Sermon preached on February 22, 2009
Sunday honoring United Methodist Women
Scripture Readings: John 1:1-5, 14; Luke 4:18-19
I am a United Methodist Woman. Let me rephrase that. As an ordained clergy person who serves as a United Methodist pastor, I am a member of The United Methodist Women. I am very pleased about that as I stand here on this UMW Sunday.
Some of you may wonder why, then, I chose such a unique sermon title. Admittedly there is risk involved. Wonderful World of Disney – seems a little frivolous for a Sunday on which we celebrate United Methodist Women. I hope I can work it through.
You need to know, right away that the UMW is no Mickey Mouse organization. If anything, they are more like the Magic Kingdom. The United Methodist women exist to “be a community of women whose purpose is to know God and to experience freedom as whole persons through Jesus Christ; to develop a creative supportive fellowship; and to expand concepts of mission through participation in the global ministries of the church.” It has roots in women’s mission societies dating back to the 1860s.
Our local UMW raises money and then gives it away to support work in our community, our state, our nation and our world. Locally our UMW has supported the work of CHUM, Second Harvest, Life House, Safe Haven, First Witness, and our congregation’s work at Lake Superior Elementary School – among other things.
Nationally, the United Methodist Women gave over $18 million to mission work in 2006. Since 1939, they have held an annual Mission Education and Action for Justice event which leads women in connecting faith and justice and compassion, and encourages them to take this back to their local churches. In 2008, among the topics featured in Response, the national UMW magazine, were: peacemaking, immigrant rights, simple living.
Personally it has been my privilege to be a teacher at our Minnesota Conference UMW School for Christian Mission and this May I will be leading a retreat for the conference UMW on Living the Sacred.
The theme of UMW Sunday is “The Sacred Circle of Life.” That’s where I began to think about the Wonderful World of Disney. I couldn’t help but have the song, “The Circle of Life” come to mind. Part of my brain is a library card catalog, part of it is a movie screening room and part of it is an i pod. “The Circle of Life” is the theme song from “The Lion King.” We hear it when Mufasa holds his son Simba up on Pride Rock, and we hear it again when Simba holds his son up from the same spot – the circle of life from birth to parenting to giving way to the next generation. The circle of life including birth and death and love and sex and children and parenting and community are all portrayed in the film, well mostly. When we think about the circle of human life it is wonderful and beautiful and mysterious, filled with joy and sorrow and amazement.
I remember a number of years ago, when I was a pastor on the Iron Range, I was driving on a blustery winter day, one of those days after a rather heavy snow when the road is still marked by fallen snow and the wind is whipping it around. On a day like that I was driving on US 169 which cuts across the Mesabi Range and I couldn’t help but notice this black bird, crow or raven I’m not sure, but this black bird flying around in this miserable weather using the winds to play, or so it seemed. It was not fighting the wind, but letting the wind carry it. It was one of those amazing moments of seeing the wonder of the world, the circle of life created not by Disney, but by a force greater.
So the circle of life is amazing and wonderful and mysterious. Is that what makes it sacred? Why do we want to call it the “sacred circle of life”? As Christians we call it the sacred circle of life, in part, because of its wonder and beauty and amazement and mystery – but even more because we believe in an embodied God. In our faith, we call it “incarnation.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. All things came into being through the Word…. In the Word was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word… full of grace and truth.
The circle of life is sacred because we believe in a God who embodied Godself, who incarnates Godself. What does that mean for us? United Methodist theologian Delwin Brown puts it well. “The doctrine of the incarnation means we are at home in the world. We are at home in the world precisely because God is.” (What Does a Progressive Christian Believe, 37-38) Brown spells out what he considers some of the more concrete implications of this view of God and human life.
o We know the physical world in the same way that others know the world.
o We participate in the world of values in the same way that others do. The arts and philosophies of our many cultures are all places where God is present.
o We seek the healing of the world alongside of others…. The worldly processes in which justice struggles to be born and grow are the processes in which God is working to bring about wholeness and healing
God does not walk away or shy away from this earth, this world, life as we know it. God makes Godself a part of it. The circle of life is sacred because God is present and the presence of the incarnate God is what underlies life’s beauty and wonder and amazement and mystery.
Theologian Sallie McFague, with whom some of you are familiar, also considers incarnation central to our understanding of God and our relationship to God. If God is always incarnate – if God is always in us and we in God – then Christians should attend to the model of the world as God’s body. For Christians, God did not become human on a whim; rather, it is God’s nature to be embodied, to be one in whom we live and move and have our being…. The model of the world as God’s body… focuses attention on the near, on the neighbor, on the earth, on meeting God… here and now. (A New Climate for Theology, 72-73). For McFague, meeting God here and now has two primary movements. “The two most distinctive activities of religious people are gratitude toward God and compassion toward others” (102).
In the sacred circle of life, we want to pay attention to where God is. We want to look for God, because we know God is around. We want to heighten our sensitivity to God and our appreciation of what God is up to in the world. The Christian mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, wrote, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw – and knew I saw – all things in God and God in all things.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 1) Barbara Brown Taylor, who quotes Mechtild, goes on to write, “Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery on our way to somewhere else” (24). When we are moving so fast, we hardly notice our own thoughts, let alone the quiet movement of God’s Spirit. We want to pay attention to where God is in the midst of the circle of life, for God is there.
Let me share with you a testimony to where someone has experienced God’s presence when he paid attention. John Updike is a novelist who recently died. Awhile back, Updike wrote for the “This I Believe” series on NPR. The Tuesday morning men’s group has been reading through this book (I hope it’s o.k. to mention the men’s group on UMW Sunday). Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything – from the behavior of galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their submicroscopic components – seems to be inarguable and the principle glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and – may we even say – illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me. (This I Believe, 245-246) Paying attention to what is going on inside is one way to pay attention to God presence incarnate in the world. I believe gratitude becomes a part of such paying attention.
As McFague asserted, gratitude and compassion are the two most distinctive activities of religious people. They are responses to a God who we meet incarnate in the world. McFague: We meet God in the world, and especially in the flesh of the world: in feeding the hungry, in healing the sick – and in reducing greenhouse gasses. (73) Her list is not meant to be exhaustive. Jesus’ understanding of what it meant to meet God in the world through compassion can be found in many places, including Luke 4. The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We meet God in the flesh of the world when we care for our own bodies. Lent begins this week and one way I am caring for my body is in giving up red meat during Lent. I am doing this to get a better hold on my own eating habits and I am doing it because too much red meat cannot only be bad for the body, but it is not helpful for the planet either.
We meet God in the flesh of the world when we care for our relationships. We are not completely self-formed creatures. Who we are is, in part, determined by the web of relationships we create and tend to. When these relationships are healthy, we are healthier. We need to care for these relationships.
Some of these relationships we need to tend to are our intimate relationships and some of them are the relationships we create together in our community. Our church’s anti-racism team is in a time of discernment about its on-going existence, wondering if it has accomplished its initial goals. What ever happens to the team itself, issues of racial reconciliation need to remain a part of who we are as First United Methodist Church. Issues of race still tear at the fabric of our community here in Duluth and of our nation. Part of meeting God in the flesh of the world is to recognize that the flesh of the world in which God resides is of many hues.
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to care about the physical well-being of others. It is to feed the hungry, clothe the ill-clad, house the homeless. United Methodist Women in this church and around the world have done a wonderful job of meeting God in this way. One project we celebrate with UMW is a program begun in Cambodia, a country still rebuilding after being ravaged by a brutal regime. The UMW works with the Methodist Mission in Cambodia to operate cow and pig banks that support families and communities with access to healthy livestock they can raise and use for farming and food. Women are able to improve their livelihoods – living as healthy women, entrepreneurial women, planting seeds of hope. (Response, November 2008)
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to engage in peacemaking. Once again, United Methodist Women are also at work in this, working hard to connect women from around the world in efforts to foster peace, security and well-being for women, children and families. One such effort is UMW support for Isis – Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, which has brought women together from across ethnic and political divides and trained them in the nuts and bolts of peacemaking. (Response, May 2008)
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to do justice. We can look to United Methodist Women for examples of how this is being done, too. In Southwest Texas, immigrant families, including some 75 children, are detained in the privately owned Hutto Detention Center. Sue Sydney, president of the UMW for the Southwest Texas Conference, reports that UMW members in the conference wrote letters in support of the local human rights coalition’s campaign to get the public school system to supply teachers for children in the detention center. The UMW also supports may immigrant families in the area through a community center.
Meeting God in the flesh of the world is to care for the planet. This past Thursday, Naomi Yeager shared with the Coppertoppers about her work as a part of the United Methodist Women’s Green Team, one effort the UMW makes to encourage United Methodist Christians to meet God in the flesh of the world by caring for the world. Naomi’s task is to raise consciousness about the environmental impact of our actions.
On this UMW Sunday we celebrate and affirm a God who comes to us in the midst of this wonderful world. God doesn’t come with the wave of a magic wand, but is among us in the humblest circumstances. We meet God by paying attention and by attending to the flesh of the world. The God of Christian faith, the God of Jesus Christ is found, as we sing in one of our hymns, “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place.” Pay attention. Live with compassion. In the name of the one we call God with us, Jesus the Christ. Amen.