July 1, 2018

July 1 – Waiting and Interruptions

Scripture Used: Mark 5: 21-43

Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee. They had just been on the Gentile side of the sea, where Jesus had been teaching and performing miracles – most recently healing a Gerasene man of a legion of demons. One would imagine he would be tired.

The Bible doesn’t say he was tired, but I get the feeling he was. They had been travelling for days with no mention of Jesus resting. In the other gospels, Jesus rests a lot. He appreciates sabbath. But in Mark’s telling, especially here, everywhere Jesus goes, a crowd seems to find out, and after miracles, sermons, and demon-eviction, he’s got to be ready to rest. He could do without having to go right into another day of work.

They must have had a plan if they were returning to the Jewish side of the sea, but waiting on the other side was Jairus. Their plans were about to be interrupted. Rest would have to wait.

Jairus begs repeatedly, it says, and Jesus probably could do with getting space from the crowd also waiting for him at the seashore. Which didn’t matter – they came too. Pressing in on him. If he wasn’t tired before, being pushed and jostled from all directions would quickly take its toll.

We know the kind of tired you feel when you are in a crowd. It’s the same kind of tired from a hard day’s work. It’s like you feel every little thing that touches you. Your skin pulses with each drop of sweat. That “will I ever get to sit down” feeling that makes you think of nothing else but a shower, a cold drink, and a seat.

And that is when she appears. Or actually, she doesn’t seem to appear to anyone at all. This one woman – desperate from twelve years of illness, of blood flow that she cannot stop – she sees her opportunity.

Yes, blood. You have to say blood. You can’t simply call this an illness, because it is a special kind of illness. It is an illness that makes her impure. To be impure is to be an outcast. To lose blood is its own punishment: she is tired from it. She is tired of being sick and tired. And, we find out, she’s lost all her money trying to get well. Add to that the detail of her suffering from this condition for twelve years. In biblical terms, when you see the number twelve, it represents completeness.
She is completely unclean, completely in pain, completely broke, completely at the end of her rope. And now, she has the opportunity to change that.

Jesus, his disciples, the pressing crowds, and Jairus are about to have their plans interrupted. The dying girl would have to wait.

As Jesus and Jairus and the disciples make their way through the city path with a huddle around them, they only think of the girl. They are on a mission. What else can be of importance to save a life? And not only a life – the life of a daughter? She has possibility. She is the child of importance in the community. And he, the important man, begged the teacher. That means something.

So we have two plans: a woman at the end of her rope longing for healing; a father desperate to save his daughter. Between them is a healer trudging along. This opportunity is precious.

This is a story in a story. In scholarship, it is known as intercalation, from the Latin prefix “inter” which means between, and “calare” to claim. Between claims. Between claims of Jesus’ power to heal. Two plans that will experience an interruption.

Life is full of plans and interruptions to those plans. There is the famous saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” Which means we sometimes feel we are and should be the masters of our lives and our schedules – unwilling to allow the world around us to affect our expectations and goals. Especially when it comes to living out the call we acknowledge in becoming Christian, which is when we tell God, “whatever you have planned for me is what I choose.”
One of the great masters of wisdom in this regard was St. Francis of Assisi. He was well known to be open to life’s interruptions because they could lead to something God intended. G.K. Chesterton once wrote of Francis, “He could not see the forest because of the trees. He didn’t want to.” That’s because not all interruptions are bad – sometimes they are opportunities for us to bear witness to God’s grace and glory.

And here, with Jesus, on his way to see a child dying of illness, just touched by a woman suffering from a completely debilitating condition that caused her to bleed constantly, that is what happens. The suffering woman, hoping none in the crowd will out her as impure, touches his cloak. She’s healed. A silent miracle.

He turns, he asks his disciples who touched him. He felt something. But they don’t understand. They are still on the other plan. The dying girl is their focus. They tell the master not to worry about it. Why bother? There are so many people it would be impossible to find out who touched him.

But Jesus knows it is important to stop. To claim the miracle as being of God. To find out what has happened. And the woman feels it. She worries about it. She steps forward – fearing the same power that healed her could do much worse. He had interrupted her plans, too. She wanted to be unnoticed, and she wasn’t.

But coming forward pays off. Not only is she healed, but the teacher, the miracle worker, the respected one, eradicates herher status as outcast. He publicly praises her faith. She goes from less than nobody to part of God’s story. After twelve years – a complete life – of struggle, he and she respond to interruptions of their plans, and it becomes a sacred part of the gospel.

But, as we know, just because something wonderful has happened in one place, it does not mean time has stood still. Sometimes, it marches on with a certain ruthlessness. And that must be how Jairus feels when the others come to say the daughter is dead. He had been waiting for Jesus to make the journey with him. There is no mention of him rushing them on. He does not interject when Jesus stops to notice the woman. He is following the plan: being patient, waiting, and waiting, for healing. Waiting must have felt like forever. And the girl dies.

When Jesus tells Jairus, “do not be afraid,” he is saying not to forget what has just occurred because of what happens next. Even if the little girl had died, the healing of this other person is no less good.

That can be hard to hear. When we are in distress, when we have a plan to follow and no room for error, we sometimes make the mistake of making everything about us. We give ourselves a pass to stop believing in God’s work in the world so we can have something to blame. We fear that sometimes, life just happens whether we want it to or not, and we have no control over it. And for that to occur as someone else benefits feels so very unfair. We can give Jairus sympathy as he likely felt a mixture of all of that. We could give him a pass if he felt angry when the messengers told him to let Jesus leave for it was too late.

But that wasn’t Jesus’ plan to leave. Jairus stays with him, too. Maybe as an act of faith that Jesus’ plan was not over yet.

When Jesus enters the house, he tells those there that the girl is not dead. They laugh. It reminds us of Genesis 17 when God tells Abraham and Sarah they will have a child in their 90s. They laught too – the same hopeless laugh of possibilities that are long gone. They are without faith and are sent away.

In a tender moment, as the girl lays dead, as her father is probably a wreck, Jesus calmly and tenderly speaks to her “Talitha cum,” or “get up, little girl.” The translators of the Bible kept the original Aramaic – the language Jesus spoke – rather than translating it to Greek. It makes the passage feel more personal, more real. Like Jesus is speaking to us too. In this moment where we share in the grief, the anxiety, the highs and the lows, when we feel a little betrayed and crushed to learn of her death, there is a universal lesson for all of us: “get up, stop grieving what is passed, be open to what can happen next. God is not done here.”

That’s part of waiting and interruptions. Sometimes, the times when we are at our wit’s end, whether suffering ourselves or trying to stop some tragedy, we forget that Jesus is with us. Not watching over us from on high but actually in this space and time. It’s just a matter of believing. Believing that touching his robe is enough. Believing him when he says “do not fear.” In each of these moments, he notices us, even when it seems his plans are on something or someone else. He still notices us and speaks to us.

It is normal and very human to have plans, to get tripped up in interruptions. So the true test of our character and our faith is not whether or not we have interruptions. It is about how we respond to them.

Every time your plans are interrupted – a person in your way at the store, a conversation you want to escape, a child having a meltdown – you have an opportunity to listen to what is going on there with compassion or with impatience. It could be as simple as this person is just in the middle of their plans and not noticing yours, or it could be a holy moment that Jesus is asking you “Who touched my robe?”

It may be that, while you are on your way to something else, there is need to pause and acknowledge something. Or it could be that he is saying you can wait just a little bit as he moves through the lives of others before he comes to you.

If we can develop the compassion and patience in ourselves to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, we would better handle moments of waiting and times when our plans are interrupted. The world needs people who can join in the movements of God and are present in each of them. Live each day as if God planned it for you. And your path will allow not seeing the forest for the trees.

April 22, 2018

Scriptures Used: John 10:11-18, 1 John 3, Psalm 23

 

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and they come across a man who had been born blind. The disciples ask Jesus who had sinned for the man to be blind: was it the man himself or did he receive punishment for his parents’ sins? Jesus responds that neither was true. Instead, he tells them the man was blind so that God could be glorified. Jesus heals the man, and the man is grateful. He had experienced lostness, and he had been healed.

 

The religious leaders learn of the miracle. It concerns them. It does not follow the rules of what they know, and it was not one of their own who had done this miracle. They were not sure it was from God, and they care very deeply that it is God who is glorified, but they do not recognize Jesus as one who can do such a miracle. Jesus tells them those who think they can see cannot, and those that think they are blind will be given sight.

 

In the events that follow, Jesus speaks of his role as the true shepherd of God’s lost sheep.

 

As offensive as it may seem, there is a reason people are often referred to as sheep throughout the Bible. Sheep were a familiar creature. Their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph were all shepherds, as were the leaders of the nation Moses and David.  The imagery resonated with them on a cultural level.

 

But the connection is in our behavior, people act like sheep. We follow the crowds; we will follow almost any leader that makes the first move; we can be blind to what is around us as we search for green pastures. We are susceptible to predators. As 1 John 3 tells us, even our own hearts can lead us down the wrong paths.

 

Sheep get lost. We need a shepherd who can lead us.

 

There are three major lessons about why Jesus is the Good Shepherd in this passage:

  • The Good Shepherd is trustworthy.
  • The Good Shepherd is personal.
  • The Good Shepherd is inclusive.

 

In the eight verses where Jesus proclaims himself to be the Good Shepherd, he makes three individual statements about his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sheep. Last night, Emily and I were watching a show that was centered on a fireman who was fundraising for his firehall, and during the interview, the fireman quoted John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for another.” That is what Jesus is saying here. We trust the Good Shepherd, because we already know he was willing to give us his life for the sake of people.

 

To deepen the relationship, the Good Shepherd knows the sheep personally. The 23rd psalm beautifully illustrates this point: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

 

Passages like these speak to each one of us on a personal level. Restoration, being fed, taken to places of rest are personal. The valley of the shadow of death, the presence of evil, are personal. God is willing to get personal, and God won’t fail us in those personal moments. Jesus calls to us like a shepherd calls the sheep, and we know deep in our soul the sound of his voice.

 

In the Methodist Church, we speak often of grace – God’s working in our lives. One type of grace is what is known as prevenient grace. Prevenient means “to go before.” God goes before us in our lives and helps shape what happens to us so that we will be motivated to turn toward God in our hours of joy and of need. Everyone is subject to prevenient grace – not just Christians – which leads us to understand that God interacts in the lives of all individuals.

 

It also leads us to hear what Jesus says in verse 16: “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.” Even when we think the love of God can only stretch to the ones who are willing to receive it, we find that there are others out there who God also claims as God’s own people.

 

God’s love is so broad that God wants everyone, even those who do not yet know Jesus. Later in this gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. When we read that statement in light of this one, we hear something very real about Jesus: that he is going to pursue everybody, because his is the path to eternal life. No matter how lost anyone is, the Good Shepherd is going to look for them, because it is through him that they are saved.

 

For those of us who are part of the flock now, we are being led by one who cares for us. Sometimes, it is difficult to follow the path Jesus leads us on. The shepherd is good, but the world around us is not yet good. It is full of darkness and cloud; predators are everywhere; it is of great importance that we follow the Shepherd that will lead us through it all.

 

God asks us to follow, and we choose to follow for this reason: There is great love in the Good Shepherd. We believe in him. He is trustworthy; he knows us deeply; he is willing to take on the aches and pains of the whole world if it means another person will be brought in to the kingdom of God. That is a message worth sharing with the whole world: the Lord is your shepherd, too.

 

I want to close with this: tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the birth of the United Methodist Church. On April 23, 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church. Part of the coming together was also the dissolution of the Central Conference within the Methodist Church, which was essentially desegregation of the denomination. This move is less discussed but just as powerful, given the ceremony occurred only weeks after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Before and after the ceremony, delegates were protesting in the streets of Dallas on the segregation still present, the war in Vietnam, and prayers lifted on the troubles brewing in Northern Ireland and Czechoslovakia. In the words of Dr. King’s book written on the sign of a newly appointed district superintendent in Dallas: “Where Do We Go From Here…Chaos or Community?”

 

The United Methodist Church has been a voice proclaiming God’s presence in the church and in the public square since our inception. We have actively pursued righting the wrongs of history in our witness, and all the while, we have leaned upon the Good Shepherd to find us, to guide us, to protect us, and to offer grace and salvation to the whole world.

 

April 29, 2018: What Is Love?

If you type into Google “songs about love,” you’ll find thousands of examples. Many of them describe how we experience or show love, but I had set out to see how we describe love: what is it?

 

There are plenty of titles that offer answers ranging the emotional spectrum from “Love is Blindness,” to “Love is a Rose,” to “Love is a Battlefield.” My Spotify playlist begged me to reconsider the search when it suggested “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told).”

 

Love is an integral part of the human experience, it’s no wonder there would be many songs, poems, and stories about it. I think many would agree that to have love in one’s life is better than any wealth one could find and to be without it is the worst possible poverty. Love is an unavoidable facet of our lives.

 

But what does the Bible say about love?

 

In verse 16 of 1 John, the writer states plainly, “God is Love.” The majority of the epistle is an explanation of discipleship as loving God by following God’s commandments. We understand to be true in our relationships, too. To love someone is often characterized by acting in ways that satisfy their desires. We love our parents by obeying them; we love our spouses by sacrificing for their happiness; we love our kids by becoming part in their imagination and fantasy in play.

 

I was having lunch the other day with a friend when I saw a man with his young son and another person. It seemed the lunch was business for the two adults, but after a while, the little boy started to get restless, and his father gave him a toy. As the little boy played, he started telling stories about the characters involved with his toy. The father and the other man listened to the little boy and interacted about the imaginary characters. To encourage the child, even when it was obvious they had things to discuss, showed the child that his voice mattered.

 

Love requires our participation in it.

 

John’s epistle invites us to consider where love comes from. While we know God is love in a very direct sense, that love becomes fully present to us through the person of Jesus. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus the Son is part of God’s own self, the Word that spoke creation into existence, who then takes on the form of a human person as Jesus of Nazareth. God chose to participate in our lives to love us. After Jesus’ death, God sent the Spirit to continue to work in us and through us to know love more fully. For the creator of all things to continually make efforts to be a part of our lives is a big statement. It speaks to God’s unwavering dedication to loving us, even when we don’t love God, or even ourselves.

 

This invitation to love as God loves is a happy one. Those who remain in God’s love are protected from judgment. All of our life’s mistakes are forgotten if we abide in love.

 

And yet we struggle to abide in love sometimes. Verse 20 suggests that it is normal to not always love, but it is clear that we are never to hate. Sometimes, the bar we set for ourselves is to not hate others but not really try to love them either. We don’t want to put ourselves out there to people we don’t like. We use phrases like, “you don’t have to like them, you just have to love them.”

 

If we are to follow the example of Jesus, we can do better than that. We can see others as having the same worth and value as a child of God as we have. The good news is Jesus gives us all the help we need to love others, because he is the provider of our needs, our source of spiritual food.

 

In today’s Gospel, the disciples and Jesus are gathered in the Upper Room. Judas has already left to betray Jesus, and the disciples have begun to feel the anxiety of the coming events. As they struggle to understand how they will follow their master, Jesus tells them that they will be given the Spirit, in the NRSV it uses the Greek word paraclete which translates to Advocate, so they will always have God’s presence with them.

 

Just like last week’s passage where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” in this passage he tells them “I am the true vine.”

 

The vine Jesus is speaking about is a grapevine. Grape plants are a series of vines and branches that cling to whatever surface they are near. Unlike other crops that stay in one spot, grapevines stretch all around. Jesus is acknowledging one important thing about the faith: it is meant to spread. I imagine if Jesus were in the South he would have said, “I am the kudzu.”

 

Attached to the true vine of Jesus are the branches, which is us. Grapevines require trimming and pruning to keep the branches healthy. God, the vineyard keeper, knows if we are healthy and bearing fruit. One can claim to be connected to Christ and show evidence of that on the outside, but over and over in the New Testament it is stated our fruit is how we will recognize faith.

To love is to keep that connection to God, to grow fruit, to be subject to the trimming and pruning of God who loves us more than we can know. Growth is not a passive process – it takes energy and work. It is to realize that the fruit we grow is not ours but God’s. To say we love God is to say that we want to participate in God’s work and allow our lives to be useful to God.

 

Is that the love we show?

 

One of the great challenges of the church today is the cultivated witness of those who have leaned too far into their religious devotion to rules to exclude people from experiencing God’s love. Many Christians have taken it upon themselves to pick up the pruning shears and cut branches they think could be bad for the vine without considering that is God’s job.

I have met a number of people that don’t want to attend a church because they had a bad experience being judged and excluded by one. I had a discussion last week with a person who told me, “I like you, but I won’t go to your church.”

 

There are a lot of stories like that in our community, and it is our mission to show love well enough that they reconsider their past pains.  How can we love Charlotte so that people are willing to join us in it?

 

To overcome this challenge, we will need to be better about how we love. We have to invest our efforts into being active with our faith – not in ways that promote judgment, because that’s God’s work –  but to reach out in love to those around us.

 

The bishop spoke this week at a clergy conference where he said, “Love is the mission of the church.” We all know what mission means: it’s the purpose, it’s what we are here to do. Are we succeeding in our mission?

 

At the beginning of the year, I told you our goal for the year was to focus on relationships. Everything we do as a church needs to focus on building relationships. In the front of the church, we have three missions represented. Are any of you willing to be present when we give and finding ways to be in ministry to those in need? Are you willing to accompany our ministry coordinators when they make the drop-offs and speaking to the organizations we give to?

 

We need to make everything we do here about building relationships with God and with each other. That’s a big step. Many of us come here, because this is our church home. It’s where we find love. Some folks come here, because they are looking for a place like that – a place where they belong; to be loved. Some come to find healing, hope, spiritual sustenance. They also are looking to be loved. All of those require relationships.

 

The difficulty is, in today’s society, we have fewer interactions with each other. We are in a time when there are fewer places to practice the skills of building relationships. When we used to make small talk in stores, at the bank or the post office, now we don’t have to. This is a great opportunity for the few places left that require presence and participation. We have an opportunity to speak to people who may not have spoken to another human being outside of their family or coworkers all week. We can be a place people come when they are longing to be with other people who care about them.

 

I know we want to be a place of community (many of you have lamented how different our community is in meetings and conversations), and it will take some reflection.  Let me offer an example: a number of weeks ago, we held our Easter Egg Hunt. I was ecstatic to see all the unfamiliar faces of those who came, many of whom weren’t family members but had come because they saw the signs or were invited by friends. I bet some came looking for a place to belong where they and their kids were welcomed.

 

But I noticed people tended to stay in their own groups. There wasn’t much mingling. Most people had a constant eye on their cameras. While I love a good family photo op, I didn’t see much relationship building. I didn’t hear any introductions. Later in the day, I was told a visitor had posted on Facebook that she did not feel welcomed. Did we succeed in our mission to love her and her family? Did we talk to anyone about the Resurrection of Jesus? We have room to grow in how we love others and build relationships with them.

 

Today, we celebrate one of our great relationship-building traditions in the church: the 5th Sunday lunch. I want to challenge you to sit with people that you don’t normally sit with. Who do you not know well? If you don’t know someone’s middle name or their favorite color, then you have something new to learn.

 

In the last verse of today’s epistle, John says this: “Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” I invite you to consider what love is to you. Is it simply not hating someone, or is it to participate in the life of others and build relationships that spread Christ’s love?

 

Love requires a lot from us, but I have found that it gives so much in return. Nothing given in love for another is lost if we give it knowing we give to Jesus, our sustenance and our provider.

April 15, 2018

April 15, 2018: Faith til You Have It

 

Scripture Used: Acts 3:1-19

 

There are times we look at a Scripture and assume we get the meaning on the first reading. There are times when we realize after the first reading, we should probably read it again, and we do and are rewarded with additional truth. Then there are times we read and reread and reread again and again and still feel as though we are only seeing part of a truth. Today’s passage feels like the latter.

 

In Acts, chapter 3, Peter and John are walking to the temple at the 3 o’clock hour when people come to pray and give their daily offerings to God. This is the period between the temple cracking in half at the time of Jesus’ death but before it is completely demolished by Roman forces.

 

As they walk by what is called the Beautiful Gate, they encounter a man who had been born with physical maladies that rendered him unable to walk. He begs at the temple for money to live on, assisted by those who carry him to his beggar’s spot. Peter tells the man to look at him and John. The man, hoping for money, catches the strangers’ eyes. Peter tells him, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk. He does, and is very excited about it, clinging to Peter and John.

 

As the crowds realized this miracle had happened, they gather around these men at what is called Solomon’s Portico – or Solomon’s porch. Peter sees their amazement and uses the moment to preach, or in our terms, he lets them have it.  He tells them they are essentially faithless: they can’t understand the miracle, because they don’t understand Jesus, whom Peter claims they are responsible for killing.

 

On the first reading, Peter and John heal a man. Peter then tells the crowd they killed Jesus. That warrants a second reading, in my opinion.  Peter and John heal a man by invoking the name of Jesus. Peter then tells the crowd that they have been ignorant and faithless, but that faithlessness was God’s plan for Jesus to die to fulfill a prophesy. A little better, but still doesn’t make sense.

 

So, after reading and rereading and rereading it again, we come to realize that Peter is making a point about Jesus – not about the people or the beggar. It was by invoking the name Jesus of Nazareth that the man was healed. Faith in Jesus’ name alone gave them the authority to perform a heavenly miracle. They had the faith to be willing vessels of God’s action in that man’s life and something great came out of it.

 

Faith is a powerful word. We use it quite often, because it is one of those words that is squarely protected in the realm of religious belief that even its secular counterpart cannot quite touch. Faith is the understanding that there are forces that are unseen and unproveable in the traditional sense that work to the will of God. Faith is how we believe in grace; faith is how we understand God’s love to be more powerful than the fickleness of human love; faith gives us reason to have hope when everything else seems lost.

 

In today’s reading, faith in the person of Jesus is enough to cause a man who previously could not walk, to walk.

 

Now, I have a question for you: do you believe that kind of faith is possible?

 

Good church people will say ‘yes,’ because ‘no’ feels like a lack of belief in God and saying ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily mean I or you have to have that kind of faith. Just that it’s possible someone, somewhere, at some time has it. But to say something is simply possible really cheapens the meaning of our claim.

 

We want to claim the Matthew 17:20 faith: if it is the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough to move mountains. When I was young, a lady in church gave all the children little necklaces with mustard seeds in a tiny shadow box. We all wore them thinking that one day we would have mustard seed faith. It was cute as we came to the conclusion that faith isn’t some force on a scale. I think we all expected one day a little bright light would appear, and we would wait for it to become mustard seed size. “Y’all better say goodbye to the Rocky Mountains. We’re going to rearrange them.”

 

As we chuckle at the musings of children, that’s not far from what adults do in talking about faith. We claim its power in stories that serve what we want out of it. We talk about faith in how it pertains to helping us: healing, getting us out of bad situations, moving the mountains that block us, but not in terms of how Jesus intends it. The beggar wasn’t healed for his benefit alone; he was healed so that his witness could be used to proclaim God’s goodness. But, because the people there wanted miracles that were for them, they didn’t think about God’s goodness. They wanted their goodness.

 

When Peter then tells the crowd to repent, he is making clear to them that they should pay attention. Their faith was limited. They had tunnel vision that told them the messiah would only be the one thing – a conquering leader – which meant anything that wasn’t that wasn’t worth their time.

 

That’s what happens for a lot of people – they, we, want to commit fully to faith when it serves us. There is a concept in psychology known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states people are motivated to satisfy certain benchmarks before they move on to bettering who they are as a person. The most basic needs were met for the beggar when he was healed – he could work, get food, find shelter. While it seems huge in terms of how he got it, all it took for him to praise God was to be able to walk. He didn’t wait to praise God when all the other stuff had happened – he just knew they would.

 

That is why Peter is telling the others to repent. Many of them already had everything they needed and more: food, shelter, safety, family, work that gave them a purpose, and that still wasn’t enough to put their full faith in God. The sin was that they were more concerned with finding what wasn’t right than glorifying God for what was. Spiritual growth was not enough – they wanted to prosper.

 

That is the sin we face today: we tell God we will make disciples and care for the needy after our needs are met.  We think our problems give us an excuse to not fully engage. But all it took for the beggar was the ability to walk once to proclaim God’s good name.

 

This dynamic between sin and faith came to a head in the life of Methodism’s founder John Wesley. Before his famed Aldersgate experience, Wesley was debating on leaving the ministry. He was burned out, because professional ministry is difficult. He confided in his friend Peter Bohler, a Moravian minister, who told him, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[1] That sounds like some crack-pot wisdom, but it worked!

 

Wesley was unsure of this lesson until he preached to a man on death row who then immediately converted after hearing it. Just like Peter and the man at the Beautiful Gate, a person was healed simply by being told about Jesus. Wesley was not even as fully convinced as Peter, but he was willing to try, and that was faith enough to convert a man to a profession of faith.

 

This image of faith speaks to me very deeply in this point of my life. It is good to know that, even on the days when I am bogged down in personal and professional heartache and stress, Christ still works. The grace of God is powerful enough to work through the willing, even at our lowest times. God uses those who live out what little faith they have until they have it.

 

I want to offer you the same offer of hope that faith, even smaller than that of a mustard seed, can do wonderous things if you are open to it. Even if you don’t fully believe anything will come of your action, God can still use it, and over time, simply trying becomes a planted seed that can grow and grow to fullness.

 

This is a good lesson for not only individuals but for the whole church. We put more faith in traditions, things that we think define “who we are” as God’s people more than we put faith in God to continue to make us who God wants us to be. When we start thinking about new ideas or how to make ministries better, we go down dark paths that no one will come or we don’t have enough money or things are just fine as they are. When we do try, we make ideas as easy as possible, so if they don’t work out, we haven’t used too much time and effort.

 

I get it – trying new things or rethinking old traditions is hard. Our dedication is subject to how we feel, whether or not our needs are met. But that’s not faith. Faith is knowing God will take care of us as we love God and neighbor, as we are make disciples for the transformation of the world. No matter your life state, your ability or disability; no matter your age, race, gender; no matter who anyone else thinks you are: God wants every one of you. I know times can be tough, things can get over your head, but those are the moments when your faith matters most, when against all odds and common sense you still seek to serve God, and more than ever, the church needs people who want to serve rather than be served. That’s what faith is today – knowing what you are and do glorifies God.

 

And if you think that is just too difficult: try. Live faith until you have it.

 

Let us be silent as we listen for the words and will of God….

[1] http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/1420/dont-do-ministry-without-it

Conference News and Commission on the Way Forward

Two topics of consideration will be presented to local congregations in the Tennessee Conference. The first is specific to churches in the Tennessee and Memphis annual conferences in June, and the second is to be considered over the next year in all the churches and conferences of the denomination. They are as follows:

1. The formation of a new conference from the current Tennessee and Memphis Conferences. Bishop McAlilly currently serves as bishop for both conferences in what is known as the Nashville Episcopal Area. This would unify two of the smallest conferences by membership in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and make one that is closer in size to other conferences. The vote at this year’s conference is colloquially being considered the “intent to marry” vote. In successive years, we will vote to “be engaged,” and to finally “marry.”

The largest advantage of this change is shared mission and strategy between churches in two-thirds of Tennessee and part of Kentucky. We share a bishop and many professional contacts, so it would further solidify relationships that currently exist. There will be growing pains as we consolidate our finances and how we understand clergy benefits.

2. The second topic to be considered is the upcoming Special General Conference to be held in St. Louis in 2019, where the Commission on the Way Forward will present their recommendations, “…to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.”  This commission was called by the Council of Bishops with the authority of the General Conference delegates in 2016.

At this moment in time, there is nothing slated to be voted on in regards to the Commission by annual conferences in 2018. The listening sessions we are planning in April and possibly throughout the next year will allow the leaders of the church to discern how to request our lay delegate to vote when the time comes. Currently, the expectation regarding voting is on how the church polity will change to allow churches of various beliefs to operate as they choose while still being a part of the whole UMC denomination. We will give greater detail regarding these models at the listening sessions.

 

April 8, 2018 – Litany and Sermon

A Litany for the Bereaved

by The Rev. Nick Baird-Chrisohon
God of All Creation, we praise you for the grace you bestow upon us. In times of joy and times of sorrow we are blessed with the gift of your presence and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. You make beautiful things even in the midst of darkness and death.

Lord, we give you thanks.

Gracious God, we recognize the evil of the world. In broken homes, broken systems, and broken lives, evil takes root and causes pain and suffering for others.

Lord, in your mercy.  Hear our prayer.

Today, O God, we lift up the family, friends, teachers, and loved ones who knew Joseph Clyde Daniels. While Joe is wrapped in your embrace, others are left behind with hollowness, grief, and anger.

God of Life everlasting, hear our cries for comfort and help.

Gracious God, we call you the Great Physician.  Heal broken hearts. Mend torn spirits. Shine light into darkness. Breathe hope in despair.

God of Life everlasting, hear our cries for comfort and help.

Gracious God, we know you move the hearts of the faithful. We give thanks for the police, emergency workers, and volunteers who gave so freely of themselves to help one they may or may not have known.

God of Light, receive our thanks.

Merciful God, as we come to grips with this evil, we cry out for justice, yet we hear those who mix justice with vengeance. This is our hour to tell the world that healing comes not from death but from life. You hold accountable the guilty; give us the courage to speak redemption even in the darkest places.

God of Light, shine in the darkness.

By your grace, we depart to offer healing, hope, and love to all those who need it. May we walk in the paths of our lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

 

 

This Sunday’s Sermon: To Be and To Do

There is real power in sharing one’s story of “having been there.” This week’s lectionary gospel follows what happens immediately after last week’s verse on Mary Magdalene when the gathered disciples are joined by the risen Jesus. Except Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there, but his story of needing to fully experience Jesus by physically touching the wounds is the ultimate, “I’ve been there” story. But as this week’s events of tragedy unfolded, I could sense God moving me to consider the other passage, about one’s experiences, in 1 John and the witness of togetherness found in Acts.

 

1 John was written when some of the early churches around Ephesus were in shock. A portion of Christians had broken off from the main church and were teaching that Jesus did not have a physical body but a spiritual one, so the crucifixion and resurrection were a sort of drama but not an actual death. This may or may not rattle you, but to the people to whom the author is speaking, it was as if the church was split in two.

 

It was a tragedy – it was shocking and heart wrenching. They were already experiencing persecution and death at the hands of the authorities. They already knew that pain; this made it much worse. It was such a heresy to certain church leaders that the author later in the letter refers to this group as “antichrists” (2:18).

 

Imagine being in this church. Your community is in turmoil; you are going through so much. You look to one of the elders who can offer guidance. How could someone not believe in the resurrection? You want to know that what you believe is real. That there is a God who loves us and a Christ who died for us and through this act we receive forgiveness for our sins. You want to believe that Easter was and is real.

 

Or imagine that you are trying to speak to a community that is in shock. You need to offer courage and hope. You want to push back against the bad belief, but you don’t want to encourage the worriers to take any action that could cause them to sin.

 

We can even be a little understanding of those who had split. They had reasoned that if God could die, even by God’s own choosing, then God couldn’t be all powerful. It is easy for us to villainize that which we don’t understand, but if we put ourselves in the shoes and pathways of those involved, we see a bit of humanity in everyone. These are people – not demons – and are also subject to God’s grace and forgiveness.

 

There is a real power in lived experience that we find in empathy. To hear from one’s own experience adds relatability. That is why storytelling is such a powerful tool in understanding the Bible – it gives room to empathize. The letter opens with the personal testimony that the author had seen, heard, and touched the risen Jesus, or at least speaks on behalf of one who did. As if he is saying, “I was there; hear my story too.”

 

The events of yesterday speaks to that same power. As the week passed, and the news of a lost child abruptly transitioned from search and rescue to the shock and horror of homicide, those who knew Joe, who know the family, who have been a part of that specific community, spoke out in grief and loss. Circles of contact collapsed into a single unity of solidarity. Friends and strangers who had all week donated their time, their effort, their bodies, and their resources all became as one voice: we do this for Joe. They now hold a lived experience and a testimony to the power of a community unified.

 

The reason people banded together was to care for a child. Deep in our hearts we know that a lost child is something worth our time. We band together to find the vulnerable and to bring them back home. Such sympathy exists that would encourage strangers to help a family in need. Even those who did not know Joe specifically know children, or they know someone who experiences autism, or they know caregivers of those who do. That is what it is to be fully human – to share experiences, to empathize and sympathize, and to act when possible.

 

This becomes the story of our second reading. In Acts, we are introduced to the early church community. The early Christians shared not only their experience and their testimony, of fear for their lives and the lives of those they cared about but used that shared reality to set up communities where they fully relied on each other.

 

They band together and share everything. They had a common purpose – to live as followers of the Way, disciples of Jesus – instead of stayed separate from one another. They had a common purpose, and the differences that used to make them suspicious of each other quickly dissolved. They found commonality through shared testimony and lived experience.

 

I have great hope that the events of this week are further evidence that God’s law of love still rests firmly in the hearts of family and of strangers. While it grieves me to witness such hope in the midst of darkness, I can see that the church in Acts is still possible in us today. Imagine if we were to see ourselves as part of a larger group that bands together all the time. Events like the tragedy we witnessed yesterday would be less and less possible. More people would be watching; less would be apathetic or blind to the truth of a parent with ill-intent, or a child without the appropriate watchfulness.

 

With this shared community comes questions of wondering whether we can trust others to be fair and to not take advantage of our good will. 1 John speaks to that: those who are walking in the light of Christ have no reason to fear evil. If you walk in the light, you are not only forgiven – which is the real celebration of the resurrection, not just eternal life – then you have no reason to fear where the light leads. Some may claim to be in the light but have dark or false intentions in their heart; those intentions will be found out soon enough.

 

That is the balance of faith: it is not just that we seek goodness outwardly, we must also be good inwardly. Strict adherence to law without grace and compassion can make one vengeful and idolatrous. We are called to the greatest good. To be the community of faith and to do what faithful people do.

 

Even as we grieve and ponder over a beautiful life departed today, there is much work and discernment to do in the wider church. As was noted in this morning’s announcements, there are opportunities to walk in the light of Christ as we seek to strengthen the United Methodist Church. On the one hand, we seek ways to join together with our family of faith in the Memphis Conference. It offers some great advantages and new challenges in realigning our various groups and agencies into single units. This involves money, and money can sometimes challenge even the most devout Christian.

 

Similarly, we as a denomination are not of one mind on matters of human sexuality. This subject has been with us for decades, and we have yet to find a graceful way of reconciling all the lives, experiences, and beliefs of those who claim the identity of United Methodist.

 

As we walk this path together, we must rely on the words of both Acts and 1 John: if we are to be the kind of community God calls us to be, to have the fullness of belief in Christ’s resurrection within us, we must walk in the light of Christ. We must seek to weed out the darkness in our hearts, that our intentions and hopes are purely based on God’s love.

 

Make no mistake, it is not always easy to walk in the light, especially when lived experience leads us on paths of potential darkness. When tragedy occurs, even as we band together to help the suffering, thoughts enter our minds that justice against the father should be swift and brutal. Yet Christ calls us to consider the brokenness that plagues all people. When we find ways to unify ministry based on our wallets and the protection of our individual church, we remember the early disciples claimed no building or budget – just the clothes on their back and the kindness of strangers. When we claim biblical references for how we are to understand each other’s relationships and beliefs, we also understand that all need God’s love and none come where they aren’t welcome.

 

We have seen what beautiful things can happen when communities come together around shared experience. When people come together out of love for God, for children, for the grieving and the hopeful. We have a story to tell, that even in darkness, there is a light that leads us.

April 1, 2018

April 1, 2018: Easter – Expect Miracles

 

Video of Entire Service: YouTube

Video of Sermon: YouTube

 

Scripture Used: John 20:1-18

 

It is the first day of the week. Mary Magdalene walks in the early hours to the tomb. Her beloved teacher Jesus had died on Friday, and due to the religious custom of not working during the sabbath, Mary, who we assume is going to the tomb to prepare his body (according to other gospel accounts), could not start until the day after. She goes at the earliest hour she can.

John’s gospel doesn’t tell us why she goes. It may be to finish the preparations, or it could be that she just wants to be there one more time. Just once more to be in the presence of her master, the one she followed, who had healed her of seven demons, who loved her. Even if it is just to stand outside the tomb and weep.

But she arrives to see the stone rolled away. The stone was placed there to keep out wild animals or other people from taking his body. The stone was supposed to protect what little dignity he had left, after having been executed as a criminal, shamed and beaten before that. That stone was all she had to keep him safe. And it had been moved.

She runs back and tells Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They ran to the tomb and look inside to see that the clothes are still there, the face cloth curiously folded in place. It was as if he had vanished.

The disciple whom Jesus loved goes up to the door and looks. Simon Peter catches up and immediately goes in. The disciple Jesus loved goes in after, sees the folded cloth, and believes.

The two male disciples return home, but Mary remains. What else could she do? Where would she go? She goes inside the tomb and sees two messengers there. Why hadn’t the men seen them? They asked why she was weeping.

“Why? WHY?! They took away my Lord! They took him! I gave everything to him, the one who healed me and loved me. I was by him as he died. I just want to see him one more time. But he’s gone!”

She turned, ready to get away, maybe to storm out or just leave the presence of these strangers, and she sees the gardener. Or at least she thinks he is the gardener. He asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Thinking he would be the one who would be charged with keeping this exact thing from happening, she says, “Where did you put him? Tell me! I must go find him and bring him back.”

Jesus, kindly, compassionately responding to her anger and grief, says, “Mary.”

That voice was not what she expected. The days and hours of grief, shrouded by the fear of being found and taken as conspirators, must have felt like its own prison. And at this moment, the chains fell and the doors burst open. It was HIM.

“Rabbouni!” she exclaims. The writer tells us that means teacher, but it’s more than that: it’s beloved teacher. She saw hope.

Jesus expects, like we all expect, that she would want to grab hold of him, to go back to how things used to be, but he tells her that he is beyond grasp, it wouldn’t matter if she tried. He just tells her to tell the others. So she does.

This story is about expectations:

  • When Mary and the disciples got there, they expected to find a body. They didn’t.
  • When Mary sees the risen Lord, she expects him to be the same. He isn’t.
  • When we hear this story, we expect all the disciples to tell what they have seen. They don’t.

 

Mary, who had been healed of seven demons, who knew the power of grace in the most personal of ways, was the first person to proclaim the gospel of the risen Lord. Who’d have expected it: A woman was the first to preach that Jesus rose.

Mary nor the disciples expected the resurrection. They did not expect that their teacher, who many thought was the messiah, only to watch him be killed, could still be the messiah if that was his fate. Death is permanent. There is nothing else to look for.

They had hope. They had love. Mary was even ready to take it upon herself to carry Jesus’ body back to his tomb. But they didn’t expect a miracle. Only the beloved disciple saw the cloth that was on his face had been folded up and knew what that meant: in most cultures, even then as we do today, folding your napkin meant you would return to the table.

The people hearing this in later tellings would know that the beloved disciple would recognize this meant Jesus would return. In literature and cinema, these details that are hidden for the audience are called “Easter eggs.”

______________________________________________________________

This is our story.

The guiding light of Christianity is found in Easter. While the Eastern church celebrates most around Christmas and the Incarnation, and the Western church places much of its identity on the message of sacrifice found in the cross, the foundation of the Christian witness is in the Resurrection and the empty tomb.

It takes faith to believe in the Resurrection. No matter how much logic we can place to find evidence in our belief, resurrection escapes our ability to explain. There is only room for faith in the miracle that death was defeated and the world was changed to its core.

However, faith is in short supply today. People are too ready to make quick judgments on what they do and do not believe, and on top of that, we don’t hear enough of God’s good action in the world that counts as modern miracles. We are missing stories where God has shown up in the darkest hours. So it is up to us, the Easter people, to spread hope and good news in our communities whenever we can. It is up to us to look for miracles in the world that others do not see.

Faith in miracles can be hard. The teachings of the church often find stiff resistance to our sensibilities. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and we choose which enemies to love. Jesus says to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, so we love neither very much. Jesus says feed the hungry, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, and we put our faith in systems that weed out those who don’t deserve it. We don’t have faith that God will redeem it if we love as extravagantly as we are called to.

The body of Christ needs faith; we need to believe. We need to welcome anyone and everyone who wants to hear good news. We need to let guests and visitors help design and plan our worship, our missions, and how we speak to our community. We need to believe God will never let the church down if we spend extravagantly on the needs of others. Henri Nouwen once said that nothing we give to God will ever be lost. And on top of it all, we must believe down in our souls that risk in the name of love is worth it, because no boundary can separate us from God’s love and redemption. In short, we need to expect miracles from God, from ourselves, and from each other.

But I know it is hard to believe. It is hard to expect miracles. Life gets in the way.

There are times we feel like Mary, standing outside the tomb, weeping because we see the stone rolled away.

Or times we feel like Simon Peter. Willing to jump in, but once we’ve seen nothing good is there, we are just as willing to leave.

There are times we are like the beloved disciple. The sign of something wonderful is there; we believe in it fully. We just aren’t sure if the time is right to stick around and be a part of the message.

But Mary, wrapped in the grief of her humanity, believed. She expected that something was there the others didn’t see. She had faith, and her faith was rewarded not only by the appearance of the heavenly messengers but by the risen Christ himself.

______________________________________________________________

This week, I attended the funeral of Rev. Michael Williams, who was a retired Methodist pastor in Nashville. Michael was a profound preacher and speaker, and a world-famous storyteller. He was working with many people on projects in his retirement that proclaimed the goodness of preaching, poetry, and drama. All things that bring faith and beauty into the world. Michael’s unfinished work is no tomb. All of the thousands of people who were affected by his friendship and love will go on and teach the world the very same message Michael preached and taught every day.

One day, he, like Jesus, and all the rest of us, will walk again in the presence of God, but in the meantime, his work was resurrected from the first moment someone spoke of his encouragement and support. Michael not only believed in miracles, he was one. For all his accomplishments, his greatest, I believe, was best summed up in one sentence spoken at his service: “If you thought you were his favorite, so did we all.” In a room full of over a thousand people, everyone agreed. Michael loved everybody. Everybody felt important and loved around him. May we all have such a miraculous gift.

I dare say the kind of love Michael showed is the kind that Jesus showed. The kind of love that everyone wants to believe in; the kind of love that overlooks faults and bad interactions and always seeks to come back to a good place – a place that believes in the power of resurrection.

___________________________________________________________

It is inconceivable that there is a love that could not be undone. A love that would go to all lengths to prove its reliability and its promise. That love was found true in the life of Jesus, God made flesh. He gave up his divine self, became one of us in the incarnation of his birth as a child, lived and taught us the ways of heaven, suffered rather than condemn us, and even submitted himself to the uncertainty of death. And he rose, again proving that God won’t let anything separate us from the truest of loves.

People of God, don’t just believe in miracles. Expect them to happen. In every act of kindness, every sign of hope, every moment where your love is unconditional, Jesus is there, treading the ground in an empty tomb.

In the name of the risen Christ, Amen.

March 25, 2018

March 25, 2018: Palm Sunday

 

I was driving down the interstate the other day and saw something odd. In the distance, on one of the billboards, there were two figures – one on the other’s shoulders. ‘Are you crazy?!, That’s dangerous!’ I thought.  Then, I saw what it was they were doing – painting a message, a proclamation:

EAT MOR CHIKIN!!

Oh, they were cows. The message was clear, and it tells people driving by a Chic-fil-a is close.

Getting the attention of a lot of people is a big task. Usually, it takes a really big, unavoidable statement, like a billboard with funny messages and three-dimensional cows, or the one that still works every time: a crowd too large to ignore. We have seen quite a few of these in recent time in marches, vigils, and protests. Public gatherings are the language of the people in our time.

Public statements are as old as civilization itself. If a person wants something to be shared, they go to the town squares and markets in the city where people gather.  If you have a message, you proclaim it loudly where all can witness it. This is part of our own story as Methodists. John Wesley and his friends would preach in city squares and large openings to thousands of passersby. It’s a very simple formula: if you want to get the city’s attention, you have to break their routine.

In today’s gospel, Jerusalem was a city where many people came to spread their messages. Some came to sell their goods in the market; some came to worship God in the upcoming festival of the Passover; but the biggest proclamations were by those who were in charge. There was the local king Herod Antipas who lived in luxury. We know of Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his assumed garrison of soldiers. And, as was read in Mark, we see Jesus of Nazareth, who some believed was the Son of God coming into town in a great procession.

That’s a proclamation none could ignore. It infuriated those who upheld the status quo, who needed everyone in their unbroken routines so they kept quiet. In Jerusalem was the Temple of God Most High. How could this man be claimed to be God’s son? It’s blasphemy! Then there was the Roman authority that could not be threatened by anyone in the border region of Judea/Palestine where rebellion was ripe. This tension will lay heavily in the coming week. Who is this person proclaimed to be coming in the name of God?

We see the details around this proclamation in Mark’s gospel. Jesus sends his disciples ahead to find a colt on which he will ride into the city. Some translations say donkey, but colt is more in line with history. The colt contrasts with the expectation that he would ride a horse or camel, something associated with royalty or might. This is a humbler animal, befitting of the Christ child born in a manger. Those with keen eyes and sharp knowledge will recognize the important detail that it be an unridden animal hearkening to passages in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and 1 Samuel where the unridden animal has great importance in temple practice. This colt shows the pure nature of Christ’s coming: he will be no conqueror, in the traditional sense of military conquest and violence.

As he enters the city, people come waving palms and laying their clothes down in the streets for the procession, shouting “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We know the language of this proclamation by memory and yet don’t know its meaning. ‘Hosanna’ from the Hebrew hôšî‘â-nā’ translates ‘save, I pray.’ From the palms and the laying down of clothing rather than flowers and blankets, we know these people are poor. The poor people of Jerusalem are calling on Jesus to save them. I don’t think they mean spiritually. They don’t mean for Jesus to pray for their troubles. They want to be saved from their oppression and their hopelessness.

If you read earlier, Jesus and his disciples are coming from Jericho, so they should enter the city from the north, yet today’s reading says they took a path from Bethpage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. The eastern gate.  This is another time to know one’s Bible deeper than the words on the page. The Mount of Olives is significant in the prophesy of the city’s defeat in 2 Samuel and in Zechariah 14, when the city is finally defeated in the end times. Jesus is coming a way associated with triumph, but triumph against the city itself in judgment. Not to save it; to destroy it. So – to recap -we have a humble savior, a people begging to be saved, and a path leading to destruction and judgment.

For those who grew up with the original Looney Toons cartoons, this is one of the moments when Wiley Coyote holds up a sign with the words “uh-oh.” Unlike Wiley Coyote, the people do not see this thing turning out differently than they would imagine. They think the proclamation is God is coming to save them from the powers of the world. Jesus is the anointed ruler who will use his angels to defeat evil. They would join in the triumph. Their message, their gathering united in one voice, disturbing the peace, was that the Savior had come and everyone better get ready.

Their proclamation was that God will conquer evil. Their proclamation was not in Christ, but in themselves. By the end of this week, they will turn on their savior. Their palm branches will be left in the dust and dirt of the city. Some may even be the ones on Friday shouting “Crucify!”

If we are to learn anything from today’s passage, it is that our proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord will take an immense amount of faith in what his lordship actually means. We can tell stories of what Jesus has done and still not believe in him truly. We can claim him in our identity and still walk away from him in word and deed. From its root in Old French to proclaim is to make something public. What is our public message? That judgment is coming and everyone better watch out? Or that Jesus comes into our lives, disrupting our routines, and is willing to do everything to love us?

This reminds me of a story I was told years ago. A little boy asked his family for a fishing pole for Christmas. When he received the pole, he carefully strung it with the best line, he got a few really nice lures, and he marched proudly down to the fishing pond. As the days went by, he talked about fishing and considered himself a fisherman. So, his friends asked him if they could come. He took them and his family down to the pond, prepared his lure, pulled it back and let it fly. Do you know what happened next? Caught his best friend right in the heel. You see, he talked about being a fisherman and all his friends thought he was one. But most of the time, he just went down to the pond and skipped rocks, occasionally attempting to cast. In his mind, he had a fishing pole, so he was a fisherman. He knew how to be around a pond, so he he was a fisherman. But when it came time to fish, he realized he thought he knew how, but his poor practice ended up hurting his friend.

To proclaim Christ is to proclaim him not only in our words and what others see but also in our practice. We have to seek God’s knowledge in church, then we have to model it outside of church. We should read the Scriptures, and we should study them for what we don’t know. We not just memorize the Bible’s words but learn its meaning and depth, too.

This is the challenge of Holy Week. This is the challenge of Palm Sunday. We read these passages as words on a page. We proclaim gospel from our coffee mugs and inspirational posters, but we are charged to live them out. We can attend church on a Sunday, but we must participate in its work, offering ourselves up to be used. You cannot proclaim Christ passively, waiting to be notified. Proclamation is an active word; your faith is to love and be present.

When the world asks where God is, especially when times are toughest, we must be willing to proclaim the true Gospel in our dedication to the message: God’s kingdom has come, is currently happening, and will continue to happen until the day that sorrow shall cease and all will worship God together.

Yesterday, I attended the march in Nashville and witnessed first-hand what happens when people take their proclamation seriously. It was not a teenagers’ cry for attention; it was people gathered around a common cause and voice. They spoke kindly to each other. Children and youth complemented each other on their signs. The only vulgar words and actions I saw were from those standing around showing their displeasure. Most around us met them in kindness. Some may claim it was a disruption, but it was the best Christian example of disruption, and I doubt everyone was Christian. This is a lesson for us to learn – if we want to proclaim Christ, we must live it all the time.

You see, our proclamation of Hosanna, loud Hosanna is saying to God, “Come and save us.” I am more and more convinced God’s response to the church’s prayers is that we embody Christ and work together for the common good. We are called to welcome everyone with unconditional love, because all are welcome at God’s table – some just need to be shown what it’s like to join.

Proclaim to everyone that God is with us! Like those waving their palms, with the fullness of hearts on fire, we sing aloud:

Hosanna, God, save us we pray. Blessed are those who come in the name of the Lord.

March 18, 2018

I want to let you in on a secret: strawberries and balsamic vinegar. It sounds gross, but they actually are good together. Try it. See how the sweet, tart flavors of balsamic highlight the flavor of a ripe strawberry, and vice-versa. It’s the adult version of potato chips and chocolate.

 

This week’s lectionary texts also seem like they don’t belong together yet they do. On the one hand, we have the hope-filled language of the Comfort Scroll of Jeremiah, then we get Jesus predicting his own death after some Greeks said they wanted to meet him. One is churchy, while the other, the one with Jesus, is a real headscratcher.

 

If we are to recognize the Bible’s relatability to our own lives, this dissonance – the feeling of not going together – actually makes a lot of sense. In one day, we may be relaxed by a nice cup of coffee and a cool breeze, then by the afternoon your boss told you instead of the promotion you were expecting, you get to take on the even more duties for no additional pay. Your parents come for a visit, to tell you your cousin is in jail. Sometimes we get comfort, sometimes we get anxiety; and then we have times where we get both. We just hope they come in that order: anxiety or bad news, then the comfort. But, like today’s Scriptures, it is starting on the comfort that leads us through difficulty.

 

What is commonly referred to as the Comfort Scroll came after the dispersed Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. We like to think that they were very excited to come home, and they likely were, but coming home after generations of being gone meant someone else came in. There was rebuilding to do. There was a society to organize. Jeremiah’s words speak to the anxiousness they must have felt about who would do what jobs. And the most important part – setting up their religious life – was going to be a challenge. Many of the old leaders were gone, and the directions were not easy to follow. How would they ever live up to their longstanding covenant with God? How would they ever please God?

 

As God’s mouthpiece, the writer of Jeremiah reminds them: “I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah…They will no longer need to teach each other to say, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they all know me, and I will forgive their wrongdoing.”[1]  For a people who are already worried, it is good to hear God can see the need to change the agreement and offer them additional help.

 

Adapting to change takes time and a lot of tries. One of the great pieces of wisdom I was offered to succeed in ministry is to be comfortable with failure. God does not punish us for trying and failing. Here, the word goes further: God will help us in our trials. All that we are called to be is within us and we simply need to remember it. Then, we will spread the good news so effectively, there will be a day that teaching of who God is will no longer be necessary.

 

That is some very real encouragement in times of stress and worry.

 

Then we turn to John, and we see that encouragement get tested.

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples have entered Jerusalem following the events we will celebrate next Palm Sunday. The greeting was wonderful, but the true test was what lie ahead.

 

Some Greeks in the city come up to Philip – the only disciple with a Greek name – and ask to see Jesus. Rather than going to Jesus by himself, Philip tells Andrew and the both of them go. I may be mistaken, but this doesn’t feel like following the hierarchy. It feels like Philip needs a buddy. He’s anxious about what Jesus will say.

 

If you read a little before this, you’ll be reminded that Jesus had just come in to the city to the sound of loud “Hosanna”’s of the people. It is easy to understand why the Gentiles would want to see Jesus – he was a celebrity that day. They may have heard of him before, or they may have noticed that someone who was not the incoming Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, or the acting king, Herod, was getting the day’s attention.

 

Jesus’ response cuts right to the heart of what is about to happen. He tells them that the moment has come for God to be glorified through the Human One, the Son of God in traditional texts, and that those who seek to save their lives will lose it and those who hate their lives will be saved.

 

 

In the reading, I purposefully left out verse 33, where the writer adds commentary that Jesus is speaking about his death. It is more interesting and telling to hear how Jesus responds without knowing that. His words are not meant to bring comfort. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,”[2] and “…[God] is gathering the good wheat and burning up the useless chaff.”[3] Jesus is putting out a factual statement – not an ultimatum – that those who claim to follow better be ready. To the ears of the Greeks, and maybe some of the disciples, this sounds ominous, and maybe even reminiscent of the promised warrior-messiah the Jews expected.

 

What they heard and what we hear today are different. We don’t expect the warrior. We know of the savior, but what he says about giving away one’s life still induces a certain feeling of uncertainty and “surely he can’t mean that.” In short, we aren’t called to fulfill our own life plans. We like to use language that God calls us to do exactly what we are doing or what is comfortably within our reach, but if you read the gospels as they are written, God seemingly didn’t intend for all of us to live as comfortably as we do while others down the road suffer.

 

The main point, however, is that we recognize that God has given us the Instructions to follow the call of Christ from the moment we first recognized him. God calls us to a certain life of selflessness, and for those that choose it honestly, mistakes can be made and God forgives. We, like the Israelites returning from exodus, have a new covenant with God that allows for the murkiness of ministry in the modern age. As long as our hearts are in it, we can rest assured that our lives have meaning and anything we give to God will be remembered by God. The pressure to succeed is off, because God uses our successes and our failures.

 

For both Jeremiah and John, the lesson is not that we excel at our faith. God will work in us to achieve what is needed. We aren’t likely headed to a place where we have to give up our lives like the disciples, but we should be ready to give up our security and comfort if God so calls us there. We should have faith that God has indeed made us ready by putting the Instruction on our hearts to persevere through whatever trial we may go through as disciples ourselves.

 

This is the God whose people rebuilt the Temple again and again through the miracles of God’s provision. This is the God who led the people out of Egypt, brought them back from exile, cast out demons and healed the sick, gave new meaning to the broken and the lost. This is the God who has proven our sinfulness and cynicism cannot extinguish the bright flame of love. If we have that in our heart, we will know what to do next. If you are struggling to hear God’s word in your life today, start with the Scripture of Jeremiah 31. Pray for God to reveal the Instruction to you.

 

While it would feel better to hear Christ calling us to total discipleship and to give of our lives before being told that God has etched in our hearts how to do it, it is more like life to be reminded of the promises of God before we examine what it could cost. Charlotte-Fagan has offered many wonderful saints to the kingdom of God who were able to accomplish great things through this church’s ministry to the community just by believing God was with you. You built a church on the promise that a one, united church was better that two. You built a playground and a pavilion so people in the community would have a place to safely gather. You have held fish fries and pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners to fund mission work. You know how to hear from God, and I believe you will continue to do so if you ask.

 

Wherever you end up and whatever you do to glorify God’s kingdom, remember that God has had a purpose for you all along. It is engrained in your heart – a seed planted for a future day – and I hope you find it or are currently living in it. Christ calls us to follow him wherever he goes, but with the promises of God, we will bring about the kingdom of heaven to this world through the transformational power of Christ’s love.

[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34

[2] Matthew 25:46

[3] Matthew 3:12

February 4, 2018

February 4, 2018: Why (Should I)?

  • RECAP: Last week, I began with the question, “Why did you come to church today?” I asked it, because I wanted to know if we held a common understanding of what church is. I offered a list of reasons that people come to church:
    • To be HEALED: Church is comfort in crisis. It is the hospital for the sinsick and the brokenhearted
    • To be HEARD: Many of us see our church as an extended family. We come to be heard by God and also to express ourselves with our family
    • We see it as a place where we can be UPLIFTED. This is where we get inspiration through the music, the prayers, the sermon, the fellowship, just by being here.
  • The original purpose of Sunday morning service is to worship God – to tell God that God carries value in our lives
    • The purpose of the church itself- its mission – is to care for those who are in need of nourishment, belonging, shelter (Matthew 25) and to make disciples of all people (Matthew 28)
  • MOVING FORWARD: These reasons start out as good reasons. However, we have turned this mission for outsiders into a mission for ourselves and those closest to us, which is what naturally happens, but we shouldn’t end with it.
    • We want to be comfortable, and we often insist on our comfort, but comfort doesn’t encourage us to do anything. And we don’t want discomfort, so we avoid it, even if the discomfort is good for us.
  • I have done a lot of thinking about why it is we fulfill God’s calling for the church when we want to, and what stops us, things I hear or feel from myself or from others that push us to not ask “why am I here?” but to instead declare “Why should I be here?,” especially when there is threat that we might be called to discomfort. Here are three reasons I want to cover today:
    • I just want to worship and that’s it. I don’t really care about being more Christian than that.
    • I like helping and serving others, but I don’t want to let them know me
    • This could cost something more than I want to give
    • In short – I’m not ready to do this.
  • EXEGESIS: Isaiah comforts the people returning from exile
    • There was a period of history when God’s chosen people were in exile in far away lands. They have been allowed to return but they feel lost having been gone for so long. Their homeland is no longer theirs, and they don’t know what to do with themselves.
    • That is common. When we are in trouble, our goal is survival. When we are no longer in trouble, especially after having been used to crisis for a long time, we don’t know how to get our lives back together.
      • This happens a lot in our busy lives. When we aren’t having to go from event to event and finally get our time off, what do we do? We start finding other things to keep us busy!
    • The people don’t know what or how to rebuild, so the prophet tells them that God is with them. They just need to focus on what God has called them to their covenant.
      • What is our covenant with God? It is to care for the world and to make disciples. We think of God and worship as something we do when we have time. If we make those things primary, God will take care of our needs and give our lives and jobs meaning. We will look to serve God through what we are and do – not when we feel up to it.
    • THE POINT: We Have to Get to the Bottom of Our Excuses
      • We fear letting others in, so we stick our heads in the sand when we realize their stories can make us see differently. We hate to think we are only a few bad moments away from homelessness, poverty, addiction, or being the victim of oppression.
        • There is a reason God calls us to care for the widows, orphans, lost, and lonely and not the powerful. Have you met someone who has lost everything and is still going strong? They are unstoppable! They have adjusted to reliance on God and are good. As we care for them, they will care for us by showing us even the darkest hours still contain love and hope.
        • Our greatest struggle often looks like we are too busy, but I would imagine it is actually FEAR: fear to be vulnerable, fear to be equal, fear to be like someone else. So we find other things that we would rather do.
        • God blesses us when we allow the discomfort of shared humanity, because then we can better understand Jesus.
      • We struggle with sacrifice because we know that part of discipleship means we may have to sacrifice for people who aren’t our friends and family. Real sacrifice like this adult eagle shedding its feathers for the two babies. We don’t know those are his or her babies. What if it was another grown bird?
        • Getting rid of what we use for comfort and going to necessities means someone else might get a necessity to live. And God blesses us with resilience when we are uncomfortable and sustenance when we find we need little.
        • In reviewing old newsletters this week, I came across a wonderful, succinct summary of what we are called to do by Kenneth Turner. He writes, “God will accept us where we are, but often changes in our lives are necessary. We must be willing to take a step toward God and be prepared for God to take a leap toward us.” What shall we fear if we embrace our faith and run towards the One who is perfect love.
      • Then the saddest yet most pressing problem. People in church may care about the church staying open, or keeping its traditions, but by and large, we just don’t care.
        • I don’t have an answer. God calls each of us to contribute. My job is to lead you to say “yes” to God and lead us to the land where we cannot see the future. This is where we find we most need Isaiah’s words of comfort to navigate uncharted lands.
      • What if we tell God “yes”?
        • Churches operate local missions – we can help keep our church as a place where people can have their spiritual and material needs met (community garden in city)
        • Churches fund international missions – there are parts of the world that depend on the donations and efforts of people who will help them build wells and stop disease outbreaks (water tower in Zambia)
        • Churches can mobilize to offer a witness for creation care, civil rights, and other witnesses to God’s justice (Filipinos plant 3000 trees)
        • You can save lives of those without hope. You can reverse addictions and give orphans homes. You can demand we focus less on war and more on saving lives through faithful action. You can declare the coming of God’s righteousness.
      • SUMMARY: Our calling matters. When we ask “why am I here?” God answers. When we ask “Why should I do this?” God shows us a hurting world and a desire to be in relationship with us. When God asks us why we wait, we offer reasons and excuses, and Jesus responds with “follow me,” so that’s what I’m doing.