, I asked this question:

 Mothers Day is this weekend, and I have found the day problematic the last few years. The brokenness of this world gives the lie to what Mothers' Day traditionally highlights in so many ways; friends who were unable to have children, friends who have problematic or broken relationships with their own mothers or children, children who have lost their mothers far too early, stepmothers, and the view of motherhood and womanhood that the holiday projects onto so many women, an image that just doesn't fit so many. In a Christian church, to go to scripture for help also just doesn't help, the choices and actions of mothers there are so complicated. As the poker dealer says, "no help there."

 So, what is Mothers Day for you? As a child, do you see it is a blessing or a duty? If you are a mother, do you expect a certain kind of observance, and are you disappointed if it doesn't go as you expect?

It was a large and varied response.  Some women wrote about how wonderful it was to be able to celebrate their own mothers, others were honest about the coercive nature of the day, still others were truthful about their own difficulty with the day because of their not having had children, or missing their own mothers.

By doing this day today, even though all of the pain and capitalism, everything that insists on its own way even when they deal relationship with a mothers doesn’t exist, there is still something that is at its root, isn’t there?

There is something within us that is being spoken to.

We talk about caring, we talk about softness, we talk about nurture.  There is something there.  And I think this little passage from Luke is what we’re talking about.

 In this part of Luke’s version of the story, Jesus knows what is coming.  He tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, because the prophets can’t be killed outside it’s walls, which is a little bit of foxhole humor, I think.  But then he says that all he’s ever wanted to do was to gather the people of Jerusalem (and by extension, all of the people of God) together and keep them warm and protect them, like a hen gathers her brood. 

It’s not a paternalistic image; it’s not swords and shields.  It is maternalistic; it’s protection, and warmth.  It is nurture.

It is not just mothers that can do this (and I’m not just writing that because I am a single dad); as I preached at Throop last weekend, there was a fretful baby, and the baby was being calmed by her father.  Both genders have within them the ability to be nurturing. 

Being caring, supportive, and loving, does not depend on ovaries.  This is Jesus, a man, saying he would gather the city as a hen gathers her chicks.

 When we celebrate Mothers’ (or Fathers’) day, maybe we should say instead “Happy Nurturers’ and Protectors’ Day.”  These are the traditional gender roles for these days, we can all acknowledge, but I know of a couple women who can strip a machine gun and clean it lickety-split.  Who are tough enough to take with me if I go down a dark alley.  I know women who run marathons, and who teach karate.  I, the male, the man, can do none of those things.

 We all have nurturers in our lives, we all have people who have shown interest in our lives.  They have not all been our mothers.  But we all know people who have gathered us up under their wings. 

People who were able to do for us what Jesus wanted to do for Jerusalem.







His Heart Grew Three Sizes that Day

Preached on May 5, 2013 for Throop and Dunmore UMC's.

To give you a little bit of background, here in the gospel of John, this is of course a passage that we often hear in funerals.  But the context is that Jesus is preparing them for the events of Jerusalem (In John, Jesus is portrayed as have knowledge of the future), and is reassuring them that it will be all right, in the end.   

Judas (not Iscariot, John is careful to mention) asks why they are getting all of this special knowledge, but the rest of his followers, and the populace at large, aren’t.   

Jesus says essentially that “not everyone gets this. Yet.  There are things that will have to happen for others to get this.  But because you have been with me, and you have stayed, and you have believed me, I am telling you who I really am.  And who I am, you also can be for the world." 

The Holy spirit is coming to you, and will be your companion, and will remind you of everything I have taught you.

Up until now, they have had Jesus, a physical being, with them, and their connection to God has been through this flesh and blood friend.  Now, with his death imminent, he is reassuring them that they will not be alone, and his connection to God will be available to them, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Where I am going, he says, I go to prepare a place for you. 

 These disciples were not any different than you and I are.  They may have eaten different foods, less beef, more fish, more grains, more wine, but they atill needed food, too.  They got married, had children, worked, the same as we do.  Sometimes, they have had sorrows, just as we do.

They were not any different that we are.  In all the ways about being human that matter, they were the same as us. 

And yet, they were told by Jesus that the Holy Spirit would come and be in their lives, because they believed. 

In this way, they are no different than us, either.  The Holy Spirit can come into us, as well.  She (I like she for the Holy Spirit, it balances the trinity, with Jesus as male and God as both, or neither) can give us leadership when tough questions arise in us, when difficulties appear in our lives.  When change occurs around us, the Holy Spirit IS with us, just as she was with them.  

Now, does the Holy Spirit come to us, in order that we may do healings, like Peter and Paul?  Can she come to us so that we may speak in the tongues of those whom surround us?  I don’t know; I have never experienced that, but there is more to this world than in my experience. 

But have you ever had those moments, at 3 AM, when you’re tossing and turning, worried, and a peace comes over you which enables you to sleep with a decision in hand?  That’s the Holy Spirit, too.

She may come upon you while you’re sitting around a campfire, and singing songs, and everyone there sees the same shooting star, and just knows in that moment that God is with you.

It might even happen while sitting in church, in a pew, in worship!

Everything that was available to the disciples is available to us.  Jesus says to them “when I leave you, I go to prepare a place for you”.  Jesus’ promise to them is Jesus’ promise to us.  We do not live in a Godless time.  God is ever-present.  So much of what we consider evil in this world is not because of people not believing in God.  It is instead from people who are religious.  It isn’t because of people having no religion.  Some of the most peaceful people in our world are atheists.  No, the wars, the strife, and the anger come from people having an incorrect understanding of religion, or too much religion.  A religion that is going away from God’s intent.

If your religion tells you that other people are less than human; if your religion tells you that you are right and others must be banished or eliminated because they are wrong; then folks, you’re being taken down the wrong road. 

The Holy Spirit is a Spirit of Peace.  She is a Spirit of Love. 

Those times when you feel your heart expand, like the Grinch’s when framed by the x-ray machine at the end; that is not an absence of the spirit, it is a visitation of the Spirit.  The more the Spirit is in your life, the more love there is; the less the strife.  

This is the Holy Spirit, and if your religion tells you otherwise, it’s the wrong road.

The Epistles talk about testing the spirits, and this is a test; what is God’s love in this thought?  What is God’s love in this action? 

Perhaps a congregation is being led in a direction; is it a loving direction?  Does it show God’s glory through our service?  That is a test.  Is it love?  If it is not, we are to step back from it. 

Jesus said, I go to prepare a place for you and where I go, there you will be also.  We believe that place to be heaven, but we also know that when the world ends, there will not be a separation; we will not ascend to heaven.  Heaven will come to us.  The new Jerusalem will descend, and the world may not look much different than it does now.  But it will be heaven, because the Holy Spirit will be fully present, for the first time.  There will be no cancer, no war, no murder. 

For us, in our hearts, that can start now, by allowing the Holy Spirit in.