Monday, May 28, 2012

We've Got Spirit Yes We Do

Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday May 27, 2012

Texts: Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost Sunday. We read the classic Christian text for the day from Acts 2, which begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come.” Pentecost is a Greek word meaning “fiftieth” which had something to do with the timing of this Jewish festival, which in Hebrew was known as Shavout – the Feast of Weeks. The festival marked the beginning of the wheat harvest (Exod 34:22 Exod 34:22 ) and was to be the occasion for a number of offerings (Lev 23:17-19 Lev 23:17 Lev 23:18 Lev 23:19; Num 28:26-31 Num 28:26 Num 28:27 Num 28:28 Num 28:29 Num 28:30 Num 28:31), including two loaves made from wheat flour and “baked with leaven” (Lev 23:17 Lev 23:17 ). It was a day for a holy convocation and labor was prohibited (Lev 23:21 Lev 23:21 ; Num 28:26 Num 28:26 ) (New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). Later Jewish tradition identified this as the time when Moses received the Torah (Jewish Annotated New Testament).
The story from Acts is remarkable. The disciples are all together in one place when there is a sound “like the rush of a violent wind.” Tongues like fire appear and rest on each of the disciples. The Spirit gives each an ability to speak in another language. Jews from every nation hear these languages and are amazed and perplexed, though some are a little incredulous – “they are filled with new wine.” Peter offers a long interpretive word about what is happening and how it is related to Jesus.
The story is remarkable, and has little to do with the wheat harvest or offerings of bread. God’s Spirit shows up and incredible things happen. There are those in the Christian tradition who argue that exactly these kind of amazing things are still the sure sign that God’s Spirit is present. We call them “Pentecostals.” Some have, from time to time, called them “holy rollers.” They are Christians known for emotional displays, for their openness to “speaking in tongues,” and for their willingness to entertain the strange – barking or laughing hysterically. How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb? One, and they can do it quickly because their hands are already in the air. Lest we feel too smug, Pentecostals might sometime refer to us as the “frozen chosen.”
We in mainline Christian churches have often been leery of Pentecostals – their emotionalism and frequently accompanying anti-intellectualism. While I think we can learn from our Pentecostal sisters and brothers, especially about being less afraid of emotional expression, which does not have to preclude intellectual rigor in our faith, we do not need to concede that it is only when the amazing happens that the Spirit is present. We can claim that “we’ve got Spirit, yes we do.”
We’ve got Spirit, yes we do. When God’s Spirit shows up it is not about jumping and shouting and strange languages. It is about being transformed, made different.
When God’s Spirit shows up there is assurance for our lives. The disciples had been through a difficult time. Jesus had been crucified, and though they had experienced the resurrected Jesus as the Christ, they remained a bit confused and uncertain. Pentecost was a time of assurance. There is an experience here that they are on the right path in following Jesus. They are assured that God is with them, and that they are a part of God’s on-going powerful work in the world.
Where do you need assurance in your life? Where do you need to know that God is still with you? Where do we as a church need to be assured that we are part of God’s deeds of power? Come, Spirit, come.
When God’s Spirit shows up there is encouragement. Not only are the disciples assured that following Jesus is a right path, they are encouraged to keep on keeping on. Things may get rough – fire, smoky mist, the sun turning to darkness – but keep on. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved – everyone.
Where do you need encouragement in your life? Where do you need to feel God forward-moving presence? Where might we as a church need encouragement to keep on with the work of Jesus in the world? Come, Spirit, come.
When God’s Spirit shows up, differences are bridged and connections are made. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Romans, Cretans, Arabs are all connected by God’s Spirit, by the Spirit of Jesus.
What differences does God want to bridge here in our church, or here in Duluth? Soon we will be a new congregation – former Firsters and former Chester Parkers. Part of the Spirits work in our midst will be helping make us one. Where do you need to find reconciliation with the other in your life? Come, Spirit, come.
And yes, when God’s Spirit shows up things are shaken up. People are amazed and perplexed, and some might confuse the joy and wonder with new wine. That few confuse the typical church service with a party may not always speak well for the church. The Pentecostals are wrong to assume that speaking in tongues is the primary way God’s Spirit shakes things up. God’s Spirit shakes things up when we become too complacent, when we fail to recognize our need for continued growth, when we stop hearing the cries of a hungry and hurting world.
Where do you need to be shaken a bit, moved from apathy or complacency? Where do we need to be shaken a bit, moved from apathy or complacency? Come, Spirit, come.
And when God’s Spirit shows up there is a story to be told, and we need the courage to tell it.
Where have we been too quiet about the work of God’s love in our lives, and in our life together? Come, Spirit, come.
We pray for God’s Spirit to come, and it seems as if the Spirit of God can come in surprising ways, at unexpected moments. “Suddenly for heaven there came a sound.” Are we simply at the whim of a God who only arrives suddenly and unexpectedly? Two Rabbis are talking. The first Rabbi says, “Full experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.” The second Rabbi answers, “Rabbi, if knowing God is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” The first Rabbi says, “To be as accident-prone as possible.” We pray, read the Bible, worship, meditate, engage in acts of compassion and justice, trusting God’s Spirit will come.
Come, Spirit, come.
I am going to end this morning’s sermon with a few moments of a song that is a prayer for God’s Spirit – “Veni, Sancte, Spiritus” – Come Holy Spirit. It is a very unpentecostal Pentecostal moment!

Taize, "Veni Sancte Spiritus"

We’ve got Spirit, yes we do. Come, Spirit, come. Veni, Sancte, Spiritus. Then, when God’s Spirit comes, watch out, because we are going to be changed even as we are encouraged and assured. Come, Spirit, come. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Now You Don't Now You See Him

Sermon preached May 20, 2012

Texts: Acts 11:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23

When I was growing up, WDIO TV used to show an early movie in the afternoons. Sometimes after school I would watch that movie and among the movies shown were some starring the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. One of my favorites was “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.” This morning’s invitation to worship comes from that film. Police psychiatrist to Lou Costello: “Have you ever seen anyone disappear before?” “Yes, sir. My brother. My brother and I were walking down the street. All of the sudden he disappeared.” “Into thin air?” “No, into a manhole.”
Some of you may remember the series of Southwest Airline commercials with the tag line, “Want to Get Away.” There was the ad with the two guys playing a video game and one says to the other, “O.K. throw it like you would outside.” The other guy is a bit of a literalist and he literally throws the game controller into the tv, smashing the screen. Want to get away? The commercials work because we have, at times, wanted to get away.
Well the central story from the Bible for this morning is a story about disappearing, about getting away. Jesus disappears, Jesus gets away with style, panache. He does not disappear down a manhole, and not really into thin air either. “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Now that’s a dramatic exit.
Jesus is gone. That is not simply a story from the past, but it is the permanent state of the church. Jesus is not here. He has gone away. With that there is another word. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This theme of going and returning has found its way into the liturgies of the church. Our communion prayers include the affirmation: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” The Apostle’s Creed affirms that Jesus “ascended into heaven” and that he will “come again.” While at times we may be mystified by some of this – what might it mean to say that Jesus is coming again? - this is a part of the Christian story. I don’t think we have to have it all figured out and there are too many in the Christian community who spend inordinate amounts of time speculating on the whole idea of Jesus coming again. At its heart this idea of Jesus coming again is a word of hope that God is not yet done with God’s work in the world. At its heart is the idea that we live with a horizon of hope.
Jesus is gone. Jesus will come. As Christians, however, we also affirm, and trust, that Jesus is present with us. Whatever the story of Jesus rising into the clouds may mean, it does not mean that we don’t experience the presence of Jesus in our lives and world now. Jesus will not come walking down the aisle of the church, take up a seat in the pew next to you, and will not be graciously fighting you for a donut after church. Jesus is gone.
But Jesus does sit next to you in the pew in the person who is there, that person in whom the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is at work. We trust, as Marcus Borg puts it, in “the living Jesus who comes to us even now” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 137). Jesus is gone. Jesus will come – and Jesus comes to us even now, again and again. As we pray, as we read Scripture, as we seek to be a follower of Jesus, a Jesus person, we know, we experience the presence of Jesus in our lives. We know, we experience the presence of God, in the face of Jesus, in our lives. Jesus is gone, but Jesus is here in some real way.
Yet there’s something more. As followers of Jesus, we help make Jesus real for the world. Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church puts it this way: The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. (Book of Discipline, 2008, para. 129). Jesus is gone. Jesus is present in our lives. Jesus wants to be more real to the world through our lives. Now you don’t, now you see him! We make Jesus real for the world. The work of Jesus in the world has become our work and it is we who must convince the world on the reality of Jesus, and of God’s love as we know it in Jesus, or leave it unconvinced.
There is a prayer attributed to St. Teresa of Avila that communicates this now you don’t now you see him message. God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. (Feasting on the Word).
What an audacious claim, that Jesus is making himself real through us. What a daunting task. Jesus is gone. We make Jesus real to the world. Yet remember the other part to this – Jesus is present in our lives. The gospel story is not that Jesus leaves and says “good luck with that.” We believe in a living Jesus who comes to us even now. In Ephesians, Paul writes about the power of God which works in our lives. It is a power made evident in love. It is a power that gives us “a spirit of wisdom.” It is a power that seeks to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” We are those being formed by God in love, formed in and by the Spirit of Jesus. Wisdom is being formed in us. Love is being formed in us. Jesus is gone, but Jesus is here, at work in our lives.
Then Jesus moves us into the world, where we seek to make Jesus real for others. We take our open eyes and hearts into the world. As Jesus’ people we are invited to see the world more richly and deeply and profoundly. That some Christians have often seen the world in pinched and narrow ways says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different her and I think we are.
We take wisdom into the world. As Jesus’ people we seek knowledge and wisdom. Christians for almost as long as there have been Christians have been wonderful at starting schools, institutions for learning. Charles Wesley, who with his brother John helped found the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition, had inscribed at a school started by Methodists the motto that we seek to bring together two things long estranged – “knowledge and vital piety.” That some Christians have too often turned away from education in fear says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different here and I think we are.
Most important of all, we take love into the world. As Jesus’ people we are to be known by our love. Ruby’s Pantry happened this past Thursday. We had fewer people come than we were anticipating, and so had food left to donate. CHUM, Safe Haven, Union Gospel Mission, and the Damiano Center were beneficiaries of Ruby’s Pantry food. And we set aside some boxes, as we have in the past, for Lake Superior Elementary families. Well, Julie put that food into her car, but was having trouble reaching the principal of the school. There is another family at her current school that she knows has often been in need of food, so she called this person and made arrangements to bring food to her apartment. Then the idea struck. I bet there are others in that same building who are also in need. She called the woman back to tell her that she would be coming with food for others, too. When she arrived there were six families, delighted to have fresh chicken, and egg patties, and hash brown patties – astonished by gifts of love given through Ruby’s Pantry in the name of Jesus.
We have long been known in this community as the Coppertop Church. Our building stands out, and that is wonderful. But I want us to be known for our building and our love. This is the place where once a month you can get some food shared with care and kindness. This is the place where people reach out to mentor. This is the place where if you are having a bad day, there is someone to listen and help. This is the place that will welcome you. We want to make Jesus more real through the quality of our loving. That some Christians have been seen as narrow and judgmental in their loving says something about the perennial challenge that Jesus is even for those of us who seek to follow him. We want to be different here and I think we are.
Jesus is gone, except somehow he is real and present in our lives, and through our lives wants to be more real in and to the world. Now you don’t, now you see him.
Wendell Berry has a wonderful poem that is also a prayer (Leavings, 33)

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me please to carry
this candle against the wind.

Jesus is gone. Jesus is present in our lives as a burning love that forms us in wisdom and love. Jesus wants to be made more real to the world through our lives. Now you don’t, now you see him. May we carry that candle against the wind. Amen.

Friday, May 18, 2012


Sermon preached May 13, 2012

Texts: Psalm 103:1-8, 19-22; Acts 10:44-48

Astounding. To astound – to amaze, to astonish, to fill with sudden wonder. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
Are we ever astounded any more? I can think to things that tend to astound us. Say “September 11” and we remember how astounded we were that planes would be used as weapons in New York City. Judging from what I see in television advertising, we tend to be astounded by crime, particularly random crimes or gruesome crimes – the Manson Family, Columbine, Jeffrey Daumer, Ted Bundy.
We seem to be able to be astounded by tragedy, but I have a concern in our day of twenty-four hour news stations that we may be losing our ability to be astounded by some of the pain of the world that should astound and astonish us. Seeing too many pictures of starving children, do we become immune to their plight? Watching too many stories about war-torn countries, do we become hardened to such brutality? I think part of the work of God’s Spirit in our lives, the Spirit of Jesus, is to keep our hearts softened enough to know some of the pain in the world. Perhaps the child-like spirit Jesus encouraged is, in part, a spirit that can be astonished by human pain, human cruelty. I hope and pray that deep injustice continues to astound me. Even as I work with death and with grieving families, I hope and pray that I never lose the ability to feel some of their grief and pain and be astonished again and again by the depth of love and care in the face of death.
But while I am concerned about us losing our ability to be astounded by hurt and pain and tragedy, concerned because as long as we can be astounded we can be motivated to do something to alleviate hurt and stem the tide of injustice, I am even more concerned that we may be losing our ability to be astounded by goodness. Can we still be astounded by goodness?
Allow me a couple of examples from our political life. This week President Obama told the American people that he has come to believe that same sex couples should have the right to marry. Almost immediately the analysis of his statement was framed in narrow political terms – he needed to shore up his support among a particular base in his party. He needed to provide a contrast with the Republican candidate. Lost in such analysis is any sense that this might have been a moral statement, a statement about goodness. Now I am not na├»ve enough to think that they were no political calculations in this statement, but I also think this may have been a person trying to understand something about human goodness and human decency.
Mitt Romney looks to be the Republican nominee for President. During many of the primary debates he was often castigated for having changed his mind about one thing or another. While it is fair to wonder if someone running for office changes simply to appeal to certain voters, there were times when it seemed as if people were claiming that any change ever was illegitimate. One needed to hold one’s views the same forever. But isn’t that absurd. Surely we are not born fully formed. Isn’t the point of education to help us see the world in new ways, and perhaps change our minds? Don’t we want to be life-long learners, and if we are, we might change. I think it’s called growth.
My point is that there seems to be in our culture a way of thinking which gets in the way of our ability to be astounded. If a politician makes a moral statement, it is just politics, not trying to do good. If a politician changes her or his mind, they are not learning and growing, they are flip-floppers. Donors to a good cause become people who care only about their good name, not people who really care about a cause. Such thinking gets in the way of our ability to be astounded.
Now I am enough of a realist to know that for politicians political calculations are never far from their thinking. I am enough of a realist to know that people often have mixed motives in doing good. Skepticism is o.k., but when skepticism shades into cynicism, we lose our ability to be astounded, amazed, surprised, filled with wonder.
And here’s the real danger in that. We risk missing the work of God’s Spirit if we cannot be astounded by goodness, amazed by beauty, astonished by love. We need not and should not surrender our skepticism or give up our critical thinking, but we need to allow that goodness can happen, beauty can happen, love can happen. God’s Spirit can be at work in our lives and in our world. Bless God, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless God, O my soul and do not forget all God’s benefits. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
I was astounded at General Conference when two of the most prominent United Methodist pastors in the United States stood together at a microphone to offer a statement about human sexuality that acknowledged our church’s differing opinions on the matter. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter pastor growing and vibrant churches. Both are rooted in the more evangelical stream of Christian faith, yet they want to move our church in a new direction, allowing for faithful disagreement even as we work together. Their statement ended with the words of John Wesley. Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?
I am often astounded by music. I am often astounded by the music here at this church. Wonderfully gifted musicians offer their gifts and talents to give our worship a certain depth and power. I am deeply grateful to our music staff – Carol, and Bill and Mike and Cynthia, and Richard, and to our support staff: Roger, Nick and Sarah, and to every voice and instrument played. You regularly astound me, and I am most astonished when some piece of music strikes a chord in tune with the sermon. Yes, I send out worship themes a few weeks in advance for our music staff, but there are times when something comes together in a way that leaves me filled with wonder. Thank you.
Mothers should astound us. On this Mother’s Day, I hope we recognize that, and to help us do so, I want to share part of a delightful poem about mothers. The poem is called “The Lanyard.” The poet is Billy Collins. In the first couple stanzas of the poem Collins is reminded of a time at camp as a child when he made a lanyard for his mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

Collins ends the poem by saying that one other gift given by his mother was the feeling she gave that “this useless, worthless thing I wove/out of boredom would be enough to make us even.” (The Trouble With Poetry, 45-46). Mothers should astound us, and I am astounded by this poem, too.
Another poet, Mary Oliver, in one of her works offers these lines:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
(Red Bird, 37)

Yes. We risk missing the work of God’s Spirit if we cannot be astounded by goodness, amazed by beauty, astonished by love. God’s Spirit is at work in our lives and our world.
And if God’s Spirit is indeed at work in our lives and in our world, and in some astounding ways, we not only need open minds and hearts, we should allow ourselves to be astounding at times. I think there is a connection between allowing ourselves to be astounded and allowing God to astound the world through us.
At General Conference I was seated with some of the delegation from Iowa and among their delegation was a young woman who I had met before. Midway through the second week of General Conference she was in an accident, hit by a truck. There were no broken bones, only bruises and soreness, and she returned to General Conference, but in wheel chair. That night at worship the focus of action for the service moved from the stage to a large baptismal fount in the center of the room. We all turned, but Jessica was in her wheel chair and could not turn by herself. I noticed that her eyes began to tear up and so I quietly moved near her and asked if she wanted to turn. “Yes.” We got her turned and I stayed near and held her hand, but soon the action of worship moved back up front and we both laughed a little at all the work it took to move her for such a few moments. Following the worship service, a bishop who had been seated on the edge of the auditorium came up to me and said that he could not help but notice that tender caring moment.
I am a little hesitant to tell this story. What I did was nothing extraordinary, just offered some care to a person I know. It seemed to astound another, though, and I am glad of that.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded. Keep an open heart, a heart open to being astounded by goodness, by beauty, by love. Keep an open heart to being astounding in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Love That Doesn't Quit - or - Lay Down Your Weary Tune

Sermon preached May 6, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Scripture Readings: I John 4:7-21; Galatians 6:7-10

Play a bit of The Byrds, “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”

Weary. I am weary this morning. Many of you know that for the past two weeks I have been at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida, arriving home late yesterday afternoon. General Conference is the every four year gathering of United Methodists from around the world. The General Conference is the highest policy making body in our denomination. With our church growing in Africa, this General Conference 40% of the delegates came from outside the Unites States – from Europe, the Philippines, Russia, as well as Africa.
The schedule at General Conference is always busy. The day begins with morning prayer at 8 am and ends with evening worship, which is scheduled to be completed at 9:30 pm. In order to process petitions, recommended changes to our Book of Discipline or our social statements, each delegate is assigned to a legislative committee. I was honored to be elected the chairperson of my committee which dealt with ministry and higher education. What I was not aware of was that this also meant I met with the agenda committee each morning for a breakfast meeting at 6:30 am. If I don’t look spectacularly tanned for having spent so much time in Tampa perhaps it is because I walked from my hotel to the convention center in the dark and returned at night in the dark. Some days I never left the convention center at all.
Physically, I am still weary from these days.
But I am also weary emotionally and, in some ways, spiritually. The United Methodist Church is truly a global church in a way unique to other denominations in the Unites States. All delegates present vote on all the issues, but sometimes our contexts for ministry are very different. The social and cultural situation in many African countries is dramatically different than ours.
There is beauty in the global nature of our church. Gathered together we see that the body of Christ, those who follow Jesus all around the world, is Technicolor and multi-vocal. I am going to cherish this gift I received from a woman in the Philippines who was in my legislative committee. I will not forget the night I wished a delegate from the Congo “good night” in French – bon nuit. He was so excited that perhaps we could have a conversation in his language and then found out that beyond bon nuit, my abilities in French are un petite.
There is struggle in the global nature of our church. How do we fairly represent the geographically and theologically diverse voices in our church? What sort of structures might foster a creative connection while recognizing different ministry needs in different contexts? And then there is the issue of human sexuality. As you perhaps read in the newspaper the other day, our denomination continues to limit the participation of GLBT persons in some ways – such as ordination or union services. In the committee I chaired we had a debate about clergy officiating at same-sex unions. Currently United Methodist clergy are prohibited from officiating at such services. Delegates from Africa shared that this kind of thing did not happen in their country and they were told by many of their members that they would leave the church were the United Methodists to allow this. Other delegates from the United States shared how this prohibition was getting in the way of ministry, pastoral ministry with members and reaching out to young people. In the end the vote to allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions failed in my committee by four votes. I was disappointed and heartbroken, and was so again when our current denominational policies were affirmed by the entire General Conference this past Thursday, leading to a protest on the floor of the meeting. We have not yet figured this out, and it is spiritually and emotionally draining, and I am weary.
So you have heard some bad news this morning, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, always good news. Here it is – “God is love.” “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him.” God is love, life-animating, life-affirming love.
This God of love extends love to all – to all: black, white, various shades in-between, American, European, Asian, African, rich, poor, gay, straight. God is love
God is love, and we are to love in God’s name, in the spirit of Jesus. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…. We love because God first loved us…. Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” God is love and God invites us to live in love. This is good news, and that doesn’t change because we have not yet gotten love right at The United Methodist General Conference.
God is love – life-affirming, life-animating, energizing love. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…. Let us work for the good of all.”
This morning I am weary. This morning my heart is still hurting. Yet this morning, I will not let that weariness turn into a weariness about doing good. God is love, life-affirming, life-animating, energizing love and I do not intend to grow weary in doing what is right, in doing good.
In our flawed, human church, with its cracks and breaks, God’s love is still known and lived. There are incredible people who follow Jesus in The United Methodist Church – people with vision, and passion and energy who are determined to move the church and to help work with God to change the world. For all its flaws and ability to cause some hurt to people by its decisions, the General Conference itself offers the opportunity for conversations across the continents. Yes, I hope in the near future there is greater autonomy for regions of the church to make some important decisions, including decisions about human sexuality. And I also appreciate the chance we have to have conversations with people whose cultures shy away from almost any discussion of human sexuality whatsoever. God is love and now is not the time to grow weary in doing good.
In our flawed, human church, with its cracks and breaks, God’s love is still known and lived. Since The United Methodist Church joined with other groups six years ago, with the goal of eliminating death from malaria, the death rate has been cut in half. As recently as 2008, there were over 1 million deaths per year from malaria – a death every 30 seconds. The current number of deaths from malaria is still too high, 665,000, but that is one every minute, not every thirty seconds. There is progress and more work to do. God is love and now is not the time to grow weary in doing good.
In our flawed, human church, with its cracks and breaks, God’s love is still known and lived. We missed the boat again on a broad statement on human sexuality, yet we also affirmed that the church was in ministry to help people in their marriages and families and that we are in ministry with all people who are single, and in families in various configurations. Further, while I remain in disagreement with our denomination on its prohibition of same-sex marriage and will continue to work to change it, there is nothing in our denominational policies that prohibits me from working against the amendment to our state constitution which would define marriage in purely heterosexual terms, and I intend to do just that. God is love and now is not the time to grow weary in doing good.
And we have before ourselves as a church a unique opportunity to refashion our life together as by your vote we are moving toward a merger with Chester Park UMC. This can be more than welcoming new people into our shared life and ministry, though welcome them we will. This is an opportunity for us to ask who we want to be in ministry for Jesus Christ as a old/new church. God’s Spirit may be at work here. God is love and now is not the time to grow weary in doing good.
As God’s people we will sometimes feel weary, physically, emotionally and maybe even spiritually. We will sing some weary tunes – just look at the psalms. But because God is love we will always be invited to lay down our weary tune, to rest ourselves in a new song, and to be reenergized for doing good. Amen.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Can I Get a Witness?

Sermon preached April 22, 2012

Texts: Luke 24:36-49

Play Marvin Gaye, “Can I Get a Witness.”
So, if you did not catch this the first time, here is how this card trick goes, and I will include a link to a youtube version when I post my sermon on-line:
Jack the Bounty Hunter card trick
So here is how this trick works. Find a jack and set it aside. Deal two piles of fifteen cards and cut each pile. Have a card chosen from the remaining cards. Place it on one of your piles and I will place one pile on top. Place the jack on one of my piles and place your pile on top. Put the piles together. Then make piles with every other card, always keeping the pile with the jack. When only two cards are left – it should be the jack and the chosen card.
Can I get a witness? You are witnesses of these things.
Witnessing. That is a loaded word in religious contexts. At one point in my Christian journey, to go witnessing meant hitting the streets with Christian literature to distribute to people walking by, and being willing to share the story of the gospel with them. Being a rather shy adolescent at the time, this terrified me, but I understood it at the time as part of my Christian obligation. Maybe that’s what religious witnessing connotes for you, too.
Sometimes the model for religious witnessing is something like what Jesus is portrayed as doing here in Luke 24. It seems as if Jesus takes the whole Bible story and explains it all. There are those whose idea of witnessing entails stringing together a long list of Bible passages to convince another of their understanding of Christian faith.
To be sure, grappling with the Bible is an essential part of our Christian journey of faith, our journey with Jesus. As mystifying as the Bible is sometimes, and challenging as some of its texts are, the long-term testimony of those on the Christian journey of faith is that our journey is enriched when we grapple with the Bible.
Such grappling with the Bible, important and necessary as that is for our lives, is not the stuff of giving Christian witness. To what are the disciples witnesses in Luke 24? The presence of Jesus in their midst. Look, see, touch and see. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus “opened their minds to understanding the scriptures.”
And who are these disciples who are witnesses? “In their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” These disciples sound a bit like you and me, don’t they?
One of the problems we have when we think about what it means to discuss our faith – to witness about our faith, is that we think we need to have it all together. We think that we have to have a nice prepared presentation, that it should be filled with Bible quotes, that we should not have any questions ourselves, that our job is to convince others of the rightness of our faith and the wrongness of being outside of it.
None of that is true. When Jesus says, “you are witnesses of these things” and when he encourages their continuing witness, what they are witnessing to, what they are sharing is their own stories – stories of joy and disbelief and wonder, stories of a Jesus who is present in their lives opening their minds and bringing a bit of peace.
That’s what we are invited to share with others, too – our experience of God in Jesus, a Jesus who brings some peace, some joy, who opens our minds and causes us to wonder. We can share our own grappling with disbelief along the way.
Here is where the Jack the Detective card trick comes in. I can do this card trick. I know it works. I am not sure why it works.
My relationship with Jesus “works.” I can tell you about that. I may not be able to explain everything about that relationship. I mean how is it that someone who died about two thousand years ago seems present and real – the face of God, the side of God turned toward me? If you want, I can offer some good theological and philosophical reflections on that making use of the philosophy of language, biblical hermeneutics based in historical-critical analysis, existential philosophy, psychoanalytic psychology, and process theology – but that is not what most people are interested in!
What most people want to know is whether a relationship with Jesus, the Christian journey of faith, being part of a Jesus community (church) makes any difference in life. Is there really some joy and peace to be found on this way? Are minds really opened up on this way? Are faith, hope and love really central to this way? Yes, yes, yes.
That’s what I witness to. Being on the journey of life with Jesus is not always easy – but the Christian journey of faith, the Christian connection with God and community helps me ask better questions, helps me struggle with important issues personally and globally. I see the world more clearly and broadly and richly because of this journey. I grow because of this journey; it has given me an intense passion for learning. I hear the cries of the world more deeply because of this journey, and am able to respond to some. I care for the planet more because of this journey. Being on the journey with Jesus has not made me perfect. I make mistakes. I hurt others. Even then, this journey helps me say “I am sorry.” It teaches me about forgiveness, my need for it and my need to struggle with it.
The journey with Jesus just seems to work. I can witness that, and I want to share that because I want other people’s lives to work, too.
There is more, though. There is a wonderful quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, though he probably did not himself say it. “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.
I have spent a lot of time on the witnessing with words part this morning because that is what I think we struggle with the most. Many of us have been victims of hit and run or ambush religious witnessing and it is the last thing we want to do. Don’t do it. But there are times in the course of our lives when we may have the opportunity to simply say – God, Jesus, church work for me. Do that.
Yet our most common and most powerful witnessing is with the quality of our lives. We can say all we want, but it will be in our lives where people will see what might work with this Jesus way. I can explain the card trick all I want, but it is after you see if a few times, that you know it works. Being a witness is less about crafting words than about shaping a life, working with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus to shape our lives so that we live with a certain sense of adventure, express a certain kind of joy, face the crises in our lives with a measure of courage and hope, face the crises in the world with a measure of courage and hope, don’t grow weary in doing good, care about the hungry and poor, befriend the hurting, work for a better world, tend the garden of the earth (a good reminder on Earth Day weekend), live more lovingly.
Can I get a witness? We are witnesses – like it or not. May we be good witnesses with our words and with our lives. Amen.