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.

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