Friday, February 24, 2017

Still Salty


Clark Retirement Community
February 5, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        Matthew 5:13-16

Thank you for having me here today.  It is a joy to be with you.  I must confess, though, that when I scheduled this day I did not realize that it was Super Bowl Sunday.  My apologies to you for your missing this hour of pre-game analysis – one of thirty-six hours I think.
However, it is a wonderful serendipity that the lectionary Scripture reading for today is about salt. What better topic on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the best snacking days of the year, than salt.  Of course, we know that salt is both an essential part of the human diet, and that our society easily overdoses on it.  Today, I am sure, is a big salt overdose day.
I don’t think Jesus was a nutritionist, however, and his use of the imagery of salt was unfailingly positive, and it is that image that I want to explore with you this afternoon.  My hope is to offer some new life to this passage of Scripture that we have heard so often.  I am humbled to try and do that among some who have preached on this passage a number of times yourselves. I guess you could say that I want to take this passage about salt and shake it up a bit!
“Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history,” this from Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History.  The psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, who wrote a three-volume biography of Freud, also wrote an essay on salt in 1912.  “In all ages salt has been invested with a significance far exceeding that inherent in its natural properties, interesting and important as these are.  Homer calls it a divine substance.  Plato describes it as especially dear to the Gods” (Kurlansky, 2-3).  Jesus is not alone in using salt as a positive image.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says.  To dig a little deeper into what this might mean we can explore more broadly the uses of salt.  I want to be careful here, though.  According to the salt industry, salt has some 14,000 uses (5).  I don’t want you to miss the entire Super Bowl.  So let me focus on four uses for salt and relate them back to the idea that we are the salt of the earth.
Salt adds flavor, it affects taste, it seasons.  This may be among our favorite uses for salt.  We know the difference when we taste something that we once ate with salt, but are now using the non-salt version.  To be sure, we can become quite uninspired in our cooking and eating if we rely too much on salt, and too much salt can ruin flavor, but there are somethings that simply seem just a little better with it – potato chips for instance.  Salt, used well, can also bring out flavors in the food we season.
I like to think that when Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth, he was thinking about this.  Eugene Peterson, in his rendering of The Bible, The Message translates Jesus words this way.  “You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”  Jesus invites us to help bring the best out of others, to point to the places of grace and wonder in our world.  That’s part of what it means to be salt.
Salt is a preservative.  “Until modern times it provided the principle way to preserve food” (Kurlansky, 6).  Salt is not only used to preserve food, but the Egyptians used salt in the mummification process.  Salt keeps food for the future.  Salt prevents spoilage and decay.
Perhaps Jesus was also thinking about this when he called us the salt of the earth.  I think it is what people mean when they refer to someone as a “salt of the earth” type.  If we are called to bring out the God-flavors of this earth, to bring out the best in others, to point to places of grace and wonder, we are also called to help preserve grace and goodness where they are found.  This is not always easy.
      As human beings, we have a tendency to take things for granted.  We easily neglect the wonder and beauty and grace of our closest relationships.  Perhaps we even take for granted the good gift of life in ourselves, the powers we have and can develop.  We may take for granted that the church will always be there for me, even if I don’t help it along much, until it closes its doors.  I am sometimes concerned that we, Americans, take for granted the precious achievement that is our political system.  Whatever one may think of our new president, the fact that power was transferred peacefully from one person to another is a rarer human achievement than we might think.  Preserving institutions that offer opportunities for change, for channeling conflicts, is important to our world.  Preservation work is also a kind of salt work to which Jesus calls us.
I am from Minnesota and even more there than here, salt provides us some traction when the walkways and roadways are slippery.  Just a couple of winters ago, there was real concern in Minnesota when we had a lot of freezing rain and the salt supplies for our highway departments were getting dangerously low.
I would not suggest that Jesus, calling us the salt of the earth, had any idea of salt trucks on freeways.  Yet the idea that salt can keep us steady, keep us from losing our footing, seems an appropriate extension of Jesus image that we are the salt of the earth.  Perhaps one of the gifts we can offer each other is some steadiness along the way.  Perhaps we can help others keep from falling into hopelessness or despair.  We can help others keep moving forward on their journey of faith through our love and kindness and care and prayers.  Salt does its traction work by just being there, and there is a real power in simply being there for others.
Finally, salt blesses.  In both the Jewish and Islamic traditions, salt is used to seal a bargain, to bless an agreement.  Bringing bread and salt into a new home is a long-standing Jewish tradition, dating back to the Middle ages, as a sign of blessing.  The British for centuries carried salt into new homes for a blessing.
You are the salt of the earth.  Surely Jesus, among the things he may have meant using that image, meant that we are to be a blessing to others, that we are to bless the world as we work for justice, peace, reconciliation, kindness, compassion and love, as we share the good news of God’s love.
One final note on the image of salt, a note you might expect from a United Methodist Bishop.  John Wesley spoke of Christian conference, a means of grace in this way: Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?  He also used such phrases in a sermon on “The Repentance of Believers.”  To be the salt of the earth in the Wesleyan way may also mean engaging in conversation in ways that bring out the God-flavors, that preserve what is best, that provide traction for moving forward, that blesses.  In our world where so much gets said and so little gets communicated, perhaps being this kind of salt is among our urgent tasks.
You are the salt of the earth.  I think taking Jesus’ words seriously involves all these various meanings of salt – seasoning or bringing out God-flavors; preserving; providing traction; and blessing.  We might all agree on this, think this is all rather interesting, and now we are ready to move on to our final song, the benediction, and then find a tv for the Super Bowl.
There is something more to be added.  Jesus goes on.  “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  “If,” that tiny word, is quite a big word here.  “If” - - - salt does not have to lose its saltiness, and that’s also part of the challenge of Jesus’ words to us.  We are invited to still be salty all of our lives.
You are invited to still be salty.  You may be retired, you are called to still be salty.  You may be a retired clergy person, you are called to still be salty.  In fact, our salty faith can be a cornerstone in helping us navigate the various seasons of our lives.
Retirement can be a difficult season to navigate.  At my first Council of Bishops meeting I was asked to convene one of the covenant groups to which all the bishops are assigned. These are meant to be communities of support, care and prayer.  One of the bishops in my group shared about the challenge of getting to a new place in his life post-retirement.  When he retired, he found some new roles, some new tasks.  He worked with some institutions of higher education, but now these post-retirement commitments were coming to an end, and he was feeling a little bit lost.  It is something many experience.  I hope our group can be salt for him, helping him find his own saltiness again, but that’s what God would want for him – finding new ways to still be salty.
The call to still be salty is there even as our bodies change.  Three summers ago, the United Methodist churches in Duluth, MN decided to come together to field one softball team in the local church league.  I wanted to play, and signed up.  It had been twenty-five years since I last played church-league softball.  Running the bases on a cold evening in our third game that year, my quad muscles – the muscles on the front of my thighs, tightened something awful.  Part of the problem was the baseball shoes I was wearing, they had very little padding, and after twenty-five years, I needed more comfortable shoes.  I also needed to stretch out more than I needed to twenty-five years earlier.  Our bodies change and age, and we have to do some things differently.  Still we are called to be salty in whatever ways we can.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste….  Yet it does not have to.  Jesus call to be salty is an invitation that never leaves us.  It is part of the grace of God in our lives that opportunities to be salty are always there. There are always ways we can bring out the God-flavors in the world, there are always ways we can help preserve goodness in the world, there are always ways we can help others from slip-sliding away, there are always ways we can bless others.  No matter our age or stage of life, we are still salty and we are still light.
Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Jesus’ words:  Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth….  You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.  I don’t think that call ever ends, though our response changes over time.  I don’t think that invitation is ever withdrawn, though how we RSVP changes over time.
Be still salty, and if you need some more ideas about how, I invite you to hear this poem I read just this week.




What We Need    (David Budbill, The Sun, February 2017)

The Emperor,
his bullies
and henchmen,
terrorize the world
every day.

which is why
every day

we need

a little poem
of kindness,

a small song
of peace,

a brief moment
of joy.

To stay salty requires a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, brief moments of joy.  May we hear them.  To be salty can mean that we are for others a little poem of kindness, a small song of peace, a brief moment of joy. 

Stay salty my friends.  Amen.

The Courage of Misfits


Albion District Day
February 4, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        I Corinthians 16:13-14
·        John 16:25-33

Thank you for coming today and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this day with you.  It is my privilege to be here.
Misfits.  We have a certain warm place in our hearts for misfits in this culture.  Maybe some of you remember the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  It was filled with endearing misfits.  Of course, there was Rudolph himself, a reindeer with the red nose.  There was the elf who aspired to be a dentist.  There was an island of misfit toys: a Charlie-in-a-box, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that squirted jelly, a bird that could not fly only swim, a boat that did not float, a cowboy who rides an ostrich.  Yes, I did watch some of this on You Tube – who says that sermon research has to be dull!
Maybe some of you remember the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  When I was a child, we had to wait a year to see the movie.  It was broadcast once a year on network television.  “The Wizard of Oz” is also filled with misfits.  There is the talking scarecrow without a brain – though he is often wise.  When asked by Dorothy how he could talk without a brain, he replied: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”  There is the tin man without a heart, who, when he gets one utters one of my favorite lines in the movie.  “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”  There is the lion with the basic fault, he lacks courage.  The Wizard of Oz himself is a misfit, all puff and smoke with little behind it.
In our culture we have a warm place in our hearts for misfits, and I could argue that this may be rooted in some residual sense of God’s grace that yet permeates our culture.  God’s grace is grace for misfits.  God often calls misfits.  Scott is right.  Think of some of the famous characters in our Scriptures: Abraham and Sarah called to conceive a child in their old age – Sarah can’t help but laugh; Jacob the scoundrel also the parent with Leah and Rachel of the tribes of Israel; Moses – he of staggering speech; David – too young and small, and then too enamored with another man’s wife; Mary – young and unmarried; James and John – sons of Thunder; Peter – impetuous; Paul – dripping with raging self-righteousness.  This unlikely cast of characters are the “heroes” of our faith.
I stand before you in this wonderful tradition, a misfit bishop.  Some can recall grandparents who nurtured them in the faith.  Two of my grandparents were marginally churched at best, one was hostile to the church, and my dad’s mom a Catholic her entire life, but not a woman who shared her faith.  My own father was unchurched.  I remember his presence at my confirmation, joking with another unchurched dad about how the building might collapse because they were both in it at the same time.  My mom got us to church often enough, but it was not a center for our life.  My journey of faith has not been a straight line.  I think questions can be as important as affirmations.  Such a background does not really fit one for the role of bishop.  Yet God called me, first by name to tell me I was loved in Jesus, and then into ordained ministry.  Continuing to follow the Spirit on this adventuresome journey has brought me here, as a bishop of the church, the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan.
I do believe I am here as part of following the call of God in Jesus Christ in my life.  I also believe God calls each of us.  God has called each of you by name to tell you that you are loved in Jesus Christ.  It is good to be reminded of that call often.  In a world that frequently beats against us, tells us that we are inadequate, reminds us of all we don’t yet have or all that we are not yet, we need to hear that call of God, speaking our name in love and care.
God also calls each of us to be about God’s work in the world, the work of sharing good news, the work of healing, the work of compassion, the work of feeding the hungry, the work of justice, the work of peace, the work of reconciliation.  God calls us to this work.  God equips us uniquely for this work – calling forth our best gifts, inviting us to develop our gifts and skills.  In a word, God “fits” us for this work.  For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:10).  Later: But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift….  Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:7, 15-16)
Yet even as God is fitting us for God’s work, we find that we remain misfits.  We are mis-fitted for so much of what is going on in our world.  I love the way Eugene Peterson renders part of the early verses in Romans 12.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  In fitting us for the work of God, the work to which God calls us, the Spirit of God is inviting us to be intentional misfits in an often strange and estranged world.
We are misfits because we are people of faith in a very cynical time.  We believe trust is possible.  We trust that God remains at work in the world, even when we hear God’s name misused and abused.  We trust that God continues to work for love, justice, peace, healing reconciliation.  We trust that persuasion is important and that conversation matters.  John Wesley believed that people coming together in holy conversation was a means of grace, and we trust that in a time when people talking at and past one another seems the current standard of communication.
We are misfits in that we are people of hope in the midst of despair.  Because we trust that God continues to be at work in the world, we do not give up.  That does not mean we do not feel discouragement or despair, but hope lets those be what they are and helps us move through them.  The poet and author David Whyte writes, Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us.  A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.  (Consolations, 57)
We are misfits in that we continue to trust in the power of love in a world that is so often fearful and cruel and unkind.  I think I will just let that statement stand.
We are misfits in that we trust in the value of humility in a time when hubris seems quite valued.  Hubris is a fancy word for pride, but I like the alliteration with humility.  Humility is not groveling or weakness or feeling lousy about yourself.  I think of humility as a gentle strength that helps us approach the world and other people with openness and curiosity – knowing that in this wonderfully complex and beautiful world there is always more to learn, and honestly acknowledging that sometimes we get it wrong.
This invitation to be intentional misfits is an invitation and a call to courage.  We need courage to be intentional misfits.  A favorite Scripture passage of mine is I Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.”  It is a verse I have carried in my heart for a long time, and it is easily remembered.  Since my election as a bishop this summer, though, I have begun to appreciate the verse that immediately precedes it and provides some additional depth.  As someone who believes passionately in reading the Scriptures in their widest context, I am embarrassed to admit that I had not paid sufficient attention to verse 13.  Here are the verses together: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.  To live in this world with gentleness, kindness and love asks of us deep courage.
Jesus asks of us deep courage.  In this exchange with the disciples in John 16, which has a bit of humor, I think – Jesus talking about coming from the Father and coming into the world and going back to the Father, that interesting “John” language – and the disciples responding, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly” – really!!.... in that exchange Jesus ends by saying, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  The courage of misfits.
If being fitted for God’s work of love means being intentional misfits in our world and being intentional misfits requires courage, what is this courage and where do we find it?  These are large questions and I am aware of the time, so I want to explore these briefly.
Writers like Parker Palmer and David Whyte have noted that our word for courage comes from the French word for heart – Coeur.  Whyte writes: Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with one another, with a community, a work; a future….  Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive. (Consolations, 39,40)  Courage has to do with hanging in there with life, even in the discomfort of being a misfit.  “Courage always includes a risk” the theologian Paul Tillich reminds us (The Courage to Be, 155)  I have been challenged recently in my thinking about courage by Gil Rendle’s monograph on courage entitled “A Call to Quiet Courage.”  It is a document being read by the Bishop’s Commission on the Way Forward.  Rendle talks about the courage we need in the church right now as a quiet courage, a steady purposefulness.  Leaders, and I would say intentional misfits, need to be able to focus on our purpose, the mission God gives us, and remind ourselves and others to keep moving.  This kind of courage is characterized by thoughtfulness – we recognize risks and challenges, and resolve -  we focus on moving forward.  This kind of courage risks disturbing others in purposeful ways.
Courage is having our hearts committed to the work of God in Jesus Christ, focusing on that work, taking thoughtful risks for that work, being willing to be intentional misfits for that work.
So where does such courage come from?
It comes from staying connected to God in Jesus Christ.  In his unique way, Paul Tillich affirms that by saying that “courage needs the power of being” (155).  In fact, Tillich argues, to know courage is to know something of the very heart of God.  “Courage has revealing power, the courage to be is the key to being-itself” (181)  When we know we are loved by God, we know courage.  We need not be afraid to trust in a cynical time, to hope in the midst of despair, to love in an unkind world, to be humble when hubris is so often rewarded.
Courage also comes from connecting with the deep places in our hearts.  I love these words from Parker Palmer from his essay “Leading From Within.”  We have places of fear inside of 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. (94)  If there is something of the nature of courage in the very nature of God, and we are created in the image of God, then there is courage in our hearts, including the courage to look deep within and see those other realities – fear, despair, anxiety – to see them, to know them and to know that we do not have to live them.
Courage also comes from connecting with each other in our communities of faith.  You are here today to learn, and that is wonderful.  I hope you have also come to be “encouraged” by each other, literally to get some courage from each other.
A number of years ago I was driving between appointments as a pastor on Minnesota’s Iron Range.  On public radio that day was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney speaking from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – reading poems and sharing a bit in-between.  After reading a poem dedicated to his brother called “Keeping Going,” Heaney commented: “Keeping going in art and in life are what it is all about, getting started, keeping going and getting started again.”  It is a word about courage that I’ve never forgotten.

Imagine, God calls each of us by name, and then calls us to share in God’s work in the world, as misfit as we are.  God fits us for God’s work, but in the process we are often misfits in this world of ours.  God grant us the courage to be God’s intentional misfits, to get started, to keep going, and to get started again.  God’s Spirit nurture within us with the courage of misfits.  Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

From the Apple Tree, Learn Its Lessons

Consecration and Celebration of Renovation of Troy-Korean United Methodist Church
November 20, 2016

Scripture Readings:
·        Acts 2:43-47
·        Galatians 5:22-23
·        Revelation 22:1-2

            Thank you for the invitation to be with you and preach this afternoon.  I am delighted to be with you today.  Today you are celebrating a significant achievement, the renovation of your church facility so that it can be a place where disciples of Jesus Christ are made across the generations.  You all have committed yourselves to building a place where God’s love can be shared and known and lived for the generations that are currently here, and for generations yet to come.  This is a joyous day.
            You want today to be a celebration across the generations, so I want to begin with a story from my childhood.  I enjoy apples.  I like them crisp, and I like them to have a little sourness in their taste.  I grew up in the state of Minnesota, in the northern part of the state, and the growing season there is not long.  Yet apples grow there.  They don’t grow particularly big, and they tend to stay pretty green, but I liked them that way.  When I was growing up there were no apple trees in our yard, but there were in the neighbors’ yards, and from time to time I would help myself to some of those neighbors’ apples.  They were green, and pretty sour, yet delicious.  It was not the right thing to do, to take apples from trees owned by others, and I got into a little trouble for it.  I still love apples, but now when I want them, I buy them in the store or at a fruit stand.  I no longer climb the neighbors’ trees and help myself.
            Knowing something about how apples are grown, I can understand why some of my childhood neighbors would not appreciate me taking some of their apples.  There is a proverbial saying about fruit trees: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.”  If you were to plant an apple tree next spring, it would take between two and five years for the tree to produce apples.  If you planted apple seeds, it would take between five and eight years before your tree produced apples.  Here is a twist to the whole process of planting apple trees for their fruit.  Apple trees must be planted in pairs in order to bear fruit.  Apple trees are not self-pollinating.  They need other trees, and they need a different variety of apple tree to pollinate.  With all that work involved, no wonder people are kind of protective of their apple trees and are not very fond of neighborhood boys coming to eat some of their apples.
            There are lessons here for us today.  I am not here to encourage you to plant apple trees as your next renovation project, though if you do, I hope I am your bishop long enough so that if you planted such a tree, I could come and share an apple with you in a few years.  There are lessons here for our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Remember, Jesus used fruit trees to teach us.  “From the fig tree learn its lesson” (Mark 13:28).  From the apple tree, learn its lesson.  So here are some lessons from the apple tree for us today on this day of celebration.
            It is important to plant seeds early, and to keep planting seeds.  The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.  It is important for we disciples of Jesus Christ to plant seeds of love and grace, wisdom and joy.  They can take time to develop, and they can keep growing from generation to generation.  Today, we are celebrating the laying of bricks, the hammering of boards, the painting of space.  More important, however, are the seeds that are being planted and will be planted in this space.  Think of this space as God’s garden, a place where we will plant seeds of love and kindness, joy and compassion, grace and wisdom.  We will plant seeds and water them with our prayers and our smiles and our hugs, and we trust that God will bring wonderful fruit to life because of this space.
            Think with me more deeply about fruit, using the image of the apple as we think about “spiritual fruit,” and about fruitful ministry.
            It is not uncommon these days, when we take about fruitful ministry to talk about making new disciples of Jesus Christ.  We talk about ministry fruits, and we count.  We count the number of professions of faith in Jesus Christ.  We count the number of people who attend worship.  We count the number of people involved in small groups for faith formation – Bible study groups, prayer groups, book groups.  Numbers matter, counting matters, but not because of the numbers themselves.  Counting matters because these numbers represent people – people who are in need of God’s grace and love in their lives, people who need to be reminded that they are created in the image of God in a world that often tells them they are not enough, people who need to be reminded that with God there is hope in a world that often seems to lack hope, people who need some sense that their lives matter and that they can contribute something unique and beautiful to the world.  Acts 2 reminds us that the early followers of Jesus Christ knew about counting.  “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
            You have built new space, and more space, and you have renovated your space because you want to reach more people.  You want more people and new people to share with you in worship.  You want more people and new people to be part of your Bible studies and prayer groups and book groups.  You want to be fruitful in your ministry in this way.
              But just as apple trees need to be planted together, and different varieties of fruit need to be present for healthy pollination, so, too, should we think about other kinds of spiritual fruit.  We count, and numbers matter because numbers represent people.  Fruitful ministry is ministry that grows.  Yet numerical growth is not the only kind of spiritual fruitfulness that matters.  We also want to help people produce fruits of the Spirit in their lives.  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
            I am going to say something here that is a bit risky, but it is important.  If the only kind of fruitfulness we think about is growth in numbers, and not also growth in these fruits of the Spirit, we are missing what is most important in God’s garden, in God’s orchard.  I would rather have fewer people who are producing these fruits of the Spirit in great abundance than more people who gather in the name of Jesus but are not producing the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Of course, we do not have to choose between numerical fruitfulness and fruits of the Spirit fruitfulness.  They are meant to cross-pollinate, but we need to be intentional about that cross pollination.
            There are many reasons my heart aches and breaks for our world.  There are too many starving people in our world.  There are too many people who live lives under brutal regimes.  There are too many children in our world who lack basic health care.  There is too much blind hatred.  Among the most heart-breaking things in the world to me, however, are persons who at one moment proclaim the name of Jesus Christ, and who the next moment speak with voices of hatred, or prejudice, or exclusion, people who perpetuate worn out stereotypes about the other, and evoke fear of the other.  We need to be the kind of church that helps people cultivate deep in their hearts and souls these fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Numbers without the fruitfulness of the Spirit produces only bitter fruit.
            There is even a third kind of fruit that matters, that is important if we are to have the kind of cross-pollination of the Spirt God asks of us as followers of Jesus.  Hear these words from the final chapter of the Bible.  “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river, is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:1-2).
            This is such a beautiful image, God’s grace and God’s love as a river, watering the tree of life, a tree that produces fruit, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  You had a dream, and we celebrate that dream today.  You had a dream of building a place that is welcoming to people who want to know God’s love in Jesus Christ.  You had a dream of building a place where people could come to grow in that love of God, a place where people’s lives are changed, where the fruits of the Spirit flourish – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  This is a good dream.  Never forget that as important as the dream represented here today by this building project is the larger dream of God for the world.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  God is finally not just about the church, though the church matters deeply to God.  God is not finally just about individual lives, though each of our lives matters and is precious to God.  God is finally about the healing of the nations, about a transformed world – a world of love and justice, joy and peace, beauty and reconciliation, kindness and compassion.  This is a third kind of spiritual fruit that is vitally important to the cross-pollination of the Spirit.
            As we celebrate and consecrate this place today, acknowledging the hard work and generosity of so many, my prayer is that this place will be one that welcomes many.  My prayer is that this place will be a place that is numerically fruitful.  My prayer is that this place will be a place that is rich in the fruits of the Spirit, that lives touched here will be graced with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  May such fruits shine brightly in the sun and touch the world with a delicious sweetness.  My prayer is also that the kind of lives produced here will touch the world in ways that bring healing to the nations.  Our world, blighted by prejudice and hatred, marred by exclusion and neglect, shattered by violence and inattentiveness to the natural world, our world needs spiritually fruitful people who touch the world in ways that move toward the healing of the nations.

            Learn the lesson of the apple tree – the importance of cross-pollination of the Spirit so that lives can be made different and the world transformed.  God bless your work.  God bless this space.  God bless our lives.  God bless the ministry that happens here, and through our work, God bring healing to the nations.  May it be so.  Come, Spirit come.  Amen.

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.