Friday, June 29, 2012

Giant Steps

Sermon preached June 24, 2012

Texts: Joshua 3:1-6, 14-17; I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

We are entering a time when you may get phone calls such as this: “If the election were held today, for whom would you vote – Mitt Romney or Barak Obama?” “If the primary election were held today, for whom would you vote – Jeff Anderson, Taryl Clark, or Rick Nolan?”
Well, this morning I want to do a bit of non-political polling? How many of you like jazz music? How many of you have heard of the jazz musician John Coltrane? How many of you have ever heard any of Coltrane’s music?
John Coltrane was born in North Carolina in 1926. Both his grandfathers were pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion. Both his parents were musical and they instilled a love of music into their son John. Coltrane decided to make music a career – he studied it and began to play professionally. In the early to mid 1950s, Coltrane was seen as a talented, but often unreliable musician. Alcohol and heroin were preventing him from living up to his potential. Coltrane then had an experience he describes this way: During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which has led me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. Coltrane gave up drinking and drug use and his musicianship flourished.
In 1960, Coltrane released a pivotal record in his career, “Giant Steps.” Jazz critics have said that the record was “a monumental achievement in tenor sax playing” and that the title song “knocked the jazz world on its ear.” I want to play a bit of “Giant Steps” for you.

Giant Steps

In case you are wondering, no, you have not inadvertently wandered into music appreciation 101.
This has been a monumental week for our congregation. It began last Sunday when Chester Park UMC held its final worship service in their building, celebrating years of ministry in the Duluth area beginning in the 1890s with Hope Evangelical Church on Sixth Ave. East and Fifth Street – just down the hill from where we are today. Tuesday, rains started to fall and we had no idea just how much rain would fall, how hard it would come, how quickly the waters would rise, and how much damage such flash flooding would cause. 2:45 a.m. Wednesday morning our home phone rang. It was the Red Cross asking if the church could be used as an emergency shelter. By 3:30 that morning I was here with the Red Cross to open our church for those displaced. 26 people spent Wednesday night here, and more than twice that were here during the day on Tuesday. We were only a temporary site because we had Ruby’s Pantry on Thursday, and in spite of all the troubles getting around, over 300 shares of food were distributed that evening. Today, we welcome new members from Chester Park into the new First United Methodist Church. And that’s how I think we need to be thinking. We are merging together two wonderful congregations, two meaningful traditions of worship and service to God in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. Something new is happening today, and we are going to be welcoming two additional people into membership today – Rachel and Seth.
Giant steps.
Over these past weeks, the folks from Chester Park have been using the story of the Israelites on their journey to the promised land as a way to frame their journey with God to a new place. We read the story of one part of that journey, the entrance into the land itself from Joshua 3. Oh that we would have had the ark of the covenant on Tuesday night so that we would have experienced a lot more dry ground here in Duluth! The Israelites crossed over the Jordan on dry ground. They were going a way they had not passed before (v. 4). God promised that wonders would be done (v. 5). Giant steps.
We have not passed this way before, either. In the long history of each congregation that now makes up First United Methodist Church, there have not been other mergers. Sure Hope Evangelical Church became Chester Park Evangelical Church, then Chester Park Evangelical United Brethren Church (where my mom was confirmed and my parents married), and then Chester Park United Methodist Church – as the church relocated and its denomination merged and merged again; and First Methodist Episcopal Church, 3rd and 3rd W., became First Methodist Church and then First United Methodist Church, and then took on the nickname, “the Coppertop Church” as it relocated and its denominations merged – but we, neither of us, have experienced congregations joining together as we do today. We have not passed this way before, and we require God’s wisdom as we enter into this new land. I trust we will continue praying for this new leg of our journeys and our journey. I also trust that as we are open to the wisdom of God, the Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Christ, we will see God do wonders with us, in us, through us. Giant steps.
I want to confess something this morning. I was a little uncomfortable when Pastor Sam asked me about using Joshua 3 as one text for this morning. Here you are Chester Park – the promised land?!? Yikes. Then I looked again at the lectionary text from the Hebrew Bible, and realized that the entry into the “promised land” was only another beginning, and that all was not sunshine and blue skies and sweetness and light. Years later there were other giant steps, ominous giant steps belonging to a Philistine warrior named Goliath. Trouble in the promised land.
There may be some Goliath moments for us, this new First United Methodist Church. We may, and probably will, encounter some obstacles along the way that make us worry and quake and wonder – wonder if we have the resources to meet them. One Goliath challenge all churches face is the increasing number of people who see church as irrelevant to their lives. The fastest growing category of persons, when asked about their religion is “nones.” Millennials, those aged 18-24, when surveyed, think the church is an uncomfortable combination of good values and principles and judgmental and anti-gay (The Christian Century, May 30, 2012) We have work to do in our culture, with some giant trends that are working against us.
Whatever the obstacles, whatever the challenges – internal, external, even the challenges we experience within, we are invited to trust God, to trust that with God wonders can be done. We are to trust God with a David-like faith. David was taunted by Goliath. “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” Some days we may feel as if we are confronting a giant, in a coat of armor, and all we have are sticks and stones. Yet, that’s all David had, and with God, it worked.
There will be challenges along the way, but I hope that together we will be willing to trust God in the midst of challenges, and trust God enough to dare some giant steps of our own. A few years ago, the well-known business writer Jim Collins discussed some of the characteristics of successful organizations. Among the things he found was that successful organizations were willing to identify “big, hairy, audacious goals.” Such goals need to be consistent with our core values and need to have some rooting in reality, but such goals push us forward. What giant steps might God be leading us to take together? What will be our big, hairy, audacious goals?
Just coming together, we are taking giant steps. I believe God has brought us together in Jesus. I believe God wants to work wonders in us and through us by the power of the Spirit. I believe there are some giant steps for us to take together in the coming days and years. Yes, there may be some opposing giant along the way, but with God, our sticks and stones will be enough.
May we walk together, take giant steps together, with courage, with faith, with hope, with joy, and most of all, with love. Amen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What You See

Sermon preached June 17, 2012

Texts: I Samuel 16:1-13; II Corinthians 5:16-17

Two summers ago we spent some of our vacation in Tennessee. I was in Nashville for a workshop and then we traveled to Memphis. In Memphis we visited the National Civil Rights museum including the old Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. While in Memphis we toured Sun Studios – where Elvis Presley made his first recordings and other famous musicians like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis got their start. We toured the Rock and Soul museum, across the street from the Gibson Guitar offices. We also drove by the studios of Stax Records. Stax Records was housed in an old movie theater and on the marquee, it read, “Soulville USA.” From 1957 to 1975, Stax Records recorded a number of significant artists in southern soul music: Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes. Among the artists who recorded for Stax was a group called “The Dramatics.”

The Dramatics, Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get

What you see is what you get. That is a pretty good sentiment. What you see is what you get. It speaks of consistency and authenticity – things we strive for personally. I would like in my life for there to be consistency between my words and my actions, my intentions and the results of my actions. I know I am not perfect here, but I strive in that direction. I would like there to be authenticity in my life. What you see is what you get.
I think we would kind of like that for our church, as well. We want to be a place where our actions are consistent with our words and intentions. It is a good thing, even when it may come at a cost – and sometimes it does.
Last Sunday afternoon and evening our church was the site of a rally sponsored by Duluth and Minnesotans United For All Families. It is a group whose focus is defeating the Marriage Amendment that will be on the November ballot here in Minnesota. We provided space for this gathering, and we did so believing it to be consistent with who we are as a congregation. Voting “no” on the marriage amendment would be consistent with being a welcoming and reconciling congregation. That is not to say every member of this church feels the same way about that issue, and we talk together even when we may disagree. But hosting this rally fits with who we are. Some outside our church don’t like that one bit. This week I received two phone calls from persons distressed, even angry that a church might not be opposed to same-sex marriage. One caller was emphatic – “It is against, God’s law, moral law and natural law.” This caller told me I better think long and hard about the kinds of things I am teaching. These were not my favorite moments of the week, but they are a part of being authentic as a congregation who believes following Jesus means welcoming all, and having one’s theology and ethics shaped by the lived experience of others who may be different.
If it weren’t a copyright violation, perhaps I would add the song to our phone message – First United Methodist Church: What You See Is What You Get.
Yet, sometimes “what you see is what you get” may not be very helpful. Sometimes what we see is not all there is to be seen. Here’s an example. First United Methodist Church – copper top and stone structure – architecturally perhaps we don’t exude warmth. What you see is what you get? I hope not. Sometimes what we see is not all that there is to be seen.
God sends Samuel to look for a new king for Israel. Saul has been rejected and God conspires with Samuel to keep this search for a new king a secret from Saul. It will be one of Jesse’s boys. Samuel is impressed by Eliab, presumably Jesse’s oldest. Indications are that Eliab is tall and strong. God whispers some advice to Samuel. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” None of the seven sons Jesse presents to Samuel passes the heart test. Samuel wonders if there are any more. Well, one more – “the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” Well, sheep or not, Samuel wants to see him, and turns out he is the one – David. Interestingly, just after God has told Samuel that the Lord does not look on appearance, what we are told about David is that “he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Even for the Biblical writers, consistency can be a struggle.
What you see is what you get? Perhaps, but we always need to be asking if we are seeing widely and deeply enough, if we are seeing all there is to see. Most importantly, are we paying attention to the heart?
So if God is paying attention to the heart, what is God seeing? God sees into the depths of who we are. God sees it all. Here are a couple of other things to remember.
When God looks into our hearts, God sees God’s own good creation. Each of us is part of God’s good creation, beloved by God, a person in whom God delights, even if we have disappointed God at times. One way to think about God’s grace in our lives is to remember that God always sees us as part of God’s own creation – good and delightful.
When God looks into our hearts, God also sees a new creation in process. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” When God looks at our hearts, God does not just see who we are and where we have been, God sees who we can become in Christ. God sees our potential – the bulb in the flower, the tree in the seed, the butterfly in the cocoon. God knows we are on a journey, on a journey to make Christ more real in our lives, in our life together, and in our world.
When God looks into our hearts, the deepest part of who we are, God sees it all – the good, the beautiful and the ugly. God also never stops seeing God’s good creation in us, nor does God ever stop seeing who we can be in Jesus Christ – a new creation.
I believe this to be true for each of us, and I believe it to be true for all persons. There are some powerful implications to that. If God sees in all God’s good creation, and the potential for new creation, we should see no less. What you see is what you get, only if you see a bit like God – see the beauty of God’s good creation in all others, the potential of new creation in Christ in all others. Sometimes our seeing is quite myopic, and God challenges us to see more clearly and deeply. This belief that God sees in all God’s good creation challenges every human seeing that views only race, or only class, or only sexual orientation, or only gender, or only height, or only education, or only the past – and often carries with these limited views negative stereotypes. If what we see is limited and negative, then “what you see is what you get” becomes insidious and damaging. Part of the work of God’s new creation in each of us is to expand our sight beyond negative and limiting stereotypes.
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new. The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
God in Christ is working in each of us and on each of us – doing heart work. God is creating us to be real people, authentically loving people – not made of plastic or wood or stone. God wants to work new creation in us so that we can sing “If what you’re looking for is real loving, then what you see is what you get.” May it be so. In Christ. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2012

We Are Family

Sermon preached June 10, 2012 at Chester Park United Methodist Church, Duluth. At the end of the month First United Methodist Church, Duluth and Chester Park UMC will be merging. This sermon was preached at Chester Park. Later at First I did not preach as we celebrated the ministry of Carol Donahue, our long-time organist and music director.

Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-15; Mark 3:31-35

The year was 1979. Jimmy Carter was president. It was the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis. The United Nations had declared 1979 “The International Year of the Child.”
In 1979 I turned 20, completed my second year and UMD and began my third. I was a stock clerk and checker at Loop Super Valu near 45th Ave. E. and Superior Street. That summer I began dating a young woman named Julie. We will have been married thirty years this summer.
In 1979 the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, who were in last place in their division in April went on to represent the National League in the World Series. They went behind three games to one in the best of seven series with the Baltimore Orioles, but came back to win the series. At the heart of that baseball team was Willie Stargell, whose career with the Pirates began in 1962. The team called him “Pops” – he was nearing forty. Stargell played brilliantly that year. He was the Most Valuable Player of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series – the oldest player ever to be the World Series MVP at age 39, and was also the National League MVP. He is the only player ever to win all three MVP awards in a single season.
Stargell did more than play brilliantly; he helped his team become a team – a family of sorts. A teammate said of Stargel, "If he asked us to jump off the Fort Pitt Bridge, we would ask him what kind of dive he wanted. That's how much respect we have for the man." And Stargell used a popular song of the day, to help his team bond – “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
We are family. We are family. We have history together, you and me. I grew up in the Lester Park neighborhood of Duluth, in a yard adjacent to Marlys and Bill Wolden and their daughters, and even at 52 it feels a little funny to call them Marlys and Bill. They moved before Cindy entered middle school. Kyle Harriss went to school with my sister and played in our back yard. My mom was confirmed here at Chester Park Evangelical United Brethren Church. She and my dad were married here in 1956. I worked at Loop Foods with one of your members and babysat the nephews of another member. We are connected, you and me. We are family, and I look forward to building on these already existent connections.
Let us press more deeply. A crowd had gathered around Jesus and his family was concerned about his well-being (Mark 3:21). When his mother and brothers arrived the crowd said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” Apparently there were no seating perks for Jesus’ family, no backstage passes. Jesus’s response is frankly kind of cold. “Who are my mother and my brothers!” Then he looks at the crowd gathered. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
Now my mom is planning on being here next Sunday and were I to say something like this, I think her feelings would be hurt. What is Jesus up to here? In part, Jesus may be challenging certain Roman conceptions where families defined one’s place in society. Who your father was could determine a lot of your fortune in life. Social structures have a profound impact on our self-perceptions. If society defines me a certain way, perhaps that is all of who I am. Social stereotypes can become internalized and that can be a problem. If we are part of the family of God, wow! You need not be defined by who your father is, or how functional your family may have been. You are part of the family of God. Maybe that is part of what Jesus is up to.
And maybe part of what he is up to saying that when we follow him, when we follow Jesus, it is not just an individual matter. As a good family provides loving care and encouragement, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. As a good family laughs and weeps with us, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. As a good family challenges us to stretch and grow, so, too, should the community of those who follow Jesus. We need each other for support and encouragement and challenge. It is in community that we are asked to live out our commitments to love. Jesus commandment to his followers is to love. As followers of Jesus we are to be known by the love we have for one another.
Those who claim that they are spiritual but not religious make a good point. Sometimes our religious institutions don’t live up to their spiritual claims. We need to work on that. What they often miss, though, is that spirituality, or at least the spirituality of Jesus, is meant to be lived out in community. It is here that we put our spiritual ideas into practice, and if our spirituality cannot work with other real, living human beings with faults and foibles, we need to ask how deep a spirituality we really have.
As Chester Park United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church join together at the end of this month, we are creating a new family. I am reminded of the language of our wedding liturgy – “the marriage of Chester Park UMC and First UMC unites their families and creates a new one.” Yes, except that in Jesus, in so many ways, we are already family. It will be up to us to build on our already existing family relations, family ties.
I think we will do that best as together in our new family we remember that Christian community as family is a family with a purpose. What does the Lord your God require of you? Only that you fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) H. Richard Niebuhr, a well-respected theologian from the middle of the last century in his book The Purpose of the Church and It’s Ministry wrote that the purpose of the church, “a community of memory and hope” (25) is the increase among persons “of the love of God and neighbor” (31). The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church says that the purpose of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
We are family, and as family people with a purpose. Our purpose is to love God and neighbor, and to increase love of God and neighbor in our lives, in our church, and in the world. We do that by making disciples of Jesus Christ who live out their discipleship in the world. Our purpose is a heart-purpose and a soul-purpose. As Chester Park and First come together, there may be, no, there will be some bumps along the way. We will navigate the turbulent waters of our merger best as we remember that we are coming together so that we can increase the love of God and neighbor in our lives and in our world. That is our heart-purpose, our soul-purpose.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember who we are - followers of Jesus Christ who calls us together.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember whose we are – God’s people, the family of God in Jesus Christ, a community of memory and hope.
As we are family and are becoming family, let’s remember why we are – to increase love of God and neighbor, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
We are family already. We are becoming a new family together. Maybe words from our wedding blessing would be a good way to end this sermon, even as we begin life together. May we serve God and our neighbor in all that we do. May we so bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends. We are family. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Really Good News

Sermon preached June 3, 2012

Texts: Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

This past week I attended the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church meeting in St. Cloud. It is a busy time for me. Even before conference started this year, I facilitated a conversation about social justice legislation. I serve as the conference parliamentarian, which means I sit on the dais next to the bishop as she presides at the plenary sessions. I advise her, when she asks, on parliamentary procedure and help in other ways as requested. As a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, I attended breakfast with those being ordained on Thursday morning, and I played a small role in the ordination service that evening. I don’t have a lot of spare time.
One of the things that means is that I miss most of the news while I am at Annual Conference, perhaps only picking up a snippet here or there. When I get home, I try and review the newspapers to see what has been happening in the world. Even a cursory glance through the papers can be kind of depressing. “Fears Mount in Egypt Over Outcome of Presidential Election.” Shootings in Seattle. “Suicide Attacks Target Police in Afghanistan.” “Third Massacre Points to Further Deterioration in Syria.” “A dismal jobs report Friday rekindled fears that the economy is stumbling.” “Pavano Pounded in Cleveland” – and the Twins are 4-6 in their last ten games. A couple of significant people in the Duluth community – Meg Bye and Gary Gordon died.
Much of the news that gets reported is bad news, certainly not all the news, but much of the news.
So how about some good news, some really good news, some really good news that is intended to make a difference in your life?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
How often we have heard these words, so often, in fact, I am guessing that for many of us they have almost lost the power to be really good news. I hope we can hear them again as good news.
Maybe if we add on a related thought. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
God so loved the world – the world, you me, the world – everyone. God’s love was embodied powerfully in Jesus, as Christians we think this is quite a unique sharing of God’s love for all. Jesus, in whom God’s wisdom and power is embodied, gives himself over to this work of love by teaching, healing, freeing, feeding, welcoming. He gives himself completely to this work of love and ends up dying for it. But the power of love cannot be kept down, cannot be finally crucified, but rises.
And the welcoming word of Jesus is the word of God’s love, amazingly stated by Paul – we are children of God, heirs of God just like Jesus. We are part of the family of God and like Jesus in that respect – a joint heir of God’s goodness with Jesus.
Roman society was a very stratified society, and one key identifying characteristic of your social status was who your father was. Romans were privileged. High level Romans were even more privileged. Paul is saying that no matter who your earthly father was or is, no matter your social standing, in Jesus you call God your Father, your parent. That’s whose child you are. This is really good news.
And how do we divide up people in our society, making decisions about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, who is favored and who is not? Sometimes we have used racial-ethnic categories. Sometimes we have used family categories. Sometimes we have used gender. Sometimes we have used sexual orientation. Sometimes we have used past behavior. Sometimes we have used immigration status. Sometimes we have used physical characteristics. Sometimes we have used economic status. The really good news is this –these do not matter when it comes to God’s love. God so loved us all, that we are invited to see that we, too, are part of the family of God, joint heirs with Christ.
Nothing need get in the way of God’s love for you and your primary identity as a beloved person in Jesus Christ. This is really good news.
I was able to hear this news powerfully again this week. Leia Williams was our Conference coordinator for promoting Imagine No Malaria. Leia is a young woman born in Arkansas, whose appearance and voice make her seem even younger than she is. As she was celebrating with us that the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church has in funds raised and pledges committed $2.5 million to Imagine No Malaria over the next three years ($20,000 pledged by us, of which we have raised $3,100 dollars), she also shared some of the story of her faith. Leia grew up in a church where women were not allowed to speak. It was a church that believed that God cleansed you at the moment of your baptism, but then it was your job to be worthy of that. By her teens, Leia felt that she would never be worthy, especially as a woman. She had pretty much given up on church by the time she went to college. In college she was invited to participate in a play sponsored by a United Methodist Church. She was hesitant, but since the play was not about Jesus, she felt safe enough. The people there welcomed her warmly and encouraged her to come to church some time. She didn’t, but really appreciated their warmth. On a trip home, her mother, now attending another church than the church of Leia’s youth, asked Leia if she wanted to go. Turns out it was the same kind of church that had sponsored the play. Leia says she went with her mother and for the first time in her life heard a sermon about grace – God’s love inviting us to be God’s children and being “worthy” had nothing to do with it. For God so love the world – everyone. In Jesus we are children of God, joint heirs with Christ.
Have you been beat down or beat up by some social category of worthiness? Do you feel unloved, unlovable, unworthy – even in some part of your life? I have some really good news. God so loves you that God wants to adopt you as one of God’s own – just because you are. Good news, really good news. Amen.