Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 1, 2014

Welcome to Skokie Central Church

Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.

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Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 22, 2018

2018.04.22 “Welcome, Old Friend” – Psalm 23

Central United Methodist Church
Welcome, Old Friend
The 4th Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23
April 22nd, 2018

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

Lhasa Municipality, Tibet, China — Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road — Image by © Rob Howard/CORBIS

 

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul; he leads me in the paths
of righteousness for His name’s sake.      
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for You are with me; your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
– the New King James Version

How pleasant to come to church on a spring Sunday to be greeted by an old friend, Psalm 23. Some Sundays can be jarring, when we settle into our pews to be hit over the head by an unfamiliar idea, poked in the ribs by a pushy preacher peddling an even pushier Biblical text, or worse yet, news ripped from the latest headline (tweet).

But not today. The Fourth Sunday after Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Biblical texts feature familiar and beloved Biblical imagery, that of shepherds and sheep. And the Psalm is — what else? — our old friend, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”

For many of us, Psalm 23 is not only our most familiar psalm, but also our favorite. For example, when I was growing up, my uncle Charles – the only person in the family who went to college – had one of those old black Royal typewriters (who remembers those?). This was the 1950s; so for those of you who are young a typewriter was a machine which mechanically typed letters – with a clack, clack, clack – so you didn’t have to write them). I got him to let me use it, by typing (guess what?), Psalm 23. Every time I made a mistake I had to start all over, and that was how I learned it. However you learned it, ever since, the familiar tones of Psalm 23, in King James English, have been part of our spiritual essentials.

And yet, isn’t it fair to say that no matter how long we have known Psalm 23, or how many times we have recited it, it speaks to us anew.

The reason for this, I think, is that due to the seasons and storms of life, throughout life our needs are constantly changing. There are times where we feel like sitting by the side of green pastures and gentle streams, comforting and soothing. There are times when we feel we are in need of direction, or an anchor in a storm. There are times where we feel like we’re being carried down stream in a boat without a paddle, getting there faster than we want to. There are other times when we feel like we are in rapids without a boat, and about to go under. What makes Psalm 23 so beloved, is that it speaks to us in all these situations.

In a mere fifty-seven words of Hebrew and about twice that number in English, the author of the Twenty-third Psalm gives us an entire theology, more than we can find in many books, and more useful than most at that.

Judging by the references, the author of Psalm 23 has enemies. They have known failure. They have lost people they loved. In the process, they have learned life is not easy. But, with God’s help, they have met the challenges of life, and have grown to be better, stronger, and wiser than they would have been had life not challenged them to grow. As a result of this experience, through Psalm 23 the author teaches us to look at the world as they have come to see it, as they believe God would have us see it. For example:

– If we are obsessed with what we lack,
it teaches us gratitude for what we have.

– If the world threatens to wear us down,
the psalm guides us to replenish our souls.

– If we are anxious, the psalm gives us courage to overcome our fears.

– If we are grieving, it offers comfort to find our way through the valley of the shadow.

– If our lives are embittered by unpleasant people,
it teaches us how to deal with them.

– Most of all, when we feel alone and adrift in a friendless world, it offers us the best reassurance of all, that: “You are with me.”

So whether we are frightened soldiers in combat or frail residents in a nursing home, whether we are rejoicing in a cup which overflows or walking through the valley of the shadow, Psalm 23 still speaks to us.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, now 83, is best known for his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But he also wrote a book about the 23rd Psalm, entitled, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom From The Twenty-Third Psalm. Rabbi Kushner believes the 23rd Psalm answers the question, “How do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?” It does so because Psalm 23 knows what we know: that in life, much of the time, we cannot control what happens to us, as much as we might wish hat we could. Not only are we led down roads of which we can’t see the end, in fact, sometimes we can’t even see around the next bend in the road

Rabbi Kushner himself was inspired to write his books, starting with, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, because his own road took him through the valley of the shadow. His son, Aaron, was born with an incurable illness and died at the age of 14. Says Rabbi Kushner:

“I asked myself, how did my wife and I get through that? You would think that would shatter the faith of the average person. Where did we find the strength and the ability to raise him, to comfort him when he was sick and scared, and ultimately to lose him? And the only answer is, when we used up all of our own strength and love and faith, there really is a God, and he replenishes your love and your strength and your faith.

Right after 9/11 – when everybody was asking me, “Where was God that Tuesday? How could God have let such a thing happen?” — the answer I found myself giving was, “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was, when it’s your turn to confront the unfairness of life, no matter how hard it is, you’ll be able to handle it, because He’ll be on your side. He will give you the strength you need to find your way through.”

I was paraphrasing the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” The psalmist is not saying, “I will fear no evil because evil only happens to people who deserve it.” He’s saying, “This is a scary, out-of-control world, but it doesn’t scare me, because I know that God is on my side, not on the side of the hijacker. God is on my side, not on the side of the illness, or the accident, or the terrible thing that happened. And that’s enough to give me the confidence.”

“How do we live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?” Psalm 23’s answer is that when we wonder what will happen to us, when we wonder how we will get through, when we wonder if God will be there for us, Psalm 23 put its arms around us and reassures us of a God who makes, who leads, who restores, who comforts, who prepares and anoints, so that in darkness or light, life or death, we dwell with God.

Such that, however and when we come to life’s end, how comforting to find this old friend waiting for us, giving us an assurance that even then, God is with us. It is a rare funeral indeed where the Twenty-third Psalm is not invited to say a word. Whether at the funeral of someone we love, or at our own, Psalm 23 wipes our tears, puts its arm around our shoulder, and assures us of the everlasting goodness and mercy of the Lord.

So our old friend is there with us not only at the beginning of life, but every step of the way; not only at the table of blessing, but in the darkest of valleys; and finally, also there at life’s ending, following us, “pursuing us” through life into death, with goodness and mercy.

There was a mean old man. He was resentful and bitter. Someone said his bitterness was justified, for his beloved wife had died giving birth to their only child. The child died shortly thereafter. So he had reason to be bitter, they said.

He never went to church, never had much of anything to do with anyone. When, in his late 60’s, they carried him out of his apartment over to the hospital to die, no one visited, no flowers were sent. He went there to die alone.

But there was this nurse. She wasn’t actually a nurse yet, just a student, a nurse in training. Because of this she didn’t know what they teach you in nursing school about the necessity of detachment, the need for distance with your patients. So she befriended the old man, and cared for him with compassion. It had been so long since he had friends, he didn’t know how to act. So he told her, “Go away! Leave me alone”

She would smile and coax him to eat his jello. At night, she would tuck him in. “I don’t need anyone to help me,” he would growl.

Soon, he grew so weak he didn’t have the strength to resist her kindness. Late at night, after her duties were done, she would pull up a chair to sit by his bed and sing to him as she held his gnarled hand. He looked up at her in the dim lamplight and wondered if he saw the face of the little one he never got to see as an adult. As she kissed him goodnight, a tear formed in his eye. For the first time in forty, fifty years, he said, “God bless you.”

As she left the room, two others remained, softly whispering in the dark: Goodness and Mercy. Welcome, old friend.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 15, 2018

2018.04.15 “How Will We Know It’s Jesus?”

Central United Methodist Church
How Will We Know It’s Jesus?
Luke 24: 36 – 48
The 3rd Sunday of Easter<
April 15th, 2018

Christ a Apostles

“Appearance of the Risen Christ Surrounded by the Apostles, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308/11”

As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” – Luke 24: 36 – 48, the New Revised Standard Version

As I prepare to conclude my professional ministry, there are many ways I could quantify it, such as churches I have served, people I have known, sermons I have preached, meetings I have attended. But one of my favorite ways would be: meals I have eaten.

When I preached in rural churches 50 years ago, I can still remember those dinners in family homes, mostly farmers, even though I barely remember the churches, and nobody remembers the sermons.

In my first church in Memphis, we had a weekly Wednesday night Fellowship dinner. Bessie, a wonderful African-American woman, came in every Wednesday morning to prepare the meal. I still have Bessie’s recipe for dinner rolls; unfortunately, it makes 130 of them, so I’ve been trying to divide it by 10 now for about forty years. (If I ever do make the full recipe, you are all invited!). Not every meal was a feast, every time I’m in the south and drive by a Krystal Burger, I remember once having lunch there with a friend and parishioner named Dale Bradley, an older woman from Mississippi.

When I came to Chicago, thanks to church diversity, my gastronomic appreciation expanded and I learned to eat internationally: Filipino, Indian, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, and African food all became part of the menu. What’s church food without a little spice?

In West Chicago, when we built a new church, we knew we were ready to be a church not only when we figured out how to make a portable altar in the fellowship hall/homeless shelter/ sanctuary/multipurpose room, but also when the new stove arrived. You got an altar, you got a stove, you can be a church.

Here at Central, as you know, our church potlucks are also international. Not only the fabulous potlucks we share, but also those of the other five congregations who share our building. I have always said you can tell who worshiped here last by the smell of food in the building. We may not rival McDonald’s with billions served, but we’ve served thousands, and with better food at that.

In church, we can’t talk about eating together socially without also talking about eating together sacramentally. (There is a difference, but the line is thin.) With people attending who don’t speak English, our every Sunday Holy Communion is for them – and for all of us – a weekly means of grace, no matter what language we speak. I will always cherish the memory of all the color of the hands, of you, the people of Central, to whom I have offered each week the body and blood of Christ.

Eating together – both socially and sacramentally – has been an essential part of Christian faith from the beginning. As an example of this, in today’s Gospel, eating is the way Jesus disciples knew they were in the company of Christ.

Even though we are two weeks past Easter, in today’s reading it is still the first Easter day. Every year I ask myself why we read over-and-again these post-Easter stories. Perhaps the answer is, that in these stories Jesus’ disciples are filled with questions, just as we are still filled with questions. What happened? What does it mean? What do we do now? Do we continue where we left off or start all over? Will Jesus go away and leave us again? What will happen to us? Will anybody believe this? Will we be resurrected as Jesus was?

They ask these questions because not only have the women returned from the empty tomb with news that Christ is risen, but two other disciples have returned from a round trip to Emmaus, during which they also encountered Jesus. The way this mysterious stranger talked about the Scriptures made their hearts burn within them, but it was only when they sat down to eat at the end of the day – when he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them – that they realized WHO he was. They were so overjoyed that they walked all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other.

Then, it happened again; suddenly, Jesus was there, startling them; they thought he was a ghost! At first, he offered them the Doubting Thomas option: “See my hands and my feet, that it is me; handle me, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see.” But that didn’t do it – don’t you love how Luke puts it? “While they were disbelieving in joy,” (which sounds like a lot of church people I have known), Jesus asks the dreaded question all cooks hate: “What’s for dinner?” Fortunately, no one said, “I don’t know Master; what are you making? Evidently, fish was on the menu; they handed him a fish and he ate it, right before their eyes, like Julia Child at the end of a cooking demonstration.

Then their eyes were opened and they knew it was Jesus because – after all – he was only doing what he always did: he ate with people. He ate at the home of Martha and Mary, and with Simon the Pharisee. He observed the behavior of the respectable at banquets, and ate with the disreputable in public. He told a parable about a father who threw a feast for his son, and another a rich man who refused to share even his crumbs with a beggar named Lazarus.

No wonder Jesus complained, “John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man came feasting and you called him a lush. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Luke 7: 34-35, The Message). Even now, the question Jesus asks of us is not so much, “Will you baptize them?”, as “Will you eat with them?” This would prove to be a immediate test between Jews and Gentiles in the early church, but even now, after 20 centuries, though the divisions have changed, it is still a question that awaits resolution; not just who will you allow, but who will you welcome, and eat with?

Only then did Jesus began to wrap things up, explaining the Scriptures, completing the story which God had intended from the beginning, commissioning them to be the witnesses of all they had seen and heard: “You are witnesses of these things.”

They were the witnesses then, but we are the witnesses now, although in a different way. We weren’t there like they were to walk with and listen to and eat with Jesus, but we still have his words, we are still eating with him, and we are still completing his story, God’s story. I like how Kristen Bargeron Grant, a United Methodist pastor in St. Paul, MN, once described what it means for us to witness for Christ today:

“We are witnesses when we can invite someone to look into our homes, our families, our friendships, our work, our checkbook, our daytimer — and find Jesus there. We are witnesses when we allow ourselves to be touched by folks who are lost and afraid. We are witnesses when we live in a way that defies any explanation other than the presence of the risen Christ within us. Look, touch, see, believe! It isn’t a ghost. It’s the living God.” (Fresh Evidence, Living by the Word, the Christian Century magazine, April 19, 2003)

If we don’t do this, if we don’t welcome others and eat with them in Jesus’ name, if we don’t share our witness of what we have seen and heard regarding the Jesus story in the world today, well, I have always liked the modern-day parable told by the late Fred Craddock, of what might happen. He recounts:

The first little church I served was in the eastern Tennessee hills, not too far from Oak Ridge. When Oak Ridge began to boom with the atomic energy, that little bitty town became a booming city just overnight. Every hill and every valley and every sandy grove had recreational vehicles and trucks and things like that. People came in from everywhere and pitched tents, lived in wagons. Hard hats from everywhere, with their families and children paddling around in those trailer parks, lived in everything temporarily to work. Our church was not far away. We had a beautiful little church – white frame building, one hundred and twelve years old.  The church had an organ in the corner, which one of the young fellows had to pump while Ms. Lois played it. Boy, she could play the songs just as slow as anybody.

The church had beautifully decorated chimneys, kerosene lamps all around the walls, and every pew in this little church was hewn, hand hewn, from a giant poplar tree.  After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, “now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one of them said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.”

“Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” I said.

We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday. Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. “I move,” said one of them, “I move that in order to be a member of his church, you must own property in the county.”

Someone else said, “I second that.”  It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote. It passed.

When we moved back to those parts, I took my wife to see that little church, because I had told her that painful, painful, story.

The roads have changed. The interstate goes through that part of the country, so I had a hard time finding it, but I finally did.  I found the state road, the county road, and the little gravel road. Then there, back among the pines, was that building shining white. It was different. The parking lot was full – motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there.  And out front, a great big sign: “Barbecue, all you can eat.”  It’s a restaurant, so we went inside. The pews are against a wall. They have electric lights now, and the organ pushed over into the corner. There are all of these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbecued pork and chicken and ribs – all kinds of people. I said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.” (Craddock Stories, p. 28 – 29).

How will we know Jesus is among us? When we eat together, with friends and strangers, in his presence. In the name of Jesus, who will you eat with this week?

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 8, 2018

Central United Methodist Church
How Do You Spell BELIEF?
John 20:19-31

Pastor David L. Haley
The 2nd Sunday of Easter
April 8, 2018

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_Caravaggio

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20: 19 – 31, the New Revised Standard Version

The big question for the 2nd Sunday of Easter is, “What do we do after Easter?” While my personal answer may be, “I need to get packing,” all of our answer should be to keep believing, towards an even more faithful and fulfilling life, lived in Jesus’ name.

After all, after the biggest day of the Christian year last Sunday, Easter Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter is often a let-down. The crowds have come and gone, the Easter lilies have disappeared, Easter eggs have turned into egg salad, and we return to our usual programming. Fortunately, today we were at least able to invite a world class opera star to be with us, so that helps. Thank you, Sal!

A solution some churches are resurrecting on the second Sunday of Easter to liven things up is an old Easter custom called “Holy Humor Sunday.” This is an idea rooted in an early Christian practice going way back, called the “risus paschalis,” (the Easter laugh), originating with the idea that God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead, and at Easter, therefore, we all join with God in laughing. For centuries – especially in Orthodox churches – the Sunday after Easter was called “Bright Sunday,” and was observed by the faithful as a day of joy and laughter with parties and picnics in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Church people and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. One pastor said she always looked forward to it, because at some point she always manages to include her favorite Jesus joke: “What did Jesus say when he was invited to the disco?” He said: “Help! I’ve risen and I can’t get down!”

As a humorous segway into the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, about someone who missed Easter, I’d like to share with you a funny story told by Father Michael Renninger, Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia. Instead of me telling his story, I want you to hear him tell his story (after all, you need to get used to listening to other preachers). You can do so thanks to a relatively new resource called A Sermon for Every Sunday, which records some of the best preachers in the country and makes their sermons available (for free) to churches not able to afford a real live preacher. We won’t listen to the whole sermon, just his introduction; I am more than happy to give Father Renninger 4 minutes of my time. (Readers may listen here. Note: I only used the first 4:05 minutes of Father Renninger’s sermon; you may want to stop there, or – better yet – listen to Father Renninger’s full sermon).

“You missed it!” In today’s Gospel, that’s what the rest of the disciples say to Thomas, when Jesus appears to them, and Thomas is not there. Fortunately, instead of a whole year – like Father Renninger and I and the rest of us prehistoric people had to wait for the Wizard of Oz – Thomas only had to wait a week for Jesus to show up and make good on his request: “I will only believe if I can see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails in his side.”

One might ask, as Father Renninger asks later in his sermon, “Why did Jesus make Thomas wait so long?” I mean, once he’s appearing, couldn’t he have appeared to Thomas anywhere at any time, on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, rather than make him wait a week? Was it to teach Thomas a lesson, which was – not to always listen to your parents (although that’s a good lesson) – but “If you want to see Jesus, don’t isolate yourself,” because it’s among other Christians – among the community of the faithful –  where Jesus is to be experienced.”

There was, after all, quite an assortment of people gathered in that room. They were men and women, mothers and brothers, fishermen and tax-collectors. They were folks who accompanied Jesus and who deserted Jesus, including one who denied him. There were those who watched him die, and who saw him laid out in an empty tomb. There was one who also saw his empty tomb, included one who believed by what he saw there, and another who was merely confused. There was Mary in her joyful confidence that she had seen the Lord, but also Thomas in his skepticism. Many different people, emotions, moods, and reactions to the word that Christ was risen; yet all of them were gathered together. It is a picture of the resurrection community then, and, in truth, not that much different than the resurrection community – people like us – gathered here today.

While on the 2nd Sunday of Easter we often focus on Thomas skepticism, perhaps what we should do instead is back up and look at the larger picture; which is, in John’s Gospel, that different people believe differently. Mary Magdalene believed when Jesus spoke to her in the garden; the Beloved Disciple believed when he saw the empty tomb; Jesus’s disciples (without Thomas) believed when they saw him. For Thomas, however, neither the other disciples’ word nor Jesus’ appearance would be enough: he asked not only to see but also to touch; it’s not clear, given the opportunity, whether he really did, before falling on his knees and exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.”

But what is clear is that what John is saying to us – throughout his Gospel – is that faith is not the same for all, nor is faith necessarily generated by proof. Throughout John’s Gospel, in story after story, there is faith, and then there is faith. There is faith based on signs, and faith that needs no signs; there is faith that is weak, and faith that is strong; there is faith that is shallow and faith that is deep, faith that is growing and faith that is retreating.

After all, isn’t it the same with us? For some of us, faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on their mother’s lap. Some of us cannot remember when we did not believe; others of remember a time when we did not and a time when we did, our lives having been shattered and reshaped by a decision of faith. For others of us, faith is a lifetime of wrestling with angels and demons, struggling to believe, and then to keep what faith we have. Even in John’s Gospel, faith is never a once-for-all decision, but a choice made anew in every situation.

Oh sure, we say, it would be a lot easier to believe if we had the options Jesus’ original disciples did, to hear, to see, to touch. However, when John comes to the end of his Gospel, what he insists upon is that the possibility of faith is not limited to that circle of Jesus’ original disciples and to their face-to-face experiences of Christ. In fact, Christ pronounces a blessing on all of those – including us – who have NOT seen and will never see – and yet we believe, even on this 2nd Sunday of Easter.

The small church in which I grew up down in western Kentucky was firmly planted in the revivalist tradition. Every sermon ended with an altar call, often with shouting or pleading. Sometimes, at the end, the preacher would lean over the pulpit and plead: “While the organist plays one more verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ “Won’t you come? Won’t you?”

So I love how – at the end of this story – the old preacher John leans over the pulpit of his Gospel and pleads:

“I could have written a lot more about Jesus. I could have preached all night. But I’ve done all I know how to do. What I have written I have written not that you might have the facts, but that you might believe, and that believing you might have life in his name. You don’t have to put your fingers in his hands or your hands in his side. You don’t have to see him standing before you. Anyone can believe. Anyone can experience the difference it makes to live in Jesus’ name. “Won’t you? Won’t you?”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 1, 2018

2018.04.01 “The Courage of a New Beginning” – Mark 16: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
The Courage of a New Beginning
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Easter Sunday
April 1st, 2018

The Risen Christ

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back — it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Mark 16: 1 – 8, the New Revised Standard Version

It is always a joy to welcome each other to church on Easter, even on years like this one, where apparently Mother Nature did not get the memo, that Easter should be accompanied by warm temperatures and budding trees and blooming flowers. It reminds me of the little boy who got his holidays mixed up and, when asked, “What is Easter?” said: “That’s when Jesus came out of the tomb, saw his shadow, and now there’s six more weeks of winter.” This year, not far from the truth.

I expect you also come to Easter worship service, fearful today. Not only because a Chinese spacecraft the size of a school bus might fall on us (What better place to be than in church)? But also because today is also April Fool’s Day, so perhaps you came to church this morning fearful that that you would find no one here, or that the ushers would jump out and scare you, or that I might show up dressed as the Easter bunny. You need not fear; that is not going to happen. However, when we are ready for the Easter Alleluia, we are going to turn on the electric current we have wired through the pews.

In many ways, April Fool’s Day is an appropriate day to hear this year’s version of the Easter story, from Mark’s Gospel. Because as you read Mark’s version of what happened when the women returned to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning, time and again it seems someone is about to jump up and yell to them: April Fool!

It began as they walked and talked, worried about who would roll away the stone, which you would think they would have thought about before they left home. When they get there, they discover the stone IS rolled away. As they enter the tomb, they find – not Jesus’ body – but a young man dressed in white. The Easter message they receive is not “April Fool!” but “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He is not here, he has risen.” Barely believing what they have heard, they receive an Easter commission: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of them to Galilee; there they will see him.”

I doubt anyone remembers this, but in 2012, when I preached Easter from Mark’s Gospel, at this point I asked a rhetorical question: “Ready for the big finale, the happy ending, when shouts of Alleluia fill the air?” In the silence, a little girl in the back of the congregation yelled out, “YES!” But in Mark’s Gospel, it never happens. What happens is the women run from the tomb in terror, amazement, and in silence. There, Mark’s Gospel ends. Is this any way to run a resurrection?

Is it any wonder that, from early on, Christians found this an unsatisfactory conclusion? And thus, from early on, additional, more satisfactory endings were added. While no Gospel provides an unambiguous, totally convincing account, at least in Matthew and Luke and John – all written after and drawing upon Mark’s Gospel – what happens after Jesus’ resurrection is expanded and elaborated on, with Jesus appearing to his disciples and giving them the Great Commission, to go into all the earth and make disciples.

And yet, when all is said I done, I like the way Mark ends his Gospel, and am even thankful this is the version of the Easter story that I get to preach, in this, my last Easter sermon.

Why? Because I find it true to life. Doesn’t the women’s experience – fear and astonishment, followed by silence – sound right to you? Fear! Let’s face it, we all know something about fear. If you have ever spoken in public, for example, you know what fear is; fear of mispronouncing, fear of choking, fear of losing your voice, fear of falling down, fear of everything, which makes it even harder to talk. Astonishment: in the presence of God, who calls into being things that are not and gives life to the dead, who would not be astonished beyond words? Silence: At times of fear and astonishment, who’s chatty and glib; we can hardly talk? And anyhow, who’s going to believe them? Are they going to walk into the coffee shop, where the men are, and announce Jesus body is not where they left it, but BTW an angel WAS there, announcing Jesus risen? “Did you hear what those women said?” “Yeah, they probably went to the wrong tomb.” I mean, since when have men not believed women? [Fred Craddock, “And They Said Nothing to Anyone,” The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock, 2011]

For this reason, the more we think about it, the more we may decide we like Mark’s ending, because it’s not neat, and doesn’t try to explain the inexplicable. Mark doesn’t show up with a tape measure and a seismograph and a video camera and explain or prove what happened, he simply announces it; make of it what you will. Mark doesn’t try to summarize what it means, as St. Paul did in his First Letter to the Corinthians, written before Mark’s Gospel, where it takes Paul 58 verses to try and explain it, not even mentioning an empty tomb. Nor does Mark get into the heavy lifting of WHAT Jesus’ resurrection means, whether that we all get to go to heaven and live with Jesus, the most popular though not necessarily the correct interpretation; whether the resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus’ message, of right over wrong, love over violence, and life over death; or finally, whether Jesus’ resurrection means that a new age has begun for all humanity. Mark leaves that up to us, to decide for ourselves.

Rather, the simple, intriguing way Mark puts it is this: “Jesus isn’t here in a tomb where you expect him; tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Back to Galilee, back to where it all began, back to where they live, have families, raise children, and work and play. It was nothing less than a new beginning.

What an intriguing promise for us as well: that Jesus isn’t in a tomb, off in the past, but out there ahead of us, where we will meet him. Not in the places we might expect, in the rituals and institutions we have made to hold him, but out there, where we live, have families, raise children, work and play, and eventually die. Wherever we go, whatever we go through, he goes before, and will meet us there.

Where Jesus is leading us is into the Kingdom of God, a place beyond prejudice and poverty and politics. Kingdom life is a life that needs not be defined by death or grief or loss, even though they are still with us. In this week in which we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, we remember what also what Dr. King told us, that Jesus is calling us into the kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and love, truth and justice, reconciliation and restoration. [Nathan Kirkpatrick, “Tell It Again,” Faith and Leadership, March 22, 2016]

In the play by John Masefield, “The Trial of Jesus,” the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion reports back to Pilate. Pilate’s wife asks the centurion to tell her about Jesus’ death. After hearing his description, she asks, “Do you think he’s dead?” “No, my lady, he replies. “He’s been let loose in the world where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth.”

No wonder we come to church on Easter Sunday to hear this story again – even braving a spacecraft falling on our heads or the ushers who might jump out to scare us. Because no matter who we are, no matter how great our fears are, in life or in death, Christ is risen and goes ahead of us, making not only this day but every day into the possibility of new beginning.

John O'DonohueJust recently I discovered the Irish poet, philosopher, and former priest, John O’Donohue. O’Donohue, who was born and lived most of his life in solitude on the rugged west coast of Ireland, believed that it is within our power to transform our fear of death so that we need fear little else life brings. It is cruelly ironic and tragic that he died unexpectedly in his sleep in January 2008 at the age of 52, robbing the world of a genuinely original religious mind who – as much a surprise to himself as anybody – became a bestselling writer and public speaker whose popularity only increases with the passing of time. [You may learn more about John O’Donohue at his website, www.johnodonohue.com]

From the early 1990’s, O’Donohue led a dawn Easter mass at the ruins of the ancient Corcomroe Abbey. In one of those masses he said this (I only wish I could say it in his broad Irish accent):

“On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us let fall away the useless baggage that we carry – old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling – and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have.

We don’t realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through dark valleys in their lives. We weren’t put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are meant to give it away generously.

The dawn that is rising this Easter morning is a gift to our hearts and we are meant to celebrate it and to carry away from this holy, ancient place the gifts of healing and light and the courage of a new beginning.” [John O’Donohue, Dawn Mass Reflections at Corcomroe Abbey, from Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O’Donohue in conversation with John Quinn]

On this Easter Sunday morning – and for the rest of your life – I leave you with the morning prayer O’Donohue wrote for himself:

“May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.”

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 25, 2018

2018.03.25 “Collision Course” – March 25th, 2018

Central United Methodist Church
Collision Course
Pastor David L. Haley
Palm/Passion Sunday
March 25th, 2018

PalmSunday

Pastor’s Haley’s sermon is preparatory to the central reading of Palm/Passion Sunday, the Passion of Jesus according to Mark 14:1 – 15:47

It was a newspaper headline recently, addressing the tension between Special Investigator Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump, which occurred to me was also the perfect title of what’s happening in the Jesus story on Palm Sunday. The headline was: “Collision Course.”

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on that day we call Palm Sunday, did he know that he was on a collision course with the religious authorities, and ultimately, the Roman Empire, who would execute him as just another rebel left to rot on a cross as a public warning to any who would rebel against Rome?

It’s a mystery, of course, how such things happen in life, and what they mean, especially for those of us who believe in what we call divine providence, the idea that God directs our paths. Consider, for example, what happened here in Chicago just last month, when the paths of two strangers collided.

On February 13th, Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer was downtown, on duty and in uniform, parking his police cruiser at Lake and Clark streets, when he heard a radio call about a fleeing suspect. That suspect was 44 year-old, four time felon, Shomari Legghette, who, went stopped by police nearby for questioning, fled. Moments later, Bauer saw Legghette running, exited his vehicle and chased him. The two collided at a stairwell outside the Thompson Center, falling down the stairs, followed by the sound of six gunshots. Bauer, a husband and father, a respected officer and leader, lay bleeding in the landing, shot six times, soon to be pronounced dead at Northwestern Hospital. Legghette was arrested moments later, carrying the weapon, later traced to a gun shop in Wisconsin. Was the collision of these two chance, a horrible accident of life? Or was it a predestined destiny for these two to meet that day, by the God who – as we sometimes say – directs our steps?

On that day long ago in Jerusalem, it was not only two different people, but two different processions that entered the city, again either by accident or divine destiny. Entering the city in one procession was Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, who most of the time stayed at the fortress of Caesarea on the coast, but at Passover – when the city was crowded with pilgrims – stayed at Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, to more closely monitor the situation. Preceded by the Roman standard, you can imagine chariots and warhorses, and armored Roman soldiers carrying swords and shields.

But descending down from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley, came a very different procession. Instead of the Roman standard, they carry palm branches. Instead of soldiers in armor, they are peasants, mostly Galileans, fishermen and farmers, women, and children. Instead of a warhorse, their leader is . . . riding a donkey? Obviously, this is a low-budget procession; how humiliating is that?

As this procession enters Jerusalem, people ask what they did not have to ask about Pilate’s procession: “What’s going on here? Who is this?” To which people in the procession answer, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” “You’ve heard of him?” Maybe that had; maybe they hadn’t.

It was Jesus bar Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble beginnings, with friends in low places: fishermen, tax collectors, sinners. He was a ragged rabbi who preached loving God and loving your neighbor, even your enemies. Even though he may have thought of himself as the Messiah, he didn’t talk about it, and instructed his disciples not to either. He rode a donkey and not a warhorse into Jerusalem, because he didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, which were the only ideas people had. At heart he was a country boy, an itinerant preacher on a rural circuit, visiting the bright lights of the big city, the holy and unholy city of Jerusalem. Who would have the greater impact? Jesus upon the city, upon the authorities, upon the Roman Empire, or would all those – in one hard giant fist – come down upon him? We know the answer, don’t we? If not, we will after today’s reading.

Was Jesus naïve about what would happen? According to the Gospels, all the way there he had been telling his disciples he would be killed there. Jesus was, at heart, an apocalyptic prophet who believed he was the Messiah – through not the way people expected – and that by his actions he would bring about God’s intervention, throwing out the Romans and ushering in the God’s Kingdom, restoring things to how God intended from the beginning. As the famous historian and theologian Albert Schweitzer put it: “Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, p. 370-71). But as we shall see next Sunday – Easter Sunday – the wheel continues to turn; except, now – thanks to Jesus – in the other direction.

Two processions, two kingdoms: Rome, and the ways of Rome as represented by Pilate; God, and the ways of God as represented by Jesus; they are on a collision course. They always were; they still are today. One is an imperial kingdom, which rules by power and violence and death; the other a peaceable Kingdom, that rules by peace and love and life. Even today, these two ways of being in the world remain on a collision course. Perhaps the youth protests we are seeing in yesterday’s March for Our Lives, against the entrenched gun lobby, is another example of it happening again.

What about us; where do we fit in? We may think we know the answer, but today as we cry out, both “Hosanna to the coming King” and “Crucify him” on the same day, we know that on any given day, we do not know which we will choice we will make. It is choice we must make every day, an allegiance we must choose, between empire and imperial ways, power and greed and violence and lies, or God’s Kingdom and kingdom ways, love and peace and justice and truth. Every day we must pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Finally, this leaves us wondering: like Jesus and Pilate, like Commander Bauer and Shomari Legghette: who or what in our future, are we on a collision course with?

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 18, 2018

2018.03.18 “When the Hour Has Come” – John 12: 20 – 33

Central United Methodist Church
When the Hour Has Come
Pastor David L. Haley
John 12: 20 – 33
The 5th Sunday in Lent
March 18th, 2018

Grain 1

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there willmy servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” – John 12: 20 – 33, the New Revised Standard Version

 

Just two weeks from Easter, we are also 17 days from the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in American history, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968.

From the time of his rise to public prominence after the Montgomery Bus Strike, Dr. King as well as his family lived under the shadow of death threats. When a bomb exploded on his front porch in 1956, he courageously chose to face his fear, and not to back down but continue the work he believed God had called him to do.

In 1958, a mentally disturbed woman stabbed him in the chest while he signed copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom, at a bookstore in Harlem. The next morning in the New York Times, it was reported that the knife blade was so close to his aorta, the main artery supplying blood to the heart, that if he had sneezed, he likely would have died. Afterwards he received a letter from a little girl, which said, “I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
By 1968, the threats were almost daily, and serious. When King went to Memphis in support of the garbage worker’s strike, after a protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28 became violent, the national news media, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). King vowed to return to Memphis to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him.

On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches, his “I’ve Been to the Mountain- top” speech, one of the greatest speeches in American history. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. To this gathering, King poured out his heart and his last testament. In the speech, King seemed to have a premonition of what lay ahead. In fact, the next day would be his last.

We will return to Dr. King’s speech later, but understanding that historical moment and how Dr. King felt that night, April 3, 1968, helps us in our understanding of how Jesus must have felt, in our reading from the Gospel of John today.

At this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry has reached its apogee. After the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, crowds follow Jesus, but at the same time it provokes an equal and opposite reaction; there are rumors of a plot to kill him. Like that night years ago in Memphis, the threat of death was in the air. “The hour has come,” said Jesus, “Now my heart is troubled.” But, foreshadowing and transcending his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, he resolves: “What should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Such feelings, such statements, and such courage might not be understandable to us, except for the fact that we too face such moments in our lives. We may not be powerful religious leaders or modern-day prophets stirring up storms of controversy like Jesus or Dr. King, but sooner or later, the “hour” comes for each of us, and our heart is troubled, as we face the prospect of the imminent end of our lives.

Images and conversations come to mind, out of my years of ministry. I can see in my mind’s eye the face of a young woman, at Northwestern’s Prentiss Women’s Hospital, being treated for cancer, as she says to me: “I don’t think I’m going to beat this.” She was right; she did not. I recall a conversation with someone with multiple recurrent tumors, with both of us acknowledging: “Now you know how you’re going to die, you just don’t know when.”

But shouldn’t all of us know that already? Because even though we may not be facing a known imminent threat, our egos blind us to the fact that human mortality is still 100%; we are all going to die. It’s only a question of time; some of us obviously have less time than others. Did we not begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What shall we do? Panic? Fight? Despair? Or embrace it, and go gracefully, in confidence, courage, and peace? In this text – facing his own death – Jesus gives us an image to cling to, an image that he must have loved, because he used it so often:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The example of a grain of wheat that dies, only so that it can be reborn. Even though we are not farmers, most of us have held in our hands, and buried carefully in the warm soil, a seed, for which we patiently wait, to grow and harvest. It became such a powerful symbol that it was found in many other early Christian writings, such as by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, as he discussed the resurrection. Jesus uses the wheat grain to explain the seemingly paradoxical statement that if anyone wants to save their life, they must lose it, give it away. Still, – as then – to follow Jesus means to live this way; to let our lives go, to live in risky love, to be buried like a grain of wheat, in order that new life might spring forth.

This letting go is not just a general concept, it is something we have to do in every area of our lives. We don’t want to be 60, or 90; we want to be 30 again. But that’s not possible; we’ve got to let it go. We don’t want to accept that our children are growing up, becoming responsible and independent, we want them to remain in our control and under our management. But that’s not an option, to be good parents, we have to let them go. We don’t want to acknowledge that our bodies (and minds) are not what they used to be, and that we can’t do everything the way we used to do it. We have to acknowledge that old ideas and beliefs that we once held – perhaps for a long time – have proved to be untrue, even harmful, and we have to let them go. We absolutely do not want to accept that we are going to lose those we love, just as those we love will eventually lose us. We’ve got to let them, and ourselves go, and be buried in death, like a grain of wheat. There is a Buddhist saying I’ve always appreciated: “Go ahead and die; then live the rest of your life.”

While Jesus bore fruit through his dying for us; we bear fruit not by dying, but by living, so that when we do die others might acknowledge the seeds we have sown, planted in the lives of our families and our friends, our children, our church and our community and country.

It has been my privilege, as one who has presided at many funerals and memorial services, to have had a front row seat for this over the years. For example, yesterday I went back (not to preside but to attend) a Memorial Service out to West Chicago, for a friend’s father. In his life, he had served as a teacher and former principal of West Chicago Community High School, and served on many boards and commissions in the community. Even though he died January 2 at the age of 88, 200 people filled the hall at the American Legion, with stories to tell about his life and how he – through his life and work – had helped them. Through his life, seeds were planted, that continue to blossom and bear fruit. After 45 plus years in the ministry, with nobody’s threatening me yet except the Grim Reaper himself, I pray that I have planted some seeds that will continue to bear fruit. Wherever age and stage we are at in our lives, every one of us desires this too.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, until his assassination by right wing death squads in the Cathedral in San Salvador on March 24th, 1980, was the fourth Archbishop of El Salvador. Since that time, he has been celebrated as a modern-day martyr and candidate for sainthood. About a year before he was assassinated, on April 1, 1979, he preached these words of Jesus, and – like King – in words that would soon be more personal than he could know. He said this:

“To each one of us Christ is saying: If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats; the Lord goes with you.” (Oscar Romero, April 1, 1979, Rivers in the Desert by Rowland Croucher (ed.) Albatross Books, 1991, page 398).

Now, in remembrance of Dr. King, and that night in Memphis fifty years ago, when he realized his hour had come, let us conclude with the powerful words of his speech, one life that continues to bear fruit. [Video] (From the Smithsonian Channel, January 29, 2014).

Central United Methodist Church
Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 14 – 16
The 4th Sunday in Lent
March 11th, 2018

Snakes.Christ top

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” – John 3: 14 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version

 

As I prepare to move, I have been sorting, and this week I went through yellowed newspaper articles that I wrote at my first church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN, between 1976 to 1979. It brought back memories, and a few chuckles.

For example, one article I began with the words, “Recently while visiting my girlfriend in Chicago . . .”. Unfortunately, the masthead, the picture, and the signature were of the Senior Pastor, the Rev. David Hilliard. Therefore, in the next newsletter, with the same masthead, picture, and signature, with the title, “What’s Black and White and Red All Over?” Dave wrote:

“By now I hope that most people have realized that the article in last week’s paper which had my picture on the masthead and my signature at the conclusion was, in truth, written by my associate, Rev. David Haley. Now, ordinarily, I would be glad to claim most of the articles written by David, but when I read the first line of that particular article my only reaction was, “Oh, my Lord.”

He went on to assure the congregation that his only girlfriend lived in Memphis, who was his wife, Patsy. After the shock and correction, he and I and the whole congregation had a good laugh about it, for a long time.

But another article – taken from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church – was more pertinent to today’s readings. It seems a family in a certain church there had become inactive, and all efforts to re-involve them in the life of the congregation were futile. One day one of the boys, John, was bitten by a rattlesnake. The father sent for the pastor to come pray for John. The pastor came, and this was his prayer:

“O wise and righteous Father, we thank you, for you, in your wisdom, sent this rattlesnake to bite John in order to bring this family to its senses. They have not been inside your church for quite a few years. It is doubtful if ever before in his life this boy has felt the need of prayer. Now we trust that this will prove helpful and will lead him to repentance and recognition of a need for Christ in his life.

“Now, O Lord, will you send another snake to bite Jim, and another to bite the old man? We have done everything we could for years, but all our efforts did not accomplish what this one snake has done. We thus have to conclude that the only thing that will bring this family to their senses is rattlesnakes. Lord, in Thy mercy, send us bigger and better rattlesnakes.”

While we may laugh (or cringe), believe it or not, it is indeed snakes (or a snake) that is the controlling image in two of today’s three readings. “Snakes?” you say, as Indiana Jones did in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Why did it have to be snakes?”

Unless you are a herpetologist, us humans have a timeless and universal fear of snakes. They even show up as evil creatures in our ancient mythologies, as the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. (“It was the snake that made me do it!”)

For those of us who grew up in warmer climates, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, snakes were something you had to watch for, before you step, especially when walking through the woods. For example, once my cousin and I, his mom and a friend were walking down a creek bed in the fall. Just as my cousin was about to take step, the friend grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up, interrupting his next step. The reason being, he was about to step on a poisonous copperhead, expertly camouflaged in the leaves. To this day, when I see even a stick lying on a path that looks like a snake, my internal “snake” alarms go off. So, the last thing I want to hear about when I come to church is a story about snakes. But that is what we get today, the story of a snake, lifted up, foreshadowing Christ, to which we look for health, healing, and life.

The first occurrence, which serves as a reference for the second, is an obscure story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, about the children of Israel in the wilderness, following their exodus from Egypt. Though God had delivered them from bondage, the people complained against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (I know, God’s people complaining, it’s hard to believe.) Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

Today we might “What kind of God would send snakes to bite people?” According to this story, an angry God, sick and tired of people complaining how that even though God had miraculously delivered them and provided for them, it was taking longer than they thought, and it was harder than they thought.

There’s a reason such a story would be in the Old Testament. This is because the Biblical revelation is progressive, meaning that it gets better and clearer as revealed over time. It is true that the older parts reflect more ancient and primitive understandings of God, projecting upon God how we might act if we were God; anthropomorphisms, they are called. After all, if I were God and delivered my people from bondage in Egypt, saved them through the miracle at the Red Sea, lead them with a pillar of fire, gave them manna to eat and water to drink, and they do nothing but complain, I might want to let some snakes loose, too. Let’s face it, if God acts like we act, we are all in deep trouble.

But – like those wayward parishioners in Virginia – in this story snakes did the trick, and the people repented: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses:

“Make a poisonous snake, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a snake of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

In other words, when Moses did what God said, the repulsive sight of a snake in the wilderness was transformed, so that it became a symbol of health, healing, and reconciliation. Are you bitten by a snake? Look up!

Yes, it’s a puzzling, fantastic story, and we probably wouldn’t even be reading it if it didn’t show up in an unexpected place, the Gospel of John, right before our favorite verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” How come nobody ever holds up a sign at a baseball game, saying John 3: 14 & 15: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”

It must have been frustrating to Nicodemus, the Jewish rabbi who came to Jesus, to whom Jesus tells this story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with his questions, seeking to be persuaded through reason and logic, to arrive at a clear decision. Jesus, on the other hand, says the spiritual life is “from above”: unearned, uncontrolled, and uncalculated. Jesus goes so far as to compare the spiritual life to birth and wind, two of the most mysterious forces on earth. And then, like a snake on a pole, as in the wilderness, to which one simply looks up.

As it was for Nicodemus, it can be frustrating to those of us who come to church seeking simple explanations or straight-forward answers. Thankfully, it is not snakebite that plagues us, but the thousand mortal ills that life brings to us, leaving us wondering sometimes if there even is a God, and especially – in the light of the world we live in – whether God is a God of love. As we come with our questions, what Moses and John and Jesus tell us is to look up, to glimpse God’s great love for us. There is nothing we can do, other than to behold what God has done. For Jesus would indeed be lifted up, but before he does so in resurrection and ascension he would be raised up – like a snake on a pole – on a cross. As we sit – transfixed at the sight – John says: “This is how much God loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

As we make our way through Lent towards Easter and the looming cross, it can be frustrating to read John’s Gospel. Sometimes, like Nicodemus, all you want are the facts, “ma’am, just the facts.” But as the last Gospel written, with more time to contemplate Jesus’ story, John always goes further, deeper. Yes, Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, but when all is said and done, it’s the Temple of his body he’s talking about, which will be raised in three days. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. Next week, we hear that Jesus is a grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies, but in dying, he bears much fruit. Sometimes we need the facts, but sometimes we images, something we can contemplate, like stopping in a church or cathedral amidst flickering candles, to sit before a crucifix, to contemplate God’s great love in Christ.

Snakes.Christ fullAt the summit of Mt. Nebo in Jordan, from which Moses looked west over the Holy Land, there is a metal sculpture erected by the Franciscans, and designed by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni, commemorating the Bronze Serpent. The sculpture features a serpent twisted around a pole, with its head, at the top, encircled by a loop of its body.

But clearly, the sculptor was thinking of more than snakes, and likely of this verse in John 3, because in addition to depicting the serpent made by Moses, the body of the snake looped around itself suggests the head of one who has been crucified. The lyrically shaped crosspieces, evocative of outstretched arms, remind us of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Like a snake on a pole, once an object of horror and revulsion, so the cross of Christ has been transformed to become for us a symbol of love and life. As we look beyond it to the One lifted up, may we find there what we need, health and healing and happiness, abundant and eternal life with God.

Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 4, 2018

2018.03.04 “Personal Faith AND Social Action” – John 2: 13- 22

Central United Methodist Church
Personal Faith AND Social Action
Pastor David L. Haley
John 2: 13- 22
The 3rd Sunday in Lent
March 4th, 2018

Jesus Cleans the Temple

“Casting Out the Moneychangers” by Carl Heinrich

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2: 13 – 22, the New Revised Standard Version

While we went about our lives this week, in the background many of us noted the funeral of Billy Graham, who died last week at the age of 99. While the young may not know who Billy Graham was, for those of us who are older, Billy Graham likely influenced us; I know he did me. While in retrospect, he was short-sighted about some things (like the social dimensions of the Gospel and the civil rights movement), there is no Christian preacher on the world stage today who embodied the respect, integrity, and humility that Billy Graham did, to his credit.

In 2013, my former professor at the University of Chicago, Martin E. Marty, spoke at a conference at Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, about Graham’s legacy. Marty said that if we were to build a Mount Rushmore of American religious history, four figures would hold an undisputed place: the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. Billy Graham. The fourth, Marty quipped, with a twinkle in his eye, he had not decided yet.

Of these three, it was Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. who had a significant impact on people and society during our lifetimes, although in different ways. Between them, there are interesting similarities and differences.

Both were Southerners. Obviously, one was white; the other was black, which in our society makes a difference. King, the son of a pastor, was born in Atlanta, Georgia; Graham was reared on his family’s dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. King was 5’7’; Graham was 6’2″. Graham was educated at Bible Colleges, including nearby Wheaton College; King earned a Ph.D. from Boston University. Throughout his lifetime, Graham would stick to a simple Gospel preached in revivalist style, but thanks to the invention of media, specifically TV, it would be on a scale never before seen in history. King would preach a broader social gospel, especially in regard to civil rights. Graham’s ministry would be in coliseums and stadiums; King’s was literally in the streets. King would not live to see his 40th birthday before being gunned down by an assassin; Graham, would live to the ripe old age of 99.

These opposites in the Christian faith, personal faith and social action, always perplexed me, growing up as I did – like Graham – in the middle of revivalism. As a Methodist in the land of Baptists, I grew up in the middle of this divide; many of my Baptist friends would not let me – as a Methodist – preach in their churches. As I grew older, I learned that not only are there different kinds of Christians, such as Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox, but that beyond that there were those in every tradition who are fundamentalists, evangelicals, and so-called “liberals,” including those who practiced a Social Gospel.

“How can it be that there are two very different kinds of Christianity?” was the question I therefore pursued at the University of Chicago Divinity School with Professor Marty. The reason I did not continue through to a PhD was because I answered that question, through the discovery of two books: George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980) and William R. Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976). In many ways, my own theological journey has been from Marsden’s book to Hutchison’s; those of you who have listened to my sermons over the last ten years should know the direction I lean.

The truth is, both personal faith and social action are not only alive and well “out there” but also present in the story of Jesus. Today, the story from John’s Gospel, which what we call Jesus’ “Cleansing of the Temple” illustrates this point.

Get out of your mind things like mops and sponges and buckets and think instead of whips and overturned tables and bouncing coins, think of animals squealing and pigeons flying and people with livid faces running wildly, in the midst of whom stands Jesus, whip in hand, yelling, “Get these things out of here!” “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

While Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place it near the end of the story, as one of the things that incited the authorities to move against Jesus, John’s Gospel places it in chapter 2, near the beginning, John being less concerned about chronology than theology. Many years ago, I took a course on John’s Gospel where we were challenged to summarize each chapter of John in two words. Chapter 2, which begins with the miracle of Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine, and ends with Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple, we summarized as, “Drinking and Driving.”

What was going on? What made Jesus so angry? What made Jesus so angry was that though the temple was a place people were commanded to visit, access to God had been turned into a scam. When worshippers visited, there was a temple tax. They were to offer a prescribed sacrifice, and – if you didn’t bring your own, which you were not likely to do if you’d come a long distance – such sacrifices could be bought on the premises at a marked-up price. AND – the sacrifice had to be inspected, for another price. None of this could be paid for in regular money – Roman money, because it had Caesar’s face on it – but only in temple money, which, (surprise!) could be exchanged on site, for a fee. No wonder Jesus reacted indignantly; not only was the purpose of God’s house as a house of prayer for all people perverted, but in the name of God, justice was perverted, especially upon the poor. Thus, his action in the Temple is in the tradition of Israel’s prophets who cried out in protest against the profaning of the temple and the debasing of worship, against substituting ritual for devotion and false piety for real religion, which always includes mercy and justice.

Today, when we imagine the scene, it may make us less angry than uneasy. Uneasy because of Jesus’ anger, overturning tables and doing whatever he did with that whip; we are unsettled to think of Jesus in this way. So much so that we might want to say to Jesus, as Billy Graham said of Martin Luther King after his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that perhaps King “needed to put the brakes on.” Sure, from our perspective we might cheer Jesus on now, but we might feel differently if that was our temple and our religion.

Which brings us to the real reason we are uneasy, because we suspect that sometimes we may have more in common with the targets of Jesus’ judgment, that with the righteousness of his cause. It’s easy to take up a club and turn on our favorite injustices – whether City Hall or Capitol Hill – but this story makes us squirm because it makes us imagine Jesus entering our church, overturning our tables, and driving us out, in the name of a Holy God. What if these temple of our own construction, instead of being dedicated to the purposes of God – just as they thought in Jesus’ day – instead stand in opposition to them? Might Jesus say, “Stop making my Father’s house not just a marketplace, but just another form of entertainment!” (Paul C. Shupe, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 92)

Whenever I read this story I remember what a social activist named Jerry Goebel once said. Mr. Goebel runs a ministry named ONE Family Outreach, which works in jails, homeless shelters, public schools, on the streets, in churches and on the internet to share God’s message of love and social justice. Of the Jesus we read about in this story, he said:

      “Many people seem to believe that Jesus is like a candy-coated Prozac. You take a dose of him once-a-week and it helps you feel better. To them, Jesus is a comfortable, neighborly ‘guy’ that lifts your spirits and doesn’t cause a whole lot of controversy.”

In this lesson we read about the ‘OTHER Jesus’. He is not a comfortable ‘guy’. As soon as you think you have the ‘Other Jesus’ in a box – you find that you are like a man giving a bath to a bobcat in the kitchen sink.

This is not the Tea-Party Jesus. He is not the Potluck Jesus; the Jesus who sings praise songs with us in the pew nor the Jesus that makes us feel comfortable with our placid commitment to a ‘good-time’ religion.

This is the Jesus who comes to our church and asks why we have cushioned pews instead of mattresses for the homeless. This is the Jesus who interrupts worship and says; “Why are we singing happy songs in here when children in this very neighborhood are forgotten and abused?” This Jesus wants us to demonstrate our belief with action!“(www.onefamilyoutreach.com)

Action? What kind of action, we might ask? Civil disobedience has long been an American tradition; Boston Tea Party participants dumped tea; Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes; Rosa Parks, (one of the only other civilians allowed to lie in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, as Billy Graham did this week) refused to budge from her seat on the bus. Lately, high school students have staged walkouts to protest the failure of one of the most basic functions of government, to insure the safety and security of its people from violence, especially gun violence.

Douglas HughesAnd then there’s Douglas Hughes. Douglas Hughes, 64, is the (former) Florida postal worker who, on April 15, 2015, landed a gyrocopter on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, carrying 535 letters, one to each member of Congress, to protest the bipartisan corruption and dysfunction of government. John Steward called his protest, “Wack Hawk Down.”

Originally, Hughes faced six criminal charges and nine years in prison. He pleaded guilty in November 2015 to one felony and was sentenced to 120 days plus one year of probation. As part of the deal, Hughes forfeited his aircraft to the government. He was put on house arrest and lost his job with the postal service, although on appeal his pension was reinstated upon retirement. His felony conviction means he will never vote again, sit on a jury, hold public office, or possess a firearm in Florida, unless he is able – through appeal – to restore that right.

Before the sentence was handed down, Hughes said he was remorseful, and apologized to police, tourists who were scared and his family. But he said he had no regrets for the flight bringing attention to the corruption of money in politics. “It is a question of justice,” said Hughes. Perhaps, in considering what forms of protest we want to take, we should consider the judge’s words to Hughes at his sentencing: “To ‘give careful thought’ in prison to his advocacy plans “so you don’t wind up back in court.” Barred from the Capitol, this time Hughes mailed his letters.

MLK & BGOn July 18, 1957, Graham invited King, then the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptism Church in Montgomery, AL, to give a public prayer at Madison Square Garden as part of his New York crusade. Up to this time, Graham’s efforts at racial justice were to integrate his audiences, but by 1957, he knew that was not enough. Noting that his audiences were overwhelmingly white, and wanting to change that, the first step Graham took was to invite King – the most prominent black Christian in America – to pray. The Montgomery Bus Boycott — led by King — had ended just seven months earlier. Graham introduced King by saying: “A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight.” Hear Dr. King’s prayer: [video]

Personal faith and social action; both are expressions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How will we demonstrate both in our lives?

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 18, 2018

2018.02.18 “Head for the Wilderness” – Mark 1: 9 – 17

Central United Methodist Church
Head for the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 1: 9 – 17
The 1st Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

Temptation in the Wilderness

“The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Riviere, 1898”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1: 9 – 15, New Revised Standard Version

 

People have been asking what I am going to do in retirement. I am developing a long list: a lot of fix-it’s, read, revive my Hebrew, study Asian culture, ride my motorcycle, maybe some chaplaincy work, in addition to what which I do already. I have heard the warning from many of you that in retirement, you are somehow so busy that you wonder how you ever had time to work in the first place.

But before I do any of this, after working on this week’s sermon, I now know I need to do something else first, before any of these other things. What that is, is to spend some time in the wilderness. Today I want to suggest that all of us are overdue to spend some time in the wilderness, not just because that is the theme of the 1st Sunday of Lent, but because of the context in which we find ourselves these days.

After this week, some might say, if the wilderness is that place which is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, threatening, and frightening, aren’t we already there?” Yes, pretty much. Those of us “old timers” barely recognize the world we live in, where mass shootings – including mass shootings of school children – occur with regularly.

This last week in particular has been sorrowful, exhausting, frightening, and outrageous. On Tuesday, there was the murder in Chicago of Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer, by a four-time felon, Shomari Legghette. Bauer, 53, whose funeral was held yesterday, leaves behind his wife and 13 year-old daughter, and was an officer and a man praised by all who knew him. As someone who served as a police chaplain and who once led a funeral for a fallen officer, this was gripping for me: to see again a sea of blue and hear the wail of the bagpipes.

Then, while up here on the altar distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, I learned of the Florida school shooting, in which 17 people were killed. After learning what happened, as I sat here reading the Prayer of Confession there was a line I could not get past, making me feel on this Ash Wednesday that I (we) needed not just the sign of ashes, but sackcloth and ashes:

“Righteous God, in humility and repentance we bring our failures in caring, helping, and loving, we bring the pain we have caused others, WE BRING THE INJUSTICE IN SOCIETY OF WHICH WE ARE A PART, to the transforming power of your grace.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to say that when he preached, he “lit himself on fire and people came to watch him burn.” Like many, that’s how strongly I feel about the need for common sense measures of gun control; just don’t throw any matches in my direction. We simply CANNOT stand idly by and offer our thoughts and prayers – as our political leaders do – and watch our children and grandchildren get slaughtered in school. Every country in the world has people with mental health issues, every country has troubled adolescents; we are the ONLY country in the world where mass shootings occur on a regular basis, with the single correlating factor being easy access to guns, including deadly assault weapons.

In light of all that’s going on around us, what do we – the people of God – do; where do we go? According to today’s Gospel, what we need to do is take a trip to the wilderness, following our Master Jesus.

In three out of four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was a pivotal point, the affirmation of his Father’s love and the beginning of his ministry. But after that, then what? Go south, down to the Dead Sea at En Gedi, get a mud bath, float on the water, and spend a few days in R & R before beginning? Go north, to Galilee, where – as we know – he will in no time be mobbed by demoniacs and sick people, be overwhelmed by the vast ocean of people in need? Go west, up to Jerusalem, take on the Roman and Jewish authorities, which would likely mean his ministry would be extinguished before it started? Or, go that way: out into the Judean wilderness, where there is literally nothing but rocks and desert and – as Mark uniquely adds – the wild beasts.  Why would anybody do that? Why expose himself to hunger and thirst, the elements, loneliness, exhaustion, even delirium? But into the wilderness is where he goes.

Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces, about heroes in every culture. Campbell concluded that every hero, before undertaking his mission and calling, must first undergo testing. So it was for Jesus, that after his baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness for testing, before he undertook the work God called him to do.

While in Jesus’ case, the wilderness was an actual desert; metaphorically, wilderness comes in many shapes and sizes. Instead of being an actual place with rocks and sand and not much water, wilderness can also be an experience we go through in life, when and where we feel like we are alone.

Braving the Wilderness Brene BrownFor example, last year, researcher and best-selling author Brene Brown came out with a book entitled, Braving the Wilderness, and here is what she said about wilderness:

“Theologians, writers, poets, and musicians have always used the wilderness as a metaphor, to represent everything from a vast and dangerous environment where we are forced to navigate difficult trials to a refuge of nature and beauty where we seek space for contemplation. What all wilderness metaphors have in common are the notions of solitude, vulnerability, and an emotional, spiritual, or physical quest.” (Brene Brown, Surviving the Wilderness, p. 36.)

All of us can think of life experiences we have been through that fit these criteria. Maybe it was our family of origin where we felt we didn’t fit in, maybe it was leaving home for school or the military and feeling alone, maybe it was a divorce or dealing with mental illness or some other health issue. At such times we too may have felt alone, vulnerable, and emotionally and spiritually challenged.

Given this, what happens in the wilderness, at the wilderness times of life? For Jesus, he had to answer within himself, who he was, who he would listen to, what would his motives be, what his methods be, and most of all, whether he had the character not to be corrupted along the way (obviously something most of our politicians do not have). He had to determine if he had the courage and endurance to follow it through to the end, likely knowing where it would lead.

But what about though we are not necessarily embarking on a divine, world-saving mission like Jesus was, what do we need to learn in the wilderness? Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor once said that “When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.”

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, I like what Brene Brown has to say about braving the wilderness. She says that as human beings, one of our deepest desires is true belonging, the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us. But because this yearning is so primal, we often acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for true belonging, but barriers to it. So the paradox is, true belonging ALSO means being ourselves and having the courage to stand alone, braving the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism, the certain consequence of doing this.

The terms Brene Brown uses to describe what we need to learn in the wilderness are: “strong back, soft front, wild heart.”  We need a strong back, the courage to stand alone and say what we believe and do what we feel is right, despite criticism and fear it is certain to bring. We need a soft front (not a armored front, as most everybody has right now), to engage others, including those with whom we disagree. And we need a wild heart, to be ourselves, even if it means “not fitting in,” which comes with a high cost. Brene Brown concludes:

“Once we’ve found the courage to stand alone, to say what we believe and do what we feel is right despite the criticism and fear, we may leave the wilderness, but the wild has marked our hearts. That doesn’t mean the wilderness is no longer difficult, it means that once we’ve braved it on our own, we will be painfully aware of our choices moving forward. We can spend our entire life betraying ourself and choosing fitting in over standing alone. But once we’ve stood up for ourself and our beliefs, the bar is higher. A wild heart fights fitting in and grieves betrayal.“ (Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, p. 148-149)

Given this, I hope you can now understand why, once I retire, I feel like I need to take a walk in the wilderness, before I began the next and final chapter of my life. I hope you can understand why the Church and each one of us at this critical time in our society needs to head for the wilderness, to ask ourselves these questions: What is my “Strong Back?” Who and what am I willing to stand up for? Do I have a “Soft Front?” Am I vulnerable and courageous enough to engage not only those like me, with whom I agree, but those who are different, including those with whom I disagree? Do I have a “Wild Heart,” am I willing to buck conventionality and not “fit in,” if I believe this is where God is leading me at this time in my life? These are the questions we urgently need to ask ourselves, which we may only be able to ask and to answer in the wilderness.

Parkland FL GriefAs I said, after this week, it seems like we’re already in the wilderness now. After the Florida shooting, our bishop, Bishop Sally Dyck, posted this picture – seen by many of us – of a woman who had been to church on Ash Wednesday to receive the sign of ashes, but now – on the same day – had to deal with this terrible tragedy, likely the worst of her life. Speaking to the clergy of the conference, which I am re-directing to all of us, Bishop Dyck added this comment:

“I would encourage the clergy of the NIC to contemplate this picture, have some conversations and do a little reading and reflection. Preach a sermon in the next week or two, imagining what her pastor/priest will say in his/her pulpit. Listen to what parishioners have to say about what you said . . . . Pray for this woman and all the other families in South Florida. Work for the reduction of gun violence (and that might mean just talking about it in some contexts where it’s not easy). Then let this picture be your prayer to God for her, all of the families, and our country.”  Amen.

 

Note: If you would like to hear an interview between Krista Tippett of “On Being” and Brene Brown discussing these issues and her work, you may do so here, at “On Being.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 11, 2018

2018.02.11 “The Face of Jesus Christ” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6

Central United Methodist Church
The Face of Jesus Christ
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 11th, 2018

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 5 – 6, The New Revised Standard Version

 

Did you see the recent article in the news, that the ancestors of those of us who are of British ancestry, may not have looked like we think.

The recent facial reconstruction of a 10,000-year-old skeleton called the “Cheddar Man” revealed what many might find as a surprise: he was a man with bright blue eyes, slightly curly hair, and dark skin. “It might surprise the public, but not ancient DNA geneticists,” says Mark Thomas, a scientist at University College London.

 

The Cheddar Man earned his name, not because of his fondness for cheese, which likely wasn’t cultivated until around 3,000 years later, but because he was found in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, England (which is, incidentally, where cheddar cheese originates).

Using new techniques of DNA sequencing and facial reconstruction, they were able to determine his skin color, eye color, and hair type, making him the oldest British individual whose genes scientists have mapped. (Ceylan Yeginsu and Carl Zimmer, ”‘Cheddar Man,’ Britain’s Oldest Skeleton, Had Dark Skin, DNA Shows,” The New York Times, February 7, 2018.)

How and when Britons developed lighter skin over time is unclear, perhaps because light skin allows for more UV radiation, which helps break down vitamin D, or maybe – given the British weather – because they spent more time inside watching the telly. But what it demonstrates is that our ancestors may not look like what we may have imagined. This would include me, as a DNA test I took last year revealed my ancestors to have lived in Britain a thousand years ago. (What happened to my blue eyes?) For those of us who are not white, and often made to feel inferior because of it, how comforting to know that EVERYBODY once looked like you. Just how was it that we white people think we are the apex of evolution?

Similarly, it is equally true that Jesus may not have looked like we think he did, even though he lived only a mere 2,000 years ago. To explore this, I am returning to an updated version of one of MY favorite sermons, last preached 6 years ago. It is a sermon also preached by me to me, because it changed the way I think about Jesus, and may for you as well.

We do so on Transfiguration Sunday, appropriately, when St. Paul asks us to consider “the face of Jesus Christ.” Writing shortly after the middle of the 1st century, some 25 years after Jesus, Paul said this: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

The face of Jesus Christ: what did the face of Jesus look like? Did Paul even know? If you remember, Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the Apostle, met not the human but the Risen Jesus in flash of light on the way to Damascus, as recorded in Acts 9, where he was knocked to the ground by a voice and a vision, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” A chapter later, he makes the enigmatic statement: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” Did Paul ever meet the human Jesus? It is unclear if he is referring to himself in particular, or all of us in general. But whether he did or not, he didn’t tell us a thing about it.

Which is peculiar, because faces are important to us, faces make us “who we are” to each other, they are a major way we communicate with each other. Let me ask you this: how do we know what mood our husbands or wives or friends are in; usually through their faces. It is through our faces that we smile, frown, flirt, cry, and express happiness, sadness, pleasure, and pain. Consider the human wink: how many different meanings one small gesture can communicate? What an expressive instrument God has given us in our faces.

Of course, as we age, so do our faces. Our faces, once youthful, begin to acquire “character”, which is a euphemistic way of saying, wrinkles and lines and scars and way more chins than we need. Women, generally speaking, pay more attention to their faces than men; who has not heard the phrase, “let me put my face on.” The British wit Oscar Wilde once said, “If a man’s face is his autobiography, a woman’s face is her work of fiction.” Thankfully, there is a lot more all of us can do these days to put our faces on. I read recently they have invented a new cream that eradicates brown (aging) spots; I could use a couple hundred dollars worth. Which – as I understand from the price – is not much.

Given the importance of our faces, do you not think it extraordinary that no one who knew or wrote about Jesus, ever bothered to describe what he looked like?

From early on until now, Christians have had to use their imaginations to portray the face of Jesus. When one looks through the history of art at the results, the most telling observation is that, most often, people portrayed Jesus as looking like themselves, whether early Byzantine or medieval European or American Caucasian.

From the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy to the punishing bruiser of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” Jesus served the needs of the day. Blacks painted an African Jesus, such as this one, Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie, and Marc Chagall depicted Jesus as a victim of a pogrom, a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) for a loincloth. In Asia, Jesus took on almond eyes and blond hair in Scandinavia.

 

6 - Warner Sallman's Head of Christ

6 – Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ

Most of us Midwesterners, likely believe Jesus looked like this: the “Head of Christ” painted by Chicagoan Warner Sallman in 1940. Sallman was an obscure Chicago ad man, a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, who worked out of his studio on Spaulding Avenue in the North Park neighborhood. He was inspired to paint a portrait of Jesus by an art teacher who exhorted him to depict a “virile, manly Christ” who “faced Calvary in triumph.” It was distributed to World War II soldiers and eventually became the most popular Jesus representation ever, with more than 500 million copies in circulation. Just last year, someone discovered an oil original in a thrift store in River West, estimated to be worth $100,000. For many of us, at least in our imagination, this is what Jesus looked like: not only white, but these days, American and Republican.

Unfortunately, almost never does anyone imagine Jesus to look like what a Jew of his time might have looked like. Until about 15 years ago.

Such a conceptualization was based in large part on the work of Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England. Neave and a team of researchers started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used forensic science, computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time, to determine the shape of the face, and color of eyes and skin.

7 - Richard Neave's conceptualization of Jesus

7 – Richard Neave’s conceptualization of Jesus

Based upon their results; this is what Jesus might have looked like. Does this look like a man you’d be willing to drop everything and follow? (“The Real Face Of Jesus – What Did Jesus Look Like?,” by Mike Fillon, Popular Mechanics, December 7, 2002)

In 2004, while filming a documentary about the historical Jesus on CNN Presents, (The Mystery of Jesus), they went further. They discovered that even Mr. Neave was satisfied. It wasn’t just that the facial overlay made Jesus look like a New York taxi driver, it was that they didn’t like the eyes and the mouth, what the historian Robin M. Jensen, writing in the Christian Century, called “a particular dumbfounded — one might say stupid — expression.” So they hired a New York artist, Donato Giancola, who reworked the portrait, using Mr. Neave’s skull and information from other experts. The results are a more noble, even soulful, Jesus, and yet historically believable – something closer to the itinerant Galilean of history. (David Gibson, “What Did Jesus Really Look Like?”, The New York Times, February 21, 2004: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/21/arts/what-did-jesus-really-look-like.html )

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

Obviously, this representation is quite different from the typical long-haired, light-skinned and delicate-featured depiction of Jesus we imagine. This Jesus has a broad peasant’s face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose. He would have stood 5 feet, 1-inch tall and weighed around 110 pounds, which anthropologists believe was the average height and build for a person of that time and place. Given the harsh conditions, especially for working people like the members of Jesus’ family, combined with Jesus’ ascetic lifestyle, which included walking everywhere, scholars agree that he was most likely a sinewy peasant, as tough as a root and about as appealing. Remember, he also spoke a language most of us – except those of us who speak Aramaic – would not understand. What kind of new idolatry is it, that we re-make Jesus in our image, especially when we project on to him our stereotypes and prejudices? If only such portraits of Jesus as this could be posted in churches across America, perhaps it could help American Christians remember that Jesus was Jewish, not Christian, Middle-Eastern, not white.

In the end, does it matter what the face of Jesus looked like? No. Did his face have to be bright and beautiful? No. Was it foreign and different? Yes. “Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me,” says Carlos Fuentes. What Paul was saying is that whatever Jesus looked like, in him we recognize not only ourselves, but what God looks like.

Nevertheless, considering what faces communicate, it’s not surprising we have often wished for a face of Jesus to gaze upon; crucifixes and crosses are not enough.

When life is hard, when times are challenging – and faith is a struggle – we need a face of Jesus which communicates the faith he lived, amidst the hardness of his own life.

When life makes us wonder if God is aloof, apathetic and uncaring, we need a face of Jesus, which radiates the compassion of God, showing us that God is love.

When the sins of the human race are endlessly repeated, or when our own faults and failures more than we can bear, we need a face of Jesus assuring us that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.

When death seems the black hole of every human life, of everyone we’ve known and loved, we need to see the face of Jesus, radiant with life.

At the end of every funeral, before the casket is closed, there comes that time when we must say “goodbye” to the body of the person we loved. We go to the casket; we go to the face. There, for the last time, we touch the closed eyes through which the light of their personality shone; we touch the lips of a spouse that once we kissed; there, written on their face, are the lines and scars of a lifetime, each one telling a story about the person we loved, now at peace.

So now we better understand St. Paul when he said: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Whatever he looked like. Amen.

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