Summer Story Time: The High Way and The King’s Way, Give Us a King

June 7, 2015

1 Samuel 8:4-20, Common English Bible
So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.”
It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord.
The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you.
No, they’ve rejected me as king over them.
They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods.
So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”
Then Samuel explained everything the Lord had said to the people who were asking for a king.
“This is how the king will rule over you,” Samuel said:
“He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot.
He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers.
He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants.
He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants.
He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work.
He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves!
When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the Lord won’t answer you.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel and said, “No! There must be a king over us so we can be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.”

Frederick Buechner says:
Samuel was a combination prophet, judge, and one-man band. When the old curmudgeon wasn’t out in the field trying to fight off the Philistine guerrillas, he was riding his circuit trying to keep the tribes of Israel honest, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was giving them hell for cheating on Yahweh every time a new fertility god showed up with a come-hither look in [its] eye. When he reached retirement age, he might have turned things over to his sons, but they were a bunch of crooks who sold justice to the highest bidder, and the Israelites said maybe he’d better get them a king instead. They’d never had one before, but they felt the time had come. Samuel threw a fit.

Scripture in the book of Lamentations tells us that nothing is new under the sun. Today’s scripture passage we along with Buechner’s description of Samuel—God’s prophet for God’s people—reminds us that things haven’t changed much have they?

We are not ruled by a king or queen and their court hierarchy so from our immediate history and experience of well over 230 years, we are more likely to wonder why in the world the Israelites would want a king after their enslavement with Pharaoh.

Let’s not too quickly jump to conclusions. Instead, let’s remember that we, too, have the heritage of being ruled by a king from the beginning of people landing on this continent as subjects of the King of England. Without the ships of England and eventually other countries, we would not exist as a nation today. People came to this continent for various reasons—religious freedom, business/trade enterprise that promised a fortune, adventure for the sake of adventure, prisoners who were released and given freedom in the colonies where they would no longer be rebellious against the King in England and a variety of other reasons brought people here.

Some of these people were entirely loyal to the King of England and saw no need for change. Most likely, as is usually the case, these were the people in control governmentally, politically, and religiously and were making money, buying property, accumulating stuff, eating well, and enjoying the way things were meant to be. A small voice in the back of our heads is whispering—Pharisees. These are the people who became the lords of the land and agents of the King. Then there was everyone else. Many of these people were not satisfied with having a king. They wanted change.

This should sound familiar. It’s our story today. We often feel that we are not in control and that our corrupt and immoral leadership burdens us with:
• too many taxes that are too high
• criminals running rampant
• education, food, fuel, housing and medical costs that continue to rise
• unemployment and underemployment that creates the necessity of two parents working or a single parent holding down two or three part-time jobs to survive
• injustices in our court system that often translates to those who can afford the best legal representation are the ones who receive justice
I suspect that these are the people of Israel who were demanding a king for the very same reasons that our ancestors were demanding freedom from the rule of a King.

Corruption was present even within the very system of judges and government that they had. Samuel did not offer any defense of his sons. He knew the sad truth of who they were and how they had lived. Maybe, just maybe we can stand in the shoes and life experiences of those who came to Samuel demanding a king and see some of the reasons they believed having a king would bring about the changes that they knew needed to happen. Samuel would soon die, and then who would be in charge? Are we not repeating the same actions every presidential election when we want to believe that the candidate we vote for will set things right in this country and fix all our problems? Or when we vote for certain congressional candidates who we believe will work to also set things right in this country and fix all our problems.

Hear again what Samuel heard from God:
The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you.
No, they’ve rejected me as king over them.
They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods.
So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”

It’s not about Samuel’s lack of leadership. It’s not about his sons immorality and lack of leadership. God’s people have rejected God as their king, their lord the one they claimed to love with all their heart, all their might and all of their soul and to teach this same love of God to their children along with loving the alien, the stranger among them. This is the story of our lives even today. This is nothing new under the sun.

While Larry and I were on vacation, we visited England, Ireland, Scotland and France. Scotland was my favorite of all the places we saw although they were all beautiful places. I liked the Scottish highlands—the mountains and coastline. Castles and palaces everywhere with some being mostly ruins and ancient relics of former great estates and some still active estates and homes such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Palace in England and Cardor Castle in Scotland where families live today. Urquhart Castle ruins in Scotland, Dunluce Castle and Blarney Castle ruins in Ireland. All of these castles and palaces reminded me of the rule of kings and queens and all the history of the ways and the wealth of kings and queens who ruled their people with absolute power over the people.

Throughout history people have given their lives and their loyalty to men and women in exchange for leadership, protection and security. People continue to do this today whether giving their lives and their loyalty to elected government leaders or to actual kings and queens in still some places in this world. These elected government leaders and kings and queens continue to disappoint us in their lack of leadership and their immorality. We continue to be dismayed and surprised when this happens. We continue to be disappointed at the results we get from our leaders—the results that God told Samuel we would receive when we rejected God as our King.

Our summer sermon series, Summer Story Time: The High Way and The King’s Way begins today with God’s people demanding a human king to solve their problems. God’s people wanted to be like everyone else—all those other people around them who had kings and queens and life looked so ordered, peaceful and secure compared to what they were experiencing. We think we have better solutions to our problems than God can provide. God loves us enough to hear our demands, give us what we ask for, and then let us learn from the consequences of getting exactly what we asked God to give us. All along, God simply desires that we give our lives and our loyalty to God just as Jesus did when he died on the cross. This is the High Way—God as our King and Lord of our life. The people chose the human King’s Way, and our summer sermon series will take us through the results God giving the people, us, what we asked to receive.

When was a time you wanted what “everyone else” had, received it, and lived to regret it? God knows this story of our lives and God knows it’s nothing new under the sun. Let us continue to learn together what it means to travel the High Way with God as our King.

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Mother’s Day, Being Born From God, May 10, 2015

1John 5:1-9, Common English Bible

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.

In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.

Who is it that overcomes the world?

Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ.

He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.

For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.

The word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.

 

            When we say we love God, Jesus’ father, then we also say we love Jesus who is God’s child. When we say we believe in Jesus, because of the love between God and his son, we become Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Then we cannot only love God and Jesus, we are commanded because of our love of the parent’s and the child’s love for us to love all of God’s children—all of them.

            In this kind of love relationship there is no, “Mom love’s you more.” There really are no favorites with God. God is always and forever reaching out in love to us. As believers in Christ, we are challenged to know and take action realizing that:

·      Every injustice done to a child of God—anyone created by God—is a reminder of the injustice done to Jesus

·      Every violent act committed against one of God’s children is a reminder of the violence committed against Jesus

Jesus told his disciples:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me.

            Jesus was born of a woman—none of us are motherless when it comes to our human birth. Jesus experienced having a mother. We can only imagine the ways Mary loved and cared for her son—her son who was the Messiah. Being a mother is a huge responsibility. Many women have become mothers without physically birthing a child. Many women have been mothers to other people when their own birth mothers were not able to fulfill the role. I believe that Jesus, because God is his father and our father, often loved and cared for people as a mother cares for her children. I believe that’s because God also loves us as we see mothers loving their own children. It requires love empowered by the Holy Spirit to love others who are not blood of our blood and bone of our bone.

            Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word “kosmos” is used. It usually refers to an interconnected network of Powers—political, economic, cultural, ideological—that have nothing to do with loving people because they are created by God. These powers set themselves up to become our idols and to dominate our lives. Walter Wink refers to this system as the Domination System that consists of:

·      inequality

·      patriarchy

·      economic injustice

·      hierarchism and

·      racism

with the system being maintained by violence. In small and big ways we all participate in the Domination System and even believe, though Jesus railed against it, that it is the way things are—reality. We even find ourselves defending the Domination System because we are convinced by the Powers—the kosmos—that any alternatives are worse.

            It’s like trying to imagine cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, spaceships, and ships that are fueled by something other than oil. Yes, we have electric cars today and hydrogen powered cars are being developed, and it’s hard for us to conceive of all forms of transportation and power being fueled by anything other than fossil fuel or oil. Just like it’s hard for us to imagine solar power or wind power taking the place of electricity fueled by coal or nuclear power by fission no fusion that requires radioactive elements. We are convinced that the devil we know is better than the devil we might get if things change. Why? Because we are Pharisees—we are part of the Domination System.

            We have come to believe, just as the Pharisees believed, that not participating in “the way things are” will result in chaos and terrorism.

            Jesus exposed the Domination System and offered us the love that Mary had for him and that God had for him. Jesus offered us God’s love—freedom and liberation from the Domination System. Walter Wink says, Jesus’ love is to be loved “not despite our sins or because of our achievements, but simply because we are intrinsically of immeasurable value to God.” This completely undermines the Domination System’s power to convince us that our value is based on what we can earn or based on what we can contribute and that we are never going to be good enough.

            Our belief in Jesus and our faith in what Jesus has done for us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection is our recognition that the Domination System is nothing but a lie. We are now able to recognize the truth that God loves us completely and unconditionally.            

            This is the same kind of love that empowered Mary to become pregnant with Jesus and carry him in her body for nine months. This is the kind of love that meets the every need of a newborn baby—feeding, diapering, sleepless nights. Unconditional love that makes babies thrive. Unconditional love that God uses to make us more like Jesus each day so that we can love as Jesus loved.

            In John’s gospel Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times he asked Peter and three times Peter said yes, and each time Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep.” Feed my sheep is God’s unconditional love—the love of a mother that provides the basic life necessities for a newborn baby—food, clothing, a place to live, protection and security. Again, this is easier to do for blood of our blood or bone of our bone or making a commitment to do this when adopting or fostering children.

            To truly break the Domination System we must feed all the sheep—even the ones who are most vexing—the most challenging ones. The ones who never seem to get it together. The ones who keep being in need and keep needing to be fed.

            We do this with dignity, too. Just as a mother loves with dignity—a love that creates a state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed in her children. This is the unconditional love of God.

            Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist minister serving as Minister of Discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon often writes for the blog, Hacking Christianity. Here’s a story from a posting of his from this past Thursday:

            About five years ago, I was traveling with a wise elder minister [meaning an ordained elder—not indicating age]. We drove through a town and saw two different churches side by side.  The United Methodist church ran a clothing store where clothing was sold for 25 cents, jeans for $1, shoes for $2, etc. The other church advertised free clothes, jeans, and shoes.  Neither was open at that time in the evening so I had no idea of which was busier.

My travel companion and I had the following conversation:

Jeremy: Well, I hope the Methodists don’t get put outta business.

Elder (craning her neck to see the churches): I would hope so, because that means that everyone is clothed and taken care of.

Jeremy: I meant that the other church is giving clothes away while the UM church is selling their clothes. Seems like an easy choice.

Elder (twinkle in her eye): You think the UM church is selling clothes? They aren’t. Anytime you can buy something and feel a bit more like the rest of the world, you are getting dignity in the deal. So they aren’t selling clothes. They’re selling dignity.

Whether it is a thrift store for clothes, vouchers sold for the homeless shelter, a meal for a few cents, or putting 18 cents in an offering plate, by allowing people experiencing poverty to participate in the very system that excludes them gives them a little dignity. Giving dignity clears out that stain of unworthiness [The Domination System’s lies] a bit at a time. What a great gift and ministry!

            Recall that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, read the book of 1John, five chapters, daily as his morning devotion. Recall that 1John is a commentary, an explanation of John’s gospel—a way to help us better understand and hear the message of John’s gospel.

            Reading 1John daily is a way for us to become more like Jesus by not only remembering that our belief in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection provides us with salvation and eternal life—reading 1John daily also reminds us of Jesus’ last command to his disciples—love as I have loved. To accomplish loving people, as Jesus loved requires the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Dignity—honoring and esteeming each person created by God—is what unconditional love looks like. When we love others as Jesus loved, then we are feeding his sheep—all people who are created by God.

           My challenge for us is that we commit to reading 1John for the remaining 21 days in this month. What time of day you choose to read 1John is your choice, and reading the entire five chapters or listening to them over the Internet daily is the goal. Before you begin to read, pray first for each of us in this congregation to love people as Jesus loved, and pray for each of us to be open and ready to show the love of Jesus each day to those all around us are in need of Jesus love—in need of knowing that the Domination System is a lie and that God’s unconditional love, dignity and freedom from the ways things are is the reality of the life God gives us.

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Sermon, May 3, There is No Fear in Love

1 John 4:7-21, Common English Bible

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.

The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him.

This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.

Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other.

No one has ever seen God.

If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.

This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit.

We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world.

If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God.

We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.

This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment.

The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.

We love because God first loved us.

If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.

This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

 

            Parker Palmer writes this story:

            For 11 years, I lived and worked in a Quaker living-learning community of 70 people called Pendle Hill, where our lives were so closely entwined that people could easily draw close to each other — and just as easily become alienated. But “alienated” is a mild word to describe my feelings toward one woman there. I thought of her as the Devil’s Spawn, dispatched directly from the Hellfires of Hades to destroy all that is green and good about life on Earth.

At Pendle Hill, residents gather every morning in a Quaker meeting for worship, 45 minutes of communal silence broken only occasionally by words spoken from the heart. One morning, I arrived late, and the only seat available was — yes — on a bench next to her. I came close to leaving. But somehow I managed to sit down, close my eyes, let my inner turmoil settle, and slowly forget that next to me was an agent from the Dark Side.

Half an hour later, head still bowed, I opened my eyes and found myself looking directly at this woman’s upturned hand as it rested on her knee. There, spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight, I saw the faint but steady throb of an artery in her wrist, the elemental beat of her very human heart. In that silent, sunlit moment I knew beyond words that here was a person just like me, with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and disappointments, joys and despairs.

            Palmer’s story brings to life this statement from our scripture passage:

If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.

When we, like Palmer, recognize that even people we choose to demonize or dislike because of our own very good reasons are human and created by God, we, as Christians, cannot hold on to this way of thinking about other people.

            We love others because God first loved us and, as we love others, God’s love is perfected in us. Remember that our 20th and 21st century definition of perfect or even perfected causes us to think that being perfect or perfected means that we are pure, blameless, without fault—everything in place, everything in order and nothing incorrect or left undone—this is our definition of perfect. Being perfect or being perfected in scripture is about the Holy Spirit working within us to shape and mold us into the complete and whole person God created us to be. It’s a lifelong process—a daily process.

1 John tells us:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment.

The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.

We love because God first loved us.

            I am convinced that fear is the force that drives us to exclude, judge, and separate ourselves from others who are not like us. Fear is what causes us to believe that all Muslims are radical terrorists who want to take over the world. Fear is what causes us to believe that all African Americans are going to resort to violence, looting and destruction of property as the news has reported this past week from Baltimore.

            I am also convinced that fear is the force that drives people to become radical terrorists or to resort to violent behavior, regardless of their faith tradition. Through coaching, teaching and mentoring by their leaders, people become fearful that others have more than they have and that they will never be able to have what others have. Fear is used by leaders of all types to fuel the flames of hatred along with fueling the flames of convincing people that they are not good enough and that they don’t have what they deserve in life. Fear is used to portray our military opponents as evil and immoral. It works well.

            1 John clearly tells us that this fearful way of living is not the life style of Christians. Because God first loved us, we live confidently. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we dare not ever live fearfully. We are confident because we are no longer concerned about God’s judgment against us. Jesus lived, died on a cross, and rose to full life again so that we as believers that Jesus is God’s son know we belong to God and that God is with us now and forever no matter what happens in our lives. This is perfect love—what Jesus did for us.

            When we declare that we are going to follow Jesus, then we are filled with God’s perfect love. This is what the Holy Spirit does inside of us. We cannot force fear out of our minds no matter how hard we try. We cannot do it.

            God’s Spirit, Jesus abiding in us, and the Holy Spirit breathed into us by God, can do this. Our confidence of what God has accomplished through Jesus is what gives us the ability to love others as God loves us. This means that we cannot be fearful of people who are not like us. This means that we are called to love people who are not like us.

            Clarification here. This kind of love is the love that recognizes each person as created by God. I’m not talking about the giddy, romantic or even erotic love that we most often think about when we hear the word love. I’m talking about the kind of love that causes us to value, care for, love each person we meet simply because God created them. This kind of love doesn’t consider whether someone is worth loving or not. This kind of love, love generated within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, is love that reaches out to people who need to know the perfect love of God.   

            Chapter eight of Acts gives us the story of Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples who continued to spread the gospel—the Good News of the salvation of Christ after Christ’s resurrection and ascension:

            Philip was instructed by an angel to go to the road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza. He meets an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he had been to worship, presumably in the Temple [now this would be a problem because eunuchs were not allowed to worship in the Temple and the people who first head this story would know that fact—the fact that this man was a eunuch—his sexual identity—that he had been castrated is what excludes him from the Temple].

            This Ethiopian was reading from the book of Isaiah—one of the suffering servant passages from what we know as Isaiah 53—and he realizes that he needs help to understand the passage [now this part of the story should also cause us to stop and think that something is amiss here—strange, odd—because most people and especially an Ethiopian eunuch would not have possession of a scroll or even the education level to read it—which is a big clue to us to stop and think about the purpose behind this story]. I can relate to this eunuch—I need help in understanding scripture, too. Philip, like Peter, Paul and most likely all of the first disciples, heard these words from Isaiah and immediately thought of Jesus—this sounded just like the Jesus he knew and loved so well. So Philip takes this opportunity to tell the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus. The eunuch instantly accepts what Philip tells him about Jesus and says he, too, wants to be a disciple of Jesus. He recognized that the Jews will not welcome him into worshiping and serving God, but Philip recognized him as one created by God. Philip doesn’t delay. Philip, through the power of the Holy Spirit empowering him to love as God first loved him, baptizes the eunuch at a nearby body of water. They go their separate ways—rather mysteriously as Philip just disappears from sight—and the Ethiopian eunuch goes on to live as a disciple of Christ. We are left to consider what all of this means to us today.

We are one in the Spirit

We are one in the Lord

We are one in the Spirit

We are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity may one day be restored

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love

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            Let us end in prayer as we prepare to experience the power of perfect low at Christ’s table.

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Sermon, April 26, 2015, Love With Action and Truth

1 John 3:16-24, Common English Bible

This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?

Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.

This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.

Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things.

Dear friends, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence in relationship to God.

We receive whatever we ask from him because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.

This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us.

The person who keeps his commandments remains in God and God remains in him; and this is how we know that he remains in us, because of the Spirit that he has given to us.

            How often have you read 1 John? It’s a short five chapters. Did you know that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is considered “The Theologian” of 1 John? It’s said that he started each day reading through 1 John along with having Holy Communion. This book of the Bible is said to be a commentary on the gospel of John so that two messages are intentionally highlighted:

·      Believe in the name Jesus Christ.

·      Love one another as Christ loved us.

Now, not that this ever happens, I’ve only heard people talk about it, and if we ever become lazy and comfortable in our Christian life, then 1 John is where we need to turn to revitalize our commitment as believers and followers of Jesus the Christ. Think about that for a moment. Reading five short chapters, 1 John, can help us revitalize our commitment as believers and followers of Jesus.

            One of the great challenges of raising children, teaching children, coaching or mentoring children from birth to adulthood is coming to the realization that our actions are more powerful than our words. This is the message of 1 John, too.

            We can talk the talk of Christianity. We can study the Bible. We can memorize scripture verses. We can be in the church building every Sunday going through the motions of worship with the people we know and customs and traditions that make us comfortable. We can allow ourselves to focus on the right and wrong ways to live by becoming the guardians of the faith—meaning that we focus on deciding who’s Christian and who’s not Christian according to our limited interpretation and understanding of the words of scripture.

            1 John will not allow us to be lazy and comfortable because within these five chapters of the Bible you cannot hide from the demand that a Christian life is a life lived loving our brothers and sisters with action and trust. We must, as Christians, walk our talk.

            One of the reasons Christians, often have a bad reputation is because we too often are the example of “do as I say and not as I do.” We fail to do what the gospel of John is about and we fail to live as Jesus commanded. We come to believe that we are not capable of ever being the light of God because we will never be good enough or holy enough—inside our deepest thoughts and inside our heart, our soul—we really do believe that we must earn our way or work our way to be acceptable to God. We settle for a life of anxiety, fear and guilt because we fully and correctly realize that we are incapable of earning the warmth and spiritual health of God’s light. We give up and settle for living in darkness instead of living in God’s light because we recognize that we cannot, on our own, be holy as God is holy.

            In her non-fiction book of memoirs, Out of Africa, published in 1937, Karen Blixen, revealed her almost mystical love of her years in Kenya, of Africa and its people. The book is a poetic recollection of her triumphs and her sorrows on the loss of her coffee farm, the death of her companion, the English hunter Denys Finch Hatton, and the disappearance of the simple African way of life she admired—that was when most of Africa was under British rule as colonies of Great Britain, including Kenya. Here is one of her brief stories from that book:

            It is an alarming experience to be, in your person, representing Christianity to the Natives.

            There was a young Kikuyu [keykooyou] by the name of Kitau, who came from the Kikuyu Reserve and took service with me. He was a meditative boy, an observant, attentive servant and I liked him well. After three months he one day asked me to give a letter of recommendation to my old friend Sheik Ali Bin Salim, the Lewali [governor] of the Coast, at Mombasa, for he had seen him in my house and now, he said, he wished to go and work for him. I did not want Kitau to leave just when he had learned the routine of the house, and I said to him that I would rather raise his pay, but he could not stay. He told me that he made up his mind, up in the Reserve, that he would become either a Christian or a Mohammedan [Muslim], only he did not yet know which. For this reason he had come and worked for me, since I was a Christian, and he had stayed for three months in my house to see the testurde,—the ways and habits,—of the Christians. From me he would go for three months to Sheik Ali in Mombasa and study the terstude of the Mohammedans; then he would decide. I believe that even an Archbishop, when he had had these facts laid before him, would have said, or at least thought, as I said: “Good God, Kitau, you might have told me that when you came here.”

            It is true that people are paying attention to, watching our actions, and our actions are to be kind and loving toward people as we live our lives without fear because we are confident in our unearned salvation through Christ. Often being kind and loving toward others requires self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is a way of laying down our lives for others. To lay down our life is to open our heart to the needs of others that are visible to us.

            We can hear the words from today’s scripture passage from 1 John and quickly admit that giving up our life for someone else is not something that most of us will ever come close to considering. However, using our material possessions, our own resources, money, wealth and time are all things that we are called to give up to help those in need. For most of us giving our money, our possessions that we tend to cling to and our time will require self-sacrifice.

            I always have to remind myself that I am an extremely wealthy person, and everyone here today is extremely wealthy. As Americans, we compare our wealth to the millionaires and believe that we are not wealthy. In comparison to the rest of the world, we are extremely wealthy.

·      we have access to clean water and just about every kind of food available in our local grocery stores.

·      we are well educated through our public and private schools through the age of 18 because our tax dollars support our public schools and many of us have the ability to pay money to send our children to private schools.

·      we choose the ways we will spend our time, and we have plenty of leisure time when we choose to use it.

·      we have a roof over our head and cars to drive that can get us anywhere we want to go.

·      we have access to some of the most excellent health care on the planet, and it is fairly easy for us to get to a doctor or health care facility when we need one.

No, we may not live like the “rich and famous,” as the advertising media so frequently shows us this life style, and I think that’s really why we fail to recognize just how extremely wealthy we are because we’ve been conditioned and taught to compare ourselves to the Bill Gates, Warren Buffets, Martha Stewarts, Oprah Winfreys and Donald Trumps of our world. They are the extremely rich ones, and we are nowhere near them in our wealth so we must not be the wealthy ones. BUT we are extremely wealthy.

            Our actions can make a difference because we are extremely wealthy—we are Christians and we have the resources we need. Jesus lived life this way knowing that loving people, listening to people, really seeing people and their life struggles and then acting to do something about their need was the purpose of his life. Because Jesus did give up his life for us, we, as his followers, are called to the same actions.

            People are watching to see if we walk our talk when we say we are Christians. People who are not participating in a faith community are especially watching to see if we act like a Christian when they discover that we claim to be Christians.

            Yes, as a faith community we give money and donations of food and clothing and other items to Rainbow Ministries as they work to provide needs for the homeless, and we support Family Promise by providing and serving a meal to the homeless families when they are living one week at Allen Memorial UMC. There is something else we can help do.

            Action Ministries, a agency of the North Georgia Conference UMC that serves the homeless and those in needs of food and housing, now has an office located in Covington that will serve people in Newton, Rockdale and Butts counties. This is the agency that provides the food boxes we purchase to give away each November. Their “Smart Lunch, Smart KidProgram” is beginning this summer in Newton County.

            More than 1,000,000 children in Georgia schools receive free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. Many of these children are students at East Newton Elementary School. When school is out for the summer, beginning next month, a crucial meal disappears for these children. The goal of Smart Lunch, Smart Kid summer lunch program is to give a community the tools necessary to begin a volunteer lunch feeding program for these children.

            It is my hope and prayer that as this program begins this summer in Covington that we might be able to join with other churches around us to help pack and serve up to 400 lunches per day at least one day a week for the ten weeks of summer. 

            1 John is all about each one of us becoming more like Jesus. It is all about us being like Jesus, the light of the world. Hear these words from the gospel of John from The Message by Eugene Peterson:

The Life-Light was the real thing:

Every person entering Life

he brings into Light.

He was in the world,

the world was there through him,

and yet the world didn’t even notice.

He came to his own people,

but they didn’t want him.

But whoever did want him,

who believed he was who he claimed

and would do what he said,

He made to be their true selves,

their child-of-God selves.

These are the God-begotten,

not blood-begotten,

not flesh-begotten,

not sex-begotten.

The Word became flesh and blood,

and moved into the neighborhood.

We saw the glory with our own eyes,

the one-of-a-kind glory,

like Father, like Son,

Generous inside and out,

true from start to finish.

When we recognize that we are extremely wealthy people then we also recognize that we have seen the glory of Christ and because of his willing death on a cross and his resurrection we are God’s children. As God’s children we are called to “lay down our lives”—give sacrificially—open our hearts to the needs that are visible so that those in need are fed, clothed, educated, and can come to know the good news of Jesus. We are to love fearlessly and generously with our actions because we believe and trust what Jesus accomplished in his life and ministry. Let us leave here today knowing that our talk is not nearly as important as our walk—our actions that are to be the actions of Jesus. Let it be so dear Lord, let it be so.

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Don’t Be Alarmed–Easter 2015

Easter Sunday

Don’t Be Alarmed

April 5, 2015

Mark 16:1-8, Common English Bible

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.

They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?”

When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)

Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled.

But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.

He has been raised.

He isn’t here.

Look, here’s the place where they laid him.

Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee.

You will see him there, just as he told you.”

Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of more than thirty published books, tells us:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. 

You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. 

You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights.

It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. 

It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. 

Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose…

If it is true, there is nothing left to say. 

If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. 

For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. 

For some, neither has death. 

What is left now is the emptiness. 

There are those who, like Magdalene, will never stop searching it till they find his face.

Mark’s gospel ends differently than all of the gospels. It is the only gospel that leaves us with an alarmed, frightened trio of women:

Mary Magdalene, James’ mother, Mary, and Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the brothers James and John.

Mary Magdalene, James’ mother, Mary, and Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the brothers James and John.

They arrive at Jesus’ tomb, go inside, and see a young man who tells them that Jesus has been raised. Go and tell the disciples, especially Peter. They don’t see Jesus. They don’t talk to Jesus.

Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

They were alarmed!

And like all alarmed, scared and frightened people—they fled—they ran! Mark’s gospel leaves us with what seems like a very imperfect and unsatisfying ending. Additional words have been added to Mark’s gospel to give it a more perfect and satisfying ending. Most Biblical scholars stand firm that the ending of Mark that we heard today is the true and perfect ending.

Forty years ago three men decided to write something perfect.

The Nashville country music industry of the era blatantly refused to acknowledge the writers’ and artist’s fringe style. Their response to Nashville was not to sell out; their song name-drops Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard and also makes reference to Faron Young’s “Hello Walls” in the background vocals, noting that “you” (meaning Nashville industry executives) “don’t have to call me” any of those names anymore. In the third verse, the singer notes “the only time I know I’ll hear David Allan Coe is when Jesus has his final Judgment Day,” noting that he never expected the Nashville music industry to recognize him by his individual merits.

In the song’s iconic closing verse, Coe explains that “a friend of mine named Steve Goodman” wrote the song and considered it “the perfect country and western song”. Coe, upon receiving the song, explained to Goodman that he was wrong; there was no way a song could be “the perfect country and western song” without mentioning a laundry list of clichés: “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk.” Goodman then proceeded to add the final verse, incorporating all five of Coe’s facetious “requirements,” whereupon Coe agreed that now it was “the perfect country-and-western song” and felt obliged to add it to the end of the record:

I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison

And I went to pick’er up in the rain

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck

She got runned over by a damned ol’ train.*

[*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Never_Even_Called_Me_by_My_Name, text/content from this web page]

These three men, Goodman, Prine and Coe can help us see the reason that Mark’s gospel ending is the perfect ending to the gospel—the Good News of Jesus. These men realized that their well being, their future, their merit was not dependent upon an established music industry that had created its own rules and status quo of who was in and who was out. These men realized that they were on their own with their own God given talents to write sing their way of country/western music with messages that they believed would be accepted and heard from them. I’m certain they were, at first alarmed and afraid to be cut off and rejected from what had seemed like the path to success.

Mark’s gospel ends with much of the same feelings and recognition for Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome. They expected to find Jesus’ dead body in the tomb. Instead an empty tomb greeted them with a young man in a white robe who tells them that Jesus has been raised. He’s not here. They are alarmed and run in fear from the empty tomb.

We are left to imagine what they said when they got to the rest of the disciples and Peter to tell them why they were alarmed—scared. Perhaps Mark did write the perfect ending that ensures that the Good News will be shared forever.

These three women, like the three men who wrote and performed the perfect country music song, had reason to be alarmed. Jesus, the one who was supposed to be their salvation, had died and with resolution and broken hearts they came to do the acceptable burial preparations and acknowledge a bad ending to what could have been a perfect ending.

The perfect ending is left in their hands to go and tell the Good News that Jesus is raised from the dead. The perfect ending is that the established ways of life and death that they knew have now all changed because the tomb is empty.

Like these women and these three men, it is up to us, too, to use our God given talents and the gift of the salvation of Christ—the empty tomb—to go out from here today and to daily share the perfect ending of the gospel of Mark—to live on the fringe. We can’t sell out to the way things are in the world because we know what we know about the risen Christ. With our own stories of the ways God has blessed us and loved us, we are sent out to share the Good News of the empty tomb. The perfect gospel ending also depends on us not being alarmed but being inspired and driven by Holy God to go and share the Good News that Jesus has been raised from the dead—God’s perfect ending forever.

 

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Let’s Not Forget the Middle Way

As I continue to read articles, books and pray about the part of the body of Christ known as the United Methodist Church, I continue to believe that it is the ways we interpret and understand scripture that drive us apart instead of being able to hold ourselves together.  Do no harm continues to resonate.  Today I offer my most recent experience in Kenya as a reminder that we are people of the Middle Way–holding together through ongoing kind and loving conversation a variety of viewpoints as we strive to have the faith that Jesus the Christ had in God, and as we strive to love each other as Christ loved.

While training United Methodist pastors in Kenya in February 2013 (I also did the same with a separate group in September 2012) to be licensed local pastors during a question and response time, I was asked this question, “What does the Book of Discipline say about which wife you serve Holy Communion to?  Only the first wife or all the wives who are present?”  Paint me stunned and wide eyed with disbelief inside as on the outside I maintained a passive and quiet demeanor.

My response: “The Book of Discipline we use in the U.S. does not address this issue. Polygamy is illegal is the U.S.”  By the way, the only Book of Discipline that the Kenya United Methodist Church loosely uses is the 1988 Book of Discipline from Portugal that has been translated into Swahili so I was told by one of the District Superintendents in the training.  In the UMC Kenya a tent canopy with plastic chairs is a church or a POD storage unit where furniture, maybe an altar table and a few paraments are stored is a church where the worship service happens outside and around the open POD unit.  All of the structure and polity of the institution of the church with committees, buildings/facilities, and a permanent place of worship and all that comes with is not the “normal” of the UMC of Kenya.

Back to my response to the question…

Disbelief was registering on participant’s faces.  They know their scripture.  For them, the Bible is memorized, Genesis to Revelation, in their head and heart.  A literal interpretation of the Bible is all the majority of these pastors know with an eighth grade level education. Seminary is a luxury and extremely costly.  They know that polygamy is practiced in the Bible, and several of the pastors have multiple wives.  

These Kenya pastors cannot believe or understand that UMC pastors in the U.S. would be accepting of homosexuality.  Their literal interpretation of the Bible tells them that is wrong.  By the way, female pastors were present, accepted and respected as UMC Kenya pastors without hesitation. Paint them stunned and wide eyed with disbelief inside as on the outside some of them worked to maintain a passive and quiet demeanor as I do my best to explain to them that not all UMC pastors in the U.S. are of the same mind on this complex issue while reminding them that homosexuality is not illegal in the U.S. although polygamy is illegal.

My response to the Holy Communion question was that I would serve all the wives Holy Communion in what ever order they cam to receive Holy Communion.  I learned that, of course, there’s a “pecking order” or hierarchy among the wives.  Some of the pastors agreed with my response–Holy Communion in the UMC is open to all people who come to Christ’s table as we have an open table–and some of the pastors did not agree.  We still were connected and respectful of each other as I did not tell them they were WRONG or misinterpreting scripture.  I sought to understand their culture, their experiences and their way of life and to hold us together by doing know harm while teaching and responding to their questions.

Many of us who are divided over the issue of sexual identity due to our understanding and interpretation of scripture would likely be just as divided over the issue of polygamy were it an ongoing discussion and legal in the U.S.

Today, I thought I would just share this for discernment and thought especially for my connectional clergy who are calling for schism.

Come Holy Spirit come and fill the hearts of your faithful.

Here’s a photo of the POD church, UMC Kekopey, that I mentioned:

Image

 

 

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A Way Forward for the UMC: A Response to “A Time to Split?” by Amy Frykholm in “The Christian Century”

Amy Frykholm’s article, A Time to Split? in the April 16 edition of the Christian Century (to read the entire article you must subscribe to The Christian Century, which I do) caused me to continue to think critically about the crux or the kernel of what makes the issue of sexual identity cause us to consider schism/splitting.  I, too, once wrote and I thought schism/splitting was the only solution.  My mind has changed back to my original point of view that I have held far longer: there is no need to split over this issue of sexual identity.

After much discernment, critical thinking and using a process I learned from, National issues Forums, I believe I have named and framed the crux or the kernel that is driving this issue that provides a way forward for us to continue to live under the same roof, in the same UMC or under the same umbrella.  Naming and framing this current divisive issue in this way, I believe, provides us with a way forward in continuing to grapple and struggle with our differences and remain the UMC without schism/splitting.  As I do not believe that schism/splitting will bring resolution.  In using this process of naming and framing the issue, I have focused on the common ground that I share with the Good News/Confessing Movement and with the Reconciling Ministries Network. That common ground is scripture is primary, and it is the interpretation and understanding of scripture that is the issue.

As Ted Campbell wrote, schism/splitting will be a cruel, harmful and expensive ordeal.  Here’s a quote from Ted Campbell that helped me to finally name and frame what I believe is the real issue before us:

My colleague the Rev. Rob Renfroe, who serves as president of the Good News movement within the United Methodist Church, points out that conservative leaders in the UMC didn’t raise issues about homosexuality until liberal church leaders raised these issues. He’s literally correct about that. In April 1972 proposed language for the Social Principles statement in the Discipline only included an affirmation of the “sacred worth” of gay and lesbian persons, their need for the ministries of the church, and the need to protect their rights in civil society. That statement, however, provoked a motion from the floor of the General Conference that added the clause, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (1972 Discipline, p. 86). That set a trajectory for a 40-year culture battle over this language, including subsequent restrictions on the ordination or appointment of “self-avowed and practicing” homosexual persons.

“40-year culture battle over this language, [emphasis added] including subsequent restrictions on the ordination or appointment of ‘self-avowed and practicing’ homosexual persons”–with “this language” being the crux and kernel of it all.

It is the interpretation and understanding of scripture/the use of language in interpreting and understanding scripture that is the heart of this issue of sexual identity, along with what was driving the issue of owning slaves in our country and ordaining women as clergy.

At the heart of each of these issues is language–the interpretation from the original scripture source languages.  Adding in the culture and context that must go along with any language in order to truly use and understand it in addition to the variety of teaching and preaching from various faith traditions on all of these issues can only provide a plurality of positions.  I have UMC male clergy colleagues of all ages whom, if they voiced their honest beliefs and opinions, would today clearly and firmly state that women should not be ordained as clergy.  They base their honest belief and opinion on their own interpretation and understanding of scripture.  Many Christians hold the same beliefs about female clergy based on what clergy have taught them along with their own interpretation and understanding of scripture.  The exact statements could be made about the issue of slavery and the ways the interpretation and understanding of scripture were applied to that issue.

Here is my suggestion of the way forward to avoid schism/splitting which will solve nothing and create only hurt, turmoil and will not bring any real resolution.  The issue of sexual identity just like the issue of slavery and the issue of ordaining women as clergy can be framed or discussed around these three choices or tenets.  It is already the way we live as the UMC, and we have named it the Wesley quadrilateral:

1. Scripture is best interpreted and understood as inerrant/literal.

2. Scripture is best interpreted and understood as the Word of God as we experience and live it.

3. Scripture is best interpreted and understood through considering the source language and context/culture of the time it was written.

When we honor and recognize that these three choices or tenets have always and most likely will always exist among Christians, then we can also accept that often we find ourselves moving among these choices/tenets and not always able to only believe firmly only one of these choices/tenets. This is behind why many Christians claim the ten commandments from the Old Testament and disown most of the rest of it as antiquated or even believe that the Old Testament is about an angry God and not the God of the New Testament.  Can we seek common ground on the issue of the interpretation and understanding of scripture fully realizing that mostly likely, regardless of why we personally believe as we do, that we only harm each other and do not love each other as Christ loved when we want to forcibly impose our own interpretation and understanding of scripture on each other?  After all, the church inquisitions were rooted in the same misled way of addressing church issues and being dogmatic.

Relationships, fear, tradition, the unknown, cultural perception–what will people say or think about us–Christian history, church institutional power, our relentless desire to use our own interpretation and understanding of scripture as our own moral line drawn in the sand–trials of clergy who officiate at same sex weddings–and our rebellion and sin against God, because of our selfish desires, inform where we stand on each of these choices/tenets about scripture.

  • Scripture
  • Experience
  • Reason
  • Tradition

As Methodists we say scripture is primary, and it is our own interpretation and understanding that we believe because of our own life experiences, our experiences in faith communities, and for most Methodists that experience often includes multiple faith denominations along with non-denominational, our reasoning and the reasoning of clergy and laity who have taught us about interpreting and understanding scripture, and the historical catholic Christian tradition that we all claim–the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

The UM Book of Discipline is not written in stone, and it was altered to reflect scriptural interpretation and understanding regarding slavery, regarding women being ordained as clergy, and in 1972 on sexual identity.  It can be altered again without causing schism/splitting.  The UMC managed just fine until 1972 when it was changed.  Do we really believe that changing it back to what it said in 1972 will cause the UMC to cease to exist and function?  Prior to 1972 I believe that people of different sexual orientations were ordained, were full members and active leaders in the UMC and trials of clergy and lines drawn in the sand over the issue of sexual identity was not what drove the decision to change the Book of Discipline language.  Selfish desires around power and control drove the change just as it drove the changes around slavery and women being ordained.

Why?  Because underlying it all, I believe, is a lived reality that we will never be able to agree on the same interpretation and understanding of scripture.  We are rebellious sinners who can become power mongers.  The best way to have power is to be the people who have control over the rules and to enforce those rules whether it is in government or the institution of the church.

Holy Week always reminds me that Jesus came to stop this madness, and we seem intent on continuing it.  Lord have mercy on us.

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