Friday, February 25, 2011

Parking Lot Stories

Sermon Preached on February 20, 2011

Texts: I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-17; Matthew 5:38-48

Next week, the Academy Awards will be given out. How many of you watch the Oscars – at least sometimes? One of the films nominated for Best Picture this year is the movie The Social Network. How many of you have seen this film? I watched it a few weeks ago with my family. I don’t often see many of the nominated pictures before the awards, so this was fun. The movie is about the development of the social network site Facebook. How many of you are on Facebook? Sites like this are having a deep impact on our world, for both good and ill. Social media sites provide connections for family and friends. They help people organize, even organize to make changes in their government, as the people of Egypt have. Social media helped propel this protest. Such sites also extend opportunities for bullying – making it difficult for a young person to walk away from harassment, sometimes for tragic consequences.
The world is changing because of this new way of connecting, and we in the church have to become more savvy about using such tools for ministry.
One of the consequences of Facebook is that it is possible to connect with old friends or acquaintances. Since going on Facebook, I have made some contact with people I knew in high school. Awhile back I exchanged messages with a high school acquaintance. I told him what I was doing, and he told me he remembered this church. He wrote that he used to watch submarine races from our church parking lot!
Today is UMW Sunday – UMW = United Methodist Women. The theme for the day is Faith, Hope and Love in Action. I don’t intend to try and talk about faith, hope and love in action while people watch submarine races from our parking lot. I do, however, want to share some parking lot stories.
Church parking lots are sometimes notorious places. We refer to “parking lot” conversations as those discussion that sometimes have more impact on the life of a church than the conversations that happen inside, even at council meetings. In the parking lot sermons can be evaluated, music critiqued, events judged, decisions reconsidered. I know of a pastor who brought a proposal to his church council. The proposal had something to do with a discipleship initiative – asking the congregation to participate in a congregation-wide study and prayer initiative. The pastor was a little nervous, but the conversation with the council went well, and the decision was made to move forward. As the initiative began, however, it did not seem so well supported. People were not showing up as they said they would. The pastor began to ask a few questions and he discovered that the very night of the council meeting there was a later parking lot conversation in which most of the council agreed that they really did not support the pastor’s proposal. That parking lot conversation led to the pastor leaving that church.
But our parking lot, though I am sure it has been the site of some of those kinds of parking lot conversations – hey, we have been here for over 40 years – our parking lot has just this week been the site of some remarkable ministry. Last Sunday afternoon, over 100 people gathered in our church parking lot to stand together to support families in all their configurations. The group was a gathering of people of faith who want others to know that there are people of faith who support the right of gay and lesbian persons to have their relationships recognized. I can’t say that every person present would agree to just how that ought to be done, but we were united in our opposition to proposals that would prohibit any recognition of same-sex relationships. Pictures were taken. Videos were shot. A message was sent from this church parking lot – a message about love in action.
Thursday night, our parking lot was busy again, the crazy business that has become Ruby’s Pantry. At 2:30, two semi loads of food arrived. By three o’clock, people are beginning to arrive in our parking lot – some willing just to wait to buy their share and get their food, others to volunteer to unload and distribute the food. There is activity in the parking lot until well after 8 p.m. as undistributed food is loaded back on trucks and clean-up winds down.
These are the parking lot stories that matter most here at First United Methodist Church, because we want this to be a place of faith, hope and love in action. And among the groups that lead us in helping put faith, hope and love into action are our United Methodist Women. There is another time that our parking lot is pretty crazy, and that is on the first Sunday in November for the Coppertop Craft and Bake Sale, coordinated by our United Methodist Women. Many of you work with the UMW to make that event such a success, and we know that success has something to do with money earned. Part of the real success of that event, however, is not the money earned that day. It happens about a month later, when the money gets spent. Our United Methodist Women spend their money joyfully. They spend their money putting faith, hope and love into action. At the end of the year, the UMW distributes their money to area ministries and projects. Every year, different ministries and projects benefit. Every year, faith, hope and love are put into action in this way by the UMW.
One of this year’s recipients of UMW funds was Life House, a program that works with homeless kids in our community to get them into safe housing and help them with their education and employment. Life House helps kids like Ashley. Ashley lived in ten foster homes beginning at age one, until she found herself surviving and abusive relationship and living out on the streets. To make matters even more complicated, Ashley was a teen mom, and her greatest fear was losing her son Tayshawn. Life House has helped Ashley find stable housing, pursue her education, and develop hope for the future. Life House helps kids like Matt. Matt’s home life was such that he could not stay there, even though he had not yet finished high school. Yet Matt was a proud young man. “I’d rather sleep on the streets than ask for help.” Matt worked to support himself, but had only minimal job skills and ended up evicted because his jobs did not help him earn the money he needed for rent. At age twenty, Matt has been helped by Life House. He is in housing and has been working on education and job skills to make his life better.
Life House does great work, and it is able to do that work, in part, because of our United Methodist Women putting faith, hope and love into action.
We have a strong foundation laid for us here at First United Methodist Church. Today we are especially grateful for the role of women here in laying this foundation. As we give thanks for this, I trust we will also remember many who worked to put down a foundation of faith, hope and love on which we can build. “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it” (Paul, I Corinthians 3:10c). We have a foundation to build on here – a foundation of faith, hope and love.
We have a foundation of an open faith. We are trying to cultivate the kind of faith in Jesus Christ here that is deep enough for us to ask the most searching questions. We have faith that such questions will not lead away from Christ, but into an even deeper and more profound relationship with the Spirit of Christ.
We have a foundation here of love in action. When I think of love in action here I think about United Methodist Women, I think about Ruby’s Pantry, I think about our support for GLBT persons, I think about our anti-racism work, I think about youth working with Feed My Starving Children, I think about mission trips to Florida and Iowa and South Dakota, I think about music shared to bring joy and to bring people closer to God, I think about children collecting money for Haiti, I think about all the quiet ways we share love together with each other. We have a foundation of love in action.
We have a foundation of hope. We have an undying hope that what we do matters. We have an undying hope that what we do makes a difference in the world. We have an undying hope that what we do makes a difference to God and for God.
We have a beautiful foundation here, and according to the grace of God given to us, we need to build on that foundation.
We build on that foundation as we share good news. Here is good news – “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” God’s Spirit calls to each of us. God’s love reaches to embrace each of us. We are all important to God and have gifts of grace to share with the world.
Many years ago, two monks went from their community to visit some of the spiritual luminaries of their age. First they found the famed ascetic Abba Arsenius. He has been a wealthy senator in Rome, and was known for his profound humility, sobriety and penitence. The two monks had traveled a long way to get to his rustic cell, but once there they greeted the old man and sat with him. He said not a word, and after a time the monks became uneasy, so they left. They then went to see the former desert gang leader Abba Moses. This large, physically powerful man had been a thief and murderer before coming to Christ. Abba Moses welcomed them joyfully and took leave of them with delight – a very different experience from their meeting with Abba Arsenius.
Upon returning to their community, the two monks shared their experiences with others. One other monk became quite confused. How could these two saints of God be so very different? This confused monk prayed to God, asking for an explanation. That night he saw a vision. Two large boats we drifting down a river. In one sailed Abba Arsenius with the Spirit of God, sailing in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God and they were all eating honey cakes.
Reflecting on this story, Frederica Mathews-Green writes: God can use any kind of personality, any kind of person…. The one light of Christ is like a flame shining out through different colored glass. You are the only person God made who is exactly like you (Federica Mathews-Green, The Jesus Prayer, 166-167).
We build on the beautiful foundation laid for us when we share the good news that God created each person to shine with their particular light.
We build on the beautiful foundation laid for us when we love – love boldly, wastefully, lavishly, love even our enemies, love even as God loves. Jesus words in Matthew 5 should startle us. “Love your enemies…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The only thing I would add to these words is a bit of explanation – so we understand that to love in this wild way is not rolling over and being taken advantage of. New Testament scholar Walter Wink has done us all a great favor in putting these words of Jesus into their historical context (The Powers That Be, 101 ff). To turn the other cheek is not to offer to get hit again, it is to assert one’s dignity. To be struck on the right cheek would have been a backhanded blow with the right hand, a blow struck not to injure, but to insult and humiliate. By turning the other cheek, a person makes this humiliating backhanded blow impossible again. To give one your inner garment when they have sued you for your outer garment, well, in a two garment society, that idea is rather funny. It leaves naked not just the person who has given his or her clothes away, but it strips an unjust social system of its mystifying powers. Carrying someone’s gear a second mile after they have forced you to carry it for one would have put that person in violation of the Roman military code, again revealing the injustice of a system where a soldier could compel the service of others at their whim.
Jesus sites these as loving acts. They are also acts that promote dignity and justice. Loving others can mean calling them to recognize when their lives are out of order. Love is working for the well-being of others, and we are to love even those who don’t have our well-being at heart.
Today, let’s give thanks for the rich and beautiful foundations of faith, hope and love that have been laid for us. Let us rededicate ourselves to build on that foundation. May our faith, hope and love be enacted in the parking lot and from there into the streets and into the highways and by-ways. Amen.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Let's Be Honest

Sermon preached February 13, 2011

Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Things were going so well. There was the beautiful difficulty of the beatitudes, pronouncing blessings. Then came the wonderful words – you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Now there is a shift. The tone seems to change. Did Jesus stub his toe on a stone? Did he get a thorn stuck in his sandle?
You have heard it said that you shall not murder. Most of us can check that off the list – never murdered. But have you ever been angry, angry to the point where you insulted another, angry and insulting enough to shred the very fabric of a relationship?
You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery. Well, we are pretty sure that that is problematic and to be avoided. When it happens, it takes a lot of work to repair the relationship. So maybe we’ve avoided that too. But have you ever looked at a woman, looked at a man and felt desire, longing, lust?
Do you find yourself struggling with integrity as you say “yes” or “no”?
Have you ever divorced?
Let’s be honest, this change of tone in this speech of Jesus’, well, it is difficult. These are difficult words.
So what is Jesus up to? I thought we were salt and light. Now anger brings judgment, torn relationships are to be mended, we need to take care in how we look at women or men, if you are divorced – well that’s not good, we are to be more direct in our communication. I don’t feel so salty anymore. My light seems a little dimmer.
But that’s not the point. The point is not guilt or shame. The point is not to try and hide ourselves from ourselves. Anger, who me? Lust, never! I think the point is just the opposite – it is to foster a deeper honesty. The point of these words of Jesus is to take us deeper, deeper into our lives, deeper into what God hopes for us. God is interested in transformed lives, inside and out. God is interested in working in our lives to transform our actions, attitudes, dispositions and desires.
Before getting into that deeper stuff, I think we should remind ourselves just how important the changed behaviors Jesus identifies are. We may be wanting to go deeper than our actions, but let’s not forget how important it is to stay away from things like murder or adultery or falsehood. In a world that is all too violent, we should speak strongly for less violent behavior. In a world where sex is sometimes treated as just another physical activity, we should speak words of care and caution. In a world where it sometimes seems that what’s right is what you can get away with under the law with good legal representation, we should speak for more integrity.
Jesus is not trying to say that such things are unimportant in God’s scheme of things. They are very important. What he is trying to say is that we can avoid murder and violence, we can be sexually faithful in our relationships, we can be truthful on the surface, and still have work to do in our lives. The invitation to the Jesus way in the world is not an invitation to a series of don’ts. It is an invitation to live toward deep transformation – toward healing and wholeness in relationships, toward dealing not just with actions but also with desires.
And it begins with honesty.
Let’s be honest. We can avoid murder, avoid striking someone, yet still fall short in managing our anger or in our efforts toward reconciliation.
Let’s be honest. We can avoid adultery yet still struggle with our desires for intimacy or our desires around our sexuality.
Let’s be honest, unhealthy relationships are not just those that end in divorce. By the way, it needs saying every time we read this passage that this should never be used to be judgmental toward those who are divorced. For too long the church used this passage to beat up on divorced people, and that was a plain mis-use of this text. When you pay close attention to the text, you see that it is just addressed to men (so, it seems, is the text about lust, but I don’t want to go there now). At the time of Jesus, only men could initiate divorce and they could do so for any reason whatsoever. In a society where women were economically disempowered, not being able to own property, few job opportunities, divorce often meant ruin. This text is much more about justice and reconciliation than about divorce, per se.
Back to the main thread of the argument here. Being salt and light requires honesty. Staying salty and bright means continuing to open our lives to God’s Spirit for deep transformation, but always beginning where we are.
Last weekend I got my first look at Amsoil Arena. My son was given a couple of tickets for the UMD hockey game and he asked if I wanted to go. I was delighted. Well, when we got to the arena, it took us a little time to find our section. We found our section and our row and our seats were 7 and 8. We needed to walk past some who were already seated, but we were on the end of the row that required us to walk by more people than if we had been at the other end. A little embarrassing, but not terminal, until one guy we walked by said quite sarcastically: “Way to go guys, coming in at the wrong end of the row.” We got to our seats, but I was livid. What a jerk. It is not like we stepped on him or made him spill anything. It was not like he couldn’t stand up so we could get by – he was relatively healthy and probably a little younger than me. I suppose it didn’t help that he was a Gopher fan. I was tempted to say something to him about being rude (that was after a few other thoughts surged on by), but my anger subsided and I just wanted to enjoy the game with my son.
Is Jesus trying to tell me that my anger was akin to doing this man physical violence? I don’t think so. Is Jesus trying to tell me that just by being angry I was wrong? I don’t think so, though there were a few unkind thoughts that probably were not me at my best. What the words of Jesus do for me is make me think more deeply about my anger. Sometimes it is o.k. but that doesn’t mean I have to express it or act on it. In this case, I had to admit that my anger was mixed with my own desire not to look foolish. It would have been better had we entered the row at 1 rather than at 18, but that just happens sometimes. I need to be honest. I still have some work to do inside, and that’s o.k. to admit.
In the January/February issue of The Atlantic the following statistics were cited in an article: In 2007, a quarter of all Internet searches were related to pornography. Nielsen ratings showed that in January 2010, more than a quarter of Internet users in the United States, almost 60 million people, visited a pornographic Web site. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of people in this country, including people who are trying to follow Jesus, who may be struggling with desire, with intimacy, with lust. This is not the church saying that all sex is bad, that the naked human body is shameful, that every depiction of human intimacy is inappropriate. But that kind of traffic on the Internet says to me that there are struggles that we need to be honest about.
Psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath writes: Bringing what is hidden out into the light and knowing the name of what troubles us are the first steps toward autonomy. They provide us with insight and understanding about our hidden desires and emotional habits. But to become the Subject of our own desires, we need the moral strength or courage to face the conflicts of our inner and outer lives as we attempt to put our insights into action. (Women and Desire, 201-202) Jesus is inviting us to bring what may be hidden into the light. He is inviting us to a searching honesty.
Young-Eisendrath goes on to write, To follow blindly your own desires will create a prison of constant craving and longing, from which you cannot escape. To refuse your desires will create another kind of prison, one in which you will feel ashamed, guilty, resentful, or even psychologically dead. (203). We are salt. We are light. We are on the Jesus way. Yet, let’s be honest, we are still working out some of the conflicting desires we find inside. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
Charles Taylor is a brilliant philosopher. In his most recent book he writes this: It is generally thought that the more clearly you see the right, and the more committed you are to it, the more you will be moved by anger and indignation at all the violations of it that one sees around you. The pure in heart are in a perpetual flaming rage, according to this view. An openness to the vertical dimension [by which Taylor means new possibilities, often possibilities offered in religious views of life] – which raises the question, how do we all have to change, in our most basic motivation, in order to live up the ideals we’ve set for ourselves? – would alert one to the dangers of this cultivation of anger (Dilemmas and Connections, 363). We are salt. We are light. We are on the Jesus way. Yet, let’s be honest, we are still working out appropriate ways to feel and express our anger in a world where there is a lot to feel angry about. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer led an underground seminary in Nazi Germany for a time. He worked to create a meaningful common life among the students and teachers and reflected on the challenges of Christian community in a work called Life Together. There he wrote: Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream…. God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves…. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer is saying that genuine Christian community needs to begin with an honesty that we who are salt, we who are light, we who are on the Jesus way, are also working out our salvation, are also undergoing continuing transformation by God’s Spirit as we work with anger, desire, reconciliation, and integrity. God give us the moral courage for that kind of honesty.
One last thought. We often talk about the challenge of churches in attracting young people. We often look at music and worship style and the like, and these matter. But I am convinced that one factor that has kept some young people away from the church in our inability to be honest about the struggles as well as the joys of Christian life. Too often the church has said that we are beyond struggles with desire, emotion, reconciliation. We speak as if we are never angry, and then our anger comes out sideways. We avoid as much discussion about sexuality as we can, yet none of us would be here without it Rather than do the challenging work of reconciliation, we avoid disagreements until they erupt, making reconciliation much more difficult. So let’s be honest. Our salt will be saltier. Our light will be brighter. Amen.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Lightly Salted

Sermon preached February 6, 2011

Texts: Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth.” Salt – generally a good thing. This is one of the biggest weekends for snacking in our country – Super Bowl weekend, and my taste in snacks runs more toward the salty than the sweet – chips and guacamole, wings, and such things. A little salt adds flavor to food. A little salt helps us stay standing in our winter weather. We don’t mind if some of our salt gets trampled under foot. We also know that salt has some problems. Too much salt in the diet leads to high blood pressure and heart problems. Too much salt left for too long on your car can lead to corrosion. The first car I ever owned was not a car you wanted to drive on dirt roads with the windows down. The trunk had Minnesota air-conditioning from road salt and if you were on a dirt road with the windows down, the dust was just pulled right in like a vacuum.
“You are the light of the world.” Light – generally a good thing. Light helps us find our way. We need light to read. I love the Groucho Marx line: “Outside of a dog, a book is a person’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read.” We need a little light. Too much light can be a problem, though. Drive on a dark road at night and you don’t want an oncoming car to have its bright beams on. It blinds you momentarily. In those old black and white movies, light was often used to interrogate prisoners – that light shining right in their eye. Too much light can be uncomfortable.
And salt and light don’t often mix well. In the winter, when I get too much salt on my car, I begin to notice that the headlights don’t shine as brightly. They are not as helpful as they should be.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Good news. Good images, though they may have their limits. But Jesus is not done offering images that are intended to remind us of who we are in God and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…. Whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” We who are salt, we who are light, are also to be disciplined practitioners of the ways of God. But it is no rote series of tasks Jesus invites us too. In the stories of Jesus, his own following of the law was creative and thoughtful. He understood what was most important, and he invites us to be just as creative and thoughtful in our discipleship, even as we are disciplined practitioners.
O.K. So salt and light are catchier images for the life of a follower of Jesus. What’s a creative, disciplined practitioner? Here is Anne Lamott on writing. You sit down…. You try and sit down at approximately the same time everyday. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down… you put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so…. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind… and you try and quite your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above all the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys…. But you… make yourself stay at your desk…. You clear a space for the writing voice. (Bird By Bird, 6-7).
Being a disciple of Jesus is shining and being flavorful, and also being disciplined and determined in engaging in practices, like writers working on their craft.
We just recently completed a Bible study on The Book of Acts, that part of the New Testament which tells stories of the earliest followers of Jesus after his death. You may remember that Jesus first followers were Jewish, like Jesus himself. Over time, non-Jews began to become part of the Jesus movement, the movement of the Way. A controversy arose – imagine that, controversy in the church! – a controversy arose over how much of the Jewish law and practice was required for these non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Some wanted all followers of Jesus to practice the fully Jewish way of life, following all the commandments. The main body of the church did not go that direction, yet some continued to insist on this, and they were a problem. These “Judaizers” were among those Paul wrote against in some of his New Testament letters. But the opposite position could be a problem, too – that is, asking virtually nothing of followers of Jesus. The authors of the study book we used in our Bible study called this “gentilizing.” “Gentilizing represents the erosion of the church’s identity and public practice when nothing, or too little, is expected of those who have known and experienced God’s radical grace” (Robinson and Wall, Called To Be Church, 276). The authors go on to argue that to be Christian involves one in “resurrection practices.”
I am arguing that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers not two but three images which help us understand who we are and how we are to live as God’s people – salt, light and the creative, disciplined practitioner. But I need to say that this third image does not function in quite the same way. It is not as important as the other two images, even if it remains essential. You see, we are salt. We are light. Practices don’t make us salt and light, that is the work of God’s radical grace in our lives. Yet practices keep our salt salty and our light bright and protected. Practices help us keep salt and light in the right proportion. Practices are part of what it means to be God’s lightly salted people.
So what are some of these practices? The authors of our Acts study book talk about resurrection practices and include: hospitality, sharing, doing justice, worship, prayer, learning. We did not need to wait for their book, however. Jesus words about salt and light and disciplined practice follow the Beatitudes, which is also a list of practices: mercy, justice, peacemaking, generosity, courage, tending the heart. Practicing such things takes discipline and creativity.
Last Sunday night some of us gathered for our Faith and Film night and we watched the movie “Invictus.” Invictus is the story of the South African rugby team and their quest for the world cup in 1995, just a short time into the presidency of Nelson Mandela (1994-1999). The story is a powerful one. Mandela was imprisoned by the white South African apartheid government for 27 years (1964-1990). Can you imagine the potential for anger, resentment and hatred is such a situation? Mandela became the first democratically elected president of the county and it first African president in 1994. Instead of enacting revenge, Mandela actively pursued reconciliation, even embracing the rugby team, the Springboks, which had been a hated symbol of white South African rule. Mandela is a creative, disciplined practitioner of peacemaking and reconciliation. It let his light shine and his salt be truly salty.
A pastor friend recently shared with me a story about a member of her congregation named Earl. Earl’s wife died a few years ago, but while she was in the hospital, Earl was by her side. One night going home from the hospital, Earl’s car broke down. Three college students helped Earl that night, helped him get home and make arrangements for his car to be repaired. One of the young men, hearing Earl’s story about his dying wife, even came and picked Earl up the next day and took him to the hospital. The practice of generosity and hospitality.
You are the salt of the earth. In another translation: “You’re here to be salt seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”
You are the light of the world. In another translation: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
You are to be creative, disciplined practitioners of the Way. It’s how we keep our salt salty and our light bright and protected. It’s how we express our identity as God’s lightly salted people. Amen.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Do Be Do Be Do

Sermon preached January 30, 2011

Texts: Micah 6:6-8; I Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Did you know that it is possible to lead a cow up stairs but not down stairs? Did you know that, by Kentucky law citizens of that state must bathe at least once a year? Did you know that the pitches Babe Ruth hit for his final home run and Joe DiMaggio hit for first home run were thrown by the same pitcher? Did you know that William Shakespeare was about 46 when the King James Bible was produced. In Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear?” Did you know that intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair? I am guessing that I just got too near a powerful magnet!
Did you know that you cannot trust everything you read on the internet? The Shakespeare thing works. There was a KJV Gideon bible in my hotel room in Augusta, Georgia this week – so I checked it out. The Ruth/DiMaggion thing does not appear to be true. DiMaggio hit his first home run off a pitcher named George Turbeville in 1936 and Ruth hit his final home run off a pitcher named Guy Bush in 1935. I wasn’t about to call an acquaintance in Kentucky to ask him if he was required by law to take a bath once a year. The hair thing, let just not go there.
Well, here are some things I hope you do know, not from the internet, but from the heart of Christian faith.
I hope you know you are called by God. God knows you. God knows you in the depth of who you are. God knows your deepest dreams and most dreaded fears. He knows what you are most proud of and what you wish you could forget. God knows all that, and God loves you and God continues to call to you to be one of God’s people. That is true for each and every one of us here. “Consider you own call, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes. This past week I met a woman at the denominational meeting I attended. Cathy Cox is currently the President of Young Harris College in Georgia, a United Methodist school. She was, for eight years, the Secretary of State of Georgia, and then a candidate for governor. I believe she saw her political life as part of responding to God’s call in her life, and now sees her work at Young Harris as a response to God’s call.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters. And God’s call is not just to us individually, God also calls us corporately, as First United Methodist Church. I believe God has something to do with our being together, and that God has some work for us to do together as this church.
Another thing I hope you know, I hope you know that you are gifted by God. You, yourself are a gift. No one is just like you. Only you have the experiences you have. Only you can share you with the world. Only you have your gifts and strengths, and the gifts and strengths you have are the ones you will need to respond to the call of God in your life. Another way of saying this is that you have all you need to respond to God’s call in your life. Yes, following Jesus may stretch you, but you are not without the gifts needed to follow. You may need to grow and develop your gifts, but you don’t have to wait for other gifts to live for God, to follow Jesus.
In I Corinthians, Paul shares words that may not seem all that complimentary. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Paul is not trying to tell them that they are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. He is trying to say that these people are gifted by God, even if the world does not always see the gift. God sees the gift that is you. The church is a place where we affirm each other’s gifts.
You are a gift. You have the gifts you need to respond to God’s call in your life. The same is true for our congregation. We have the gifts we need in the people we have to live out God’s call for us. As we welcome new people who come our way, who God might be bringing our way, they will add to the mix of gifts we have to live out God’s call as this church. As new people come, God’s call will change and shift. Yet at any time we have the gifts we need in the people we have to live out God’s call to this church. God’s call may stretch us. God’s call may require that we develop our gifts more fully, but we have what we need to be God’s people. I hope you know that.
I hope we know something else. While we will discuss, sometimes debate, and always seek to discern the more precise direction of God’s call in our lives and in our life together, we know the broad direction for our lives and our church.
In the October 5, 2010 issue of The Christian Century there was a fascinating article entitled, “Why You Don’t Have To Find God’s Will For Your Life” (Phillip Cary) Sort of cuts against everything we have been discussing in recent weeks, doesn’t it? But not really. We have specific decisions to make about things like career or marriage, and the law of God doesn't tell us to choose this job over that one or this potential spouse over that one. So how do we know what to do? … If you're looking for a formula or method for making decisions, then you're looking for the wrong thing. There is no recipe. There is only wisdom, the heart's intelligent skill at discerning good decisions from bad ones. This skill is not a method- not a formula you can apply to particular situations simply by following the rules, but a habit of the heart you have to develop through long experience of your own, which includes making mistakes from time to time. Specific decisions require wisdom, discernment, but the author adds this about God’s call, God intention, God’s purpose, God’s will: If you want to know God's will for your life, here it is: "He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). The will of God for your life is justice, kindness and a humble walk with {God}. While we will discuss, sometimes debate, and always seek to discern the more precise direction of God’s call in our lives and in our life together, I hope, I trust, we know the broad direction for our lives and our church. It is the direction of doing justice. It is the direction of loving kindness. It is the direction of deepening our relationship with God. Micah 6:8 is a touchstone text for understanding the broad direction of God’s intention for our lives. Matthew 5 is another. Cultivating a certain spirit, being open to mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness and justice, being merciful, seeking a pure heart, making peace, having the courage to face difficulty as we seek to be God’s people.
What I hope you notice here is that there is inner work and outer work in following Jesus, in seeking to live as God would have us live. There is the work of loving others. There is the work of shaping the world, changing the world in the direction of peace and justice. There is the work of being changed within. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do Be Do Be Do.
I don’t know where precisely following Jesus may take me. Sometimes when I am at these denominational meetings, I will have someone ask me if I have ever considered working for the church in a different capacity, at a national level. “We think you would be good in this job.” I pay attention, but I don’t know if that will be my future someday. I am here, now, feeling called to be with you, to see what more God has in store for us. Some of you have some of those experiences, too. Someone says, “I think you have the gifts for ___________.” You pay attention. God might call you there some day. But whatever I do, I know that I am supposed to continue growing in my relationship with God. I know that I want to grow within – grow in love and kindness and peacefulness and mercy. I know that I am to use my gifts to make the world better. I think you are to do the same.
And for our church – how is it God hopes we will help people grow within? How is it God hopes we will extend mercy, do justice, create peace? We have to figure out the specifics, but we know the direction. We want to be wise and discerning when deciding about ministry opportunities and programming options, but we know what we want them to be about. Making a difference in the world. Being different within. Do. Be.
While imprisoned in a Nazi camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter on the occasion of the baptism of a close friend. In his letter he pondered the future of the Christian church and Christian faith. He was deeply disappointed by the failure of the church to stand against Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. He was in prison because of his own opposition to Hitler. He penned these words in May 1944: Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among persons. A more recent translation of the latter phrase is “prayer and in doing justice among human beings.” Whatever the value of Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the church, he finds the heart of God's intention for us – prayer, the shaping of our inner life, and righteous action – shaping the world. Do. Be.
God calls us. God gives us gifts. We are to use our gifts to respond to the call, and we know where the call is taking us – prayer and action, toward being different and making a difference, toward having Christ formed in us and being Christ for the world. Do Be Do Be Do. Amen.