Saturday, November 5, 2016

Keeping Jesus From Being a Four-Letter Word

Sermon preached at REACH Summit
Troy, Michigan, October 14, 2016

Matthew 28:16-20
Luke 10:25-28
Psalm 85:8-13

            Thank you for welcoming me here tonight.  I am new to this whole bishop gig, but one of its joys is that I get to be in places like this with all of you who are committed to helping the church be its best as it seeks to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  So thanks for being here.
            As I said, I am pretty new to this whole bishop role.  They even sent me for a week of training with other newly elected bishops.  We were at a United Methodist Retreat Center on St. Simon Island, Georgia – and I don’t know if it says anything but a week after we were there a hurricane blew through the island.  I am glad we had left, but my heart grieves for all those who were not so fortunate, particularly in Haiti.
            It was while I was traveling to this new bishop training that I heard about the death of Arnold Palmer.  Before Arnold Palmer was pitching heart medication, or selling his patented combination of ice tea and lemonade, Arnold Palmer was a golfer, a really good golfer.  When I was a child, Arnold Palmer was a golf legend.  He is credited with almost single-handedly making golf a popular sport in the United States.  Television was becoming popular, now that was before my time, and Arnold Palmer was photogenic.  He was followed around by people who called themselves “Arnie’s Army.”  His golf battles with Jack Nicklaus were legendary.
            So when I was a kid, learning to play golf, you wanted either to be like Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer.  Well, I never quite made it.  I still golf some, but usually pretty badly.  I brought one club with me tonight, a trouble wedge, and it usually lives up to its name.  Nearly every time I use it I get into more trouble.  I have found, though that golf is quite a prayerful sport.  On summer Sunday mornings I think there is a real competition between churches and golf courses as to which place you hear “Jesus Christ” more.  And that’s often an awkward moment, if you have been paired with some other people on the golf course, and you’ve played a few holes and the other golfers have been using some of that golf course slang, and then they get around to asking you what you do.  “Pastor.”  Blustery grown men offer quiet excuses for their language.  Maybe next summer I will have to see what happens when I say “Bishop.”
            So Jesus gets invoked on the golf course, and some might get quite exorcised about that – Jesus as a four-letter word.  But here is my deeper concern, that sometimes the church makes Jesus a kind of four-letter word.
            Many of you are aware of research done by the Barna group on young people’s perceptions of the church: that the church is too narrow, anti-science, too rejecting of popular culture, simplistic, judgmental, homophobic, unsafe for asking questions.  I think of what one writer penned: Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow…. What was true once upon a time can be true again and should be true always: curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload.  (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion)  When “Jesus” seems to become too narrow, isolating, rejecting, irrelevant he seems to become something of a four-letter word.  We are here precisely to prevent that from happening.
            So what does that look like?  It is in the name of the summit – REACH.  I want to paint with some broad brush strokes tonight.  What does a church that wants to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word look like?  It reaches.
            Our first reach is to reach out.  We know well the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  We know it so well we have a short-hand for it – the great commission.  It ends with great news.  We don’t go alone.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
            We have good news to share about a God who is with us in Jesus Christ.  We have news about a God who is near in Jesus to offer life – full, rich abundant life… wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around, curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is healing for our wounded souls.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness for our broken lives.  With the God of Jesus Christ there is hope and joy.  We are here because we believe that.  We are here because we know that in the depth of our souls.  We are here because we want to reach out and share that good news.
            But how we reach out with this good news matters.  Do our methods match the good news that we have?  In the early flourishes of my Christian faith as a teenager I engaged in street witnessing – passing our Christian newspapers on street corners trying to engage people in conversation.  To be honest, I was young, and hoped that someone might take a paper, but not really want to talk much.  But sometimes we get the idea that we have to, as quickly as possible in our conversations with people get to the question, “Are you saved?”
            I have been thinking about this kind of response to the great commission, and thinking that asking someone we don’t know all that well “are you saved?” might be a bit like asking someone we don’t know all that well, “how’s your sex life?” or “how are things going with your husband or wife or parents?” Isn’t salvation about what is happening in the depth of our hearts, minds, souls and lives?  Isn’t God’s saving love in Jesus something that makes a difference to all that we are and the way that we live?  Maybe we need to earn the right to ask such a deep question, earn that right by being good friends, by listening to the heartaches and joys of others, by paying attention to their deepest hope and dreams and hurts and disappointments, by walking with people.
            There is a bit of a tension -  a sense of the importance of the good news we have to share, but also a sense that maybe, just maybe, Jesus is already present in that person’s life.  Jesus promises to be with us, and maybe Jesus arrives ahead of us.  The great commission begins with the line that all authority in heaven and on earth is Jesus’s.  Sounds like Jesus might get around.  Maybe we can let our questions about being saved and one’s relationship to Jesus flow out of caring relationships we develop, trusting that Jesus might be present in some ways  before we ever ask about someone’s relationship to him.
            We keep Jesus from being a four-letter word by reaching out in ways that are kind, caring, gentle and loving and not intrusive, reaching out with some emotional intelligence rather than being emotionally obtuse.
            There is another dimension to reaching out that is also vitally important – reaching out in caring and compassion to a hurting world in ways that meet human need and build structures of justice.  I chose three Scripture readings for tonight very intentionally.  We are used to hearing about the great commission, and often that is paired with the great commandment – to love God and others.  I would like to suggest a third part to this – the great kingdom.  We are given a great commission, to be lived in the spirit of a great commandment, all in the service of a great kingdom, or kin-dom – a way of life where steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness (or justice) and peace will kiss each other.
            We are here because we love Jesus, and we love the church and we want our churches to be alive, vital and vibrant.  All good.  Alive, vital and vibrant churches, in turn, are the building blocks for a newer world where love and faithfulness meet, where justice and peace embrace and kiss.  And we need to be living that.  Our churches need to be places that care about human hurt and human need outside our doors as well as inside our walls.  No church can do everything, but every church can do something for compassion and justice.  While we do this in the name and Spirit of Jesus, and we should let others know that, our giving of ourselves in compassion and justice should be a genuine self-giving.  I will never forget being on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and hearing that the churches at one time made church attendance a prerequisite for the Native people to receive food aid.  I am sure it was well-intentioned, but it broke my heart.  You can guess what happened.  When food aid became uncoupled from church attendance, church attendance among the native peoples dropped dramatically.  Jesus had become something of a four-letter word to them.
And some of what we do for the kingdom or kin-dom, happens inside our walls.  If we are about a great kingdom, we should feel challenged to have our congregations look a bit more like places where steadfast love and faithfulness meet and justice and peace kiss.  We should struggle a bit with church growth methods that only emphasize our “target market.”  I was never very comfortable with church growth models that put too much stock in “Joe Saddleback.”  I’m not saying not to pay attention to lifestyles and all, but if we begin to think that we are only here as a church for certain people we may be limiting God’s kin-dom work.  There may be limits to the variety that can live in any congregation, but I think the Spirit always pushes our pre-conceived limits.  Reaching out is not simply about who we can attract it is also about who is in our neighborhood and who is in need.
            To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, reach out with God to build a world where justice and peace embrace and kiss.
            There is another important direction to our reach as well.  If our churches are to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to be helping people reach in.  One of the joys in life for me is stumbling upon an author whose work moves my life forward in fresh ways.  I look at footnotes when I am reading because that’s where I have found some wonderful writers.  Aren’t I just an exciting sounding person – I golf badly and I read footnotes!
            Anyway, a few years ago I stumbled across an author named Michael Eigen in a footnote in a book on pastoral counseling.  Eigen is Jewish and a psychoanalyst, but he has done a lot to help me in my Christian journey.  One of the things I love about Eigen is that he is eminently quotable.  Here are a couple of wonderful thoughts from his book FaithI don’t think that religious or spiritual people are immune to inflicting their personalities on others (95).  You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society (96).
            I truly believe the love of God in Jesus is powerful, powerful to heal our brokenness, to redirect our attention and energy, to reach into the deepest places in our hearts and minds and souls.  The great commandment to love, in important ways, directs us inward to being formed in love.  But to be formed in love inwardly, we need to be honest about the wounds we carry, the disappointments and grief that mark us.  How often seemingly vibrant churches grind to a halt when a charismatic leader loses his way and violates important relational boundaries.  Some inner work of love was not done.  How unattractive too many of our churches become when they are unable to help each other work with differences and conflict.  Some inner work of love was not done.  In our baptismal covenant we promise to surround persons with a community of love and forgiveness.  That requires inner work – engaging the spiritual disciplines with sufficient psychological wisdom to let God’s Spirit transform our hearts in love.
            To keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help people in our churches reach in.
            Finally, to keep Jesus from being a four-letter word, we need to help the people in our churches reach up.  One could use that image to speak of loving God and connecting with God, and that would be good.  I assume that all this reaching out and in and up have to do with connecting with God in love.  What I have in mind with reaching up is this, we need to help people discover and use the wonderful gifts God has given them.  We need to help people reach up to be all that God would have them be.
            Think again of some of those words young people associate with the church – narrow, judgmental, anti-science, unsafe for questions.  Don’t they all sound like being pushed down?  There is so much in our culture that pushes people down.  The entirety of our advertising industry exists to tell us we are not enough.  We don’t need our churches to be places whose primary language pushes us down instead of lifting us up.
            We need to be telling people that God has given them gifts, gifts for loving, caring, sharing, leading and we want to help them reach up into them.  People have different gifts, but all matter, all have a place, all have value.  Helping people reach up is another way we keep Jesus from becoming a four-letter word.
            I want to tell you tonight that it is good that you are here.  This sermon has painted with broad brushstrokes, but you have people who have come who are making all this happen and they have come to share their stories and their experiences and their hard lessons with you.  There are workshops on reaching out – understanding your neighborhood, sharing good news with emotional intelligence, building multi-cultural ministry; there are workshops on reaching in – small groups for making disciples, leading yourself; there are workshops on reaching up – helping people clergy and lay know they have gifts for God’s work in the world.

            We are a people who in and through Jesus have a great commandment to love, have a great commission to share, have a great kin-dom to build.  We want Jesus to be good news, not a four-letter word, so we are committed to reaching out, reaching in and reaching up.  God’s love embrace us, God’s vision of the kissing of justice and peace inspire us, God’s Spirit energize us for the work ahead, and remember the words of Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end.”  Amen.

On the Road Again

Sermon preached at the welcoming events in the Michigan area in September and October

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Titus 1:7-9
Mark 12:28-34

            So when you saw the sermon title, how many of you thought of Willie Nelson?  How many of you thought of Canned Heat?  Maybe some of you thought about Jack Kerouac.  Anybody think, Bob and Bing?  So we have some country music people, some blues people, some literary people, and some classic movie buffs. You may also be thinking that this sermon will be about the life of a bishop – on the road again.  Yes, I have been and will be traveling plenty, and I look forward to seeing you and meeting you and getting to know you and working with you in the ministry of Jesus Christ, but that is not the road I am going down in this sermon.
            The Bible can be seen as a kind of road story.  One of the earliest confessions of faith in the Scriptures (re: Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology) is found in the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy.  The setting for the confession is an offering – an offering to be made when the people arrive in the land.  When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and prosperous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
            The earliest confession of faith in God in our Scriptures is a road story.  A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.  The God of the Bible is a God on the move.  The God of the Bible is a God who walks with us.  God wants to enter our stories, the stories of our lives.  God wants to give our lives and our stories direction.  That direction is love.  The earliest confession of faith in the Bible, this road story, lets us know that God wants our stories, the stories of our lives and our faith communities, to become part of the story of God, a God who wants to move our lives in the direction of love.  When we lose sight of that direction, our lives and our churches lose their way.
            So let me tell you a little bit of my story and of how God has touched my life, bringing me to this point where I am now the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan, your bishop.  It is a pretty unlikely story with some Michigan roots, perhaps as unlikely a story as God finding the ancestors of a wandering Aramean enslaved in Egypt and bringing them to a new place.
            My ancestor was not a wandering Aramean.  My father was not much of a church goer, either, nor was his father, my grandfather who was the son of Swedish immigrants born in Bay City, Michigan.  My grandfather, Albert Bard, was born in Bay City, but his mother died when he was young and his father re-located the family to Duluth, Minnesota.  My dad was raised Catholic in Duluth, the faith of his mother, but as an adult he rarely went to church.  I can only remember a few times, confirmation and my first Sunday at First UMC Duluth.  Though he lived near, he never came back to First UMC Duluth, until we brought his ashes there after his death in 2009, and there is some sadness in that for me.  He came by his lack of church-going naturally, I guess.  When my dad was dying in 2009 he told me that his father did not want to see a clergy person while he was in the hospital dying.  I don’t know why my grandfather felt the way he did, I was only in my early teens when my grandfather died, but it may have had to do with his struggles with alcohol, something my dad also struggled with.  It may be a reason my dad found church difficult.
            It was my mom who got my sister, brother and I to church when she could.  She did not drive, so we walked – walked to the nearest Protestant church.  I was baptized Presbyterian.  We moved about a mile and a half when I was six, and we ended up at a United Methodist Church.  My mom did her best.  She signed us up for religious release time classes and vacation Bible school.  We would not have been the most active family in the church by any means.  Yet it was at that United Methodist Church that God’s love in Jesus became real to me.  When I was thirteen, in the eighth grade – you know those junior high years that we all consider so wonderful - my Sunday School teacher at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth told me about God’s love for me in Jesus.  Her own care and compassion made that love very real to me.  I said “yes” to God, “yes” to Jesus.  I was born again.  I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  For me, the best way I have come to think about this is that I said “yes” to this God who had already said “yes” to me.  God had joined me on the road of my life, or I could say I took a different road with Jesus.
            My life was changed.  I became involved with a Jesus People church.  I witnessed in the streets.  To be honest, I was probably a little religiously obnoxious.  I may not have been very gracious is describing God’s grace in Jesus.  There were times I thought my United Methodist Church was not getting it right, but I stayed with it.  As I grew, questions emerged.  I needed a thoughtful faith, a faith that could help me navigate questions and ponderings.  I drifted some, but this United Methodist Church had a place for me, even then.
            College was a time of questioning, wondering, wandering, not giving up on faith, but asking how I could engage it, asking what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in a more complicated world than I imagined at 13.  I majored in philosophy and psychology.  I had become a lover of music and literature.  I had developed a deep concern for justice and peace.  Seminary was a time to explore even more questions, and there God took this questioning, wondering follower of Jesus and called him into the ordained ministry.  How odd.  How unlikely.  Yet if God was willing to walk the road with me in Jesus, even in the midst of doubts and questions and wonderings, perhaps God could use me to walk with others on the road of their lives in ways that helped bring them closer to Jesus.  Perhaps God could use me to help people come together in communities of hope and healing, compassion and caring, justice and joy, witness and service, love and forgiveness.  God has put in my heart a burning desire to help people find a faith that is thoughtful – engaging the mind; passionate – engaging the heart and wanting to share this love of God in Jesus; and compassionate – seeking to bring justice and healing to a hurting broken world in the name and Spirit of Jesus.  God called me to do this in The United Methodist Church, this place that has been there to help me be born again, and to help me born again and again – deepening my faith, enlarging my heart, setting my mind and soul on fire. If I have a passion for The United Methodist Church, and I do, it is because here God has met me time and time again on the road, embraced me in love, gently nudged me to grow in the direction of love.
            My formal education was not done with seminary.  Following seminary and my first appointment as a pastor, I went back to school, earning a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  I thought teaching might be my ministry, but it was not to be.  I went back to Minnesota where I have served churches and as a district superintendent.  The road finally led to my election as a bishop this summer, and now down the road to Michigan.
            Here we are, traveling this same road as Michigan United Methodists, our stories overlapping.  We are now going to be writing the next pages of our road stories with God together.  I don’t know exactly where this story is going, and while we don’t know just what our story together will look like, here are some watermarks that I would like to characterize the pages of the story we write together as we travel the road of faith as Michigan United Methodists.  Watermarks – you know, those marks that are found embedded in high quality paper, marks you still write over to tell your story, but that are always in the background of what you write.  Here are four watermarks, and I want to touch briefly on them.
            Joy.  I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together.  The Christian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it.  Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything – faith and vision.”  Perhaps one reason churches struggle to welcome new people is that we lack the joy that is the tonality of Christian faith.
            But how can we be joyful?  Can’t I see the world around me?  Am I ignorant of the hunger, injustice, abuse, addiction, poverty, greed, environmental degradation, human inhumanity, war that exists?  Can’t I see that clean water is not just a problem in places far away but just down the road?  Aren’t I aware of the deep divisions in our society in this contentious election season, or of the significant differences in our church which are threatening to divide us?  Am I unwilling to look at hurting lives – where people grapple with illness and death and grief?  Do I just turn away from struggling faith communities – places where numbers no longer sustain congregations or conflict has torn at the very fabric of the community?  Of course not.  I see the worlds hurt, and my eyes well up with tears.  I listen to the news and my heart aches, and breaks. But isn’t the essence of Christian faith that God keeps acting in the world in Jesus Christ to redeem it, to transform it in the direction of love?  We need to take the advice of poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  Sometimes the facts lead us to cry out or just to cry, but while weeping endures for a night joy comes in the morning.  Let’s remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “discipleship is joy.”
            Wisdom.  I would like wisdom to be one of the watermarks of our story together.  That is rather audacious.  I chose the version of Jesus great commandment from Mark’s gospel because of that wisdom element.  Jesus answers the scribe wisely when asked about the greatest commandment – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself.  The scribe responds wisely to Jesus.  When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.  At the end of the story, Jesus has answered so wisely that he leaves the crowd speechless, without further questions.  One time in my time as your bishop I hope that can happen – just once!
            More seriously I would like wisdom to characterize our story together, but I think of wisdom as something that emerges from deep dialogue – honest, caring conversation and deep listening.  Parker Palmer writes that his working definition of truth is “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (A Hidden Wholeness, 127).  It may not be a complete definition, but he is on to something.  Wisdom that emerges from this kind of conversation provides us with enough insight and conviction to act, and encourages enough humility to change.
            Love.  Can any good Christian story be told without love?  Jesus said that love is the bottom line.  What’s it all about?  Love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself.  When I was in seminary I read a book on The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.  The book was thirty years old at the time, making it sixty years old now, but its central claim still rings true.  The purpose of the church and its ministry is the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor. The author, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was a well-known theologian who got his start in a Detroit church, Richard Niebuhr went on to write: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the others.  Love is at the center of the purpose of the church.
            So I know that we United Methodists have said that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I completely agree with that.  But what do disciples look like?  By this will people know that we are disciples of Jesus, by our love.  If we are not helping people grow in love, we are not making disciples.  If we are not helping transform the world in the direction of love – which includes forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and justice, then we are not transforming the world in the direction of God’s kingdom.  You know how John Wesley defined Christian perfection?  By perfection I mean the humble, gentle patient love of God and neighbor ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions (January 27, 1767)
            One final watermark, hope.  I love what the writer Anne Lamott says about hope.  Hope is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, slightly edited).  She uses a more colorful term than “stuff,” one not appropriate for a bishop’s sermon, though perhaps occasionally for a bishop’s prayer life.  Hope is choosing to believe that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us.  We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God found people whose ancestor was a wandering Aramean, heard their cry and brought them to a new place in the power of love.  We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God came among us in a special way, in a unique life, and though the forces of the empire put Jesus to death, the power of love raised him up again.  We are people of hope, and because of that we are people of joy.  We know that love is powerful and we trust that God’s Spirit still inspires in us the wisdom to follow love’s direction.

            Let me end with a nod to a Michigan theologian, Bob Seger.  Here I am, on the road again.  He I am up on the stage.  Here we are playing our song again.  Here we go, here we go, turn the page.   As we turn the page of the next chapter of our road story together and together with God, may our pages be marked with joy, wisdom, love and hope.  May it be so.  Come Spirit come.  Amen.