Thursday, August 11, 2016

Be Ready, Not Afraid

Sermon preached August 7, 2016
Final Sermon at First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: Luke 12:32-40

            “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (v. 32)
            Earlier in my ministry here, I confessed that I was not always a huge fan of the term “pastor.”  It derives from the Latin word for shepherd and relates to the Latin verb which means “to lead to pasture, set to grazing.”  There is something about thinking of other people using the image of sheep that I find troublesome.
            Yet, in my time here, I have come to love and embrace the term, though I do not think of you as sheep.  Jesus words are words that resonate today, filled with tenderness and care – “Do not be afraid, little flock,” though I prefer Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message – “Dearest friends.”  Do not be afraid dearest friends.
            So here is a little irony.  The symbol used for bishops contains a shepherd’s crook or crosier, and I was given a wooden crosier at my consecration.  I better get used to this imagery!
            Do not be afraid, dearest friends.  There are so many emotions today: joy and celebration, sadness and grief, anxiety and fear.  We have so much to celebrate with joy.  We have done amazing things together in our work for Jesus Christ.  It is cause for celebration. We are parting ways.  After today, I am no longer your pastor.  I am your bishop, once removed, so to speak.  Bishops in The United Methodist Church are bishops of the whole church, and then assigned to an area.  I am not the bishop of this area, but I am one of forty-six bishops for The United Methodist Church in the United States, and one of sixty-six bishops worldwide overseeing the ministry with twelve million United Methodist Christians.  We are going different directions and there is sadness and grief.  We are heading into new territory.  There is anxiety and fear.
            I would be lying if I told you I had no concerns or anxieties about my new role.  I have never been a bishop before.  I will be overseeing over 800 congregations in the state of Michigan.  I will be working with the Council of Bishops as we work through some deep differences in The United Methodist Church.  I have told the story, but not all may have heard it, I have told the story about the Saturday of my consecration as bishop.  I was in the room where all the bishops had been getting ready for the service, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a door.  There was an “exit” sign over it, and on the door it read, “emergency exit only.”  I thought about it for a brief moment.
            And you are entering uncharted territory.  There will be an interim pastor here later this month, and for a few months – something new for First UMC, at least in a long while.  The interim pastor brings wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces.  Then a new pastor will be appointed with wonderful gifts and graces, but different gifts and graces.
            Do not be afraid, my dearest friends – but we are a little afraid, a little anxious.  I want to remind us, I want to remind myself, of the wise words of Parker Palmer, words that I have loved for a long time and words that I need now as ever, that we need now as ever.
            In commenting on the biblical words, “do not be afraid,” Palmer writes: As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection.  “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear.  Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding.  Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have.  We do not have to lead from a place of fear….  We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94)
            We all have some fear, some anxiety.  We all have moments when we see an emergency exit door and wonder if our life is in an emergency situation that we need to leave.  We need not be our fears and anxieties.  We need not let them define us.  We can live out of places with names like trust and hope and faith, and joy and love, and genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  How?  Jesus reminds us that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.  It is God’s delight to see the world more loving and caring, less fearful and suspicious.  God is at work, always at work, creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice.  We need not cower in fear, rather we are invited to be open, to be ready for the on-going movement of the Spirit.  God invites us to stay focused on the treasure of God’s dream for the world, to let our hearts be captivated by that dream and our lives dedicated to its fulfillment.
            Today I am both sad and excited – sad and excited for me, and sad and excited for you.  God has done beautiful and wonderful things with us together.  We have worked with God’s Spirit to do beautiful and wonderful things, and beautiful and wonderful things await you in the future.  God’s Spirit working and moving within and among you – that’s not going to change.  Be ready.  Stay focused.  What saddens me is that I will not be a part of this.
            But… I am deeply and profoundly grateful for all that we have done together, for all the ways you have been moments of God’s grace for me.  I cannot finish this sermon without sharing a little music.  Music has shaped my spiritual life for a long time, since I was a teenager listening on Sunday evenings to my transistor radio in my family’s Lester Park home to the Scott Ross show.  Scott Ross had been a New York dj who became a Christian and he started a radio show using rock music to talk about faith.
            Here are some of the songs that have been playing in my mind these past few weeks:
            10,000 Maniacs, “These Are Days”
            Green Day, “Time of Your Life”
            Sarah McLachlan, “I Will Remember You”
            I am so grateful, even as my heart also aches.  With that combination, a song that has also been on my mind, particularly since Mary Whitlock sang “I Hope You Dance” a couple of weeks ago, is this song called simply, “The Dance”:
            Garth Brooks, “The Dance”
            I don’t think our lives are better left to chance, but they are better trusted to God’s Spirit, a Spirit that is always creating places with names like trust and hope and faith and love and joy and genuineness and gentleness and generosity and justice.  Sometimes the way of the Spirit leads to partings, and I could have missed the pain of those, but then I’d have had to miss the dance – and I would not have missed the dance of this past eleven years for anything.
            These are days I’ll remember.  I hope in the Spirit that you have had the time of your lives, and I trust joy awaits you.  I will remember you, and will cherish you and delight in what God has done with us together.  The people we love are built into us (May Sarton).
            And the dance of the Spirit will continue, for you, and for me.  It is God’s good pleasure, it is God’s delight, to keep creating, to keep inviting us into a newer world.  Know that.  Know that deep in your soul, and be ready for what God’s Spirit will be doing next.  In Jesus.  Do not be afraid my dearest friends.  Amen.


Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those with whom we walk the way.  So be swift to love, make haste to be kind, in the name of our companion on the way, Jesus the Christ.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Few Words From Your Flight Attendant

Sermon preached July 31, 2016

Texts: Luke 12:13-21

            The Byrds, “Eight Miles High”
Given the sermon title, I wanted to find a song about flight, but I did not want to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”  So there you go.
            When you fly, every time you fly, the flight attendants, or on some larger planes a video of a flight attendant, offers some instructions.  You are told how to fasten your seat belts.  You are told that your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device in case of an emergency landing in water.  You are instructed to find the nearest emergency exit, remembering that this may be behind you.  If the lights go out, there will be aisle lighting to guide your way to the exit.  Then there is the instruction about the oxygen mask.  In case of a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will drop down.  You are given instructions about how to place the mask on, and told that oxygen will be flowing even if the little bag does not inflate.  Lastly you are told to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting other passengers.  Apparently there are times when it is important to take care of yourself first, when self-care becomes an absolute priority.
            Jesus is confronted by a disgruntled person.  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  It may seem like an odd request to be made of a spiritual teacher, but if my own experience is any guide, these questions come.  Jesus’ response is interesting.  “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  We are never told how the questioner felt about the response.  Jesus goes on to tell a story about a man whose fields produced and abundant harvest.  What should he do with his abundance?  He decides to tear down his old barns and storehouses and build larger ones.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods, laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  The man dies that night.  Jesus ends by encouraging his listeners to be “rich toward God.”
            So let’s explore for a few moments what this story isn’t about.  It isn’t Jesus being a scold about abundance or enjoyment.  The Scriptures of his faith invite enjoyment of the good gifts of life.  Ecclesiastes encourages a person to “eat and drink, and enjoy himself” (8:15) as does the intertestamental book Tobit (7:10).  Nor does the story seem to be a criticism of abundance or wealth in itself.
            The focus of Jesus’s criticism of the wealthy man in the story is that he becomes too self-focused, too self-involved.  He does not ask what good might come out of his abundance for others.  He does not think about wider connections, only about building more storehouses.
            The story reminds me a bit about John Wesley’s sermon, “The Use of Money.”  In that sermon, Wesley makes the case that Christians, followers of Jesus, should consider how they might use money well.  Wesley then delineates three principles for the wise use of money.  He says that we should earn all we can, or gain all you can, though he does put moral limits on what can be done to gain wealth.  He says that we should not gain wealth in ways that impair ourselves or harm our neighbors.  Rather we should gain all we can by “honest wisdom.”  Wesley’s second principle was that we should save all we can.  Wesley did not think frivolous spending was befitting disciples of Jesus.  Thirdly, Wesley argued that we should give all we can.  I have long appreciated this sermon of John Wesley for its helpfulness.
            What if, however, these principles are not just about how we might use money and wealth well?  What if these same principles have something to say about our life together in the Jesus community called the church?  Might we think about gaining all we can as growing in richness toward God?  Could saving all we can have something to do with enjoying a robust community life together?  Giving all we can as a congregation is our call from God to reach out in love and concern and service to the world.
            Taking Jesus’s story, and filtering it through John Wesley’s sermon, we get a picture of a healthy church community – a community that is concerned for generating richness in love and then giving it away.
            One year when I was a district superintendent, I preached a sermon at all the church conferences I led in which I said that I thought every church could be a growing church.  It was an audacious statement, but I elaborated by saying that there are different ways churches grow.  Churches can grow numerically.  They can grow as they help people grow spiritually – grow in faith, hope and love, grow in being joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice.  Churches can grow as they grow in their capacity as a community – grow in our capacity to be a community of love and forgiveness.  Churches can grow in outreach, in ministry and mission to the community and the world.  It was a way for those churches to think about what it meant to be healthy and vibrant.
            In my time here, together we have grown within as a church.  We have experienced some numerical growth, not astonishing, but encouraging, and we are on the verge of even more such growth.  In listening to each other, I think we have discovered that we have grown in faith – grown in love of God and each other, grown in joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice.  Together we have grown as a community of love and forgiveness.  I remember a few years ago I preached a sermon on working with conflict as a church community.  Afterward someone asked me if there was something going on that he didn’t know about.  I said, “No” but went on to say that I thought the best time to discuss conflict was when we  are not embroiled in it.  We are not, and not because we don’t risk making difficult decisions but because we have grown in our capacity to make such decisions together.
            This is a wonderful faith community, rich in love toward God.  We also know that if all we do is keep on with this kind of growth – gaining and saving, building better storehouses for ourselves alone, there would come a time when that becomes unhealthy – the balloon bursts, inwardness becomes a kind of blindness.
            So we reach out.  That is just who we are in Jesus Christ, and I encourage us to continue as a Jesus community to give all we can.
            One way we give all we can is share this community of love with others.  There is always room for more people.  I know that this can sound solely like another inner concern, just growing our own storehouses, but while we benefit from more people being part of our community, people who become part of the community also benefit.  One of the things that breaks my heart as a pastor is when someone comes to my office in need, and it is clear to me that they have no community of support around them.  A couple of years ago, when sociologist Robert Putnam was in Duluth, he shared with the Duluth-Superior Community Foundation that he was troubled by the fact that participation in faith communities was declining among those on the socio-economic margins of society.  He was not speaking about a concern for the religious well-being, but of a concern for their social well-being.  People need others when they are struggling.  We offer that.  People need friends, companions along the way.  We offer that.  People need a place where they can ask deep questions about their lives.  We offer that.  People need a connection to God.  We offer that.  To open our doors to others, to invite others in, is not simply a concern for ourselves, it is love for others.  We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to be helping others with their spiritual oxygen.
            The other dimension to giving all we can is to also give our love away in the community.  We do a lot of that.  Just since I returned from Jurisdictional Conference on July 17, our church has fed over 120 youth and adults who were here in town for the Wildfire Mission event sponsored by Faith UMC in Superior.  We engaged in roadside clean-up along Maple Grove Road.  We held Ruby’s Pantry, on the day after the terrific storm hit Duluth.  Today we are going to bless backpacks, and after church put together more – your generosity providing for kids who need a little help.  That’s what we have done and do.  That’s who we are.
            State Senator Roger Reinert, a member at Asbury UMC was very kind to write an endorsement for my candidacy as a bishop.  In what he offered Senator Reinert wrote these words:  First United Methodist Church in Duluth is one of THE places where we go as a community to organize, recognize and serve.  The doors are always open.  That’s what we do, as this Jesus community.  That’s just who we are.  In the weeks to come, as you enter a time of transition, ask “What’s next?”  How is God calling us to reach out in concern and service to the world in new ways?  We keep growing in love and we need to keep giving it away.  We are taking good care to get our spiritual oxygen, we need to see that it is flowing out to others.

            As First United Methodist Church moves into the future, continue to grow rich toward God, grow rich in love.  Continue to help people become joyous, genuine, gentle, generous and concerned for justice.  Continue to grow as a community of love and forgiveness.  Take care to get your oxygen, but then share it with others.  Fill the storehouses with love and grace, enjoy, and give it away.  Reach out in concern and service to the world.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.