Saturday, November 5, 2016

Keeping Jesus From Being a Four-Letter Word

Sermon preached at REACH Summit
Troy, Michigan, October 14, 2016

Tests
Matthew 28:16-20
Luke 10:25-28
Psalm 85:8-13

            Thank you for welcoming me here tonight.  I am new to this whole bishop gig, but one of its joys is that I get to be in places like this with all of you who are committed to helping the church be its best as it seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  So thanks for being here.
            As I said, I am pretty new to this whole bishop role.  They even sent me for a week of training with other newly elected bishops.  We were at a United Methodist Retreat Center on St. Simon Island, Georgia – and I don’t know if it says anything but a week after we were there a hurricane blew through the island.  I am glad we had left, but my heart grieves for all those who were not so fortunate, particularly in Haiti.
            It was while I was traveling to this new bishop training that I heard about the death of Arnold Palmer.  Before Arnold Palmer was pitching heart medication, or selling his patented combination of ice tea and lemonade, Arnold Palmer was a golfer, a really good golfer.  When I was a child, Arnold Palmer was a golf legend.  He is credited with almost single-handedly making golf a popular sport in the United States.  Television was becoming popular, now that was before my time, and Arnold Palmer was photogenic.  He was followed around by people who called themselves “Arnie’s Army.”  His golf battles with Jack Nicklaus were legendary.
            So when I was a kid, learning to play golf, you wanted either to be like Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer.  Well, I never quite made it.  I still golf some, but usually pretty badly.  I brought one club with me tonight, a trouble wedge, and it usually lives up to its name.  Nearly every time I use it I get into more trouble.  I have found, though that golf is quite a prayerful sport.  On summer Sunday mornings I think there is a real competition between churches and golf courses as to which place you hear “Jesus Christ” more.  And that’s often an awkward moment, if you have been paired with some other people on the golf course, and you’ve played a few holes and the other golfers have been using some of that golf course slang, and then they get around to asking you what you do.  “Pastor.”  Blustery grown men offer quiet excuses for their language.  Maybe next summer I will have to see what happens when I say “Bishop.”
            So Jesus gets invoked on the golf course, and some might get quite exorcised about that – Jesus as a four-letter word.  But here is my deeper concern, that sometimes the church makes Jesus a kind of four-letter word.
            Many of you are aware of research done by the Barna group on young people’s perceptions of the church: that the church is too narrow, anti-science, too rejecting of popular culture, simplistic, judgmental, homophobic, unsafe for asking questions.  I think of what one writer penned: Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow…. What was true once upon a time can be true again and should be true always: curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload.  (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion)  When “Jesus” seems to become too narrow, isolating, rejecting, irrelevant he seems to become something of a four-letter word.  We are here precisely to prevent that from happening.
            So what does that look like?  It is in the name of the summit – REACH.  I want to paint with some broad brush strokes tonight.  What does a church that wants to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word look like?  It reaches.
            Our first reach is to reach out.  We know well the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  We know it so well we have a short-hand for it – the great commission.  It ends with great news.  We don’t go alone.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
            We have good news to share about a God who is with us in Jesus Christ.  We have news about a God who is near in Jesus to offer life – full, rich abundant life… wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around, curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is healing for our wounded souls.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness for our broken lives.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is hope and joy.  We are here because we believe that.  We are here because we know that in the depth of our souls.  We are here because we want to reach out and share that good news.
            But how we reach out with this good news matters.  Do our methods match the good news that we have?  In the early flourishes of my Christian faith as a teenager I engaged in street witnessing – passing our Christian newspapers on street corners trying to engage people in conversation.  To be honest, I was young, and hoped that someone might take a paper, but not really want to talk much.  But sometimes we get the idea that we have to, as quickly as possible in our conversations with people get to the question, “Are you saved?”
            I have been thinking about this kind of response to the great commission, and thinking that asking someone we don’t know all that well “are you saved?” might be a bit like asking someone we don’t know all that well, “how’s your sex life?” or “how are things going with your husband or wife or parents?” Isn’t salvation about what is happening in the depth of our hearts, minds, souls and lives?  Isn’t God’s saving love in Jesus something that makes a difference to all that we are and the way that we live?  Maybe we need to earn the right to ask such a deep question, earn that right by being good friends, by listening to the heartaches and joys of others, by paying attention to their deepest hope and dreams and hurts and disappointments, by walking with people.
            There is a bit of a tension -  a sense of the importance of the good news we have to share, but also a sense that maybe, just maybe, Jesus is already present in that person’s life.  Jesus promises to be with us, and maybe Jesus arrives ahead of us.  The great commission begins with the line that all authority in heaven and on earth is Jesus’s.  Sounds like Jesus might get around.  Maybe we can let our questions about being saved and one’s relationship to Jesus flow out of caring relationships we develop, trusting that Jesus might be present in some ways  before we ever ask about someone’s relationship to him.
            We keep Jesus from being a four-letter word by reaching out in ways that are kind, caring, gentle and loving and not intrusive, reaching out with some emotional intelligence rather than being emotionally obtuse.
            There is another dimension to reaching out that is also vitally important – reaching out in caring and compassion to a hurting world in ways that meet human need and build structures of justice.  I chose three Scripture readings for tonight very intentionally.  We are used to hearing about the great commission, and often that is paired with the great commandment – to love God and others.  I would like to suggest a third part to this – the great kingdom.  We are given a great commission, to be lived in the spirit of a great commandment, all in the service of a great kingdom, or kin-dom – a way of life where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness (or justice) and peace will kiss each other.
            We are here because we love Jesus, and we love the church and we want our churches to be alive, vital and vibrant.  All good.  Alive, vital and vibrant churches, in turn, are the building blocks for a newer world where love and faithfulness meet, where justice and peace embrace and kiss.  And we need to be living that.  Our churches need to be places that care about human hurt and human need outside our doors as well as inside our walls.  No church can do everything, but every church can do something for compassion and justice.  While we do this in the name and Spirit of Jesus, and we should let others know that, our giving of ourselves in compassion and justice should be a genuine self-giving.  I will never forget being on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and hearing that the churches at one time made church attendance a prerequisite for the Native people to receive food aid.  I am sure it was well-intentioned, but it broke my heart.  You can guess what happened.  When food aid became uncoupled from church attendance, church attendance among the native peoples dropped dramatically.  Jesus had become something of a four-letter word to them.
And some of what we do for the kingdom or kin-dom, happens inside our walls.  If we are about a great kingdom, we should feel challenged to have our congregations look a bit more like places where steadfast love and faithfulness meet and justice and peace kiss.  We should struggle a bit with church growth methods that only emphasize our “target market.”  I was never very comfortable with church growth models that put too much stock in “Joe Saddleback.”  I’m not saying not to pay attention to lifestyles and all, but if we begin to think that we are only here as a church for certain people we may be limiting God’s kin-dom work.  There may be limits to the variety that can live in any congregation, but I think the Spirit always pushes our pre-conceived limits.  Reaching out is not simply about who we can attract it is also about who is in our neighborhood and who is in need.
            To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, reach out with God to build a world where justice and peace embrace and kiss.
            There is another important direction to our reach as well.  If our churches are to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to be helping people reach in.  One of the joys in life for me is stumbling upon an author whose work moves my life forward in fresh ways.  I look at footnotes when I am reading because that’s where I have found some wonderful writers.  Aren’t I just an exciting sounding person – I golf badly and I read footnotes!
            Anyway, a few years ago I stumbled across an author named Michael Eigen in a footnote in a book on pastoral counseling.  Eigen is Jewish and a psychoanalyst, but he has done a lot to help me in my Christian journey.  One of the things I love about Eigen is that he is eminently quotable.  Here are a couple of wonderful thoughts from his book FaithI don’t think that religious or spiritual people are immune to inflicting their personalities on others (95).  You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society (96).
            I truly believe the love of God in Jesus is powerful, powerful to heal our brokenness, to redirect our attention and energy, to reach into the deepest places in our hearts and minds and souls.  The great commandment to love, in important ways, directs us inward to being formed in love.  But to be formed in love inwardly, we need to be honest about the wounds we carry, the disappointments and grief that mark us.  How often seemingly vibrant churches grind to a halt when a charismatic leader loses his way and violates important relational boundaries.  Some inner work of love was not done.  How unattractive too many of our churches become when they are unable to help each other work with differences and conflict.  Some inner work of love was not done.  In our baptismal covenant we promise to surround persons with a community of love and forgiveness.  That requires inner work – engaging the spiritual disciplines with sufficient psychological wisdom to let God’s Spirit transform our hearts in love.
            To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help people in our churches reach in.
            Finally, to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help the people in our churches reach up.  One could use that image to speak of loving God and connecting with God, and that would be good.  I assume that all this reaching out and in and up have to do with connecting with God in love.  What I have in mind with reaching up is this, we need to help people discover and use the wonderful gifts God has given them.  We need to help people reach up to be all that God would have them be.
            Think again of some of those words young people associate with the church – narrow, judgmental, anti-science, unsafe for questions.  Don’t they all sound like being pushed down?  There is so much in our culture that pushes people down.  The entirety of our advertising industry exists to tell us we are not enough.  We don’t need our churches to be places whose primary language pushes us down instead of lifting us up.
            We need to be telling people that God has given them gifts, gifts for loving, caring, sharing, leading and we want to help them reach up into them.  People have different gifts, but all matter, all have a place, all have value.  Helping people reach up is another way we keep Jesus from becoming a four-letter word.
            I want to tell you tonight that it is good that you are here.  This sermon has painted with broad brushstrokes, but you have people who have come who are making all this happen and they have come to share their stories and their experiences and their hard lessons with you.  There are workshops on reaching out – understanding your neighborhood, sharing good news with emotional intelligence, building multi-cultural ministry; there are workshops on reaching in – small groups for making disciples, leading yourself; there are workshops on reaching up – helping people clergy and lay know they have gifts for God’s work in the world.

            We are a people who in and through Jesus have a great commandment to love, have a great commission to share, have a great kin-dom to build.  We want Jesus to be good news, not a four-letter word, so we are committed to reaching out, reaching in and reaching up.  God’s love embrace us, God’s vision of the kissing of justice and peace inspire us, God’s Spirit energize us for the work ahead, and remember the words of Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end.”  Amen.

On the Road Again

Sermon preached at the welcoming events in the Michigan area in September and October

Texts
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Titus 1:7-9
Mark 12:28-34

            So when you saw the sermon title, how many of you thought of Willie Nelson?  How many of you thought of Canned Heat?  Maybe some of you thought about Jack Kerouac.  Anybody think, Bob and Bing?  So we have some country music people, some blues people, some literary people, and some classic movie buffs. You may also be thinking that this sermon will be about the life of a bishop – on the road again.  Yes, I have been and will be traveling plenty, and I look forward to seeing you and meeting you and getting to know you and working with you in the ministry of Jesus Christ, but that is not the road I am going down in this sermon.
            The Bible can be seen as a kind of road story.  One of the earliest confessions of faith in the Scriptures (re: Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology) is found in the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy.  The setting for the confession is an offering – an offering to be made when the people arrive in the land.  When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and prosperous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
            The earliest confession of faith in God in our Scriptures is a road story.  A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.  The God of the Bible is a God on the move.  The God of the Bible is a God who walks with us.  God wants to enter our stories, the stories of our lives.  God wants to give our lives and our stories direction.  That direction is love.  The earliest confession of faith in the Bible, this road story, lets us know that God wants our stories, the stories of our lives and our faith communities, to become part of the story of God, a God who wants to move our lives in the direction of love.  When we lose sight of that direction, our lives and our churches lose their way.
            So let me tell you a little bit of my story and of how God has touched my life, bringing me to this point where I am now the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan, your bishop.  It is a pretty unlikely story with some Michigan roots, perhaps as unlikely a story as God finding the ancestors of a wandering Aramean enslaved in Egypt and bringing them to a new place.
            My ancestor was not a wandering Aramean.  My father was not much of a church goer, either, nor was his father, my grandfather who was the son of Swedish immigrants born in Bay City, Michigan.  My grandfather, Albert Bard, was born in Bay City, but his mother died when he was young and his father re-located the family to Duluth, Minnesota.  My dad was raised Catholic in Duluth, the faith of his mother, but as an adult he rarely went to church.  I can only remember a few times, confirmation and my first Sunday at First UMC Duluth.  Though he lived near, he never came back to First UMC Duluth, until we brought his ashes there after his death in 2009, and there is some sadness in that for me.  He came by his lack of church-going naturally, I guess.  When my dad was dying in 2009 he told me that his father did not want to see a clergy person while he was in the hospital dying.  I don’t know why my grandfather felt the way he did, I was only in my early teens when my grandfather died, but it may have had to do with his struggles with alcohol, something my dad also struggled with.  It may be a reason my dad found church difficult.
            It was my mom who got my sister, brother and I to church when she could.  She did not drive, so we walked – walked to the nearest Protestant church.  I was baptized Presbyterian.  We moved about a mile and a half when I was six, and we ended up at a United Methodist Church.  My mom did her best.  She signed us up for religious release time classes and vacation Bible school.  We would not have been the most active family in the church by any means.  Yet it was at that United Methodist Church that God’s love in Jesus became real to me.  When I was thirteen, in the eighth grade – you know those junior high years that we all consider so wonderful - my Sunday School teacher at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth told me about God’s love for me in Jesus.  Her own care and compassion made that love very real to me.  I said “yes” to God, “yes” to Jesus.  I was born again.  I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  For me, the best way I have come to think about this is that I said “yes” to this God who had already said “yes” to me.  God had joined me on the road of my life, or I could say I took a different road with Jesus.
            My life was changed.  I became involved with a Jesus People church.  I witnessed in the streets.  To be honest, I was probably a little religiously obnoxious.  I may not have been very gracious is describing God’s grace in Jesus.  There were times I thought my United Methodist Church was not getting it right, but I stayed with it.  As I grew, questions emerged.  I needed a thoughtful faith, a faith that could help me navigate questions and ponderings.  I drifted some, but this United Methodist Church had a place for me, even then.
            College was a time of questioning, wondering, wandering, not giving up on faith, but asking how I could engage it, asking what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in a more complicated world than I imagined at 13.  I majored in philosophy and psychology.  I had become a lover of music and literature.  I had developed a deep concern for justice and peace.  Seminary was a time to explore even more questions, and there God took this questioning, wondering follower of Jesus and called him into the ordained ministry.  How odd.  How unlikely.  Yet if God was willing to walk the road with me in Jesus, even in the midst of doubts and questions and wonderings, perhaps God could use me to walk with others on the road of their lives in ways that helped bring them closer to Jesus.  Perhaps God could use me to help people come together in communities of hope and healing, compassion and caring, justice and joy, witness and service, love and forgiveness.  God has put in my heart a burning desire to help people find a faith that is thoughtful – engaging the mind; passionate – engaging the heart and wanting to share this love of God in Jesus; and compassionate – seeking to bring justice and healing to a hurting broken world in the name and Spirit of Jesus.  God called me to do this in The United Methodist Church, this place that has been there to help me be born again, and to help me born again and again – deepening my faith, enlarging my heart, setting my mind and soul on fire. If I have a passion for The United Methodist Church, and I do, it is because here God has met me time and time again on the road, embraced me in love, gently nudged me to grow in the direction of love.
            My formal education was not done with seminary.  Following seminary and my first appointment as a pastor, I went back to school, earning a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  I thought teaching might be my ministry, but it was not to be.  I went back to Minnesota where I have served churches and as a district superintendent.  The road finally led to my election as a bishop this summer, and now down the road to Michigan.
            Here we are, traveling this same road as Michigan United Methodists, our stories overlapping.  We are now going to be writing the next pages of our road stories with God together.  I don’t know exactly where this story is going, and while we don’t know just what our story together will look like, here are some watermarks that I would like to characterize the pages of the story we write together as we travel the road of faith as Michigan United Methodists.  Watermarks – you know, those marks that are found embedded in high quality paper, marks you still write over to tell your story, but that are always in the background of what you write.  Here are four watermarks, and I want to touch briefly on them.
            Joy.  I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together.  The Christian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it.  Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything – faith and vision.”  Perhaps one reason churches struggle to welcome new people is that we lack the joy that is the tonality of Christian faith.
            But how can we be joyful?  Can’t I see the world around me?  Am I ignorant of the hunger, injustice, abuse, addiction, poverty, greed, environmental degradation, human inhumanity, war that exists?  Can’t I see that clean water is not just a problem in places far away but just down the road?  Aren’t I aware of the deep divisions in our society in this contentious election season, or of the significant differences in our church which are threatening to divide us?  Am I unwilling to look at hurting lives – where people grapple with illness and death and grief?  Do I just turn away from struggling faith communities – places where numbers no longer sustain congregations or conflict has torn at the very fabric of the community?  Of course not.  I see the worlds hurt, and my eyes well up with tears.  I listen to the news and my heart aches, and breaks. But isn’t the essence of Christian faith that God keeps acting in the world in Jesus Christ to redeem it, to transform it in the direction of love?  We need to take the advice of poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  Sometimes the facts lead us to cry out or just to cry, but while weeping endures for a night joy comes in the morning.  Let’s remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “discipleship is joy.”
            Wisdom.  I would like wisdom to be one of the watermarks of our story together.  That is rather audacious.  I chose the version of Jesus great commandment from Mark’s gospel because of that wisdom element.  Jesus answers the scribe wisely when asked about the greatest commandment – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself.  The scribe responds wisely to Jesus.  When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.  At the end of the story, Jesus has answered so wisely that he leaves the crowd speechless, without further questions.  One time in my time as your bishop I hope that can happen – just once!
            More seriously I would like wisdom to characterize our story together, but I think of wisdom as something that emerges from deep dialogue – honest, caring conversation and deep listening.  Parker Palmer writes that his working definition of truth is “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (A Hidden Wholeness, 127).  It may not be a complete definition, but he is on to something.  Wisdom that emerges from this kind of conversation provides us with enough insight and conviction to act, and encourages enough humility to change.
            Love.  Can any good Christian story be told without love?  Jesus said that love is the bottom line.  What’s it all about?  Love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself.  When I was in seminary I read a book on The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.  The book was thirty years old at the time, making it sixty years old now, but its central claim still rings true.  The purpose of the church and its ministry is the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor. The author, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was a well-known theologian who got his start in a Detroit church, Richard Niebuhr went on to write: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the others.  Love is at the center of the purpose of the church.
            So I know that we United Methodists have said that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I completely agree with that.  But what do disciples look like?  By this will people know that we are disciples of Jesus, by our love.  If we are not helping people grow in love, we are not making disciples.  If we are not helping transform the world in the direction of love – which includes forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and justice, then we are not transforming the world in the direction of God’s kingdom.  You know how John Wesley defined Christian perfection?  By perfection I mean the humble, gentle patient love of God and neighbor ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions (January 27, 1767)
            One final watermark, hope.  I love what the writer Anne Lamott says about hope.  Hope is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, slightly edited).  She uses a more colorful term than “stuff,” one not appropriate for a bishop’s sermon, though perhaps occasionally for a bishop’s prayer life.  Hope is choosing to believe that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us.  We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God found people whose ancestor was a wandering Aramean, heard their cry and brought them to a new place in the power of love.  We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God came among us in a special way, in a unique life, and though the forces of the empire put Jesus to death, the power of love raised him up again.  We are people of hope, and because of that we are people of joy.  We know that love is powerful and we trust that God’s Spirit still inspires in us the wisdom to follow love’s direction.

            Let me end with a nod to a Michigan theologian, Bob Seger.  Here I am, on the road again.  He I am up on the stage.  Here we are playing our song again.  Here we go, here we go, turn the page.   As we turn the page of the next chapter of our road story together and together with God, may our pages be marked with joy, wisdom, love and hope.  May it be so.  Come Spirit come.  Amen.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Be Ready, Not Afraid

Sermon preached August 7, 2016
Final Sermon at First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Luke 12:32-40

            “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (v. 32)
            Earlier in my ministry here, I confessed that I was not always a huge fan of the term “pastor.”  It derives from the Latin word for shepherd and relates to the Latin verb which means “to lead to pasture, set to grazing.”  There is something about thinking of other people using the image of sheep that I find troublesome.
            Yet, in my time here, I have come to love and embrace the term, though I do not think of you as sheep.  Jesus words are words that resonate today, filled with tenderness and care – “Do not be afraid, little flock,” though I prefer Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message – “Dearest friends.”  Do not be afraid dearest friends.
            So here is a little irony.  The symbol used for bishops contains a shepherd’s crook or crosier, and I was given a wooden crosier at my consecration.  I better get used to this imagery!
            Do not be afraid, dearest friends.  There are so many emotions today: joy and celebration, sadness and grief, anxiety and fear.  We have so much to celebrate with joy.  We have done amazing things together in our work for Jesus Christ.  It is cause for celebration. We are parting ways.  After today, I am no longer your pastor.  I am your bishop, once removed, so to speak.  Bishops in The United Methodist Church are bishops of the whole church, and then assigned to an area.  I am not the bishop of this area, but I am one of forty-six bishops for The United Methodist Church in the United States, and one of sixty-six bishops worldwide overseeing the ministry with twelve million United Methodist Christians.  We are going different directions and there is sadness and grief.  We are heading into new territory.  There is anxiety and fear.
            I would be lying if I told you I had no concerns or anxieties about my new role.  I have never been a bishop before.  I will be overseeing over 800 congregations in the state of Michigan.  I will be working with the Council of Bishops as we work through some deep differences in The United Methodist Church.  I have told the story, but not all may have heard it, I have told the story about the Saturday of my consecration as bishop.  I was in the room where all the bishops had been getting ready for the service, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a door.  There was an “exit” sign over it, and on the door it read, “emergency exit only.”  I thought about it for a brief moment.
            And you are entering uncharted territory.  There will be an interim pastor here later this month, and for a few months – something new for First UMC, at least in a long while.  The interim pastor brings wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces.  Then a new pastor will be appointed with wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces.
            Do not be afraid, my dearest friends – but we are a little afraid, a little anxious.  I want to remind us, I want to remind myself, of the wise words of Parker Palmer, words that I have loved for a long time and words that I need now as ever, that we need now as ever.
            In commenting on the biblical words, “do not be afraid,” Palmer writes: As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection.  “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear.  Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding.  Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have.  We do not have to lead from a place of fear….  We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94)
            We all have some fear, some anxiety.  We all have moments when we see an emergency exit door and wonder if our life is in an emergency situation that we need to leave.  We need not be our fears and anxieties.  We need not let them define us.  We can live out of places with names like trust and hope and faith, and joy and love, and genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  How?  Jesus reminds us that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  It is God’s delight to see the world more loving and caring, less fearful and suspicious.  God is at work, always at work, creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice.  We need not cower in fear, rather we are invited to be open, to be ready for the on-going movement of the Spirit.  God invites us to stay focused on the treasure of God’s dream for the world, to let our hearts be captivated by that dream and our lives dedicated to its fulfillment.
            Today I am both sad and excited – sad and excited for me, and sad and excited for you.  God has done beautiful and wonderful things with us together.  We have worked with God’s Spirit to do beautiful and wonderful things, and beautiful and wonderful things await you in the future.  God’s Spirit working and moving within and among you – that’s not going to change.  Be ready.  Stay focused.  What saddens me is that I will not be a part of this.
            But… I am deeply and profoundly grateful for all that we have done together, for all the ways you have been moments of God’s grace for me.  I cannot finish this sermon without sharing a little music.  Music has shaped my spiritual life for a long time, since I was a teenager listening on Sunday evenings to my transistor radio in my family’s Lester Park home to the Scott Ross show.  Scott Ross had been a New York dj who became a Christian and he started a radio show using rock music to talk about faith.
            Here are some of the songs that have been playing in my mind these past few weeks:
            10,000 Maniacs, “These Are Days” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23YVo2j5SN4
            Green Day, “Time of Your Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnQ8N1KacJc
            Sarah McLachlan, “I Will Remember You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSz16ngdsG0
            I am so grateful, even as my heart also aches.  With that combination, a song that has also been on my mind, particularly since Mary Whitlock sang “I Hope You Dance” a couple of weeks ago, is this song called simply, “The Dance”:
            Garth Brooks, “The Dance” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhyijN4ftko
            I don’t think our lives are better left to chance, but they are better trusted to God’s Spirit, a Spirit that is always creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice.  Sometimes the way of the Spirit leads to partings, and I could have missed the pain of those, but then I’d have had to miss the dance – and I would not have missed the dance of this past eleven years for anything.
            These are days I’ll remember.  I hope in the Spirit that you have had the time of your lives, and I trust joy awaits you.  I will remember you, and will cherish you and delight in what God has done with us together.  The people we love are built into us (May Sarton).
            And the dance of the Spirit will continue, for you, and for me.  It is God’s good pleasure, it is God’s delight, to keep creating, to keep inviting us into a newer world.  Know that.  Know that deep in your soul, and be ready for what God’s Spirit will be doing next.  In Jesus.  Do not be afraid my dearest friends.  Amen.

Benediction:

Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those with whom we walk the way.  So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, in the name of our companion on the way, Jesus the Christ.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Few Words From Your Flight Attendant

Sermon preached July 31, 2016

Texts: Luke 12:13-21

            The Byrds, “Eight Miles High” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J74ttSR8lEg
Given the sermon title, I wanted to find a song about flight, but I did not want to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  So there you go.
            When you fly, every time you fly, the flight attendants, or on some larger planes a video of a flight attendant, offers some instructions.  You are told how to fasten your seat belts.  You are told that your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device in case of an emergency landing in water.  You are instructed to find the nearest emergency exit, remembering that this may be behind you.  If the lights go out, there will be aisle lighting to guide your way to the exit.  Then there is the instruction about the oxygen mask.  In case of a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will drop down.  You are given instructions about how to place the mask on, and told that oxygen will be flowing even if the little bag does not inflate.  Lastly you are told to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting other passengers.  Apparently there are times when it is important to take care of yourself first, when self-care becomes an absolute priority.
            Jesus is confronted by a disgruntled person.  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  It may seem like an odd request to be made of a spiritual teacher, but if my own experience is any guide, these questions come.  Jesus’ response is interesting.  “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  We are never told how the questioner felt about the response.  Jesus goes on to tell a story about a man whose fields produced and abundant harvest.  What should he do with his abundance?  He decides to tear down his old barns and storehouses and build larger ones.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods, laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  The man dies that night.  Jesus ends by encouraging his listeners to be “rich toward God.”
            So let’s explore for a few moments what this story isn’t about.  It isn’t Jesus being a scold about abundance or enjoyment.  The Scriptures of his faith invite enjoyment of the good gifts of life.  Ecclesiastes encourages a person to “eat and drink, and enjoy himself” (8:15) as does the intertestamental book Tobit (7:10).  Nor does the story seem to be a criticism of abundance or wealth in itself.
            The focus of Jesus’s criticism of the wealthy man in the story is that he becomes too self-focused, too self-involved.  He does not ask what good might come out of his abundance for others.  He does not think about wider connections, only about building more storehouses.
            The story reminds me a bit about John Wesley’s sermon, “The Use of Money.”  In that sermon, Wesley makes the case that Christians, followers of Jesus, should consider how they might use money well.  Wesley then delineates three principles for the wise use of money.  He says that we should earn all we can, or gain all you can, though he does put moral limits on what can be done to gain wealth.  He says that we should not gain wealth in ways that impair ourselves or harm our neighbors.  Rather we should gain all we can by “honest wisdom.”  Wesley’s second principle was that we should save all we can.  Wesley did not think frivolous spending was befitting disciples of Jesus.  Thirdly, Wesley argued that we should give all we can.  I have long appreciated this sermon of John Wesley for its helpfulness.
            What if, however, these principles are not just about how we might use money and wealth well?  What if these same principles have something to say about our life together in the Jesus community called the church?  Might we think about gaining all we can as growing in richness toward God?  Could saving all we can have something to do with enjoying a robust community life together?  Giving all we can as a congregation is our call from God to reach out in love and concern and service to the world.
            Taking Jesus’s story, and filtering it through John Wesley’s sermon, we get a picture of a healthy church community – a community that is concerned for generating richness in love and then giving it away.
            One year when I was a district superintendent, I preached a sermon at all the church conferences I led in which I said that I thought every church could be a growing church.  It was an audacious statement, but I elaborated by saying that there are different ways churches grow.  Churches can grow numerically.  They can grow as they help people grow spiritually – grow in faith, hope and love, grow in being joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice.  Churches can grow as they grow in their capacity as a community – grow in our capacity to be a community of love and forgiveness.  Churches can grow in outreach, in ministry and mission to the community and the world.  It was a way for those churches to think about what it meant to be healthy and vibrant.
            In my time here, together we have grown within as a church.  We have experienced some numerical growth, not astonishing, but encouraging, and we are on the verge of even more such growth.  In listening to each other, I think we have discovered that we have grown in faith – grown in love of God and each other, grown in joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice.  Together we have grown as a community of love and forgiveness.  I remember a few years ago I preached a sermon on working with conflict as a church community.  Afterward someone asked me if there was something going on that he didn’t know about.  I said, “No” but went on to say that I thought the best time to discuss conflict was when we  are not embroiled in it.  We are not, and not because we don’t risk making difficult decisions but because we have grown in our capacity to make such decisions together.
            This is a wonderful faith community, rich in love toward God.  We also know that if all we do is keep on with this kind of growth – gaining and saving, building better storehouses for ourselves alone, there would come a time when that becomes unhealthy – the balloon bursts, inwardness becomes a kind of blindness.
            So we reach out.  That is just who we are in Jesus Christ, and I encourage us to continue as a Jesus community to give all we can.
            One way we give all we can is share this community of love with others.  There is always room for more people.  I know that this can sound solely like another inner concern, just growing our own storehouses, but while we benefit from more people being part of our community, people who become part of the community also benefit.  One of the things that breaks my heart as a pastor is when someone comes to my office in need, and it is clear to me that they have no community of support around them.  A couple of years ago, when sociologist Robert Putnam was in Duluth, he shared with the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation that he was troubled by the fact that participation in faith communities was declining among those on the socio-economic margins of society.  He was not speaking about a concern for the religious well-being, but of a concern for their social well-being.  People need others when they are struggling.  We offer that.  People need friends, companions along the way.  We offer that.  People need a place where they can ask deep questions about their lives.  We offer that.  People need a connection to God.  We offer that.  To open our doors to others, to invite others in, is not simply a concern for ourselves, it is love for others.  We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to be helping others with their spiritual oxygen.
            The other dimension to giving all we can is to also give our love away in the community.  We do a lot of that.  Just since I returned from Jurisdictional Conference on July 17, our church has fed over 120 youth and adults who were here in town for the Wildfire Mission event sponsored by Faith UMC in Superior.  We engaged in roadside clean-up along Maple Grove Road.  We held Ruby’s Pantry, on the day after the terrific storm hit Duluth.  Today we are going to bless backpacks, and after church put together more – your generosity providing for kids who need a little help.  That’s what we have done and do.  That’s who we are.
            State Senator Roger Reinert, a member at Asbury UMC was very kind to write an endorsement for my candidacy as a bishop.  In what he offered Senator Reinert wrote these words:  First United Methodist Church in Duluth is one of THE places where we go as a community to organize, recognize and serve.  The doors are always open.  That’s what we do, as this Jesus community.  That’s just who we are.  In the weeks to come, as you enter a time of transition, ask “What’s next?”  How is God calling us to reach out in concern and service to the world in new ways?  We keep growing in love and we need to keep giving it away.  We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to see that it is flowing out to others.

            As First United Methodist Church moves into the future, continue to grow rich toward God, grow rich in love.  Continue to help people become joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice.  Continue to grow as a community of love and forgiveness.  Take care to get your oxygen, but then share it with others.  Fill the storehouses with love and grace, enjoy, and give it away.  Reach out in concern and service to the world.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Truckin"

Sermon preached July 24, 2016

Texts: Luke 11:1-13

            The Grateful Dead, “Truckin’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuyaK0hGxWk
            In the late 1960s, early 1970s, the phrase “truckin’” connoted keeping on.  Keep on truckin’ – keep on going.  Toward the end of this song by the Grateful Dead, the singer sings, “lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.”  Well, I am in a reflecting mood these days as I move toward my new role as a bishop and new position in Michigan.  It has been a wonderful trip these last eleven years.  Lately it occurs to me how quickly that time has gone and how deep the bonds run.  More on that in a couple of weeks.
            Our gospel reading for this morning has a lot to do with persistence, keeping on.  The story, however, begins with prayer.  Jesus has been praying and the disciples ask him to teach them to pray.  Jesus offers them a prayer, not atypical of the teachers of his time.  It offers a beautiful prayer, and in it one can find a summary of what the life of discipleship is to be about: intimacy with God, desiring God’s dream for the world to become a reality, concern for basic needs, forming a community of love and forgiveness, easing times of trial and courage to confront them.
            This delightful and wonderful prayer is followed by a rather odd story, a story only Luke has Jesus tell. Luke has Jesus tell a story about a man who has unexpected company arriving late at night.  This man goes to his friend to ask for bread to help show hospitality to the guest.  The man with the bread at first refuses, but then relents, giving bread to his friend not out of friendship but out of persistence.
            So is this story trying to say that God is a God who wants us to pester, perhaps even grovel?  Is this story trying to say that God is reluctant in generosity, but if we are persistent in our asking this reluctant God may relent?
            Jesus continues, though, and his words indicate that God is not that kind of God.  Ask and it will be given you, search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you….  How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?
            Persistence seems to be a quality of God.  God is persistent in love.  God is persistent in grace.  God is persistent in wanting to give good gifts, particularly God’s own self in the Spirit.  Our persistence is rooted in the persistence of God.  We persist in prayer not to get the attention of a reluctant or capricious God, but in response to God’s persistent love and grace.  Keep on in prayer, because God keeps desiring our best.  There is ambiguity in the story Jesus tells about the man seeking the bread.  Most of us read it as his persistence getting bread from his friend.  The story can be read as persistence belonging to the giver of the bread.  He wants to be persistent in doing good.
            Jesus encourages us to be persistent in prayer, to keep on praying because God is always responding to our prayers.  Theologian Marjorie Suchocki wrote one of my favorite books on prayer.  In it she writes: God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be.  Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be.  Quite simply, prayer changes the “isness” of the world…. And God who is always working with the world takes every opportunity within the world to influence it for its own good. (In God’s Presence, 31, 49).  God is always working for the good of the world.  God is persistent, and our persistent prayers are ways we open ourselves to God’s continuing influence.
            Yet while the focus of these words of Jesus seems to be prayer, and keeping on in praying, keep on truckin’ in prayer, the prayer that Jesus first offers, a model for the prayer we pray weekly and many of us pray more frequently, is a prayer about the entire life of discipleship.  The persistence Jesus highlights here is also a persistence in all the work of God, all of the work of God’s dream for the world – intimacy with God, meeting basic needs, building communities of love and forgiveness, easing difficulty and cultivating courage for difficult times.  Jesus seems to be saying keep on, keep on truckin’, keep on going, God is at work in the world and when you draw near to this God of persistent love and grace, you become persistent in love and grace.
            The Irish poet Seamus Heaney is a favorite of mine, as many of you know.  I have told the story of how one day, when I was a pastor on the Iron Range I heard a recorded reading of his from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis while driving in my car.  I was excited that the reading would be repeated that night at 9 p.m.  I made my cassette recorder ready and taped that reading.  I love the poems and I love his voice reading the poems.
            One of the poems Heaney read that day was from his then new book The Spirit Level.  It was a poem dedicated to his brother, an Irish farmer, a Catholic in the Protestant north.  The poem is a wonderful mix of childhood memories with cruelties from the news.  Heaney recalls how his brother one time used a whitewash brush and chair to pretend he was playing the bagpipes, and the laughter created.  He recalls his brother’s broken arm.  He also, in the poem notes the death of a part-time reservist who had been waiting for a lift – Grey matter like gruel flecked with blood/In spatters on the whitewash.  Heaney does a wonderful job of reminding us of the small joys of life, the small injuries of life, and the large cruelties that are also part of the world.
            He ends the poem with a tribute to his brother who lives in this world of ours.
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper's sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

            After reading this poem, Heaney shared a bit of wisdom with the Guthrie Theater crowd.  “Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about.  Getting started.  Keeping going.  Getting started again.  That’s it.”

            Those words are especially poignant now.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again.  Here we are on the edge of change, you and me.  We are getting started again, you with some new pastoral leadership, and me as The United Methodist Bishop assigned to Michigan.  God’s love is here for us as it always has been, God’s persistent love.  God invites us to get started again and keep going – keep going in deepening intimacy with God, keep going in desiring and working for God’s dream for the world, keep going in being concerned for basic human need, keep going in creating a community of love and forgiveness, keep going in trying to ease difficult times and cultivating the courage for when those difficult times come anyway.  God is not interested in our groveling.  God desires our good.  God desires to fill us with God’s Spirit.  God desires us to get started, keep going and get started again.  Sometimes the trip may seem long and strange, but God’s way is the way of grace and joy.  Keep on truckin’ in that way.  In Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Whatever Happens

Sermon preached July 10, 2016

Texts: Luke 10:25-37

            Last Sunday I told you about my July 1 driving adventure back from the Twin Cities – the traffic jam around the construction in Hinkley which made the two and a half hour drive a four and a half hour drive.  So here’s a little irony, one of the songs I listened to on the drive was this one:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMyCa35_mOg  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “The Waiting.”
            It is also a pretty ironic song this morning.  July 2016 has been about waiting for Julie and me, and this week the waiting is over.  Episcopal elections are this week, and when I stand here next week, we will all know what the coming year will bring.  The waiting is the hardest part.
            There is another kind of waiting that requires attention this morning, the waiting of a man, robbed, beaten, stripped, left half dead by the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Jesus uses this man in a story, part of his conversation with a religious scholar, and expert in Jewish law and teaching.  The teacher has asked about the heart of the law – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus asks the religious scholar his opinion.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus affirms his answer, but the question arises, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus counters with a story about the man robbed, beaten and stripped, the waiting man.  This man wait, perhaps half-conscious, for help.  How aware is he?  Do his hopes rise a bit when he glimpse the figure of a man walking by?
            He waits.  The first man, a priest, passes by.  The man waits.  A Levite, another religious person, passes by.  The man waits.  Does hope wane?  Is he now more than half dead?  Another figure casts a shadow and then draws near – a Samaritan.  Does the injured man know it is a Samaritan?  Does he care?
            Why does it matter to the story?  Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  Samaritans were seen as impure, practicing a deformed kind of Judaism.  In Jesus’ time, as in our own, stories often made sport of religious leaders, wanting to shatter their pretensions.  As Jesus told the story, the listeners would have expected a common Jew to come by and be the hero, maybe a Tevya like character from Fiddler on the Roof.  Instead, Jesus shocks his listeners.  The hero is a Samaritan.  He is the one who takes care of the bleeding, bruised man.
            This is a story of radically inclusive love and care.  What seems to matter most are love and care and compassion and kindness, and it does not matter if you are the most socially respected person or the most despised person.  What matters is love.  The welcome statement in our bulletin speaks of our understanding of inclusivity.  All persons, without regard to race, sexual orientation, economic condition or religious background are invited to participate in our ministries and programs, and may become members of our congregation.  We welcome all in God’s love because all, without regard to race, sexual orientation, economic condition or religious background can know God’s love and can show God’s love.  All can have faith in Jesus Christ.
            What matters most in God’s scheme of things is love and care and compassion and kindness, a love, care, compassion and kindness that responds to the broken and bruised and bleeding bodies we encounter, and oh, goodness, how many such bodies we have encountered in recent days.  Still reeling from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando with bleeding and broken bodies of LGBT persons – who are Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, who are black and white and Latino, every color of the human rainbow – shot by a Muslim, we hear of terrorist attacks in Turkey and Bangladesh and this week in Saudi Arabia, and the broken and bruised and bleeding bodies are Muslim.  This week the broken bodies were the African-American men, shot and killed by police officers, and then the broken, bleeding and bruised bodies were police officers in Dallas.  Our highways and byways have plenty of broken and bruised and bleeding bodies, and not all our wounds are physical – there are the broken spirits, the bruised hearts that need attention too.
            And the temptation is there to look away.  The needs are so great, some days I would just like to walk on by.  Earlier this week, I shared a poem at the memorial service for Camille Como, and the poem contained these lines:
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.     (Mary Oliver, “The Ponds”)

            This is a beautiful poem, and I want in my life to be willing to be dazzled.  Nothing wrong with that.  Nothing wrong with wanting, at times to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even float above this difficult world.  The world is difficult and complex and messy.  Yet to turn aside cannot be a permanent condition for we followers of Jesus.  The neighbor is the one who helps – love God, love your neighbor.  Love no matter who you are.  Love no matter who needs loving.
            Awhile back Bob Higgins shared a little book with me, John Wesley: a study for the times – the times were 1891.  The author, Thomas J. Dodd, D.D. wanted to write about Wesley as someone whose faith and character could be instructive for followers of Jesus.  Dodd describes Wesley as “like some broad, liberal man of the world, loving God and his fellow-men, holding to his own opinions, and doing in his own way what he could to advance the cause of good morals and religion” (47).  Illustrating Wesley’s broad-mindedness, Dodd tells the story of Wesley’s assessment of a Unitarian named William Edmonson, someone who the Church of Wesley’s time would have considered outside the bounds of true faith.  Of him Wesley would write: What faith, love, gentleness, long-suffering!  Could mistake send such a man as this to hell? – I scruple not to say, Let my soul be with the soul of William Edmonson” (Dodd, 50).  What matters most is faith, love, gentleness – love of God and neighbor.
            In seminary I read a classic from the mid-twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.  H. Richard Niebuhr is the older brother of Reinhold Niebuhr whose work I used last Sunday (trivia!).  In this classic little book Niebuhr writes that the purpose of the church, what is central and what matters most to the church of Jesus Christ, is “the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor” (31).  Niebuhr goes on: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the other (34).  I have referred back to these words often in the years since my seminary graduation in 1984.  They are part of my stored memory bank, and they remind me that what matters most is love, care, compassion, kindness - God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor.
            In that memory bank is also a brief poem by Wendell Berry (1998 Sabbath poem).
Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
into the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

            Love seems like such a weak counter to all the broken, bruised and bleeding bodies in our world.  How can we talk about love when black men are shot and killed because of a broken tail light?  How can we talk about love when in the name of a religion, people are blowing other people up, or shooting other people?  How can we talk about love when police officers are gunned down by a sniper?
            Yet the message of Jesus is clear – love, love without condition or boundaries or definitions of who is in and who is out.  Love no matter who you are.  Love no matter who needs loving.  The purpose of the church is to increase love of God and neighbor, so love.  It is not an easy call to answer, this call of love.  We have to notice all the brokenness and bleeding.  We have to feel the ache of bending down to draw near and lift up.  We cannot be so dazzled that we forever float above the difficult world, but rather we need to encounter that difficult world with kindness and courage.  There will be time for being dazzled and drifting above for awhile, because the world is also a beautiful place, but it is made most beautiful by love.
Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
into the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.

            Whatever happens, love.  These memorized words are even more poignant for me today.  In the next few days, my future will be decided and the decision will have an impact here.  We have done good work here in loving and caring and kindness and compassion – without limits, beyond boundaries.  We have not been perfect.  I have not been perfect, and sometimes get stark reminders of my imperfections, but together we have sought to be the church, that place that seeks to grow love of God and neighbor.  I am proud of the work we have done, and would be proud to continue that work as your pastor, and the work needs to continue.  A broken and bleeding and bruised world needs the love, care, compassion, and kindness, the hope and healing we can offer.

            Whatever happens, love.  In the name and spirit of Jesus, love, whatever happens.  Amen.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Blinded By the Light, July 4

Sermon preached  July 3, 2016

Texts: II Kings 5:1-14

            Manfred Mann, “Blinded By the Light” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqTE1JvI-mE
            So in February I preached a sermon with this same title, but played a different version of the song – two versions, two sermons, right?
            This version was the more popular song on the radio.  It was a #1 song in 1977, the year I graduated from Duluth East High School.  This is Manfred Mann, who had an earlier hit song with “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.”  The song was written by and originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen.  It appeared on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park.”
            It seems fitting today to play a song written by someone who has become an American classic – on this Independence Day weekend.  But what does this have to do with the story Anne read from II Kings, the story of the ruler Naaman and his encounter with the prophet Elisha?  And what does this story have to do with us?
            The story is a classic.  Naaman is powerful, a military hero from Aram.  He also suffered from leprosy.  Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, including the capture of an Israelite who became a slave to Naaman’s wife, Naaman travels to Israel/Samaria to see Elisha to see if Elisha might cure his leprosy.  He first sees the king of Israel, who is quite distressed.  Suddenly a powerful nearby king expects a healing!?  He suspects this is just a pretense for a fight.  Elisha, however is willing to act on God’s behalf to heal Naaman.  With full entourage, he arrives at Elisha’s home, and Elisha sends a messenger out with instructions that Naaman is supposed to wash in the Jordan River.
            Naaman’s response is also a classic.  He becomes quite angry and upset.  “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?  Could I not wash in them and be clean?”  Enraged, Naaman was ready to turn away.  Servants, though, brought him to his senses.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  Naaman decided to give it a try, and it worked!
            So here’s one lesson to draw for our lives.  Power can blind us, and healing often comes with new vision and new perspective.  Naaman is powerful, so powerful that he becomes offended when Elisha does not seem to pay due deference.  He is willing to walk away from the possibility for healing because he is so full of himself, so taken with his own superiority and the superiority of his country.  Naaman is powerful and pretentious.
            We all have the capacity for pretension.  The great American theologian and public thinker of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book The Irony of American History, wrote about this.  “[The human person] is constantly tempted to overestimate the degree of his freedom and forget that he is also a creature” (Reinhold Niebuhr, LOA, 585).  “We… are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire” (589).  One of the core convictions of Niebuhr’s theology was that we humans tend to overestimate our own virtue, goodness and wisdom, and underestimate that in others.  The Christian virtue of humility has something to do with being open to what others might teach us, and when we are so open, remarkable things might happen.
            I recall an episode of the old television program “All in the Family” where a young man, George, who was developmentally disabled, a “slow learner,” encounters Archie Bunker and family (season 4, episode 19, “Gloria’s Boyfriend).  Toward the end of the show, the young man brings over a small poster that one of his teacher’s gave him when he was younger.  The teacher gave it to George because he cried when other kids called him “stupid.”  The poster read, “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.”  George said it meant that everybody could learn from everybody – a good lesson, a lesson Naaman finally gets.  When Naaman lets go of his pretensions, his “blindness,” healing happens.
            Naaman’s story adds yet another dimension, power.  Naaman is powerful, and the addition of power to the human capacity for pretension strengthens that capacity.  We seem even more tempted to overestimate our wisdom and our goodness when we have power.  Couldn’t the prophet, at least for me have come out and waved his hands over my skin?  Aren’t the rivers of Damascus better than anything that Samaria or Israel has?
            Here’s where Independence Day comes into view.  The United States is a powerful nation, perhaps the most powerful nation on the planet right now.  The United States has in its founding documents and originating dreams profound human values.  One question before us as a nation is whether we can celebrate our accomplishments and promise while also acknowledging our shortcomings and failings.  Here is Reinhold Niebuhr again.  The question for a nation, particularly for a very powerful nation, is whether the necessary exercise of its virtue in meeting ruthlessness and the impressive nature of its power will blind it to the ambiguity of all human virtues and competencies LOA, 585-586)
            The United States has wonderful dreams at its core.  I think of the words on the Statue of Liberty (Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”):

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

            What a beautiful dream.  We celebrate that this week.  Can we also acknowledge the truth captured by another poet, the African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes?:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)….

            Can we honestly look at places where America has not been the dream we were meant to be?  As Christians, can we ask such questions, knowing that God in love yearns for human communities to be communities of hope and healing, care and compassion, justice, peace, reconciliation and love?  Can we be people who are not afraid of difficult truths, people who understand that the truth sets us free, and that new vision is often a prelude to healing?
            In her book about mass incarceration in the United States, an particularly its impact on African-American communities, Michele Alexander writes about “callous colorblindness.”  It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness….  It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African-Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste (240-241).  Hard words, but is she on to something?  Will we have the courage to look, particularly if we have enough power not to worry so much about getting caught up in that system?

            We all have our “blind spots.”  As human beings we all tend to overestimate our virtue and our wisdom.  When we have power, as persons, as a nation, that temptation is even greater.  Reinhold Niebuhr put it well.  “If men are inclined to deal unjustly with their fellows, the possession of power aggravates this inclination” (LOA, 354)  The Naaman story reminds us that God’s healing comes when we are open to new visions, new perspectives.  God’s healing comes when we can let go of our blindnesses, let go of our self-importance, not our self-esteem but our self-importance, and wash in the rivers of love and justice and freedom that may be near at hand.  When we do that we are a stronger people.  When we do that, we are a stronger nation.  Amen.