“Don’t Rush Off The Boat”

     Responding Homiletically to Charlottesville:

 Don’t Rush Off The Boat

Matthew 14: 22-33

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he probably wasn’t thinking about the boat Jesus commanded his disciples to cross over in as being a metaphor for the Church. Matthew probably wrote this story with the same meaning in mind most preachers who preach this text derive from it: keep your eyes on Jesus; don’t look down; don’t look back; keep looking into Jesus’ loving, lovely eyes.

By the Middle Ages though, church theologians and the architects of gothic cathedrals certainly did see boat, and ark, as fitting poetic metaphor for Church.  As God saved Noah’s family from the flood by the seaworthy, safe (albeit stinky) confides of Noah’s ark, so God saves all humanity through the ark of the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ, the one who lived, died, rose, lives, and lives forevermore, to show us love, to make whole and holy our humanity.

And so perhaps, just perhaps (forgive me for borrowing one of Robert Stack’s most compelling lines from the old Unsolved Mysteries show) a message from this passage from Matthew can be that Peter should have stayed in the boat.  Jesus didn’t invite him out there on the waters. Jesus knew that Peter wasn’t ready to walk on the water.  Peter insisted; Jesus relented.  Jesus reached out, and saved Peter when Peter, in his oh so ordinary humanity, was going to drown.  Peter wasn’t ready to leave the boat.

I’m not ready to leave the boat yet, either. Nor perhaps, are you.

I can’t leave the boat—the Church—because I still need what the church teaches: the love God has for us all, the sacredness of all human beings; the self-giving, perfect love of Jesus which makes possible the hope of peace, and all acts of righteousness done in the name of human rights, and human dignity.

One of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite human beings of all time was Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, and a writer who dedicated his life to being the voice, the written and spoken word of the collective memory of the Jewish people, so that the memory of those people would not be lost forever with the six million souls the Nazis brutally murdered.

In a talk he gave about Judaism and Christianity, Wiesel lamented the fact that his family’s murderers proclaimed to be Christian. Now, we can argue that no one with the love of Jesus in their hearts could ever whisper, much less commit, hate against another human being. I believe that is true.  We cannot run from Wiesel’s point, however.  He said, and I paraphrase:

These men, they attended worship when they were children. These men, they went to Sunday School as youth. Did they not learn something in Sunday School; did they not at least overhear something in a sermon or in liturgy, that would plant itself in their souls, to instruct them later on in life that it is wrong to hate? That it is wrong to take human life? That Nazism, white supremacy, was an absolute wrong?

So we can ask today, with the smoke of the white-supremacist, white nationalist raid still lingering over Charlottesville, and over all America: Where are the churches of these people? What were the words they learned in Sunday School, in worship, in school?

Were they really on the boat, the same boat as you and I?  Were they really a part of the boat called Church: through Sacrament, and through Spirit, the very Body, the very life, the very essence of Jesus?

Perhaps, just perhaps, I need to turn and look in the mirror, just as I am looking at the hate-filled white supremacist faces in Charlottesville.  What is my witness? What is my voice? What are my words which echo in the boat, and out of the boat, upon the distant shore where so many broken hearts reside, living  in tears shed in forgotten corners no one else can see?

Is this boat still seaworthy?

Does the crew of this boat—and there are no passengers on this vessel; we are all crew—still have our eyes, our hearts, and our souls, on Jesus?

Jesus welcomes us all upon this boat, this boat of teaching, this boat of transformation, this boat of service. On this boat, Jesus reigns. On this boat, love defeats hate. On this boat, the human race is one, and all-in-one, one-in-all belong to Christ.

Some days, we have no words.

But we must ask ourselves, “What words did we say; what words could we have said to prevent hatred and violence to sprout up so very close to home?”

In truth, the only word we have, the only word we need, the Word, says it all.

Let us cling to him, and stay on the boat.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advertisements

Too Deep For Words

“Too Deep For Words”

 

Romans 8: 26-39

 

People really struggle finding words for prayer. Some folks refuse to ever pray out loud, because, they say, “I just don’t know what to say to God. It’s hard enough doing it on my own. I certainly don’t want to pray in front of other people.” As a pastor, I have always tried to respect people’s sensitivity about praying out loud; I never ask anyone to pray extemporaneously unless I know for sure they are comfortable praying out loud in front of others.  I am sensitive to it, because I understand it. I don’t just sympathize; I empathize. I find it incredibly stressful to pray out loud in front of other people. Of course, I do it all the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t agonize or fret over it. I just do it.

I can’t speak for why others feel discomfort about praying out loud—I can only speak for myself. For me, praying out loud before others causes me consternation because public, communal, community prayer implies that I am not only praying in front of others…I am praying to Almighty God on behalf of others. In church, the congregation, you, bow your heads, close your eyes, and open up your hearts to God, and I talk to God for you. I become your spokesperson before God. Now, no doubt you pray to God yourself, and many of you have been praying to God more years than I have, and I can only imagine the depth, and richness of your prayers.  Still, in the worship hour, in church, I talk to God for you. Any pastor, lay speaker, or teacher does.  That is a pretty heady, heavy responsibility. I find that it is no wonder folks don’t like to pray out loud; I find that is no wonder some folks refuse to pray out loud.

More basic, and perhaps more important than praying out loud, in front of, and on behalf of others, are our own quiet, private prayers to God. Many folks really struggle to find words to pray, even in their own personal lives. For me, I don’t struggle so much with the words I want to use when I pray to God, so much as I struggle with the focus needed to pray. Often, when I am alone and I pray, I find myself entering into the Holy of Holies, “Oh God, thank you for life and for love and for…oh look at the cute little mess my dog just made.” For me, focus, and not words are the issue. Often, therefore, I will write my prayers down. I often keep a prayer journal, not so much for the personal historic value of the journal—I don’t keep a prayer journal to look back on five years from now—so much as the writing of the prayers are needed for me  to find focus and clarity when I pray.

I think maybe we get so conditioned to hear pastors in church or on television, praying these poetic, high flying prayers, we think those words, those kinds of words are God’s expectation.  Sometimes, I think we think God won’t hear a prayer of stuttering, stammering, halting language. To the contrary, I think those are the prayers God loves the most.

Even when we are praying, by ourselves, in our homes or in our cars, we are never alone.

Paul reminds us in today’s scripture from Romans chapter eight, that the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words for us.” Isn’t that amazing? We don’t know how to pray the way we should, so God’s own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity intercedes for us. Her sighs, her silences, her breath—the pneuma—are more sacred and meaningful than any of our words.

There can be wordless prayers. There can be two word prayers, “Oh God.” There can be image prayers: as we pray for a particular person, we hold them up within our minds, through a memory or through imagination, and our imagining, our conjuring, our remembering them, is prayer. The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

When I was in seminary, a professor taught us than in the Catholic tradition, nuns and monks pray round-the-clock, and they pray for us all. In our context, I hear folks talking about “prayer-warriors;” so-and-so needs to know about this, because she is a real prayer-warrior. Whether it is a monk in a monastery, or a prayer-warrior down the street, all of us are being lifted up in prayer, all the time.  My grandmother once told me that her entire life was one long prayer. I think it’s the most beautiful and profound statement my grandmother ever made to me, and she was a very beautiful, deeply profound person. “I pray nearly every second, Jeff,’ she told me. “Life has become one long prayer.”

I think Jesus, his own, holy self gave us the best lesson about prayer. In his own artistically perfect Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to begin, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…” In other words, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, we both acknowledge and celebrate that God belongs to us all, and we all belong to God. We pray, “Our Father,” not “My Father.”

All of this talk about prayer leads us to the next obvious, logical question. What is the chief goal of prayer? What is prayer? Do we pray to get what we want? Is God Santa Claus?

Even when we pray for others, especially for the healing of our loved ones and our friends who are suffering in sickness—as laudable and as godly as it is to pray for them—we are not praying to get what we want from God. We are praying, instead, for the one we pray for, and for ourselves as well, to experience God; to feel touched by God; to realize that we all live in the heart and soul of God. Every prayer lifts up another human being to God, and we humbly ask God for mercy, love, and hope, out of God’s profound love for that person…and we leave it there. We leave it before God.

Dr. Peter Storey, who was a Methodist bishop in South Africa, and became a professor at Duke, teaches that prayer, all prayers, are little Calvary moments. When we pray for someone, our prayer becomes a “little Calvary.” He came up with this concept for prayer after one of the churches he served as pastor had two young members, two young women, two young mothers,  who were dying of cancer, both sick and terminal at the same time. The church prayed for both women to be healed. One woman did make it into remission, and Dr. Storey remembers the look of love and gratitude on her face, and on the faces of her children, and her husband, when we looked down upon them from his pulpit on Sunday morning. Just as vividly as he remembers the visual testimonies from the young woman and her family whose prayers seemingly were answered, Dr. Storey remembers the sadness, the lost shadow, the abandonment in the eyes of the little children, and the husband, of the young mother whose cancer had not gone into remission, the family of the young mother who had died, and her family, whose prayers, seemingly had not been answered. That memory, that pain, that sense that perhaps he as a pastor, and the church, had somehow abused the family of the young woman who had died, lead Dr. Storey on a quest to find a better way to teach, and model prayer—prayer as Little Calvary.

Visually, Dr. Storey says, he literally lifts up the person before Christ on the cross.  Theologiclly, looking at prayer as a little Calvary reinforces what Paul writes here in Romans.

Paul brings it all back, as Paul pretty much always does, to the cross, and to the resurrection. Here again verse 34b, “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God…”

My friends, every aspect of our Christian life, which we all share, including prayer, enters into, and lives out the suffering, the death, the passion of Jesus. As Jesus died, we are all called to die. Jesus died to save us; we die to all of those things which made Jesus’ suffering death a requirement for human redemption: we must die to selfishness; we must die to hate and prejudice; which must die to violence and vengefulness; we must die to hopelessness; we must die to despair.

My sisters and brothers, every aspect of our Christian life, which we all share, including prayer, enters into, and lives out the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rose—life out of death; love out of hate; peace out of violence and vengefulness; hope out of hopelessness; optimism out of despair. So we can rise, all of us, out of every one of those realities; out of every human sin of frailty and vulnerability which we all are heir to, which we all know so well.

It is easy to recognize baptism as entering into Jesus’ life. We go down into the water—down into the grave, down into death—to gloriously rise up out of the water, all soaking wet and alive with gracious, loving, new life. Now we are challenged to see prayer as also entering into Jesus’ life. Our prayers should contain the selfless love of the cross, all the time with the hopeful love of resurrection.

This is why Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Through that sweet Holy Spirit, Jesus lives on, in you, in me, in our church, in our humanity. How can we be separated by the one who loves us so, by the one who lives on, in the Spirit, in us, in our Church, his body, in humane words, deeds, prayers, and actions?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Let us go forth believing, praying, and living, little Calvary. Amen.

 

July 3, 2017

What Is Old and What Is New

 

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

 

In Jesus Christ, God makes God-self familiar, intimate, close, as a friend. In Jesus Christ, God keeps God-self still mysterious, distant, other. In Jesus, the intimate, and the mysterious of the divine are kept in constant tension, or perhaps, in forever balance. After all, isn’t intimacy always somehow mysterious?

Put a simpler way: God gives us Jesus, in part, so we can get to know God, so that we can relate to, and be in relationship with God. In Jesus, humanity sees God, touches God, receives God face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in the everyday essentials of life: from the bread and wine of Holy Communion, to the wonder of nature; from  the laughter, or the tears, of a friend, to the wordless, boundless connection we feel when we are gathered as church.  Despite such familiarity, even in the person of Jesus, God retains holy distance, and sacred mysteriousness.

God wants us to get to know God, intimately.

God will maintain a shroud, a cloud, a mist, of mystery between Creator, and humanity.

Our Jewish friends believe human beings cannot know or utter the full name of God. Only Moses could see God on Mt. Sinai, as the distance from mountaintop to valley separated the people from God’s face.

So it is with the parables of Jesus. In one sense, they are familiar, approachable, simple stories. On the other hand, they are convoluted, complex, and sometimes not easily decipherable by us, at all.

Have you ever known a storyteller whose stories became so convoluted, you got lost in the complexity of characters, or completely lost your way in the mud and the muck of the plot? There are those types of stories and storytellers. There are other types too, such as the storyteller whose narrative seems compelling for all of about thirty seconds, and thirty minutes later, you find yourself with a headache, wondering, “What was the point of that?”  Remember Rose from The Golden Girls, and her innocently inane St. Olaf stories, or to another degree, Sophia’s “Picture it: Sicily, 1918, stories.”

I never knew either of my grandfathers. They both passed away before I was born. For a few years, though, I did have a step-grandfather. I called him Papaw. His name was Bob. Old Bob grew up in Wilkes County, North Carolina, in the little town of North Wilkesboro. Bob worked as a salesman for Wallace Hardware. Now, as a NASCAR fan, the fact that Bob grew up, and had friends in North Wilkesboro, thrilled me to no end. Wilkes County was, after all, the home of NASCAR and American legend Junior Johnson. Bob claimed to know Junior Johnson, too.

I never got to meet Junior Johnson through Bob’s connection to him, and my connection to Bob. I did get to hear countless stories from old Bob, however.  Bob was the archetype southern gentleman, and even in retirement, he wore immaculate suits everyday, even on evening visits to our house.  His stories were all different, but they were all the same, too.

Each of Bob’s stories featured him as a minor character, with one of his friends being the main protagonist and adventurer. Each of his stories also contained his friend’s father, “old man so-and-so.” That’s always how Bob would say it: “Now his daddy, Old Man Johnson…” or “Old Man Jones…” or “Old Man Henderson.” Bob’s stories would build and build and build in excitement and intrigue.  They would build and build and build in excitement and intrigue only to fall completely and utterly flat.

“And I said ‘okay.’’

That’s how all of Bob’s stories ended: From the sunny summer meadows of Carolina, to the frozen, deathly bitterness of the France’s trenches, each story would conclude with Papaw Bob’s resolution, “And I said okay.”

They were interesting stories, occasionally beautiful stories, and always—I came to learn—incredibly formulaic, featuring Bob, a friend, a friend’s daddy, “old man so-and-so,” and back to Bob, “And I said okay.”

Jesus’ stories, or parables, are also somewhat formulaic, and I hope, mostly always beautiful, or at least thought provoking.

We struggle with Jesus’ parables today because we live 2000 years later. We live in a different time. We live in a different place. Because of differences in culture, landscape, and even belief, we need scholars to help us understand what each parable means. The years, the geography, the culture between us and Jesus’ parables gives them some of the mysteriousness they still possess.

In Jesus day, however, to those original hearers of Jesus’ own voice, or half-a-century or so later, with the first readers of Jesus’ words in the synoptic gospels. Jesus’ stories were completely clear, understandable, and simple. That’s why Jesus told these stories: to make the poetry of God’s love everyday prose every person can understand.

My New Testament professor at Duke, Dr. James Efird, teaches and writes that each parable of Jesus aims to make one central, strategic point. Jesus designed his stories to make one point as clear as mountain spring water. Jesus did not design his stories to go along with three points, and a poem. I try to remember that when I preach or teach on Jesus’ parables, but it’s hard.

Today, the Lectionary gives us three very stories from Jesus, that are really more like sentences and similes than they are full-out parables. They are all about the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.  Our Savior tells us the kingdom can be compared to 1) a mustard seed. 2) yeast, and 3) hidden treasure in a field.

Now what could lend itself more naturally to three points and a poem than three related metaphors by Jesus? In many ways, we could get three points out of each of these kingdom similes. In many ways, this scripture, like any piece of scripture, can be imagined, contorted, and stretched to make many, many points.

Today, I humbly offer this one point—just one—for these kingdom statements of Jesus: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.

They are all counter-intuitive, counter cultural, and miraculous. Therefore, Jesus teaches us, the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom, God’s life, God’s way, is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and miraculous.

First, let’s look at the mustard seed. Jesus himself tells us that the mustard seed is the smallest seed of all. The smallest seed of all, yet the mustard seed grows fourteen-fifteen feet up, out of the arid, hot soil of Palestine, to be first a weed and later a tree, a strong, fortress of spring giving shelter, giving home, to birds. Something small—small faith, small mass, small stature, small esteem, perceived small value—grows to be a giant in love and protection for other living things.  The kingdom of God is like the smallest seed—you? Me?—which grows into something mighty in love.

Second, the lady puts yeast in the bread to make it leavened. We think of yeast primarily as an ingredient to make the bread rise. In Jesus’ day, folks looked at yeast primarily as a preservative.  The children of Israel did not leaven their bread when they left Egypt for God’s freedom.  God commanded that they eat the Passover bread quickly, for they were about to take flight into God’s deliverance and dance in the wind.  God’s kingdom, God’s way brings preservation—God’s way saves life.  As the yeast makes the bread rise, God’s way makes life rise, with dignity, hope, and love.

The third little simile of Jesus perhaps makes the least sense. A man sells everything he has to go and claim the treasure hidden in the field. Well, that makes sense to the American mind. We can understand treasure hunters.  It’s the first part of the little mini-parable which isn’t rationale. Jesus tells us that the treasure hunter who gives up everything to find the treasure, actually owns the treasure already, and hid it in the field, himself. Huh? A man, or a woman, has a treasure, buries it, only to give up everything else they possess to go and search and claim this other possession they had themselves buried? Perhaps Jesus’ point here is that God’s kingdom, God’s way, which God gives to each and everyone of us, is so sacred, so valuable, it is worth giving up everything else to follow. Indeed, God’s kingdom, God’s way, God’s love makes no rational sense. It simply is.  From exodus, to cross; from creation, to resurrection, God’s kingdom, God’s way, simply is. It is life, wholeness, dignity, love, for us all.

It’s quite a story, really.

July 16, 2017

“Christ’s Spirit, and Just Us”

 

Romans 8: 1-11

 

In addition to being a pastor, and now a campus pastor, I have also served as a hospital chaplain. I did Clinical Pastoral Education work at St. Mary’s Hospital, in Huntington, and I served as a midnight-shift, on-call chaplain, with occasional substitute-chaplaincy shifts, at Cabell-Huntington Hospital.  As I love being a pastor, I also love the work of chaplaincy.  I love the work, despite this rather jarring smack of reality: Both pastors and chaplains are often surrounded by death.

Both as a pastor, and as a chaplain, I have been with people as they died. Some were friends, and others were strangers. Some were peaceful deaths, and others were struggles. Some were surrounded by family. Some were completely alone, not counting my presence. All of them were hard, and all of them were holy.

We know that all life ultimately leads to death. For our loved ones, and for ourselves, we pray for long life, and death which is distant, not imminent. Christianity teaches that life—all life—is absolutely good, sacred: from God, reflecting God, belonging to God.

You know, this topic brings to the surface of my consciousness a dramatic sea change that has evolved within me over a few years. I used to think nothing of growing old. There was a time in my life when thirty was old; now thirty is well passed stage of life, and forty looks extraordinarily young. Fifty and sixty, maybe even seventy, are looking pretty spry to me now, too. I once even had a preoccupation with famous people who died young. I can remember having what felt at the time like a deep conversation with a couple of my buddies from college, canvasing all the legends from pop culture who died extraordinarily young: James Dean; Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Hank Williams Sr., Kurt Cobain, to name just a few. When I was in my late teens and early to mid twenties, I truly believed that Billy Joel song, “Only the good die young.”

Then, I grew up.

Then, through my work as a pastor and as a chaplain, I met some incredible human beings who were older, aged, elderly, who still loved life, valued life, and wanted to their life to go on, for as long as possible. In my last church, I had friends in their nineties still living lives of vibrancy, passion, and service. Here at Trinity, we are blessed with a lovely lady, Edna, still going strong at 100.

I no longer admire those pop icons who died incredibly young, some of them through the disease of addiction, or because of poor, youthful decision making. Today, my heroes are the ones with gray and silver hair, bumps and bruises, wounds and scars—the badges of life, of living, of surviving, of fighting on…because all life belongs to God and God lovingly  names every life holy. God wants us to want to see tomorrow, and I love the folks who earnestly fight to make it to tomorrow.

The apostle Paul opens today’s passage by reminding us of the challenges of human living, all the pitfalls of living “in the flesh.” To be sure, human sin is always at the forefront of much of Paul’s writing. He likes to remind us that we are heirs to Adam and Eve, living in the very footsteps of God walking through the garden in the cool of eventide—so close to God in relationship, and so intimate with God’s ways and habits, we even recognize the sound God makes when God takes those sunset strolls—but so far away from our Creator because of “the law of sin and death.”

Earlier in my life—and I am embarrassed to admit how recent earlier actually was—I didn’t really understand sin. Oh, from the time I had self-awareness, I could recognize how imperfect a being I am. Beyond my all-too-natural inferiority complex, I still couldn’t grasp what sin or sins I had committed, so terrible the Son of God needed to die for.  I can remember thinking, “I’m not all that good, but I’m not all that bad, am I?”

And then, once again…I grew up. I lived. I learned. I made mistakes. I sinned. I came to realize my sins were bad; I had hurt other people. I came to realize I needed to confess, repent, and try to live a better life. I also learned along the way—thank you seminary! Thank you John Wesley!—that there isn’t just personal sin.  We also live within corporate sin, communal sin, societal sin.  It’s not just what I do against God. It’s what we do, collectively, that abuses and hurts our fellow human beings, and thus God.  I came to take seriously the words of our Prayer of Confession, which I here paraphrase, “Forgive us for the bad we do that we shouldn’t do. Forgive us for all the good we do that we refuse to do.” What we do is sin. What we do not do is sin.

Yes. Life put some age on me, and I realized how much sin weighed down my soul, breaking my heart, and God’s. I hope you don’t think I am trying to rationalize my yesterdays, or give myself a free-pass when I say that I have also come to realize that sin is simply the way of life, like the coming and going of the tides, like the eternal turning of the seasons.

Not only do we move from youth to maturity to old age.

We move from innocence and naivety to comprehending and knowing—like Adam and Eve, we tear into that fruit of knowledge.

We move from Matchbox cars to real cars; we move from playing house to keeping house.

We move from needing care, to being the one who gives care, and in the fullness of God’s time, we become the one needing care, all over again.

Like the natural, holy progression of life, we will make mistakes and need to ask forgiveness for them. We will get broken, and need love to make us whole.

Paul writes God gives the world Christ, and Christ’s love overcomes our human frailty, dare-I-say, sin, or to borrow Paul’s word, the flesh? When we focus on Jesus’ death on the cross being God’s way of forgiving us of our sins, I think we miss some depth, and rhythm, fullness and poetry that God wants to give us, to make our hearts whole and our souls sing.

It’s not just his death, or the cross. Jesus’ entire life brings grace to our lives. God cried like a baby, because God was a baby. God was whisked away like a refugee, because a powerful king wanted him dead and his parents had to make him become, with them, a refugee. God was tempted like us, because God became like us. God died like us because the world happens to us all, including God, as person. God rose from the dead and in so doing, Jesus redeems us all; Jesus loves us all.

Like my ninety something year old friends who insist on living, so Jesus said, “My love will not be killed by death. My love, my life, will go on.”

So God invites us all to know and love Christ. Paul makes it very clear that there is no distinction between a Christian, and a Christian with “the Spirit.” All Christians have the Spirit. In our United Methodist baptism liturgy, we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon the baby, the child, the adult whose heart the same Spirit drenches in those holy waters, the waters of creation, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the womb of God’s creative being.

So my fellow Christian, you have the Holy Spirit. You may not always feel it—faith must be deeper than mere, fleeting feeling—and we need to all strive for assurance and a daily dose of God’s infinite grace. With the Spirit, we can overcome. We can overcome—here it comes, Paul—the flesh, the frailty of life, the brokenness, the jagged edges, sin. In our baptism, we die like Jesus died, and we rise again, as Jesus is risen. We are reborn, in hope, in grace, and love. We can overcome even death, because Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” and heaven, like the communion of saints, is just a whisper of wind apart from us.

In Christ, in the Spirit, life goes on, and beautifully so. Thanks be to God.

 

By The Right Way, July 9, 2017

By The Right Way

 

Genesis 24

(selected verses)

 

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed three General Rules for the people called Methodists. The three General Rule are: “Do no harm. Do good. Obey all the ordinances of God.” Now, we could have a whole sermon, and a multi-week Bible study on each of the three rules. Maybe someday, we will!  This isn’t a sermon on Wesley’s General Rules, but it is a sermon which uses the third rule as an entry point for understanding today’s scripture.  I think Father John wouldn’t mind!

Reuben Job, a contemporary United Methodist bishop, translated Wesley’s third rule, “Obey all the ordinances of God,” this way: Stay in love with God.

Stay in love with God. It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Stay in love. Images of candlelight dinners and walks on the beach may dance through your heads.  Stay in love.  But how does one stay in love…with God?

In his book on Wesley’s General Rules, Job suggests that we “stay in love with God” by showing-up, and taking part. We stay in love with God by being faithful to  our worship attendance at church, by receiving Communion, and by having a vibrant devotional life with God.  That last piece is really what I want us to focus on today.  We stay in love with God, in part, by having a vibrant devotional life with God.

What are the ingredients to a vibrant devotional life with God? What is it? Well, we have an easy answer for that one, and an answer as complex to live out as it is simple to answer.

A vibrant devotional life with God includes daily prayer. Now, daily prayer may include, but should not be limited to, quick little blurts of “Oh God!” during the day. Saying “Oh God” when we almost rear-end someone in traffic, or muttering it under our breath when we see someone we don’t particularly want to speak to, can be defined as prayer, and not as a swear, so long as the intent and the thoughts behind the utterance are sincere.  “Oh God.”  Really, those two words are simple prayer.

Of course, we need to grow, and go deeper, richer, and more deeply in our prayer life. Again, this topic—discovering and living out a vibrant devotional life with God—can be, and should be a sermon series or Bible study all to itself. This morning, we’ll just discuss the essentials.

We should all devote some sacred space and holy time, just for God, everyday. I know, I know. You are saying to yourself, Self, that is easy for a pastor—a man of the clothe, a man of God, a man who lives in the church—to say. But I live in the real world. I live in the real world of busy schedules and a hectic routine. Sacred space and holy time, indeed! I understand those thoughts. Really, I do.

Added to our difficulty in 2017, we are all “plugged-in,” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I can be sitting in my chair at home, reading a book, nearly dozing off, and I can be awakened by a news alert coming in from The New York Times on my phone.  Some people have the ESPN app, and when they get alerts, it sounds like “Sports Center” is coming on right there in your midst, right there  in the middle of your conversation. Its both cute, and annoying.

We have a great challenge today in finding, giving God sacred space and holy time, because with our phones and tablets, the world can crash- in on us any second, any moment.

Not to mention those of you who have children…

Not to mention those of you who have ill loved ones you care for…

I may be a pastor, but I don’t consider myself an expert, or a guru, on maintaining a vibrant devotional life with God. Mostly, I am a pilgrim. Mostly, I am a pioneer, an explorer, just trying to find the way home.

As a pilgrim, as a pioneer, as an explorer on the great frontier of discovering and living-out a vibrant devotional life, I have discovered this: I am more at peace with God, with myself, and with others, when I am maintaining at least a consistent, if not “vibrant” devotional life. I have also discovered that I know more order, and feel less chaos in my heart when I am reading my Bible, and praying everyday.  I have also experienced this: I live-out God’s way more fully, and I sin an awful lot less, when I devote myself to even just a few moments of prayer and Bible reading, daily.

And that brings us, quite circuitously, to today’s scripture lesson from Genesis 24. When he discovered Rebecca at the well, and she did exactly what Abraham’s servant expected a worthy bride for Abraham’s son to say and do, Abraham’s nameless, but important, servant said, “As for me, the Lord has led me.” The servant knew that the Lord had lead him to Abraham’s kin, to the young woman God destined to be Isaac’s wife.

For Abraham, Isaac’s marriage wasn’t simply a matter of a dad wanting his son to be happy. Isaac’s marriage—to the right lady, the lady of God’s choosing—was fundamental to the covenant of God living on, in this family of God’s choosing.

Abraham told his servant that Isaac’s wife needed to come from his people, back home in Ur.  Isaac couldn’t marry a woman from the land of Canaan, where the immediate family now lived. She had to be “in the family,” one of Abraham’s own.  In fact, Rebecca’s father and Abraham were brothers, making Isaac and Rebecca very very much related.  Now, we can get all tied-up in our concern against incest and racism.  Our concern in standing up against incest and racism are incredibly righteous and justified.  Abraham’s decrees here were not at all incestuous, or racist, though.

Ladies who already lived in Canaan during this time, the folks who already lived in that land when Abraham and his family came pouring in, would have been  polytheists, not monotheists, like Abraham. They would have believed in many different gods.  In the ancient world, the mothers and not the fathers, taught the children about God, and faith. Therefore, if Isaac had married a Canaanite girlfriend, more than likely her faith would have been belief in many different gods, not the one true God, and she would have taught any children of her and Isaac’s to have faith in her gods, not Isaac’s God, the one true God.  In other words, if Isaac had married someone outside the family, his child would not receive the beautiful faith in God, or the sacred covenant God chose to give to Abraham and all his family.

Abraham needed to make sure Isaac married in the family in order to keep the faith, the covenant with God alive!

This unnamed servant of Abraham was a person of tremendous faith. Throughout this passage, the servant worships God, and praises God for leading him, the humble servant, to young lady destined to marry Isaac. In fact, the word  the servant used to describe how God lead him to Rebecca is nahah. Nahah is the exact word the Psalmist used in the Twenty-Third Psalm, “God leads me beside the still waters…God leads me in right paths.” God leads gently, like a shepherd. God leads naturally, like leaves dancing in the wind. God leads lovingly, in only the truly full, perfect way that only God can.

As I alluded to earlier, Rebecca says all the right words, and she does all the right deeds to prove to Abraham’s servant that she is the one God has lead him to. Rebecca addresses Abraham’s servant humbly, like a servant herself. She gives him water from her own jug. She waters all of his livestock.  Rebecca speaks and acts humbly, lovingly, hospitably, in a very godly way.

Through Abraham’s servant, God gives Rebecca the right to decide for herself whether or not she will go with the servant and marry Isaac. Her brother Laban, and her momma want her to stay home, at least ten more days. “No,” Rebecca said, “I’m ready to go.” She’s ready for a new adventure. She’s ready to be a pilgrim, a pioneer, an explorer of faith in God.

Abraham’s faithful, nameless servant makes all of this happen because he allowed God to direct him by the right way, by God’s right way.  And that, my dear sisters and brothers, is where this story intersects with Wesley’s third General Rule, Stay in love with God.

God shows us God’s right path for us, for our families, for our church, when we are in-tune with God; when we are communing with God; when we discover and live a vibrant devotional life with God.

Some people may raise their eyebrows at old Reuben Job. He changed “Obey the ordinances of God” to “Stay in love with God.” What a radical change! No. Not really.

As human beings, we know that is easy to fall in love. It is easy for someone to catch our eye; it is natural for our hearts to become captivated by someone. When life happens, though…When dating becomes marriage; when marriage becomes family; when family becomes taking care of loved ones when they are down, and living unselfishly, selflessly giving to the Other because they are family and we love them, then staying in love requires something more than blushes on the face, twinkles in the eye, and butterflies in the belly. When life happens, staying in love requires dedication, faith, and love.

Staying in love requires remembering the moment or moments you fell in love in the first place. It requires remembering first glances, and first touches. It requires intentionality: date night with no cell phones, conversations purposefully open and honest; quiet walks and holding hands.

Sometimes, our love for God begins in a way not unlike our love for another person. It begins as a crush, really: a moment of tearful epiphany, a prayer at the altar, a dramatic moment in time which we will never forget. The crush has to grow up and evolve into a real relationship, though. That’s what staying in love with God means.  Staying in love means that we get up from bowing at the altar, and we dedicate ourselves to growing in grace, surrendering ourselves to Jesus’ loving leading. Staying in love with God means you try, you try, each and every day, to give God what God deserves: you—Your heart, your soul, your life, lived out in God’s loving service.  It begins with a few moments set aside in prayer, with a Bible cracked open, and a faith-filled expectation that like Abraham’s servant, God will lead you by the right way!

Let us pray.

Trinity UMC,Glenville, Sermon1, 7/2/17

“First Impressions and The Holiness of Hospitality”

Genesis 18: 1-15; 21: 1-7

Matthew 10: 40-42

 

They say that first impressions are lasting. I certainly hope not. For many, their first impression of me featured my flatbed moving-truck barreling through Glenville at two a.m., only to jack-knife and get stuck in the mire and the muck and the mud of a once-green field, just precious feet from the parsonage. Hopefully that first impression won’t be lasting.

They also say that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Everything I just told you about Kelly and my move-in day is absolutely true, just in case you hadn’t heard about it.  I have to joke about embarrassing matters—it’s one of my coping mechanisms.  All joking aside, our first impressions of you, Trinity UMC, are very positive, and warm. You, and your former pastor, Rev. Mark James, couldn’t have been more warm, welcoming, and loving to us as we made our way to Glenville.  Thank you.  We look forward to many years of loving, faithful ministry, together.

No matter what your first impressions were of me, you have responded lovingly. I believe this is what Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter ten. As he sends the twelve disciples out for a little trial run, a little student-pastor exercise, he tells them that those who are hospitable, generous, loving to them, the disciples, are hospitable, generous, and loving to him, the master.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus says to them, and to us.

It seems far too self-aggrandizing for me to be comfortable for this scripture to apply to me, but despite my discomfort, it does. Through our Methodist appointment system, God has sent me to pastor you. As you welcome me, you welcome Jesus the Son, God the Father, and the sweet Holy Spirit.  I think it helps my comfort level to realize that this applies to each and every faithful church everywhere, and each and every faithful pastor everywhere, too.  When we welcome Jesus’ servant, we welcome God.

Not too many years ago—this story only dates back to the 1990s, I knew of a church who initially did not welcome their new pastor because their new pastor was black. The bishop and cabinet asked an all-white, southern West Virginia congregation to accept an African American pastor, and some in the congregation balked.  A few wrote letters.  Many talked amongst themselves. A couple here and there threatened to leave the church.  More than a few predicted that pastor’s quick, and sure, failure.

That pastor loved those people. That pastor loved even those people the rumor mill—or his own intuition—informed him hadn’t wanted him. That pastor loved those people. Those people came to love that pastor, too. They didn’t just love him. They fell in love with him. When he left that church nearly a decade later, the congregation mourned the loss of the pastor many considered the best pastor they ever had—the pastor who sang “Blessed Assurance” at the bedside of a grandma as she died; the pastor who baptized their babies and confirmed their teenagers; the pastor who lead their church in its period of greatest health and life.

When the church welcomed the pastor, the church welcomed—and received anew—the spirit and the love of Jesus.

Pastors like me, or Mark James, or Mike Ford, or Patricia Jarvis, are not the only people who come in the name of Jesus Christ. Pastors like me are not the only servants Jesus has on this earth today—or in this church today!  You too, are servants of Jesus Christ.  You too, are called to love as Jesus loved; to serve as Jesus served; to give as Jesus gave.  All Christians are called to be ministers, and at our baptism, we make that promise, and receive that Spirit, to do that work, the sacred work, of God.

As a Christian, my friend, you come to someone today in the name of Jesus Christ. You might not even know that you do, but you do. If a co-worker, a neighbor, a stranger on the sidewalk or at the store, or even a family member, knows you attended church today, when you are with that person, when you interact with that person, you come to them in the light of Christ.  That’s a heavy burden, isn’t it? It’s a heavy burden which should be lightened by two facts: a) none of us are perfect, and we embody Jesus for each other only because the grace and Spirit of God lets it be so, and b) when those people welcome you, they welcome Jesus. If they reject you, they reject Jesus.  In short, this is all bigger than you, and it’s bigger than me.  It’s as big as the God of all creation, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s about the savior of all humanity, the Lord of love, Jesus Christ.  When we remember that this is all about God, and not us, our own individual burdens become light, indeed.

So you welcome Jesus by welcoming me.

I welcome Jesus by welcoming you.

We welcome Jesus by welcoming any new person to our community, any stranger who might soon walk through our doors.

I believe that Jesus is here. I believe that Jesus is here, among us and within us, here at Trinity UMC. And I believe that Jesus will keep on coming here, in unexpected ways, and in unexpected faces.

That is where the Genesis passage comes into play. In Genesis chapter twenty-two, God comes to Abraham through the presence of the three men, the three strangers.  Does Abraham recognize the presence of God in the three strangers? I believe he does. Even if Abraham doesn’t implicitly recognize the presence of God in the three strangers, Abraham does recognize explicitly the ancient, and Jewish belief that God manifests God-self to humanity through the strangers, the aliens, the injured, the hurting ones, in their midst. Abraham, as an ancient man, believed that hospitality is next to godliness. Therefore he and Sarah prepared the best meat, the best bread, the coolest water, for the three strangers.

In the presence of the strangers, Abraham knows he is in the presence of God. In serving the three strangers, Abraham knows he is serving God.

God had already reached out in covenant-love to Abraham long before. God had already called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home, and God had already promised them that the lifeless, barren, dead place within them would blossom up with new life, human life, a little baby, a family. God had made the promise, but the promise had not yet been fulfilled.  The promise was not fulfilled until this story happened, and Abraham and Sarah greeted the three strangers—God– with love, humanity, and hospitality.

Please do not misinterpret. I am not saying that when we do the will of God, God will bless us the way we human beings so often think of blessing—physical health, material wellbeing. We are saying that when the human heart can open itself up to others—with welcome, with hospitality, with love—then that human heart opens itself up to God, God-self.  When a human heart opens up to God, that heart, that life, that person, can begin to know, explore, and grow into the love, the grace, the peace, God in Jesus Christ pours forth to all the world.  From God’s heart, to our heart, through welcoming, hospitality, and love, life goes blessedly on.

What a first impression the love of God makes!

Let us pray.

 

Thoughts on Fasting…

An Abundant Lent

“Holy Fasting”

Mark 2: 18-22

John 6: 25-29

John 10: 7-10

 

As someone who has endured an eating-disorder, who still often obsesses about food portions and the cold, hard pounds on the scale, I hesitate to preach a sermon on the holiness of fasting. The Spirit leads where it will, though, to paraphrase a certain Someone.

It seems odd to begin a sermon about fasting with Gospel scripture where Jesus: a) explains why his disciples don’t need to fast, and b) describes his work as giving abundance to his followers.

Jesus tells the Pharisees his disciples don’t need to do it. Jesus says he has come to give abundant life to all who believe in him. Here we are, talking about the need to fast, audaciously calling it “holy,” determined, as a church, to reclaim it as a spiritual exercise.

Though it seems counterintuitive, Jesus’ words from Mark, and John, are the perfect places to start within a conversation about Christian fasting. At its heart, fasting is all about experiencing Jesus, abundantly. Fasting isn’t about doing without. Fasting is about doing with more.  Fasting is about feasting on the abundant presence of Christ.

Before we get to the dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisees, in Mark, we need to have a better understanding about where the Pharisees are coming from when they confront Jesus. We need to understand a little bit about what fasting means in the Old Testament, the religious worldview of the Pharisees, and most of Jesus’ contemporaries.

The Jewish folks of Jesus’ day embraced two reasons for fasting: atonement, and supplication. They believed that fasting was for both the individual, and the community. Individuals fasted because they recognized that they had sinned, and fasting was an act of atonement for their moral failings.  The community itself also fasted as an act of penance for national sin. For instance, Joel chapters one and two call for a fast because the people of Judah collectively were guilty of not being faithful to God’s covenant love. Individuals fasted as an act of supplication. When someone had an urgent need in their life, either on behalf of themselves or for a loved one, they often fasted as part of their journey of prayer. We see this periodically in some of the Psalms, for instance. Prophets—like the aforementioned Joel—also called for national fasts, either on the eve of a disaster, or in its’ aftermath. As a contemporary corollary, think about how “religious” America became in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks.

When John the Baptist preached his call for repentance, of course, his followers would have coupled repentance with fasting. It was part of their religious custom. With Israel under Roman rule, and folks looking for God’s deliverance, the Pharisees and other religious leaders would, of course, encourage all the people to fast, as both an act of atonement and supplication.

Jesus and his disciples, and their affinity for eating dinner in the homes of various and sundry people, coupled with their lack of fasting, raises eyebrows, and concerns. In the context of the religious worldview of the day, it is counter-cultural, to the extreme. For astute, dedicated scholars of the law like the Pharisees, and for righteous, earnest searchers like John the Baptist’s disciples, Jesus’ negligence to fast, or his failure to teach the practice of fasting, is downright dangerous, and heretical.

Although Jesus doesn’t use the word “abundant” in his conversation with the Pharisees in Mark, he could have. It is implied, for sure. With him and his disciples, it’s one long wedding party. He’s the bridegroom. The disciples are the bride.  The bride shouldn’t fast during the wedding party—that would be so inappropriate. The bride should enjoy the loving presence of the bridegroom, grow in that love, and let the relationship blossom. Fasting will come later for the bride, Jesus says, but not now. Now, the bridegroom is here, and the bride should find her best self in her reflection within  her bridegroom’s eyes.

The bride doesn’t fast. She feasts on the abundance of love as she bridegroom whisks her onto the dance floor.

As long as Jesus is with them, eye-to-eye, face-to-face, the disciples must worship, adore, and learn. Fasting comes later.  Now they should dedicate themselves to the enthralling abundance of Emmanuel—God with us.

And Emmanuel gives the hungry bread. Emmanuel breaks the bread and multiples it. Emmanuel shares the fish, and creates manifold nourishment.

When the crowds want more, Jesus tells them that the bread he gives to the world is like the manna God gave to the children of Israel: it’s soul food; it’s grub that saves, not just sustains, life.  Just a few words, just a handful of sentences later, Jesus reveals to them, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus not only blesses, breaks, and shares the bread that sustains and saves. Jesus is that bread. This is an abundant feast. This is abundant love.

Not long afterward, Jesus adds layers to his teaching, expressing more of his divine being. He begins by repeating the Father’s words to Moses: I Am.

            I am the gate for the sheep.

I am the door.

Thieves break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy. I Am enters the door giving life, and giving it abundantly. Think about the racism; think about the prejudice; think about the wars and the violence; think about the addiction and the economic scarcity of our society today.  These are the thieves which break in to steal, to kill, and to destroy, life. I Am, Jesus, enters the world to give life: dignified, whole, holy, abundant life.

I do encourage you to fast this Lent.  I believe that when we fast, we are not merely fasting from something; we are not embracing scarcity in some masochistic way. I believe that when we fast, we are surrendering ourselves, allowing ourselves to experience the abundance of Christ’s presence, to be transformed by the abundance of  God’s love.

The Early Church fasted for much the same reason the Jewish folks did: they fasted as an expression of atonement, as a ritual of supplication.  They also fasted as a means—as a means to feel more fully the self-giving love of Jesus, by giving the Lord something of themselves. They fasted, and they gave the food they ordinarily would have eaten to the poor. They fasted, and they spent the time they would have spent eating, in prayer and meditation, instead.

Traditionally, the Church has always seen fasting as a way to enter into abundance: the abundant present of Christ, the abundant light of God’s love. Fasting isn’t dieting. Fasting isn’t embracing anorexia. Fasting isn’t insane twenty-four hour periods of malnourishment, and not taking care of ourselves.  We can fast from food, for portions of the day. For instance, we can fast at lunch, and spend that time in Bible study, and prayer.  Fasting isn’t just about food.

We can fast from whatever keeps us from fully experiencing God. We can fast from our I-phone and Androids. We can fast from the narcissistic or voyeuristic nature of social media, particularly the Facebook newsfeed.We can fast from television. We can fast from gossip. We can fast from negative thinking. We can fast from anything and everything that stands in the way of us giving ourselves over to God, and to God’s love.

Such a spiritual exercise isn’t an embrace of scarcity or austerity.

Such a spiritual exercise is just that—it’s spiritual. It’s a spiritual leap of faith, a joyful jump into the abundance of Christ’s presence, the richness of God’s love.

It’s holy fasting.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.