Thursday, June 30, 2016

Creator! Shall I Bloom?

Sermon preached June 26, 2016

Texts: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

            Jay and the Techniques, “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie”            
Well, i tunes got some more of my business this week.  I was thinking about how to begin this sermon and this old song popped into my head.  I thought for sure I had it on my i pod, but alas, I did not.  But i tunes had it.  “Apple, peaches, pumpkin pie.”
Fruit – apples, peaches, pumpkin.  One of the things I really like about summertime is the fresh fruit you can buy and eat.  Cherries are out and delicious.  Berries are no longer $4 for a half-pint.  Traveling in parts of the U.S. you might find fruit stands – apples, peaches, plums.
Fruit is the focus of today’s sermon.  No, not the fruit that grows on trees or vines, but “fruit” that can grow in our lives – “spiritual fruit.”
Galatians 5:23-24 are some of my favorite verses in the Bible.  I have this list memorized: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  If I stumble it is because I first memorized the list of the fruits of the Spirit from the Revised Standard Version, and one word changed when the Revised Standard Version became the new Revised Standard Version in 1989.  In the RSV it was love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  In 1989, goodness became generosity.  Bible translation is not an exact science.  Language usage changes.  Our understanding of words morphs.
Anyway, I love this passage because I think it is helpful to think about where we are going, to consider what life under the influence of God’s Spirit looks like.  When trying to describe what being a follower of Jesus is like, what life deeply shaped by God’s Spirit is like, Paul reaches for an agricultural metaphor, “fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus, people on the Jesus Way, people shaped by God’s Spirit produce these kinds of things in their lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
That these are among my favorite verses in the Bible, and that I am passionate about thinking about what life in Jesus, in the Spirit, looks like is very Wesleyan, very United Methodist.  One Bible I own is the “Wesley Study Bible.”  It is a NRSV Bible but with footnotes provided by Wesleyan scholars and teachers.  Under Galatians 5, they identify “fruits of the Spirit” as a “Wesleyan core term.”  The text was often alluded to by Wesley.  Even if the text is not alluded to, the idea that we need to consider “fruit,” that we need to think about where we are going in this life with Jesus, is something Wesley emphasized over and over again.
In his sermon on “The Nature of Enthusiasm” which I cited a few weeks ago, Wesley discusses “the will of God” and believes there is a general rule about what God’s will for our lives is.  The will of God is our sanctification.  It is God’s will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that we should be good, and do good, in every kind and in the highest degree whereof we are capable (Forty-Four Sermons, 423).
Wesley offered a series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, and in thirteenth in the series, he shared that whatever creeds we may rehears, whatever professions of faith we make, whatever number of prayers we may repeat, whatever thanksgivings we read or say to God… the heart of the matter is to be a person who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and soul, and strength and who in this spirit, does good unto all (371, 374).  In the ninth sermon on The Sermon on the Mount, Wesley asserted that we love and serve God by imitating God.  Their soul is all love.  They are kind, benevolent, compassionate, tender-hearted; and that not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward [speaking of language changing, this is the opposite of “toward” and mean a contrary person] (326).
My favorite expressions of John Wesley’s view of where the Christian life is headed, what life with Jesus can be, what life profoundly influenced by God’s Spirit can be is his simple definition of “Christian perfection.”  Wesley wrote in 1767: By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions.
I think it is helpful to think about where we are going, to consider what life under the influence of God’s Spirit looks like.  In that I am very Wesleyan, very United Methodist.  I have often used my own list of five to talk about what life on the journey with Jesus can be, what life in the Spirit can and should be: joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  What Paul’s list of fruits of the Spirit, what John Wesley’s words about perfection, what my list of five all seek is to give us some help along the spiritual journey.  They help us ask, “are we headed in the right direction?”  They remind us of what is most important in this life with the God of Jesus Christ.  They remind us of why we are here as a church, a community of Jesus.
We are here to connect our lives more deeply with God so that our lives are made different and through our transformed lives, the world is transformed.  Part of the transformation of our lives is to care about the transformation of the world.  Thinking about Paul’s list, or Wesley’s idea of growing in love, or my list of five, the question is, how are you doing?  Are you growing?  Are we as a community helping each other grow?
There is another dimension to this, another way to explore this idea of fruits and growth.  As mentioned in the children’s time, fruit grows from trees and trees grow from the seeds found in the fruit.  We need seeds.  We need seeds planted in our souls if we are to grow spiritual fruit.  The list Paul provides is also a spiritual seed catalogue.  You want to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – plant seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  You want to grow in the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, have it rule habits, attitudes, words, and actions?  Plant seeds of humble, gentle, patient love.  You want to grow in joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice?  Plant seeds of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  Plant seeds in your own life.  Plant seeds in the lives of others.  Somehow these kind of seeds have a unique quality.  When you plant them in others they seem also to get planted in yourself.
And here’s the other part of such planting.  You have all you need to plant such seeds.  You need not be great, important, noteworthy in anyone else’s eyes.  You are special to God.  You matter to this Jesus community.  You can do what you can with the seeds that you have.  I came across this wonderful poem preparing for this morning called “Accepting This.”  It is about beginning to plant seeds of goodness where we are.  Here is one stanza of the poem.
We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
But we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
of compassion.

            Floods in West Virginia, a gunman taking hostages in a German movie theater, the Pulse Nightclub shooting – events can feel overwhelming.  There are times when we need look no further than our own front doors to feel overwhelmed – family illnesses or stresses.  Sometimes we need look no further than the mirror to feel overwhelmed – our own emotions and questions creating internal chaos.  Begin where you are.  Plant the seeds you can plant, and more seeds will come.
            This past week at the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church in St. Cloud we were invited to go into the community to bless others, simply to say hello and hear their story.  Julie, Laura, Dale and I went to eat at a small Greek restaurant near the convention center on our way to the park where we were all gathering Tuesday evening.  I asked the young man taking our order about himself.  Myron had worked there about five months.  He was from Sri Lanka and had attended school for a year in St. Cloud.  I told him that United Methodists were gathering in St. Cloud, and connecting with people and asked if I could take a picture with him.  He obliged.  I thanked him for his work and for his willingness to help me with my conference assignment.  Arriving at the park, Julie and I took a walk around the lake.  Nearing the end of the walk, I ran into a woman who was having a picnic with children and friends.  I told her about what was happening in the park, and she told me that her son was so excited, because they were there to celebrate his birthday, and there was music and games around.  We were making his birthday special.  I asked her if I could take a picture with she and her son and another child.  She obliged.  Later I saw her helping some of us United Methodists put together health kits.  Small acts, but some seeds planted – hopefully in the souls of those people I met, and certainly in my own soul.
            This list of fruits of the Spirit Paul provides is a check-up list.  Are you growing?  It is a seed catalogue for the soul.  Are you sowing?  Start from where you are, and here is another poem that reminds me of all this – Emily Dickinson.
God made a little Gentian—
It tried—to be a Rose—
And failed—and all the Summer laughed—
But just before the Snows

There rose a Purple Creature—
That ravished all the Hill—
And Summer hid her Forehead—
And Mockery—was still—

The Frosts were her condition—
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North—invoke it—
Creator—Shall I—bloom?

            Creator, shall I bloom?  Yes and yes and yes again.  Plant.  Bloom. Be beautiful fruit.  Amen.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Sound of Screaming Silence

Sermon preached June 19, 2016

Texts: I Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:26-39

            This is going to be a very auditory sermon.  We are going to focus on hearing, on ears, on listening, and I want to begin with an exercise in listening.
            This is a piece called “The Unanswered Question” and the composer is the American Charles Ives.  I first encountered the music of Charles Ives in college, in a course called “Arts in America.”  One of the things that troubles me a bit about the world today is that we have become so career focused that young people in college have very little ability to take a course or two simply because they are interested in the content, because they might want to explore new ideas.  The cost of higher education also plays a role here.
            Ives was an American composer from the early twentieth century.  This particular piece has a haunting quality about it, and it reminds me of the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb.  Remember, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel, again Jezebel – just like last week a wicked figure.  God tells Elijah to go to the mountain where God will meet him.  There is a strong wind, but no God.  There was an earthquake, but no God.  There was a raging fire, but no God.  Then comes “a sound of sheer silence” and God.
            Quick cut to the other Scripture we read for this morning and it could not be more different.  It is chaotic and noisy.  Jesus and the disciples arrive at the country of the Geresenes, and there they are greeted by a naked, shouting man, a person who lived among the tombs, a man driven by demons into the wild.  A legion of demons speaks out of this suffering man, asking Jesus not to send them into the abyss.  The demons are sent into a heard of swine who rush headlong into a lake.  The scene is wild and frenzied.
            Hearing of the incident, crowds gathered – wondering and fearful.  The wild man is healed.  Jesus tells his to go and share his story.  So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
            Doesn’t this sound chaotic and noisy and wild and frenzied – more like strong winds, earthquakes and raging fire than like the sound of sheer silence?  I want to draw two broad lessons for our lives from all this, and within the second lesson go a little deeper.
            The first broad lesson is this: God can be heard in the sound of sheer silence, in the gentle, quiet whisper, but God’s voice is not always so quiet.  God can also be heard in joyous sounds and songs.  I contrast that Charles Ives piece with a concert I attended recently, through the gracious generosity of a friend.  The week before General Conference, I had two meetings in the Twin Cities, one a training for small group leaders for clergy groups in the Minnesota Conference, and the other the mandatory clergy ethics and boundary training I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.  Well, the night of the clergy ethics and boundary training, Paul McCartney was playing a concert in the Twin Cities, and, as mentioned, through the grace and generosity of a friend, I was able to attend.  It was loud, it was joyous, and there were times when I was moved in deep places in my heart and soul, places where God speaks.  Music is often for me a way the Spirit touches me, speaks to me and it can be the quiet sound of Charles Ives or Paul McCartney singing “We Can Work It Out” the week before General Conference.
            God can speak even in the joyous songs of life, yet God’s primary voice is the whisper.  Theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes: God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world.  It is a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 6).
            So I was thinking about our auditory capacity as humans.  We have two ears, unless something has happened along the way.  So in a metaphorical way, perhaps we can think of our life in the Spirit as having one ear tuned to the whisper of God in the sound of sheer silence, and the other ear tuned to the world – its screams, its cries, its anguish, its songs of hope and joy.  We listen for the sounds of screaming silence.
            Jesus, it is reported, sometimes stole away to quiet places, wanting to listen for that whisper of God.  Jesus also went to places like the country of the Geresenes, encountering a wild, frenzied man, noisy crowds, chaos.  As he listened to the whisper of God and to the anguished cries of a hurting person isolated from the community, healing could happen.  The Paul Simon song we used in the call to worship is a warning about the dangers of a certain kind of silence, of silencing the voices of anguish, the cries of pain in our world, and of being silent in the midst of them.  Jesus uses both ears – an ear attuned to the whisper of God and an ear attuned to the cries of the world, and we are invited to do the same.
            We don’t have to work very hard to hear cries of hurt, pain and anguish.  Our nation is still reeling from the shooting last Sunday in Orlando.  We prayed for the victims and the community last Sunday, not knowing many of the details.  What has become clearer since is that the shooting was motivated by hatred, hatred directed toward LGBTQ persons.  While we are all affected, and we all feel pain and grief, it is the LGBTQ community that we particularly need to listen to.  This week on CNN, there was a brief history of some similar incidents of violence directed toward LGBTQ persons – other nightclub shootings, and arsons.
            Friends I know that human sexuality is a topic that is difficult.  It strikes deeply into our identity.  It touches our deepest selves.  Maybe getting close to this is like getting close to the naked man living in the tombs – it is a little frightful.  Challenging as it may be, we need to hear the cries of anguish and pain from our LGBTQ neighbors and friends.
            It is now about a year since the shooting in Charleston, SC, a shooting directed at the African-American community.  We need to listen to the cries of anguish and pain from our African-American sisters and brothers.
            We need to listen to the voices of all those who have lost loved ones to violence, and ask what we can to better as a human community.
            We need to listen to the anguished cries of all those marginalized in our world, all those seemingly consigned to living among the tombs – the hungry, the destitute, the bullied – and when we hear those voices, those screams, with our other ears we need to listen for the still small voice of God’s Spirit.
            The sounds of the world are not only cries of anguish and pain, however.  There are songs of hope and joy.  The novelist Darcey Steinke, whose father was a pastor, wrote in her memoir, Easter Everywhere: Life is brutal, full of horror and violence.  Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy.  Both things are true at the same time. (219)  We need to listen to both kinds of sounds.  At the end of the story, the healed man proclaims all that Jesus had done for him.  There is a joyous voice.
            The idea of listening to both voices of the world was brought home to me again by another voice, this the voice of a young woman I met a few of years ago when she was a young delegate at General Conference from Michigan.  She is now living in London, and this week she posted these thoughts on Facebook, and I asked if I could use them in today’s sermon.  So thanks to Rebecca Farnum.
Tears finally came today.  Since waking on Sunday, I have been on autopilot, incapable of concentrating on work and unable to properly engage with people.  The emotions were too raw, too poignant, too conflicting.

And finally, finally, the dam released.  And the tears came.

Tears for families who lost their loved ones in such a tragic way.

Tears for survivors who will grapple with horrific memories and what ifs for the rest of their lives.

Tears for dear ones who were viscerally reminded of the unjust dangers accompanying their sexuality.

Tears for beloved friends who, while fasting during one of the most beautifully reflective celebrations of their holy year, saw their religion cited as a motivator for horrific violence and faced accusations against their entire community.

Tears for a man so broken and failed by the system that his confusion, hatred, and rage came out in the form of senseless massacre.

Tears for a nation that has seen this time and time again and still fails to take adequate action on gun control, mental health care, and hate speech.

America, you are broken.

World, you are broken.

Humanity, you are broken.

But oh, you are beautiful.

For also this week in the world, a couple gazed adoringly at their adopted daughter as she laughed for the first time.

A man unhesitatingly embraced his transgender son.

A woman gleefully accepted her girlfriend’s marriage proposal.

A Pakistani Muslim shopkeeper donated money to rebuild a Christian chapel destroyed by monsoon rains.

We must let the tears come.  There is a time to weep.  This is that time.

But we must also let the smiles come.  Because there is a time to laugh.  And this is that time too.

May you mourn.  May you rejoice.  In the beautiful, broken mess this thing called life is.  And may you know peace.

            Listen.  Listen with both ears.  Hear God’s caring, compassionate voice embracing you in love – that voice that also calls us to proclaim good news, to listen to and stand with the hurting, the bruised, the abused, the marginalized, the victimized, and to do good.  Listen.  Live.  And may we know peace.  Amen.

Wine Out of Time

Sermon preached June 12, 2016

Texts: I Kings 21:1-21a

            Sometime type in your internet search engine- “Greatest movies of all time.”  One film that is often near the top of the list, and is on the top of the list of the American Film Institute’s 100 best American films, is the movie “Citizen Kane.”  How many of you have ever seen “Citizen Kane”?  It was made in 1941, so it is not a very recent film, but when I asked our daughter Sarah, who is 24, if she had ever heard of the movie, she had.
            “Citizen Kane” was directed by and starred Orson Welles.  Welles was considered something of a prodigy, a kind of genius.  As time rolled on, Welles was often considered someone whose career peaked early.  He never again quite reached the heights of “Citizen Kane,” though he lived until 1985.    I admit that my first memories of Orson Welles were of him as a commercial spokesperson for Paul Masson wines. In his deeply distinct voice Welles would say, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
            So what does wine connote for you?  What do you think of when you think of wine?  Maybe you don’t think we ought to be thinking about wine in church!  For some, of course, wine is problematic because alcohol has been problematic in their lives or in the lives of others close to them.  We want to be sensitive to that.  More generally, I think that wine connotes a certain relaxed sociability, a welcoming atmosphere, hospitality.  With wine there is a certain joy, celebration, companionship, maybe even romance.  Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart we read in Ecclesiastes.  The well-known poem, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” celebrates a book of verse… a jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou.  These are inviting images, welcoming images.
            John Wesley, to whom Methodists trace their beginnings, spoke strongly against the abuse of alcohol, particularly distilled liquor.  Wesley, however, drank wine, and the story is told that at one point in his life when he had given this up for some reason, he decided that he would continue with a little wine so as not to encourage those among his followers who were trying to make complete abstinence a requirement for a healthy spirituality. (Dodd, John Wesley: a study for the times, 14-15. Published in 1891)
            Wine connotes a kind of welcome, hospitality.  So what on earth does that have to do with our Scripture reading for this morning?  There seems little welcome here, little hospitality.  We have here a story of a man named Naboth who owned a vineyard coveted by King Ahab.  Ahab becomes sullen and resentful because Naboth refuses to see the vineyard to him.  Ahab’s wife Jezebel, and this is where the name Jezebel gets its bad reputation from, Jezebel devises a scheme to have Naboth invited to a banquet where false charges will be brought against him and he will be executed.  It happens.  Ahab is then free to take Naboth’s vineyard.  God is not pleased, and sends Elijah to confront Ahab with his misdeed.  Ahab is not pleased to see Elijah.  “Have you found me, O my enemy?”
            So how is this story in any way related to hospitality or welcome?  Perhaps wine was served at the banquet for Naboth, but it did him no good.  The only hospitality here is a phony hospitality masking a harmful plot.  It is a story of wine out of time.
            More to the point, the story is about power.  Ahab and Jezebel have power.  Naboth has very little power.  Ahab and Jezebel abuse their power, and that is at the heart of this story, abuse of power.  It is literally a story as old as the Bible.  Power is easily abused.  When you have a great deal of power, your inconvenience is easily turned into a need, a need that might be met to the destruction of others.  We could easily use this story to begin a discussion about the contemporary world, about power relationships and about how power is being used for good and ill in our world.  The story has a significant political dimension to it, but we are not going to pursue that today.  In not pursuing it, let’s at least admit it is there.
            Rather, I want to refer again this morning, as I did last week, to one of our baptismal questions.  “Will you use the freedom and power God gives you to resists evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  Underlying this phrasing is a simpler question – “Will you use your freedom and power well?”  Last week I asked that question about the power of touch.  This morning I want to ask us to think about our power to welcome, our power for hospitality.
            It was in seminary that I first encountered the work of Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was a priest who wrote deeply about aspects of the Christian spiritual life and Christian ministry.  One of his books, Reaching Out, is subtitled “the three movements of the spiritual life.”  He writes about reaching out to our innermost self – the movement from loneliness to solitude.  He writes about reaching to God – the movement from illusion to prayer.  He writes about reaching out to our fellow human beings – the movement from hostility to hospitality.  About hospitality, Nouwen writes: Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place….  The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances….  Creating space for the other is far from an easy task.  It requires hard concentration and articulate work. (51)
            When our congregation started working with the idea of hospitality and welcome, and formed a group to work on this, I offered Nouwen’s words to us for our consideration.  I will be honest with you all, members and guest alike, we would like new active participants in our congregation and we would like new members.  When churches form “hospitality teams” that is part of what they are hoping for – new active participants and new members.  That is o.k., but if that is all we aim for, we are engaged in recruitment, not hospitality.  The two are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same.
            What if we all deepened our understanding of and practice of hospitality and welcome?  What if creating a free and welcoming space was our deepest priority, creating a friendly emptiness where strangers can discover themselves as created free – free to sing their own songs, speak their own language, dance their own dances?  What if sharing God’s love by creating such space was our deepest priority?  I think membership will take care of itself.
            Let’s confess that the Church, not this church but the Church, has sometimes been just a bit like Jezebel.  We invite people to a banquet, but for our own purposes.  Now we are not going to bump people off, but if all we are wanting is new people for the pews rather than new friends for the journey who will change us as they are being changed by the Spirit of God, then we are missing the mark.  God has welcomed us in Jesus into friendship, adventure, new life.  We should welcome others as deeply, giving all space in love.
            When we take hospitality seriously, we extend it into the community.  Some of you may have noticed the sign out on our grounds, right out there on Skyline Parkway.  “To our Muslim neighbors, blessed Ramadan.”  Many have made positive comments about it on social media.  I have had a person, a little puzzled, ask me why we would be doing this.  It is an act of hospitality.  We are not endorsing everything Muslim with our sign.  We are recognizing that we share neighborhoods, schools, work places, parent organizations with Muslim persons and we need to find ways to live and work together for the common good of our community.  Part of hospitality is wishing others well.
            A rabbi gathered his students around him and asked them a question.  “How do we know the exact moment when night ends and the day begins?”  “It’s when, standing some way away, you can tell a sheep from a dog,” said one.  The rabbi frowned.  Another piped up, “No, it’s when standing some way away, you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.”  “That’s not a good definition either,” said the rabbi.  “Well,” the students said, “when is it?”  “When a stranger approaches, and we think he is our brother, our sister, that is the moment when night ends and day begins.”
            Ahab and Jezebel abused their power, but they abused it in a particular way.  They were inhospitable among other things.  They did not recognize Naboth as a brother, a person with his own song, his own dance.  They failed to give him free space.

            Will you use the freedom and power God gives you, the freedom and power to welcome, to be hospitable, will you use it well?  Will we use it well?  By God’s grace and Spirit, yes!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Passion is No Ordinary Word

Sermon preached May 29, 2016

Texts: I Kings 18:20-39

            In the late 1970s in the history of rock ‘n’ roll music, there was a movement to recapture some of the energy of earlier rock ‘n’ roll.  You see, some thought the music had become too indulgent, too many long solos, too much artifice.  Of course, there were also people who really disliked the disco music of the 1970s, too, though in many ways that music seems delightfully carefree.
            So punk rock and new wave music hit the scene, and among the new wave rockers was a British musician, Graham Parker.  All this simply to introduce the song from which I stole this morning’s sermon title – “Passion is No Ordinary Word”
            Passion is no ordinary word.  Don’t we want some passion and energy in our lives?  Don’t we want to feel some excitement?  Scanning our culture, part of the appeal of team sports is the avenue they provide for passion and excitement, even though it is not always well-channeled.  This seems true across cultures – soccer evokes a great deal of passion in many countries.
            In an interview will Bill Moyers, the scholar Joseph Campbell once said: People say that what we are all seeking is a meaning for life.  I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking.  I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. (The Power of Myth, 4-5)
            We want some passion in our lives.  We want to feel alive.  Yet passion raises concerns.  Consider our contemporary political scene.  Passions seem to be boiling over in unhealthy and unhelpful ways.  Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominee for the Republican party generates a lot of passion.  He draws huge crowds, and on occasion some of his passionate supporters have let their passion boil over into violence.  There are others passionately opposed to Mr. Trump, and their passion has boiled over into violence.  Bernie Sanders evokes a great deal of passion, and there have been times when some of his supporters have let their passion boil over into unhelpful behavior.
            Politics can evoke passion and that passion can boil over into unhelpful and unhealthy behavior.  We see similar things with athletics.  Fans violent toward fans of an opposing team.  Just yesterday in the Duluth News Tribune was the first in a series of articles on how parents are passionately advocating for their children with high school coaches, and how this passion has boiled over into bad behavior – violent threats, interrupted holiday meals.
            John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition, was cautious about religious passion.  In his day it was called “enthusiasm.”  I am not sure Wesley would have been so hot on calling our softball team “the Methodist enthusiasts”!
            Wesley defined “enthusiasm” as “undoubtedly a disorder of the mind… a disorder that greatly hinders the exercise of reason” (John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, 418).  As such, it is “a misfortune, if not a fault” (418).  Enthusiasm in general may be described in some such manner as this: a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God. (419)  Wesley warned, “beware that you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast” (427).
            Yet, Wesley was also an advocate of a religion of the heart.  This past week, Methodists marked “Aldersgate Day,” a rather well-known incident in the life of John Wesley.  Here is the famous quote from his journal about May 24, 1738.  In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Outler, John Wesley, 66)  Wesley thought that there is an affective dimension to Christian faith and life, a heart dimension, something we could feel, even feel passionately.  In the same sermon which cautioned against “enthusiasm,” Wesley also wrote: But if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,’ then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou are beside thyself’ [quoting Acts 26:24]
            Heart religion, but with some reasonableness to it.  Passionate faith, but not enthusiasm.  This brings me to this morning’s text.
            In this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we can see both an encouragement of passion and a caution about passion.  Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – which god will light a fire, an image of some passion.
            The prophets of Baal are full of passionate intensity as they try and get their god or gods to do something.  They pray and dance.  They then cut themselves and bleed.  “As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.”  This is the kind of religious madness Wesley would describe as “enthusiasm.”  There is a lot of leaping and dancing about, a lot of passion, but it is misdirected and is of no effect.
            In contrast, Elijah is measured and systematic in setting up his altar.  He even asks that water be poured onto the wood.  He prays.  Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.
            The God of Elijah who wins this contest is a God of fire, a God of some passion.  We want to know and experience and feel this God.  We want some of that, to feel alive, to feel connected to a source of power and grace and love beyond ourselves.  We want to care with passion for the world, and want a God whose love for the world embraces us and moves us to love and care.
            In her devotional book Living Well, Sister Joan Chittister writes wisely about passion, what she calls “enthusiasm.”  There is nothing in life that is worth doing that is not worth doing with enthusiasm.  Anything else is simply a matter of going through the motions. (51)  Enthusiasm ought not to be confused with hysteria.  Enthusiasm is honest, positive response to a genuine issue. (52)  A lack of enthusiasm erodes the heart.  People who cannot develop an interest in anything beyond themselves are people without a life. (55)  Enthusiasm is simply the willingness to try what we never tried before and find it wonderful. (56)
            What I like best about Chittister’s reflections is the story she tells with them.  She tells of a conversation she had with a woman who was eighty-one.  The woman was planning on going to San Francisco by train with three other women.  About herself, Joan says, I paused at the very thought of it.  I was in my fifties, well-traveled, seasoned, but absolutely aghast at the thought of going by Amtrak all the way across the United States at any age, let alone at the age of eighty-one.(48)  What comes next, though, completely floors Sister Joan.  She asks the woman how long she plans to stay in San Francisco.  “Oh, I think about three week.  After all I’ve never been there before, and I have no idea how long it will be before I go again.”  Go again, at age 81!  Joan reflects: There is so much life that is never lived because we lack the enthusiasm to live it.  The problem is that I have seen apathy – that deep-down, bone-weary lethargy that passes too often, I think, for calm – and I know that, though it is not death, it is not life either. (48-49)
            We want a little fire in our lives, without it becoming a destructive blaze.
            A passion in my life is for reading and for books.  Portland have one of the most amazing book stores in the country, and it was only five blocks from my hotel.  At Powell’s I found a book written by a philosopher whose works I appreciate – Robert Solomon, The Passions.  At the end of the book, Solomon writes: We must give up that tragic and confused dichotomy between “Reason” and “the passions,” as if only insanity and self-destructive obsessions could be “passionate,” and as if only the cold-blooded calculations of unconcerned “Reason” could be rational.  We must instead develop a conception of rational passions, cultivated conscientiously as creative means to self-realization, living our lives as “works of art.” (430)
            So what’s the payoff here?
            In the days since the ending of The United Methodist General Conference, I have been reading analyses and Facebooks posts, and Twitter tweets. A long-time acquaintance of mine wrote that he was glad the United Methodist Church was staying “biblical” by which he meant we had not changed our current language on homosexuality or marriage.  People are passionate about being biblical, though I am not sure that they always grasp what a complex idea that is.  Others wrote about The United Methodist Church being bigoted.  People are passionate for inclusion.  I am passionate for inclusion.  I also recognize how complicated that conversation is globally, when in many African countries even discussing human sexuality is legally problematic.  Now may be the time for we United Methodists to be passionate about thoughtfulness, and thoughtful about passion.
            But there are also questions for each of us in all this.  Is part of the long-term decline of well-established Christian churches our failure to be passionate, to share how being a follower of Jesus Christ makes us feel more alive?  Have we sometimes failed to have a little fire of the Spirit?
            What are you passionate about in being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple of Jesus?  What are you passionate about in being here at this church, about being part of this community of love and forgiveness, this community that is guided by the teaching and unconditional love of Jesus and that aspires to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?  How are you balancing thoughtfulness and passion?  How are you staying aflame in a world that often pours the waters of cynicism even on thoughtful religious passion?

            The questions are meant for each of us, but also for all of us, together.  May God send a little fire of God’s Spirit into our lives and into our lives together – to rekindle our hearts and souls, to help us feel more alive, and to reignite our deepest thinking.  Amen.