Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Packing Well

Lake Louise Christian Community                                                                                     July 2, 2017

Texts: Colossians 3:12-14

            2016 was a big year for my family and me.  General Conference was held in 2016.  I needed to leave early on Friday to get back to Minnesota to attend the graduation of our youngest child, our daughter Sarah, from a Doctor of Physical Therapy program on Saturday.  Jurisdictional Conference was held in Peoria, Illinois in July, and on July 13 I was elected a bishop.  In between General Conference and graduation and the Jurisdictional Conference was the session of the Minnesota Annual Conference.  It was an important annual conference session for me.  I was going as Minnesota’s endorsed candidate for the episcopacy, deeply grateful for the conference’s support over the years.  I knew it would either be my last annual conference or the last annual conference when I would be a candidate for bishop.  I was not intending to run again after 2016.  My wife Julie was going to be attending annual conference for the first time in many years – she had usually been teaching while our annual conference met, but in 2016 Minnesota moved its annual conference later in June.
            Given the importance of this annual conference, I packed carefully, or so I thought.  As conference parliamentarian, I brought my Book of Discipline and Robert’s Rules of Order, along with various Robert’s Rules cheat sheets.  I brought my robe and stole so I would process with clergy at ordination.  I thought I had it all together until we were about 75 miles from home and I realized that while I had been careful, I had also been forgetful.  I turned to Julie in the car and said, I forgot to pack shirts and ties.  I had some shopping to do when we arrived in St. Cloud.
            Your July theme is “traveling light” with all its multiple meanings.  Traveling light can connote a letting go – perhaps of things in your past which haunt you - - - by the way, a favorite definition of forgiveness is “giving up all hope of a better past;” perhaps simplifying your life in some way; perhaps letting go of some rigid part of your sense of self that is blocking you from moving forward in God’s Spirit.  Traveling light has an ecological connotation, living more lightly in relationship to the planet which sustains us.  In this place we understand the importance of caring for the natural world.  Traveling light can also connote being a light that travels.  How might we be light for one another on the journey of life?  How might we be lights in our world?
            Well, if we want to travel light, packing well is important.  We may want to simplify, but we also don’t want to forget important things like shirts and ties.  Packing well asks us to inquire – what is most needed, what is most important in the journey of life with Jesus, the journey of life in God’s Spirit?  Colossians 3:12-14 is an attempt to respond to just such questions, and it even uses the metaphor of clothing.  Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Forgive.  Clothe yourselves with love.  I really appreciate how Eugene Peterson renders this passage about what it might mean to pack well.
            So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.  Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense.  Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.  And regardless of what else you put on, wear love.  It is your basic, all-purpose garment.  Never be without it.
            Packing well for traveling light on the journey with Jesus, for life in the Spirit, means recognizing again the central importance of love to Christian faith, to Christian life.  Love is at the heart and soul of the Christian life.  We discover our true value in being loved wildly by God in Jesus.  We discover our purpose in living such love extravagantly.  One of my theological teacher and mentors, Schubert Ogden, writes: “a certain understanding of God is the most fundamental presupposition of the Christian witness” and this certain understanding is that God is “all-compassion… pure unbounded love” – taking a phrase from Charles Wesley (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 26, 28).
            To say that love is at the heart and soul of Christian faith and life, is the key to packing well for this life, is perhaps the least original thing any preacher can say.  You did not need a bishop with a Ph.D. to come to Lake Louise to tell you that love is central to Christian faith – God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, our response in loving God and neighbor.  I am sorry if my lack of originality disappoints.  Sometimes, though, it is also good to be reminded of deeply important truths that can get lost in the rush and din of our busy and noisy lives.  Perhaps hearing again of the utter centrality of love will ground that truth just a little more deeply in our hearts and in our souls.  Perhaps it will encourage us to live that truth more frequently and profoundly.
            While it is no surprise that being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-traveler through life, is about love, it may also help to be reminded that love is complicated.  We don’t need a movie with Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep and Steve Martin to remind us of that (It’s Complicated).  It is relatively easy to say that love is at the heart of packing well for living lightly, that it is the heart and soul of Christian faith.  It is more difficult to live it.
            What might it mean to live lovingly in our complicated world, in a world marred by injustice, diminished by oppression, marked by hunger and poverty and disease and war and environmental neglect.  The late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose words often strike deep chords even years after he died, once wrote, “love as a substitute to justice is odious, but love as a supplement to justice is an absolute necessity” (A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader, 50).  I disagree with precisely how Niebuhr splits love and justice, but his words remind us that love is also about doing justice, and that’s complicated.
            What does it mean to love as we consider immigration policy?  What does it mean to love as we seek to fashion health care policy?  What does love mean as we consider climate change?  How do we continue to incarnate the courage to love when it seems not to be the currency of the day?  We have a very prominent person in our society who is lauded by some for his willingness, when struck, to strike back ten times harder.  That appeals to many.  Love, I think, means something different.
            So to say that love is our all-purpose garment, the thing that we should pack first when seeking to travel lightly, is really quite complicated.  Yet we cannot fail to pack it, and we cannot avoid wrestling with what it means to try and live more lovingly in a complicated world.
            Even as we wrestle, though, it is also good to be reminded of some of clearer things love asks of us, and I want to do that, and begin wrapping up, by sharing with you a poem.
“What I Learned from My Mother”   Julia Kasdorf
I have learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds.  I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look into their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

(http://writersalmanac.org    June 27, 2017)

Create from another’s suffering your own usefulness.  To every house you enter, offer healing.  Above all, wear love.  It’s your all-purpose garment.  Never be without it.  Pack well.  Travel lightly.  All in the name and Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.

Because It's Hard

Michigan Area Annual Conference                                                                       June 4, 2017
Recognition, Commissioning, and Ordination Worship                                                                                  
Texts: Mark 6:7-13; 9:14-29

            Greetings in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit.  What an absolute joy and privilege it is to be standing here today as your bishop, to celebrate, recognize, commission and ordain.  Every time I have thought about today, it has given me a bit of a chill.  For any of us who have been where these women and men are today, we recall those moments with joy and awe.
            I have been around long enough to know that the process for getting here has changed over time.  General Conference has had this tendency to add questions or requirements whenever it seemed that something might be missing somewhere in some candidate.  Courses on evangelism and mission have been added.  Questions about theology have changed some.  One of the questions to which I had to respond in writing when coming for my probationary membership was this: Mismanagement of personal finances may detract from your effectiveness as a minister.  Are you presently in debt so as to interfere with your work, or have you obligations to others which will make it difficult for you to live on the salary you may receive?
            Here’s an idea to add to our examination of candidates.  A rather well-known author once said in an interview: Find out the movies a man saw between ten and fifteen, which ones he liked, disliked, and you would have a pretty good idea of what sort of mind and temperament he has (Gore Vidal).  Why hadn’t some ingenious delegate to General Conference thought of that before – let’s add a question about movies to our examination of candidates for licensed and ordained ministry!
            So, how many of you have seen Hidden Figures?  It is a moving story of bright African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s, helping our space program overcome significant hurdles, all the while having to navigate the significant hurdles of racism and sexism.  At one point in the movie we see a clip of a speech by then President John Kennedy.  We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard (John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g25G1M4EXrQ ).  It is a beautiful moment in the film for its irony.  Getting to space would be hard, but harder still, overcoming racism and sexism.
            The irony reverberates to our day.  We got to the moon in that decade, but we still struggle with racism and sexism.  How many of our hearts were broken yet again just a couple of weeks ago when we heard the story of a young African-American man being stabbed to death at a bus stop in Maryland for no other apparent reason than that he was black.  Getting to the moon was a scientific, technical and fiscal challenge.  Racism and sexism, are in the poignant words of the novelist William Faulkner from his Noble Prize speech, “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (1950).  Deep matters of the human heart point beyond themselves.  To use my Reinhold Niebuhr quote for the week: The human story is too grand and awful to be told without reverence for the mystery and majesty that transcend all human knowledge (Faith and Politics, 13)
            You who are being recognized, commissioned and ordained have answered the call to serve and to lead.  You’ve answered the call to share bread, to share Word, to offer grace, to call us all to do justice, to order our shared life, to continue the apostolic work begun when Jesus sent out his first disciples to preach and teach and heal and struggle against all that is harmful and demonic (Mark 6:7-13).  As leaders, an important part of our call is to help all followers of Jesus find their ministry in sharing good news, healing and struggling against that which harms.  Something touched you, tugged at you, cajoled you, would not let you go – or rather Someone.  You responded, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.  You are being called to work with matters of the human heart, with the deepest mysteries of human existence – its height and depth.  After Niebuhr wrote about the human story being too grand and awful to be told without reverence for mystery and majesty, he went on: Only humble [persons] who recognize this mystery and majesty are able to face both the beauty and terror of life without exulting over its beauty or becoming crushed by its terror.  Faith in Jesus Christ, the faith which has grabbed hold of you, and in which you have heard the voice of God calling you into ministry, that faith is meant to help us navigate the beauty and terror of life without becoming too enamored with human capabilities or crushed by human failings, and that is hard work.
            The poet Mary Oliver, in a recent essay, provides a different set of images for thinking about the work to which we are called.  In creative work – creative work of all kinds – those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook – a different set of priorities.  She goes on to say that in order to do such work well we need to cultivate that part of ourselves that is “out of love with the ordinary,” that has a “hunger for eternity.”  Of the artistic and spiritual work that seeks to cultivate this self in hunger for eternity she writes: Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come – for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  (Upstream, 26-27).  This sounds like leading in liminal times.
            Navigating and helping others navigate the terrain of the human heart in its relationships to itself, to others, to the community, and to the God who is at the center of the mystery and majesty of life, navigating the beauty and terror of life without becoming too enamored with human capabilities or crushed by human failings, sharing bread and Word, offering  grace, calling us all to do justice, ordering our shared life – this is an adventure and it is hard work.  You have answered the call not because it is easy, but because it is hard.  It has always been hard.  Take the story in Mark 9.  The same disciples who had just a few chapters before reported to Jesus the successes of their mission, all they had done and taught, are unable to help a man whose son is suffering, possessed by a spirt that has taken away the boy’s speech and that convulses him, casting him into fire and water.  The exact nature of the disciple’s inability is rather mysterious.  Is it a lack of faith on the part of the father that Jesus is finally able to evoke?  Is it some lack of prayer?  We don’t know.  All we know is that finally this ministry work can be hard.
            While it has always been hard, now seems a particularly challenging time.  So many trends are convulsing our world, many of which make ministry for and in the name of Jesus Christ acutely difficult.  The place of religion generally in our society has declined.  No longer is religious affiliation a necessary element in social acceptance.  There is more acceptance of a scornful attitude toward religion, and if we are honest, some of it is well-deserved.  Religious traditions have sometimes been embraced badly – embraced with violence and acrimony, the most horrific examples are those who kill innocents in the name of religion.  Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the racism and sexism which still plague our society have for many years been justified religiously.
            The United Methodist Church finds itself in a tough and tender time.  We find ourselves in the midst of deep disagreements about the inclusion of LGBT persons.  These disagreements are connected to disagreements about how we read the Bible, and how God reveals Godself in Scripture.  We share with most long-standing Christian denominations a declining trend, and as you take on leadership in the UMC, you are becoming part of the group that is often blamed for such decline.  Just a few years ago a United Methodist economist in a presentation on the state of church leadership quoted an unnamed retired UM bishop who told him, “We have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  Another bishop wrote: How few are not either ignorant, or injudicious, or imprudent, or dull and lifeless, or dry and barren, or of stammering speech, in our ministerial work.  That was Francis Asbury in 1792, so I guess we found a way forward!
            Yet there is no question that the church needs to continue to change if it is to grow, and in the words of church consultant Alice Mann, we often suffer under the illusions that growth can occur without change, and that change can occur without conflict.  Yet we live in a world where the human ability to work with conflict does not seem our most developed skill.  And the adaptive work needed in our churches is work that needs to be able to acknowledge that with change comes loss and with loss, grief.  As leaders, we must hold in our hands visions of moving forward along with compassion for the grief that change brings.
            As leaders you will be asked to lead, but here’s a catch.  Sometimes when someone asks you to lead, what they are really asking you to do is agree with them, and not only agree with them, but agree with them in just the way they want you to agree with them.
            In the face of all this, you are saying “yes,” not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and there is something important about that.  In his speech in 1962, John Kennedy, after telling his listeners that we choose to go the moon because it is hard, went on to say:  because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.  We say “yes” to hard challenges because we know that in them we are able to discover our best gifts and skills, because in doing hard work, we have the opportunity to develop our best selves and deepen our souls and spirits.  We say “yes” because there is profound joy in deepening our souls and spirits.  Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journals, “that aim in life is highest which requires the highest and finest discipline” (Walden and Other Writings, 430).
            Hard work, profound challenges are exhilarating and joyful, but can also be exhausting.  In Mark 6, in reporting on the successes of their mission, Jesus invited the disciples for a time away, though it quickly turned into another bit of hard work leading to the feeding of the 5,000.  The God who calls us into ministry can use us just as we are, scared and scarred, but in calling us to the work of ministry, God also calls us to continue to grow and learn and develop.  I think of a couple of lines from Minnesota poet Robert Bly (“A Home in Dark Grass - revised):
We did not come to remain whole.                  {It is not our job to remain unbroken}
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,     {Our task is to lose our leaves}
Trees that start again,                                        {And be born again, as trees}
Drawing up from the great roots.                    {Draw up from the great roots.}

            When God calls us, God calls us as we are, but not to remain as we are, so just a few brief words about following that part of God’s call to the hard work of ministry, a few words about staying more exhilarated and joyful that exhausted.
            Take care of yourself.  Michigan-born and educated poet, Jane Kenyon shared advice to poetry writers that is not bad advice for clergy.  Be good stewards of your gifts.  Protect your time.  Feed your inner life.  Avoid too much noise.  Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.  Be by yourself as often as you can.  Walk.  Take the phone off the hook.  Work regular hours. (A Hundred White Daffodils, 141)   It needs some adjustment for clergy – we are in the people business, after all, but we all, in different proportions, need time to tend to our inner lives and to just be.
            Know you are not alone.  Just look around.  You are not alone.  Beyond acquaintances, find good friends, friends who will laugh with you, cry with you, and be gently honest with you.
            Never forget your calling – the heart work, the life-transforming, world-transforming work to which God has called you.  This is how we earn our living, and that matters, but if your work ever becomes just your job, something is amiss.  This work matters.  Never forget your calling, and never forget the One who called you.  In tending to your inner life, tend to that relationship with God which is the only reason we are doing what we are doing.
            I’ve gone back and forth between addressing you who are being recognized, commissioned and ordained, and saying something to all of us.  This is a particularly special day for you being celebrated, but I would invite us all to reconnect with our calling.  I hope this time is a time of renewal for us all, clergy and lay alike, all called in different ways to the transforming work of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ in a challenging time.
            I want to end with words from Paul, words that I have held particularly close these past months as a new bishop.  Quite some time ago, I committed to memory I Corinthians 16:14: Let all that you do be done in love.  I confess that I paid insufficient attention to the verse before, but since my consecration as a bishop, this entire thought has taken up residence in my soul.  May these words feed and challenge you as you continue to say “yes” because its hard.
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.


Your Bishop is a Basket Case

Michigan Area Annual Conference                                                                       June 1, 2017
Opening Worship                                                                                  

Texts: Mark 6:30-44

            Good morning Michigan United Methodists and welcome to the 2017 Annual Conference.  Let’s begin with a little music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYEwJujSHV8
            I’m David Bard, your bishop, and that song may confirm for you the title of this sermon: “Your Bishop is a Basket Case.”  I’ve lost it, I’ve lost it, my good sense I’ve lost it. Has someone seen it ‘round, cause I can’t live without it.
Let me take you back a bit and then move fast forward through these past months.  July 2016 I was a candidate for bishop from Minnesota at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria.  It was not the first time I had been Minnesota’s nominee.  As balloting began that first day, Wednesday late afternoon, I was very much in the middle of the pack, 7 of 13 candidates, with four bishops to be elected.  Over the dinner break following that first ballot, my wife Julie and I began to talk about going back to Duluth and continuing there as pastor.  I did not see how I was going to gain enough support to be elected.  There was sadness, but also determination to continue being in ministry with people I loved and enjoyed.  There was more balloting after dinner, and something began to change as I slowly moved up in the voting.  On the tenth ballot, the final ballot of the night, I was elected, and my life changed instantaneously.  I had to think about leaving and moving, and on Friday night Julie and I found out we were being assigned to Michigan.
We had about five weeks to pack up.  We had to say “good-bye.”  We arrived and got to say “hello” to lots of new people and discover lots of new places.  Thank you for your consistently gracious welcome.  Whenever I would preach now, it would be to new people.  I continue to learn practices of new conferences, and be part of bringing West Michigan and Detroit together.  My first day on the job was a Design Team meeting.  In the coming year there will be significant decisions to make about staff and about districts.  Someone said that there is a train coming down the tracks right at me.  People are always trying to make me feel better.  This is a tough and tender time for the United Methodist Church and in the coming year I will be hosting conversations about LGBT inclusion and the unity of the UMC.  I’ve had to confront the deep existential decision – U of M or MSU, when for fifty plus years of my life, U of M, always meant a big school in Minneapolis. Then one also has to decide, ketchup or gravy on your pasties.  I am learning to use my hands as a map, but not when I am driving, and the different meaning of “the thumb”.  Getting ready for annual conference someone shared with me that a previous bishop had twice suffered heart attacks during annual conference.  That was comforting.  And to top it all off, what is the topic for the worship service in which I get to preach my first annual conference sermon?  Scaracity!  Your bishop is a basket case!  Not so much, however, as to neglect the remembrance part of this service with thanks for those remembered.
I am not the first disciple of Jesus to be a basket case.  The apostles/disciples have just returned from what sounds like a successful missionary endeavor.  They are sharing with Jesus what has happened – an early version of Tables 1, 2 and 3 and Church Conference reports!  Jesus invites them away for a time of rest.  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  As happens with Jesus, crowds find he and the disciples, and even though Jesus is seeking some down time, he begins teaching because “he had compassion for them.”  So much for the small group retreat, but perhaps they can at least salvage a quiet meal with Jesus.  As it gets late, the disciples tell Jesus to send the people away so that the people can eat.  Jesus responds, “You give them something to eat.”  What!  “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  Whose got that kind of money in their tunic or purse.  Here we are in the middle of nowhere, and rather than send these folks to the villages to eat, you want to send us there and bring them back food.  Obviously we have to go, ‘cause in the sticks here we are outside of Jimmy John’s delivery area.
So the quiet retreat has gone south, and Jesus wants the disciples to provide food.  By now, these disciples are basket cases.  They are anxious and afraid.  They are scared.  They are scared because of their concern over scarcity.  Perhaps there have been other times in their lives when there has been a lack.  Perhaps the disciples, then, are also scarred – scared and scarred in the face of scarcity.  We do not have enough for the situation.  We are not enough to meet the situation.  Scared and scarred, basket cases, all.
Jesus responds to his scared and scarred disciples, “How many loaves have you?  Go and see.”  “Five loaves, and two fish.”  Jesus asks, “What do you have?”  Great question.  We might call this appreciative inquiry or asset-mapping, and it is something we often neglect.  When things seem scarce, ask what resources you have.  In some instances what we have is a rich history to celebrate and the best next question is what kind of legacy we might leave.  In most cases, we will discover a few loaves and maybe some fish – something we can begin with to multiply in the Spirit of Jesus.
I like that there is an element of mystery in the story at this point.  Five loaves and two fish multiply.  In John’s Gospel, a boy brings forth the bread and fish.  In that version, his example might become an inspiration for others to give.  Some in seeking to explain the story say that the generosity of the boy, or others, inspired generosity and before anyone knew it, there was enough, more than enough – sort of like stone soup.  The “how,” though, is shrouded in mystery and I think of the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who, in one of his late essays wrote: “the human story is too grand and awful to be told without reverence for the mystery and majesty that transcend human knowledge” (Faith and Politics, 13, from the 1966 essay: “Faith as a Sense of Meaning in Human Existence”).
There is mystery here.  Jesus takes what is given, blesses it, breaks it, shares it, and there is enough, more than enough.  In fact, baskets are needed, and it is a bit of a mystery where these come from, too.  You don’t need twelve baskets for five loaves and two fish.  Had the food been passed around in baskets that people provided?  These baskets just show up, an outward and visible sign of something else going on, a sign of grace.  Bread and fish become enough, baskets are needed, and in all this people are touched, fed, cared for.  The baskets, woven from the common materials of the day, become baskets of grace.  The disciples, participating in what is happening, being closest to the mystery of what is taking place, also become, in a way, baskets of grace and for grace.  They bring what they have, they bring who they are, allow their gifts to be blessed and broken open and shared and grace happens.  The disciples go from basket cases to being baskets of and for grace.
That’s the invitation, isn’t it – to bring our resources and our very selves so that we might be baskets of and for the grace of God in Jesus.  We bring who we are to Jesus to be blessed and opened and then in turn to touch others, to feed others, to care for others, to care for the world.  We come sometimes scared and scarred, yet the compassion of Jesus is contagious.  We can be baskets of grace and baskets for grace.
Baskets hold things.  As I have been playing with this image of being a basket of and for grace, I could not help but think of the idea of a holding environment.  Are some of you familiar with the concept of a holding environment?  The original context is psychotherapy, particularly the therapeutic thought of D. W. Winnicott.  A healthy holding environment provides space for a person to grow, it provides openness for discovery of self and others, it helps increase one’s capacity for experiencing the richness of the world and for taking responsibility for one’s experiences and emotions.  One’s original holding environment is literally being held by your parents.  Adequate parenting and family dynamics allow for a child to grow, to experience joys and disappointments and know that they will not be crushed by their own experiences or emotions.  When one has experienced damaged holding environments, a therapist can provide a holding environment of empathetic interpretation so that a person might work through difficulties that are otherwise interfering with their development.
Beyond individual therapy, the concept of a holding environment has entered leadership studies and organizational theory.  Ronald Heifetz in his wonderful work Leadership Without Easy Answers uses the concept to talk about an important part of leading.  A holding environment consists of any relationship in which one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work….  The holding environment can generate adaptive work because it contains and regulates the stresses that work generates. (104-105)
Becoming baskets of grace and for grace may is like becoming holding environments for others individually and for our congregations corporately.  We are invited, I think, to become people in whose presence others find the space to grow in love, compassion, concern for justice, joy, generosity, curiosity, responsibility.  Our very presence, shaped by Jesus, becomes a basket of grace, and gives a basket for the grace of God to touch and transform others.  Organizationally, as leaders, we seek to help our congregations or organizations become baskets of grace and for grace, by helping them do the kind of adaptive work needed in our day and time. Leaders keep the work before the group while also buffering some of the pain and strain of the work.  The church itself can be a basket of grace, a holding environment for the spiritual development of the people who are part of it.  The church can be a basket of grace in a community – being willing to bring its resources to touch and feed and care for others.
And as I was thinking about being baskets of and for grace and being a holding environment I was reminded of words about hospitality written by Henri Nouwen.  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. (Reaching Out, 51)
In the midst of seeming scarcity, where even the disciples are basket cases because they are scared and scarred, Jesus asks the simple yet profound question, “what do you have?”  What they have is blessed and broken and shared, and there is transformation.  Hungry people are fed.  Isolated people are touched and connected.  People hungering for a new way are given food for the soul, teaching to ignite the imagination.  The disciples are transformed from basket cases to baskets of and for grace.  Jesus has created a holding environment for Spirit work.  Jesus has created hospitality – a free space where a stranger can become a friend, a space where change can and does take place.
And just as those first disciple basket cases, those ordinary people scared and scarred, became baskets of and for grace, so, too can we.  Each of our lives can be a basket of and for grace.  Each of our churches can be a basket of and for grace.  Michigan United Methodists together can be a basket of and for grace.  All the work of the Design Team is a kind of weaving – here is what the basket of Michigan United Methodism can look like focused on our vision of Christ-centered mission and ministry, bold and effective leaders, and vibrant congregations.  In the end, though, we have to be open to the Spirit so that this new woven basket of the Michigan Conference is a basket of and for grace.
I’m almost done, but need to say something important.  We all know that we are doing this work of coming together under the shadow of a potential coming apart of The United Methodists Church.  Some may wonder what good this will do if in four years we are dividing as a denomination.  Here’s what I’ve been thinking.  Nothing good and grace-filled is ever lost.  God may weep a bit if we split.  I think God weeps rather a lot over humanity.  Yet God also smiles – God smiles when God’s love becomes real to someone in Jesus, when the hungry are fed, when the lonely are embraced, when the fearful are hugged, when broken lives are healed, when relationships are restored, when peace is achieved, when strangers become friends, when all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, place of origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic status are seen and treated as persons of sacred worth, when the earth is cared for, when hand touches hand in friendship, God smiles. Nothing can take away the smile of God in God’s eternal memory.
So the good we do matters.  The love we love matters.  The reconciliation we achieve matters.  The gospel we preach matters.  The justice we do matters.  It all matters regardless of what the UMC does in the coming years.
In my introductory sermon as your bishop, I put forward the idea that I wanted four watermarks to characterize our time together, however long that may be – joy, wisdom, love and hope.  Not long after that, as I was learning to make the Michigan map with my hands, something struck me.  Those hands that can make a map can also make a basket.  Regularly I have gone from map to basket, holding you all in my prayers, praying for joy and wisdom and love and hope, praying that I might be a basket of and for grace to you, praying that you might be such baskets of and for grace in your lives and communities, praying that together we Michigan United Methodists from Marquette to Monroe, from Harbor Beach to Benton Harbor, from Traverse Bay to Saginaw Bay, from Kalamazoo to Calumet, from Erie to Escanaba, from Detroit to Dowagiac, from Ithaca to Ironwood, from St. Joseph to Sault St. Marie – that we Michigan United Methodists might be woven together into a basket of and for grace.

A tisket, a tasket, God make of me a basket.  A tisket, a tasket, God make of us a basket.  A basket of and for grace – that’s the kind of basket case I pray to be and I hope we can be together.  Amen.

Making Jesus Real

Sermon preached at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church - Dallas, TX             April 30, 2017

Texts: Luke 24:13-35

            What an honor and joy it is to be here with you today, particularly on this special Sunday in the life of the church.  I am very grateful to your pastor Bill Eason for extending this invitation, and I know your bishop Mike McKee would want me to share his greetings.
            Scripture Reading
            Some of you may be wondering just why I am here.  I may seem a bit like that unrecognizable presence who has just joined you along the road.  Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1987, I was hired as the Youth Pastor here at Ridgewood Park.  My wife, Julie, and our two small children, David and Beth, had moved from Minnesota so I could go back to school and work on a Ph.D. in religious studies at Southern Methodist University.  For a few weeks after our move, I was working in a non-church job doing telephone surveys, but really hated it so I searched out the job posting board at Perkins School of Theology.  I was 28, a little older than many who are hired as youth pastors.  I was an ordained elder in the Minnesota Conference who had served three years as the solo pastor of a small United Methodist congregation not far from the Canadian border in northwest Minnesota.  Again, these are not typical experiences for a youth pastor.  I showed up for an interview with then pastor Fred Durham and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee wearing a suit.  That’s what you were supposed to do, I thought, though it concerned some – not very “youth pastor.”  I was hired, and Charlie Squibb thought that I could probably related to the youth because of my Corvette.  I then had to explain to him that I had said “Chevette” – I am sure it was my accent!  They gave me the job anyway, and I was the youth pastor here until I completed my Ph.D. in 1994.
            I would like to give you a bit more of the back story, and I promise to tie it in with both the Scripture reading and Confirmation Sunday.  As mentioned, I had been a pastor of a church for three years when we moved here to Dallas.  Truth be told, I was hoping that completing my Ph.D. would lead me into teaching.  My three years as a pastor had gone all right, but I left that church feeling ambivalent about pastoral ministry, about continuing as a pastor.  The church people were nice, but they were also very reserved – Minnesota Scandinavian reserved.  You know, “How do you tell a Scandinavian extrovert?”  He looks at your shoes when he is talking to you.  I literally did not know that my ministry had touched many lives until our farewell party from that church, but by then we were leaving.  The lack of feedback made it a sometimes uneasy three years.  I want to be clear that it was as much about me as about anything.  I need to say that years later I became the district superintendent for that same church and was able to be in ministry with them in very delightful and healing ways.  I had grown.  A year ago, as a pastor in Duluth, Minnesota, I confirmed the son of a man who I had confirmed as a boy in that very first church I served.
            I confess that I did not reveal all of this in my interview here in 1987.  I came here with my ambivalence and with some wounds.  My years here at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church were healing and renewing.  Earning my Ph.D. was something I needed to do as part of my intellectual and spiritual journey, but the way you all embraced my family and me, the way I saw you live out faith in Jesus Christ together – not perfectly, but with love and joy and a sense of adventure, that was a vitally important part of my own journey of faith and journey in ordained ministry.  You all, y’all, helped make Jesus more real to me, and you helped me see and experience in new ways how the church could help make Jesus more real in the world.
            A few days following the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Imperial Roman authorities, two of his followers, Cleopas and an unnamed other, were walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus.  They were talking about all the things that had happened in recent days.  They are joined on their journey by a third person.  Reading the story, we are told that it is Jesus, but the two do not recognize the stranger.  Jesus incognito asks the two what they are discussing.  They tell him about Jesus of Nazareth, about their hopes for him, about his tragic fate, and about the strange news some women followers had brought – that angels told them Jesus was alive.  Jesus incognito begins to teach them, to remind them of the stories of the Scriptures.  They invite him in to stay, and as he took bread, blessed and broke it, Jesus incognito becomes Jesus, the risen and recognized.  Then he disappears, but they remember how they felt along the journey – “Weren’t our hearts on fire?”
            The risen Jesus walks unrecognized with two of his followers who are mulling over all that had been happening – betrayal and death and odd news about angels.  Jesus accompanies these two along their way.  One feels patience and kindness in the story.  There is learning and sharing – an invitation and bread broken, blessed and shared.  In all of that, Jesus becomes real.
            That’s our task, you know.  The United Methodist Church has stated that its mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We could also say that our mission, our task, is to make Jesus real.  We make Jesus real so that others are intrigued, and come under the influence of his Spirit and become his disciples.  In having Jesus be real in their lives, those lives are changed, and changed lives change the world, and as the world is changed, Jesus becomes even more real, and others are intrigued and become disciples.
            For those of you being confirmed today, you are saying “yes” to Jesus and to taking the next steps in the journey of faith.  You are saying “yes” to the God of Jesus, who has already and always says “yes” to you.  That’s what baptism is about, a celebration of God’s loving “yes” to each of us.  I trust that you have been helped to get to this point by the loving and caring folks here at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church.  When you were baptized, the church promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness.  We don’t do that perfectly, but I hope we have done that well, and we will keep on doing that.  I hope you have felt this to be a place that has helped make Jesus more real to you.
            You are also saying “yes” to the mission of the church to make Jesus real.  Your job, and our job together, is to continue making Jesus real.  We do that by our patience.  We do that by our kindness.  We do that as we learn and grow.  We do that as we share – share resources, share space, share bread and blessings.  We do that by being willing to accompany others on the road of life in their joy and hurt and bewilderment.  Your pastor has let me know just how committed you are as a confirmation class to making Jesus real through reaching out to others – a day spent at CC Young playing games and just being with others; feeding those who are homeless at Austin Street Center, which involved getting up at 4 am and then you came to worship after you served.  Well done and keep it up.
            This is a pretty big deal that you are saying “yes” to.  It is a pretty big deal for all of us to keep saying “yes.”  We can only do this by working together, and we can only do this by staying in touch with the real Jesus in our own lives.  We need to keep doing things like praying and worshipping and coming together to learn and talk.  That’s how we keep our lives connected to Jesus.  We can really only make him real to others when he is real in our own lives.  Our hearts need to be on fire with the Spirit of Jesus.
            Let me share a story.  This story comes from a Minnesota writer.  Kent Nerburn lives near Bemidji, Minnesota which was about 125 miles from the place where I was first a pastor.  Nerburn has written books about the grace of nature, about the importance of small graces, about forgiveness, and about Native peoples in the United States.  One of his books was a reflection on the prayer of St. Francis, and the story I want to tell you comes from that book.
            At one point in his life, Nerburn worked as a cab driver.  He often drove the night shift, and he said that his car often became a kind of rolling confessional, people, anonymous in the dark, simply told their life stories.  One warm August night, Nerburn responded to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town.  When he arrived to pick up his fair, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground-floor window.  He might have looked quickly and moved on as it was 2:30 in the morning, but Nerburn went to the door to find his passenger or passengers.  He knocked at the door and heard a frail and elderly woman’s voice.  “Just a minute.”  He also heard something being dragged across the floor.
            After a long pause, the door opened.  A small woman, somewhere in her eighties, stood before me.  She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like you might see in a costume shop or a Goodwill store or in a 1940s movie.  By her side was a small nylon suitcase.  The sound had been her dragging it across the floor.
            Nerburn notices that all the furniture was covered with sheets and that the walls were bare.  The woman asked Nerburn to carry her suitcase to the car and then return for her, which he did.  She took my arm, and we walked slowly toward the curb.  She kept thanking me for my kindness.  “It’s nothing,” I told her.  “I just want to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.”
            Getting into the cab, the woman handed Nerburn an address and then made a request.  “Could you drive through downtown?” “It’s not the shortest way,” I answered.  “Oh, I don’t mind.  I’m in no hurry.  I’m on my way to a hospice….  I don’t have any family left.  The doctor said I should go there.  He says I don’t have very long.”
            Kent Nerburn turned the meter off and drove.  For the next two hours we drove through the city.  She showed me where she had once worked as an elevator operator.  We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they had first been married.  She made me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.  Sometimes she would have me slow down in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring out into the darkness saying nothing.  As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired.  Let’s go now.”
            Nerburn drove his passenger to the address she had given him.  They were greeted by orderlies who helped the woman out of the car as Nerburn retrieved her suitcase.
            “How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.  “Nothing,” I said.  “You have to make a living,” she answered.  “There are other passengers,” I responded.  Almost without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug.  She held on to me tightly.  “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy.  Thank you.”  (Kent Nerburn, Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace)
            So I ask you, you being confirmed, and all of you here, including me, will we stay in touch with Jesus so that we can make Jesus more real?  Will we let our hearts be on fire with his Spirit?
            Will we make Jesus more real by being a community of love and forgiveness?
            Will we make Jesus more real by accompanying others along life’s road, by our patience and kindness, by giving little moments of joy?
            Will we make Jesus more real by continuing to learn and grow?
            Will we make Jesus more real in sharing small blessings with others?
            Thank you for being the kind of people and the kind of community of love and forgiveness for my family and me so long ago.  The ripples of your making Jesus more real at that time have helped carry me forward to this place where I am now a bishop of the church.
            The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit be with you.  Amen.

Please join me in prayer.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Buckets of Joy

Saginaw Bay District Day                                                                                        April 8, 2017
First United Methodist Church, Saginaw                                          

Texts: Nehemiah 8:9-12; Isaiah 12:2-6; Galatians 5:22-26

            It is a pleasure to be here with you today.  Thank you for the invitation.  I am very pleased to be here with your District Superintendent, Rev. David Kim.  Rev. Kim is a remarkable person in so many ways.  He has a deep faith, a delightful sense of humor, a strikingly smooth golf swing, and a remarkable singing voice.  Have you heard him sing?  I am wondering, though, if since his appointment as the Saginaw Bay D. S., if he has learned to sing the old Lefty Frizzell song, “Saginaw, Michigan.”
            You may know that I am from Minnesota, though my grandfather on my dad’s side was born in Bay City.  He moved to Duluth, Minnesota as a young child following the death of his mother.  Minnesota and Michigan share quite a lot.  Ojibwa people lived in both places.  The French were some of the first Europeans to find their way to both states.  Mining, logging and agriculture have been important.  Minnesota has never had a president.  Michigan had Gerald Ford, the closest Minnesota got was Vice-President Walter Mondale.  One other difference, and this does my heart good, is that Methodism is more prevalent here than in Minnesota.  Religious affiliation in Minnesota is heavily Roman Catholic and Lutheran.  Of course, Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, and the combination of Garrison Keillor and Lutherans has often been just plain fun.  What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Buddhist?  Someone who sits up all night worrying about nothing. (Pretty Good Joke Book, 5th p. 133)
            Keillor loves to tell a story to make us smile.  The young minister was asked by the funeral director to conduct a graveside service for a homeless man with no family or friends.  The cemetery was way back in the country, and the minister got lost.  Finally, he saw the backhoe in the field and the gravediggers standing by, but no hearse was in sight.  He hurried over to the grace and saw that the vault lid was already in place.  He opened up his Bible and began to preach.  He preached about God’s mercy and the parable of the Prodigal Son and the hope of the Resurrection, and then he bowed his head in prayer.  One of the workers said, “I ain’t never seen anything like this before… and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.” (122)
            Laughter is good for the soul, but there is so much in the world that is no laughing matter, so much that tears at our hearts and brings tears to our eyes.  Just this week we saw images of children dying as a result of a chemical weapons bombing in Syria.  We know that in our world too many go hungry, too many children go without clean water or adequate health care.  Wars and oppressive regimes mark too many places.  The world economy works fabulously for a few, adequately for many, but leaves too many with too little.  In the United States we continue to struggle with the legacies of slavery and our treatment of indigenous people.  Race still divides us.  The church itself is not immune from difficulty.  We struggle with race.  In The United Methodist Church, we are struggling with how we can stay together given important differences in theology and on the inclusion of LGBT persons.  Then there are all the personal disappointments in life that can take their toll – friends who turn away, relationships that go sour, awards not received, the unkind word.  Finally, we all confront the reality that our existence is a bodily existence, and these bodies bleed and get sick, and eventually give out.  We in the church walk with each other through the valley of the shadow of death.
            A few years ago, an essay written by a Polish philosopher was published, the title of which was “Is God Happy?” (Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy?)  Leszek Kolakowski concluded that God is not happy in an unchanging sense, because God must notice and care about “human suffering… all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other” (213).  He then turns his essay to human beings and says that we cannot be unchangingly happy either because even if we can experience “pleasure, moments of wonderment and great enchantment… love and joy” (213)… we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition” (214).
            There are deep sorrows in the world, and we cannot ignore that.  Even in the church, committed to God’s love and to sharing and living God’s love in Jesus Christ, we know how to hurt others.  Church disagreements can sometimes erupt into nasty fights.  And just this week a priest and his secretary were indicted for embezzling $450,000 from the church and related charities.  Aren’t you glad you got up to come here this morning?
            In the midst of all this, we have a faith that puts joy at its core.  “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  “With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation,” Isaiah says.  And when God’s Spirit is at work in our lives, what is one of the evidences?  Joy (Galatians 5:22-26) – in fact, joy comes right after love in the list.  The renowned religious scholar Huston Smith, who died December 30 and who grew up the son of Methodist missionaries in China, wrote in his book The Soul of Christianity: When Jesus was in danger, his disciples were alarmed; but otherwise it was impossible to be sad in Jesus’ company (78).  Smith goes on to say that one of the remarkably attractive qualities of the community of the early followers of Jesus was their joy.  Outsiders found this baffling.  These scattered Christians were not numerous.  They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed.  Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was unquestionable. (79)  The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life at the hands of the Nazis, once put it very simply.  “Discipleship is joy.”
            On the one hand, we have all the very real hurt and suffering in the world, and on the other hand, we have a faith that has joy at its core.  How do we make sense of that?
            I have begun to distinguish joy and happiness, though the terms can often be used interchangeably.  Perhaps happiness is something that depends upon circumstances.  There are moments when things are going well, and we experience happiness.  Perhaps in such times we can bracket off some of the hurt and pain of the wider world, and for some moments, that is o.k.  If we were “happy” in that sense all the time, people could legitimately ask if we really understand and care about the world in which we live.  The Polish philosopher in his essay on the happiness of God writes that “being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others” (212).  There is something very human about being able to feel pain, our own and the hurt and pain of others.  We cannot be “happy” all the time.
            Maybe joy is something a little different.  I have come to think of joy as the quality of a large heart, of an open heart.  Joy is a basic stance toward life more than an emotion of happiness.  A number of years ago, I read some words that have been of great help to me, that led me into some new dimensions in my journey of faith.  I am changing some of the words just a bit because the writer, Elizabeth Lesser, uses the word “happiness” in places when I think what she is describing is my understanding of joy.  The opposite of [joy] is a closed heart.  [Joy] is a heart so soft and expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness.  A [joyful] heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion.  An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality….  We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead we isolate ourselves even more from joy. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
            Joy is a large heart, an open heart – open to seeing the world in its amazing beauty and its horrific brutality, and staying open.  It is a compassionate heart, ready to embrace with kindness those who are hurting, ready to act courageously in the world to make the world more just and peaceful, ready to laugh with those who laugh, and weep with those who weep.  Joy relishes happy moments, and deepens them.  Joy is a trusting heart, trusting in the power of love to overcome.
            Such joy is not dependent upon happy circumstances.  Our joy as followers of Jesus Christ is rooted in God’s love, God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love.  That’s the heart of our gospel, our good news.  God’s love is always reaching out to us in Jesus Christ.  The grace of Jesus Christ is to be found around every corner.  This love is strong.  This love is deep.  This love’s purposes cannot finally be defeated.  In the words of Paul, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
            Because our lives are rooted and grounded in this love of God, our basic stance in life is one of joy, the joy of a large heart that is able at any one time to hold a range of emotions.  This is the joy of an open heart, a heart that does not live in fear of life, but is open to creativity, curiosity, adventure.  This is the joy of a compassionate heart, a heart that sees and feels the hurt and pain and destruction we find in the world and though sorrowful, responds energetically as best it can to bring hope and healing and new life.
            We are a people of joy.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.  With joy we draw water out of the wells of salvation.  The well of God’s love is deep, and we draw buckets of joy.  We are people in whom the Spirit of God is at work, and when the Spirit is at work, one of the fruits is joy.
            The first sermon I preached here in Michigan as your bishop was a sermon I preached three times at three welcome events.  Some of you may have attended one of them.  I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands.  In that sermon, I said that I hoped four watermarks would characterize our time together 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.  I said that I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together.  I quoted the poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”  I love that line, and I think the truth behind it is that we can be joyful as Christians because among the “facts” in our lives is the fact of God’s incredible, never-give-up-on-us-ever, no-not-ever love.
            So though the world is torn by hatred and war and violence in too many places, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to build justice and peace and reconciliation.
            Though too many children go to be hungry, or go unvaccinated, or are left on the streets to fend for themselves, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to act courageously and compassionately to heal a broken world.
            Though the human beings can be cruel toward one another, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to love.
            Though our evangelistic witness has been hampered by the way some who name Jesus live in ways that don’t very adequately embody the spirit of Jesus, be joyful though you have considered all the facts, and let the joy of the Lord be a strength to humbly and kindly share the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
            And when our hearts are joyfully open and large, we are also better able to see the wonder and beauty in the world, places where God’s grace shines through so amazingly – a sunrise or sunset over a great lake, the sounds of beautiful music, the colors in a work of art, the kindness of an embrace, the gentleness of human touch.

            God’s Spirit continue to work within each of us to enlarge and open our hearts in joy.  The joy of the Lord is our strength, and we’ve got buckets of it.  Amen.