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 | January 14, 2018

2018.01.14 “The Dream Remains” – John 1: 43 – 51

Central United Methodist Church
The Dream Remains
Pastor David L. Haley
John 1: 43 – 51
January 14th, 2018

MLK Mem 1

“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1: 43 – 51, the New Revised Standard Version

 

MLK Mem 2It was a beautiful January day in D.C. several years ago, when on Martin Luther King Day, my family and I went to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. Since my son and daughter-in-law and grandsons live just a few miles away, it was a family outing, and appropriate, given that it is the only monument on the National Mall honoring a preacher.

There were lots of people visiting, mixing with each other, black and white, young and old. There was a choir, a group of alumni from King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, singing hymns.

Around the memorial, engraved on blocks of granite, are some of King’s most famous quotes, like:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Or this one: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

Or this one, as true than ever: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

The centerpiece of the King memorial is this sculpture of King emerging from a mountain, embodying his own words from his 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

MLK NYerThis was only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime. On this Human Relations Day, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebration, not a few of us wish Dr. King was here, especially now, at a time when the moral and civil discourse of the nation has hit a low unseen in decades. We miss his moral vision, his eloquent words, and most of all, his prophetic actions. No wonder the recent New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen portrays King where we might find him if he were with us today, kneeling in prayer between NFL football players Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. Sadly, there is no one on the national stage like Dr. King, who could address the moral outrage of our present situation with the moral vision or eloquence that he did.

So where do we begin to effect change? On this Human Relations Day, I would suggest that change begins exactly in our everyday relationships and conversations with each other. Such relationships and conversations should be based not upon the things that divide us, such as where we come from or how much money we make or what the color of our skin is, but the things that unite us, like mutual respect and compassion and not upon on where we come from or the color of our skin. As Dr. King so eloquently presented the dream, that we might “one day live in a nation where people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is exactly upon such a level, in everyday relationships and conversations, that the ministry of Jesus begins in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. It begins not in a church or temple or palace or government building, but out in the streets, the places where people meet and mingle together, not unlike the King Memorial on that day I visited a few years ago.

In recent weeks, we’ve attended [Jesus’] birth and witnessed the visit of the Magi to pay him homage. Last Sunday, as an adult, we’ve seen Jesus show up to be baptized by John in the Jordan River, with the heavens splitting open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. But now what? How and where does his ministry begin? In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with a couple guys talking to each other.

John has pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God to two of his disciples, Andrew and his brother, Simon Peter. The next day Jesus decides to go to Galilee, where he finds Philip, also from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip finds Nathanael and tells him, “We have found the One about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” We are working on two levels in John’s Gospel: on one level, the incarnate Word, the Lamb of God; but on the other level, he is disguised in plain sight, as Joseph, the carpenter’s son, from Nazareth.

Furthermore, these potential converts and future disciples are real people and they come off this way, even talking the trash talk we sometimes talk, reflecting our tribalism and provinciality, not our best selves but our worst selves. Upon hearing Philip make the astounding statement that “We have found the Messiah – and he is Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth – Nathaniel says what we might say – are you ready for it? – “Can any good thing come from that sh*th*le of Nazareth?”

Who knows what it was Nathaniel didn’t like, why he would say such a thing, since Nazareth wasn’t that far away. Were there trailer parks in Nazareth? Was their skin a little darker than the people of Bethsaida?

For us, it still raises larger questions? What is it about us that loves tribalism, preferring our country and our race and our religion above others? What is it about us, such that even when we are bad off, we need to find someone beneath us, and take joy in debasing and denigrating them? What is it about us that evaluates strangers by place of origin, residence, family, education, and station in life, rather than by need or – as King said – by the content of their character?

We ask this in a week when not just Nathaniel made a racial slur, but no less than the President of the United States. At a meeting on immigration at the White House, President Trump asked why the United States should accept people from sh*th*le places like Haiti or Africa instead of nice Nordic countries (read white) like Norway. Why would any Norwegian in their right mind want to come here and give up their free health insurance, free education, free pension? While at one time Norway was a sh*th*le country – like the countries most of our ancestors fled – Norway has now been rated as one the happiest nations on earth. More Americans are trying to move to Norway, than Norwegians are trying to move to America.

How discouraging, that on this King celebration in 2018, it has come to this. It pained me to read this week what one mother wrote in the comments section of the NY Times:

“As a 67-year old African American, born under Jim Crow, I had hoped that the pain & trauma that racism inflicts was largely behind me. I also hoped that my granddaughters wouldn’t have to deal with this issue and grow into adult-hood afflicted by these insults and apprehensive about their status in this country. So you can imagine my disgust upon hearing these comments voiced from the White House from Trump in his official capacity as spokesperson for this country. Now I’m forced to look my grandchildren in the eyes, as my parents & grandparents did me, and reassure them that they are not worthless, that their ancestors come from a magnificent continent, and they have nothing to be ashamed of.”

At least in the Gospels, after Nathaniel’s comment, things begin to look up. Philip invitingly says to Nathaniel, “Come and see!” Nathaniel did, and when Jesus sees him, he says, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” And Nathaniel says, “Do I know you?” “Nathaniel,” says Jesus, smiling, “I knew you before Philip even called you”. “Wow,” says Nathaniel, “that’s impressive.” “You think that’s impressive,” says Jesus, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” So the story begins, so we have seen and will yet see, greater things than this.

For those of us who are tired or discouraged on this King celebration weekend, Dr. King reminds us: “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort of men and women willing to be coworkers with God.” Not just Andrew and Peter and Philip or trash-talking Nathaniel, or Dr. King, but also us.

And sometimes, even by people from the so-called sh*th*le countries of the world, who should be judged not on the external characteristics like their nation of origin or color of their skin, but by the content of our character.

MensahWhen we do this, we discover American heroes like Emmanuel Mensah, 28, a handsome, sturdy New Yorker, a member of the Army National Guard, originally from the West African country of Ghana. After he got back from Army training in December, on Thursday night, December 28th, the coldest night of the year, a fire broke out in Mensah’s Bronx building. It was begun by a toddler playing with knobs of a stove, but when the mother ran out carrying the toddler, she left the apartment door ajar, which allowed the flames to spread through the building. Fueled by gusty winds, the fire tore through the century-old apartment building, killing 13 people, including four children, to become was the deadliest fire in New York City in more than a quarter-century.

Mensah easily saved himself, but then rushed back into the burning building to rescue others. Three times he rushed in and out, bringing out four people. Then Mensah dashed toward the flames again and reached the fourth floor in a desperate effort to save a fifth person. As columnist Nicholas Kristof put it in the New York Times: “This brave soul from what Trump would describe as an sh*th*le country, the kind of person Trump was insulting, never made it out. Mensah’s body was found high in the building’s wreckage. A few days ago, the Army posthumously awarded Mensah the Soldier’s Medal, its highest award for heroism outside of combat, and New York State awarded him its Medal for Valor. The citation on the state medal reads: “His courageous and selfless act in the face of unimaginable conditions are consistent with the highest traditions of uniformed service.” “Who better embodies our nation’s values? (Nicholas Kristof, Mr. Trump, Meet a Hero Whom You Maligned, the New York times, January 12, 2018)

Though we are not there yet, on this King weekend, may we one day live in a nation where people will not be judged by their country of origin or the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Toward that end, let us be co-workers with God. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 7, 2018

2018.01.07 “Milestones: Beginnings and Endings” – Mark 1: 9 – 11

Central United Methodist Church
Milestones: Beginnings and Endings
Pastor David L. Haley
Baptism of the Lord
Mark 1:  9 – 11
January 7th, 2018

OXYGEN VOLUME 13

 “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.” – (Mark 1: 9 – 11, NRSV)

 

There are milestones in life, and today is one of them, for Jesus and for us.

Today, in Mark’s Gospel, we leave the lights of Christmas behind and head out to the wilderness where John the Baptist is preaching. Suddenly, out of nowhere – this is literally the first thing that happens in Mark’s Gospel – Jesus appears to be baptized by John, to begin his brief but extraordinary three-year ministry which would change the world, and all of us.

But today is also a milestone for us, for me as your pastor and for us as a congregation. While today, in the Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry; today, on the first Sunday of 2018, I am announcing the end of mine. I have requested of our Bishop, Bishop Sally Dyck, appointment to retirement, effective July 1, with 44 years of service, after 11 years as your pastor. For some of you, this is likely not a surprise; for others, it is.

I apologize for not breaking the news personally, but there is a protocol for such things, and – after all – in a congregation – the news that the pastor is leaving is a big secret to bear, with implications for everyone. I first told Cindy Barron, our Lay Leader, in September. Then Ferdinand, as head of Staff-Parish. And – due to its financial implications – Diane Wolff-Klammer, our Chair of Finance. In October, I told the Staff-Parish Committee. In November, I sent my formal letter of request to the Bishop, and she has responded affirmatively. I set today, January 7th, as the time to announce it to you, the congregation, so now the word is out.

I am experienced and wise enough to know, that at this news, most will be sad, some will be mad, and others may be filled with fear, as to what will happen next. And – yes – others will be glad (That guy is FINALLY leaving!). As for me, I’m not at all mad, maybe only a little fearful, but I am both sad and glad. I have always liked the story of the gathering of clergy where a 90 year-old veteran pastor stood up to retire, and everyone leaned forward to hear his final words of wisdom. He leaned forward and said, “I’m just glad it’s over.”

Of course, it’s not over. Although today I officially become a lame duck, we have six more months together. Though I will remain your pastor through midnight on June 30th, I have tentatively set as the date for my last sermon, Pentecost Sunday, May 20th. If the Staff-Parish Committee and I can work out the arrangements, our goal – if we can work it out – is to arrange for an interim preacher for the month of June, to ease the transition for my successor, and allow me to devote the month of June to moving and preparing the parsonage for the next pastor. Although we do have a house to move to in Park Ridge, believe me, it will take every minute from now until June, and the thought of moving absolutely terrifies me.

During this final 6 months, my goals are three. First, to “finish strong, and end well,” as one study of clergy retirement called it, and not limp across the finish line as some pastors at this stage of their lives do. I do not say that disparagingly, I have seen it happen to some of my most loved and respected mentors and colleagues, due to overwhelming issues of grief, loss of purpose, and depression at the end of one career. If you think about it, when pastors move or retire, we lose everything: our house, our job, our church congregation, our largest circle of friends. So I would appreciate your prayers during this time of transition. During this time, I intend to be the best pastor I can be, to preach the best sermons I can preach, maybe with even greater candor.

My second goal during this time is to allow us – both me and you – to grieve and rejoice in our pastoral relationship as it comes to an end. There will be tears, on both sides, there is no way around it. As I progress through this year of “lasts,” I’ve already starting crying through my sermon preparation. Some of those “lasts” are sad (such as my last Christmas); some of them are glad (such as my last Charge Conference – Woohoo!). But also tears as we grieve the end of our pastoral relationship. After June 30th, while I can be a friend, I can no longer be your pastor, and therefore not able to officiate at baptisms, weddings, or funerals. So, if any of you were hoping I would do any of those – including your funeral – you got 5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, . . .

My third goal is to prepare the way for my successor, your next pastor, whoever he or she may be. How they will be selected is like this: In the United Methodist Church, a pastor is appointed by the Bishop, not called by the congregation, as in other traditions. Based upon their knowledge, the information we have submitted, and interviews with our Staff-Parish Committee, Bishop Dyck and her cabinet (which includes all the District Superintendents and Conference Program staff), will identify candidates whose gifts and graces match the needs of Central. In addition, maybe as soon as tomorrow, Central will be listed as a “Clear Open,” meaning any clergy interested in serving Central can submit their name for consideration (some think it will be several). From those, the Bishop and Cabinet will come up with a short list, and finally name a top candidate (ultimately, the Bishop’s decision), whom they will bring to the Staff-Parish Committee for an interview, just as they did me in May of 2007. While the final appointment is at the discretion of the Bishop, once there is consensus, a new pastor will be named. Rev. Zaki thinks this could be as soon as February or March, which I why I wanted to announce today. BTW, I did emphasize that in the last 41 years, Central has had only 3 pastors: Harry Connor, Bob Burkhart, and me. I don’t know for sure, but this might be a conference record.

I also want to be clear about this: your next Pastor will be appointed by the Bishop, in consultation with Staff-Parish; I have absolutely no say in it whatever, nor do I want to. First, because someone you might think will be great, may turn out to be not-so-great, and someone you might think “not-so-great” might turn out to be the best pastor this congregation has ever had. Secondly, I assure you no pastor in their right mind EVER wants their successor to fail, but to succeed, to do better not worse than us. I will work with them in every way to facilitate the transition, as Bob Burkhart did for me.

What I can definitely tell you is that whoever it is, they will be different than me, and that is a good thing. One of the good things about our system is that – over time – congregations experience pastors with different personalities, gifts and graces, which also calls forth different gifts and graces from congregations. Whoever follows me will be better at some things, worst in others. In the diverse knowledge and skills required in ministry, no single human being – not even Jesus or St. Paul – can be a master of all. After all, they killed both of them. If possible, I would like to retire peacefully before that happens. I know, I got 5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, . . .

So, there it is, you know what I know. In light of this, it struck me as well-timed and appropriate, when I got an invitation several months ago to be the preacher last Sunday at the 50th anniversary of Dexter-Hardin United Methodist Church, the little church I grew up in KY.

As you might surmise from the hyphen, it was the merger of two congregations who came together; the church building even straddles the county line between Marshall and Calloway County. Now it’s a circuit of 3 churches; every Sunday morning, the pastor preaches three times in three different churches. Last Sunday they all came together, so instead of the usual 30 or so in attendance, there were 120. Afterwards, I was surprised to learn that not a few were concealed carry, maybe even the pastor. After all, it is KY! I was sadly unarmed . . .

The saddest part, of course, was that so many dear to us were missing, whom we acknowledged. Former Sunday School, grade school, and high school teachers, including the agriculture teacher, a WWII vet who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day. My former Scoutmaster, who died two years ago. My grandparents, and my father, who died 6 years ago. My 87 year-old mother was there, and it was her job to introduce me. She stood up by her pew, and said, “Now, without further adieu, my favorite son and my favorite preacher,” and sat down, as I jumped to get to the pulpit. “Thank you, Mom, for that extended introduction!”

Also there – among others – was my first crush, who I went to school with from kindergarten through high school. And – sitting on the second row – the pastor I told you about a few weeks ago when I shared my call to ministry, the Rev. Tommy Bullock. I had been told he would be there, so I spoke directly to him:

“Thanks a lot, Pastor Tommy Bullock, for inviting me into ordained ministry. Believe it or not, I still remember standing back there at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, when you asked me, “Have I ever thought about the ministry?” At that time, my answer was “No,” because I wanted to be a baseball player or jet pilot; I thought being a pastor would be boring. Little did I know what an adventure it would be: the places I would go, the people I would meet, the things I would do. I am grateful.”

I am indeed so grateful. You see, while the days and weeks and months and years of ministry fly past – as 11 years have now flown past – so much of it is intangible and immeasurable. As the old joke goes, “Six days invisible, one day incomprehensible.” After 45+ years, 5 churches, 11 years as your pastor, after all the baptisms, confirmands, weddings, funerals, and sermons, may the seeds which have been planted continue to blossom and flourish, as those seeds Pastor Bullock planted in me.

Though not a beginning as Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan was a beginning, but an ending, may the next six months be fulfilling for all of us, as together we finish strong and end well.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2017

2017.12.24 Eve – “Home at Last” – Luke 2: 1 – 20

Christmas Eve Sermon
Home at Last
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 2: 1 – 20
Christmas Eve, 2017

Christmas Eve

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. – Luke 2: 4 -7, New King James Version

Welcome, and thank you for worshiping at Central on Christmas Eve.

Nobody knew what to expect this year, what with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday. What this means is that some of us have already been to church once today, which for most people is plenty. Given this, we weren’t sure anyone would return for another dose this evening; it’s kind of like a doubleheader in baseball; except for worship. You may find some consolation in the fact that this won’t happen again until 2023, by which time some of us won’t have to worry about it.

Given this, I promise not to go on too long. Because when I ask people what makes a good Christmas sermon, the answer is usually, “short.” I keep in mind the story of the preacher who was in the middle of his Christmas Eve sermon, when the lights when out. When they came back on, he asked, “Now, where was I?” A voice from the back said, “Near the end.”

I have preached the Christmas story some 41 times now, and each Christmas I struggle to know what to say. Part of the reason is that at Christmas I myself am always filled with a sense of loss and longing, which I can never quite put into words. But I have come to think that what it is, is a loss and longing for home, triggered by our associations with the beloved Christmas story.

I have wonderful memories of childhood Christmases, growing up – as I did – in Kentucky. As a student, I spent many Christmases on the road trying to get home, sometimes even driving in all night, sometimes in blizzards, once even sleeping in a church when there was no room in the inn, like the Baby Jesus.

Others of us may have experienced not being able to go home for Christmas in other ways, such as being in the military. Just consider the Christmas favorite, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby. Written in 1943, eight years before I was born, it went to the top of the charts, propelled by all those home-sick American GI’s stuck overseas during World War II. It has remained a holiday classic, because it voices the homesickness for Christmas we still have: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” When my son Chris was deployed to Al Assad Airbase in Iraq as a Marine in Christmas of 2009, he described it this way: “You have everything you could ever want there. Except your friends and family. Which is everything you could ever want.”

And, even though no longer students or military, we have all experienced life. In my case, my Mom, 87, still lives down in KY, in our “old Kentucky home.” I’ve raised four children, assembling toys after Christmas Eve services. I’ve lived in houses – sometimes for decades – and eventually took a last look inside, closed the door, and walked away. Now all my children are grown, and live around the country, and so now at Christmas, I ask myself, “Where is home anymore?” Is it where I am, where they are, or in none of those places? Is home where we make it, or is home the place where, as poet Robert Frost once put it, “When you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Given this, no wonder at Christmas, we may feel a sense of longing and loss.

I have thought about this since years ago when I read author Frederick Buechner’s account of how, on a mid-December Sunday, as a student in New York City, he went to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where a man named George Buttrick was the preacher. In his sermon, Buttrick said the previous Sunday as he was leaving church, he overheard somebody asking, ”Are you going home for Christmas?” Said Buechner:

“I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again, ”Are you going home for Christmas?” – and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.” (Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home)

What could he possibly mean? Obviously, not the real Bethlehem. Like some of you, I have been there, and while it is an interesting, colorful place – with Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling all year round – it is not a place we would call home, as – given the current political situation there – even decreasing numbers of Palestinian Christians do.

What I think Buttrick was referring to was this story and its meaning, for all of us on our journey through life. How could we not have empathy for this poor couple, essentially homeless, at one of the times in life when they most needed a safe and comfortable place for their baby to be born. At such a time, they are dependent upon the hospitality of strangers, according to Luke’s Gospel, shepherds; according to Matthew’s Gospel, visiting Magi, the Three Kings. BTW, have you heard, that under the Trump Administration, in light of the new Tax Code, the Christmas story is being revised this year such that Jesus, Mary and Joseph will have give gifts to the Three Kings, rather than receive them, as we remembered, as will all the rest of us. Because obviously, while we have enough, they don’t. After 2,000 years, we’re still waiting for the trickle-down effect. After all, who of us ever has enough gold, frankincense, or myrrh? Especially gold?

I know there are those who say we should keep this story religious and not political, by which they mean sentimental, but that sheep is already out of the barn, given the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, ““Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” By this Luke means a new Savior and Lord, as opposed to the current Savior and Lord, Caesar Augustus, who used these names for himself. So, right from the outset, everyone understood Luke was making a political statement, announcing the birth of a different Lord with a different kingdom with different values. No wonder Herod was frightened.

Regarding those values, one commentator, Carlos Rodriguez, has observed that what we learn as we read the Christmas story in the light of this year’s current cultural and political context, is that:

– Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life.
– Christmas is about a family finding safety as refugees.
– Christmas is about a child in need receiving support from the wealthy.
– Christmas is about God identifying himself with the marginalized not the powerful.

After this shaky beginning, when the baby grew up, he didn’t do much better, in regard to having a home. Born in Bethlehem, he was a refugee in Egypt, raised in Nazareth, and ministered in Galilee. Other than the homes of his friends, such as Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum and Martha and Mary and Lazarus’ home in Bethany, he didn’t have one of his own. He once said, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” Even in death, his body was laid in a borrowed tomb, belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel of John says it most eloquently: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10–11). His final home was to be with God and in our hearts.

Meanwhile, like Joseph and Mary and Jesus, we wonder through the world looking for home, from childhood home to dorm room to army base to apartment to house to condo to assisted living (if we can afford it). I have always thought the Mexican Christmas tradition of Las Posadas portrays this perfectly. Whole towns and villages take part in the procession, following one young couple honored to portray Jose and Maria through the streets, going from house to house asking for someone to take them in, to provide shelter. With the current deportations, Las Posadas has taken on an even deeper meaning: who will provide shelter to Jose and Maria? Who will take them in?

Years ago in the Guideposts Christmas Treasury there was a story about a fellow named Willie Perkins. Willie was a simple but good man; his problem was he didn’t know how to say, “No.” When all the other kids shunned somebody, Willie would be the first to play with them. When there was a fight, Willie was the first who would make peace. Perhaps it was a mistake, but Willie was who they picked to be the innkeeper in the school nativity play. You can guess where this is going . . .

When Joseph and Mary knocked on the door, Willie threw it open, and yelled: “Sorry, there is no room. Go elsewhere.” Joseph pleaded: “Please, sir, we’re so tired and weary; couldn’t you find a place for us?” There was a pause. The stage prompter, in a stage whisper, said: “No, there’s no room, go elsewhere,” which Willie finally echoed.

Arm in arm, Joseph and Mary began to walk off stage. But before they did, a voice came from behind them; it was Willie: “No, wait, come back. You can have my room.” Some thought the play was ruined; others thought it was the best nativity they had ever seen.

When we run out of options on earth, when our mortal lives come to an end, who will take us in? We believe that because of this One for whom there was no home on earth, we have a house not made with human hands, a home in the heart of God, where Christ is, where God will take us in.

In this story about a humble birth, a newborn infant who becomes a man, we learn that we are loved and accepted by God, and so we are safe, secure, alive, and challenged to live as fully as we can, and thereby at home, home at last. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2017

2017.12.24 – “Ave Maria” – Luke 1:46-55

Central United Methodist Church
Ave Maria
Pastor David L. Haley
December 24, 2017
The 4th Sunday of Advent
Luke 1: 46 – 55

 Advent 4

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 

          The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

          Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 

          The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

          Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” – Luke 1: 26 – 38, NRSV

It is the Fourth and final Sunday of Advent, and while megachurches are presenting Christmas extravaganzas, liturgical churches like Catholics and Episcopalians and Lutherans and Presbyterians and us Methodists are saying, “Wait!” “Wait!” “Hold!” like parents walking with their children into Toys R Us.
Christmas, however, is only hours away, so we are all in a hurry to prepare for the big event. First of all, we need to bring on stage the most important actor in the Christmas story after Jesus; his mother Mary. Some might say she is even more important, because without Mary we get no Jesus.

Secondly, not only do we need to introduce Mary, we’ve got to get this pregnancy underway. At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, Mary is not even pregnant. At the end, she is – which, fortunately for us here in church – remains SFW (safe for work) throughout. But – on this year’s schedule – Mary’s got to push that baby out by tonight. Imagine that: a 7½ hour gestation and pregnancy. Probably only a moment of morning sickness. Talk about a Christmas miracle! What mom wouldn’t want that? Thirdly, I know I need to be brief, because with two more services today; everyone wants to get home and take a nap, including me.

In the history of the church, and especially in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Mary holds a place of importance second only to Jesus.  After all, her words of “Ave/Hail” have come to open the prayer that ranks second only to the Lord’s Prayer in the number of times it has been spoken over the centuries of Christendom: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.”

Likewise, Mary’s Song, known in Latin as the Magnificat, has been given a place in the daily prayer of the church, in the evening, perhaps to remind us daily of the way God works in the world.

Catholics know Mary well, but we Protestants sometimes aren’t so sure what to make of Mary, we think she is Catholic. The late Peter Gomes of Harvard Divinity School used to tell the story about a former Dean of St. Paul’s in London — and you could substitute any prominent Protestant — who arrives in heaven. Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you’ve met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.”

It’s true, most of the time Mary is missing from much of our tradition and practice and liturgy. Until Christmas, that is, when she shows up in the Crèche, and on countless Hallmark cards, looking like – as someone once said – as if she just returned from having her hair and nails done, to discover this chubby little baby waiting.

In this year which has focused upon the mistreatment of women, we could raise some interesting questions. Did Mary actually give informed consent, or was there a compelling power equation, what with Gabriel being an angel and everything? And if Mary was under 18, could she give informed consent? Shouldn’t Gabriel have been talking to her parents, rather than to an underage minor? Can you believe that in the recent Senatorial election, some conservative Christians in Alabama, in defense of the dating habits of Senate candidate Roy Moore, actually cited the precedent of Joseph and Mary? While it’s true that modern standards should not be applied to ancient stories, it’s is also true that ancient practices fall short of modern standards, like child brides, for example. Because, as with science, our understandings or what is right and true and good continue to evolve.

Today, when we meet Mary, she is a humble young woman confronted by an angel, given an invitation to be the “theotokos,” the mother of God. Will she, or won’t she? Would you?

I love how this moment – known as the Annunciation (Announcement) has been portrayed in art, such as this portrayal by Fra Angelico, or this one by Botticelli, where it seems all heaven and earth wait upon Mary’s word.

Annunciation 2

Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Annunciation 2

Annunciation by Botticelli

Informed consent? How could Mary ever know – any more than we ever know – what saying “yes” to God’s purposes would mean for her? Not only the stigma of an unwed pregnancy, but the difficulty of his birth, which we celebrate at Christmas. Not only would she nurse and raise Jesus, she is the only person who would be with him almost every day of the 33 years of his brief life. She would be with him when he entered the city of Jerusalem the week before the Passover, in the crowd when he was arrested and tried, and there when he was crucified. She watched her son die and one of the last things Jesus did on earth, was he asked his friend to take care of her. In other words, she is the second most important person in the Jesus story. But what she is most known for – especially on this day – is for saying “yes” to God.

It’s frightening, isn’t it, to think of the consequences of the decisions we make, which we can never fully know, nor re-make later, on the basis of what we learn. Where we live, where we go to school, who we marry, what we do with our lives? As an example, one of my great regrets in life is that I did not serve in the military; in my family, out of four generations (and maybe more), I am the only one who did not, just missing Viet Nam by a few years. But if I had, who knows what would have happened: I might not exist, my family would not exist, I would not have served as a pastor to five congregations, or be standing here talking to you right now. No wonder the Jewish Talmud says, “Whoever saves one life, saves a whole world.” Decisions have consequences, in Mary’s case, by bearing the Messiah, though a sword would pierce her own soul, she would also save the world.

Despite that fact that Mary may have been an unwed minor, uneducated and likely even illiterate, she was no theological novice; as demonstrated in the song she sang. As author Kathleen Norris once observed, “When we know God’s voice and answer God’s call, we sing.” And so Mary sings. But her song is no simple song, it is a revolutionary manifesto, not only of what God is doing for her, but what God is doing in the world. As Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message:

“God bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.”

Mary’s song sounds the first clear trumpet call that the Baby she bears will be world-transforming and universe-shaking. Mary’s song is a song sung to all people like her, making clear that God is not on the side of the high and the mighty, the Caesar’s and the Herod’s and Trumps of the world; rather, God is on the side of the humble and the poor and the oppressed, people like her and her fiancé Joseph and her baby, a baby so poor he would be born in a manger, attended by shepherds. Mary’s song proclaims that Jesus comes to do what God has always done, as we heard last Sunday from the prophet Isaiah: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
to release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 61).

Given Mary’s example, the question that remains, is “What about us?” Are we, like Mary, open to saying “yes” to the purposes of God in the world, in whatever ways – large or small – God asks of us? Granted, it will not be to bear a new Messiah – Mary, the theotokos (God-bearer) did that once and for all – but we never know, exactly how or when God is going to invite, use us, to do God’s work in the world.

This last week before Christmas can be a busy and frightening week for all of us, and no less so for us pastors. It always seems that every year, just when I’m scared to death whether I’ll make it, God asks of me one more thing.

One year in particular, stands out in my memory. It was a Sunday afternoon, December 15, 2002, when the phone rang; it was one of my fireman friends. He and I were often the two senior members of a four-member ladder or rescue company. He owned a Heating & Air Conditioning business; I was a Methodist preacher; let’s just say we had different gifts.

But on this particular day, it was my gifts that were needed, because he said, “Dave, my daughter just died, and I was wondering if you could help us. We’re not very religious and we don’t go to your church, so if you can’t do it, I understand.” “Yes,” I said, “Yes, of course I’ll help in every way I can.”

All most everyone in town knew his daughter, who was 21, one of those special people born with Down’s Syndrome, who bagged groceries at the local Jewel. In her short life, she touched many people; the day of the funeral, the funeral home was filled. I said, to those sitting before me: “Some people like to think of angels as fearsome beings who always have to preface their remarks with, “Do not fear”; but the real angels in life are more often sweet souls like this, who once they get our attention, teach us by their lives, and change us profoundly.” At last, when her Dad spoke, he said it best, better than I ever could, in words I’ve never forgotten: “I cried the day she was born and the day she died, but I laughed every day in between.”

Whether male or female, whether gifted or not, we are called to be like Mary, to allow our lives to become the dwelling place of God, to say yes to God’s purposes, to bear Christ in the world. Like Mary, may God grant us the grace, the trust, and the courage to say: “Yes.” So Be It. Amen.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 17, 2017

2017.12.17 “Ode to Joy” – Isaiah 61: 1 – 4; Psalm 126

Central United Methodist Church
Ode to Joy
Pastor David L. Haley
Isaiah 61: 1 – 4; Psalm 126
The 3rd Sunday of Advent
December 17th, 2017

Advent 3

When the LORD brought back the exiles of Zion, we thought we were dreaming.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter; our tongues with songs of joy.
Then the nations said: “What great deeds the LORD worked for them!”
“What great deeds the LORD worked for us!” Indeed, we were glad.
Bring back our exiles, O LORD, as streams in the south.
Those who sow in tears will sing when they reap in joy.
They go out, they go out, full of tears, bearing seed for the sowing;
          they come back, they come back, with a song, bearing their sheaves in joy.
– Psalm 126, The Grail Version

The theme of the 3rd Sunday in Advent is joy. For this reason, it has been traditional on this Sunday to light a pink or rose-colored candle, instead of purple as used for the other three Sundays of Advent. Likewise, the liturgical name of this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin “gaudete,” “Rejoice.”

When I was growing up in West Kentucky, we hillbillies had mysterious remnants of Scots-Irish slang still floating around, and one of them was that if you wore something particularly loud or showy, someone might accuse you of being “gaudy”. Have you ever hear that word? Little did I know that it comes from this same Latin word for joy. I guess today – on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, we should all be a little “gaudy.”

What is joy? The simplest definition would be “ecstatic or exultant happiness,” but we all know that words do not adequately describe joy; we know joy when we have it.

The Christian author C. S. Lewis once distinguished joy from happiness in his book about his life entitled, “Surprised by Joy.” There, Lewis called joy “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”  He went on to say:

“Joy must be distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.  I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.  But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”  (Surprised by Joy, p. 18)

Can you remember a time in your life when you were delirious with joy? For those of us who are older, although we obviously still experience joy, sometimes it may seem more like a memory. Everyone can remember when we were a child at Christmas, or when we were young and in love, or when our children were born, – or, for us adoptive parents – the first time we held them. It was too wonderful to be true, feelings of almost inexpressible joy we will never forget as long as we live.

But then, life beats us down. Such that, for some of us, our former songs of joy may now be songs of lament. Christmas is joyful, yes, but not like when we were children, when we weren’t the ones doing the heavy lifting. Even though we were once “in love,” and may still be, we may be scarred, having endured the death of relationships and even marriages, and we know that even loving relationships can be hard. Even those children we once welcomed with joy, may sometimes drive us nuts or even break our hearts. Others, through no fault of their own, may struggle through loneliness or illness or the dark days and nights of depression, especially during the holidays, when it may be worse, especially if we have lost loved ones during the year. And our songs of joy become songs of lament: “We remember when …“ How do we find joy again?

Some have labeled our ability to do this, as resilience, one of the most discussed and desired qualities of life. Resilience is that quality that allows people – who when knocked down by life – the ability to bounce back, to rise – like the mythical Phoenix – from the ashes of their lives. Yet it strikes me that resilience is like sobriety, you either have it or you don’t, and you may not find out whether you have it or not, until you need it. While what exactly what makes for resilience can be elusive, there are many factors that contribute to resilience in life: good physical, mental, and emotional health, strong support networks of family and friends, and supportive mentors and counselors. However, having observed people’s rising and falling over the years, I also believe that another strong factor in resilience is an attitude of faith and hope, which we find in our faith in God.

Such faith and hope is exactly what the Scriptures provide us on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, some of the very best in the Bible. Their goal and the motive of God who inspired them is not just to survive, but to know joy, especially after disaster.

Consider the word of the Lord spoken through Isaiah the prophet. What had happened was this: In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. During those years, the first part of Isaiah – chapters 1 through 39 were written, warning of impending judgment. Judgment was not averted, and in 587, Judah was conquered and Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians, with the people taken into exile to Babylon. In 539, Cyrus the Great, King of the Persians, conquered Babylon, and one of the first things he did was to allow the Jews to return to their own land. During that time, 2nd Isaiah wrote the great passage we heard last week:

“Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40: 1 – 2)

Once they arrived home, what they found was discouraging. Even though most had never seen Solomon’s temple, the temple built to replace was pathetic in comparison. They were discouraged with the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and their nation, and they asked themselves: “Is this as good as it is going to get?”

And then comes along the prophet known as 3rd Isaiah, in Isaiah 61. What he has to say sounds like a mother comforting her children:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion.“

No one knows who this powerful prophet was, but his words have remained influential throughout history, especially after a young rabbi named Jesus stood in the pulpit of his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and claimed these for himself. They remain powerful to this day in this congregation and in our lives, still bringing good news, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to captives and release to prisoners, still proclaiming the Lord’s favor. These words are the true work of Christmas.

The possibility of joy after sorrow is also the theme of the Psalm, Psalm 126:

“When GOD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“GOD has done great things for them.”
GOD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

“This,” says the Psalmist, “is what it was like to return from exile.” This is what it feels like to know joy again after sorrow: ‘Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.’”  It is like being a child at Christmas, like being in love, like holding our children for the first time.

When we are in the depths of depression, it’s hard to believe we will ever experience joy again. When we are discouraged, it is hard to imagine hope lies ahead. When we despair about the state of the nation and the society we live in, it’s hard to believe, as President Obama often reminded us, that progress doesn’t always travel in a straight line, or as Dr. King used to say, that “though the moral arc of the universe may be long, it bends toward justice. And yet the ancient word of the prophets and Psalmists, the Word of God to us in the Bible, tells us that “those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” that those who go out, bearing their seeds for sowing, will come back, bearing their harvests with joy.” As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”

Everyone knows Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) was one of the greatest composers ever. Most people know that he wrote the 9th Symphony, his Ode to Joy, one of the most joyful pieces of music in all time. Yet most people don’t know that in his early life he was beaten by his alcoholic, abusive father, that he experienced unrequited love, perhaps by the one he called his “Immortal Beloved,” that though a musician he was deaf by the age of 31, and died – most likely of lead poisoning – at the age of 56.

In Bernard Rose’ 1994 film, “Immortal Beloved,” Beethoven was portrayed by actor Gary Oldman (now starring as Sir Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”). During the first performance of the 9th symphony, Beethoven wanders onto the stage, too deaf to hear the music, and as he gazes on the stage’s star-studded backdrop, he remembers his childhood. As the camera focuses on Beethoven’s face, and we hear what he is hearing: nothing. Then, we hear the music playing in Beethoven’s mind and imagination, as he remembers a time when it seemed even the stars sang for joy. Afterwards, when we return to the present, the real music has concluded, and Beethoven stands with his back to the audience with tears in his eyes. Finally, the conductor must tap him on the shoulder, that he might turn to see the standing ovation he cannot hear. [You may view the scene on YouTube here.

May God restore our fortunes. Amen.
May all who sow in tears, reap in joy. Amen.
May all who go forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
return home, harvest in hand, in joy. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 10, 2017

2017.12.10 “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness” – Mark 1: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 1: 1 – 8
December 10th, 2017

Advent2

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

                    “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

                             who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

          John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1: 1 – 8, The Message

 

As an old person who has seen a lot and who would therefore say that there is not much that surprises me, I must say the recent avalanche of sexual harassment accusations HAS surprised me, as they have likely surprised you; that is, unless you are a woman.

How have the mighty fallen: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, and the list continues to grow. Although – as some might point out – the list of those who should have fallen but haven’t is longer yet.

This is a complex subject with high consequences, so I will choose my words carefully. On the one hand, as far as I know, we still live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, although with this accusation the trial takes place in the media, not the courts, so those rules don’t apply. On the other hand, no one WOULD ever be proven guilty, if we discredit the testimony of the women who are the accusers and victims, as we have done up until now. Consider, as a glaring example, the 1991 case of Anita Hill vs Clarence Thomas, still a member of the Supreme Court.

There is a wide spectrum here, from false accusation (which can destroy a man’s life and reputation), to intentional, serial, predatory behavior, which destroys women’s lives and careers, which has happened more than we know. There has always existed that “old boy” network of power, excusing predatory behavior, hiding it behind a code of silence. This network exists in business, entertainment, sports, government – in every aspect of life – and women were its victims, left to suffer in shame and silence. A reckoning is long overdue.

TIMEWhat’s different now is that women are emboldened, standing up, speaking out, and being heard. When Time magazine selected their “Person of the Year,” they selected those women they named “The Silence Breakers,” who are being joined by millions of others. Even though the #MeToo hashtag was first used more than a decade ago by social activist Tarana Burke as part of her work building solidarity among young survivors of harassment and assault, in October a friend of the actor Alyssa Milano sent her a screenshot of the phrase, and Milano, almost on a whim, tweeted it out. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” she wrote, and then went to sleep. She woke up the next day to find that more than 30,000 people had used #MeToo overnight. Milano burst into tears. (Time, the Silence Breakers.)

And names continue to add, with the revelations sometimes coming in personal and shocking ways. The NY Times had an article Saturday entitled, You Know, I Never told You This: Families Discuss Sexual Assault,” detailing family stories. For example, Tony, 59, from Chicago, was talking with his mother, 84, from Oak Park. As Tony and his mother watched news about Al Franken pantomiming groping a young woman, Tony told his mother he was disappointed by the number of men who had “done this to women.” That’s when Tony’s mother first told him he was conceived after a man took her to a party and then raped her. (December 9, 2017, The New York Times). Without intending to bring up bad memories, can we just acknowledge that in any and every congregation – including this one – there are women who could add their names to #MeToo?

I realize this is not a “Merry Christmas” topic to talk about, and maybe not even in church, but I have gone on at length about this it because it is an example of what happens when we finally hear voices from the margin, voices crying out in the wilderness. In this case, women, but it could also be people of color or immigrants or the poor or all the above in one – especially women – those on the lower rungs of the social ladder who are housekeepers and hotel maids, nursing aides or sales staff, only to name a few, who though shamed or wronged could not speak out for fear of losing their jobs and not being to provide for their families. Up until now, they have been voices crying in the wilderness, to whom no one would listen, if they said anything at all.

What a surprise on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, to hear that The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus, the Messiah, the Song of God, according to Mark, begins with a voice on the margins, a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Imagine you live in Galilee around 70 CE, when Mark’s Gospel was written. There’s a war on; radical Jewish rebels have revolted against Rome, and – as a result – Jerusalem is under siege. People are divided: some see God’s hand in this, raising up warriors to push the infidels out; others urge submission to Rome as the only path to peace and security. Even in villages, where the population is mixed between Jews and Gentiles, tensions are high. Neighbors fear one another. Families fracture along ethnic lines.

One small sect refuses to fight on either side; the followers of a Galilean Rabbi named Jesus. You are intrigued and want to know more; someone hands you a scroll with a title scribbled on it: The Beginning of the Good News About Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. “Messiah,” the one coming to bring God’s Messianic Kingdom, would appeal to Jews; “Son of God,” a name used for Caesar, would appeal to Gentiles. (Christopher Hutson, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, p. 48).

And where the story begins is not in Jerusalem, not in Herod’s Palace or in the Temple, the two centers of political and religious power, but out in the desert, the wilderness, where the wild and woolly John the Baptist is preaching. He’s a man who dresses in camel’s hair and eats bugs; that’s about as marginal as you get. And who is he, according to Mark?

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness,

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

It is not possible to read the story of Jesus – especially in Mark’s Gospel – without noting how the Good News that comes to us in Jesus begins, continues, and even ends as a voice on the margins. Jesus’ humble birth, as described (differently) by Matthew and Luke; his healing and preaching ministry, as well as those to whom he ministered – fishermen, women, tax collectors, widows, the diseased and demon-possessed; people living on the margins. When he finally made it to the bright lights of the Big City of Jerusalem, he was so threatening to the powers “that be” that they killed him, crucifying him on a rocky outcropping just outside the walls. Even after his resurrection, he was last seen on a mountain outside of Jerusalem, or way up north in Galilee. His whole life was lived on the margins.

After his resurrection, his early followers were mostly humble people, both Jews and Christians. As St. Paul wrote to the Church at Corinthians: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Through the centuries, Jesus’ followers and his Church have always been at its best, when they took the side – not of the high and mighty, which inevitably corrupts – but with those on the margins, the poor and those who have no voice.

JWConsider John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, who, when invited by his friend George Whitefield to engage in “field preaching,” admitted in his diary:

“I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields…; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sing if it had not been done in a church.”

But Wesley did it, and – as he described it:

“At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation ….: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

But now we have come full circle. At a time when many – especially among Evangelicals – have blessed those in power – the Church again stands in danger of corruption and cultural and political idolatry. As Dean William Inge said in the 19th century: “The Church which marries the spirit of one age will find itself a widow in the next.” We are alienating the younger generations (and some of us from the older generation) who no longer see in the Church people of compassion like Jesus, who in the Gospels is always found among the marginalized and poor, not catering to the high and mighty.

All the more reason we must stand and speak from the margins, be voices crying out in the wilderness. This week in her commentary on the Gospel, Karoline Lewis, Lutheran Pastor and Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, put it this way:

“In a world where Christianity is constantly manipulated to perpetuate a view that God’s pleasure is found in prosperity and the super-rich; in a world where Christianity is consistently exploited to support child sexual predators as lawmakers; in a world where Christianity is continuously used to justify treason and duplicity, the wilderness is from where we must preach, more than ever.” (Karoline Lewis, “Wilderness Preaching,” December 3, 2017, working preacher.org)

But – as we all likely learned from our various experiences in the wilderness, the wilderness can be a lonely place. As those of us in the progressive wing of such mainline denominations as Methodism find ourselves there, we may feel increasingly like the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, marginalized, but holding fast to the truth, a voice crying out in the wilderness.

But that’s OK. Because if we find ourselves there, that’s where Jesus is, because that’s where his people are. They are crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination have excommunicated them; crying out across borders where profiling and bigotry have ejected them; crying out from the confines of silence where sexual harassment and sexual violence have exiled them. (Karoline Lewis).

In the light of #MeToo, it seems more than appropriate that the theme of John’s preaching was repentance. The Monday after the #MeToo tweet, Australian journalist and screen writer Benjamin Law created the hashtag #HowIWill Change as a way for men to publicly commit to actionable change against cultures of sexual violence. “Guys, it’s our turn,” Law tweeted. “After yesterday’s endless #MeToo stories of women being abused, assaulted and harassed, today we say #HowIWill Change.” Men began to respond with what we need to do, what they would commit to, such things as “Not to be harassers ourselves,” To apologize. To listen to and believe women. To teach our sons to respect women, and provide role models for our daughters. To work at a women’s shelter. To ask businesses for equal rights and equal pay information. Not to use the Bible to subjugate women.

In short, having heard the voices of women, crying out in the wilderness, we have a lot of work to do. Lord, have mercy. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 3, 2017

2017.12.03 “Watching, Waiting, Hoping” – Isaiah 64: 1 – 4

Central United Methodist Church
Watching, Waiting, Hoping
Pastor David L. Haley
Isaiah 64: 1 – 4
December 3rd, 2017

Advent 1

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”

– Isaiah 64: 1 – 4, The New Revised Standard Version

 

Today, as we arrive at the 1st Sunday of Advent, the start of another Christian year, I feel more like a runner at the END of a race, than ready to START another one. More like a coach in NEED of a half-time talk, than ready to give one. More in need of an inspirational sermon, than ready to deliver one. Here’s why.

I – and others, I am sure – feel an escalating anxiety and fear regarding the state of our government and country. Centuries’ old traditions and norms are being broken, both in the Executive Branch and in Congress. Former newsman Dan Rather described it this way:

“The sheer audacity of the rushed and cynical tax bill which shatters so much of our legislative norms feels like an assault on the workings of our republic. The brazen hypocrisy of all those Republicans in Congress who used to sanctimoniously lecture the nation on the danger of deficits is enough to fuel a slide into despair. The lies, after lies, after lies, coming out of the White House – and normalized by Congressional allies – gives our age a feeling of being adrift from truth. And as the Mueller investigation grows ever closer to the President and his family, one wonders whether our Constitutional framework will hold.” (Dan Rather, Facebook post, December 2, 2017)

For those who have not been paying attention, it’s time to begin. Once again, our country faces a constitutional crisis like Watergate, except worse; will our Constitutional framework hold? The prospect of this does not make me happy, it makes me sick, fearful for my children and for my grandchildren and my country, all of which I love. Democracy is fragile; you can only erode the institutions that support democracy so far before they cease to function, and eventually fail. Some are beginning to wonder if we have reached that time.

For others of us, these things may seem way over our head, beyond our pay grade. We may feel like it’s all we can do to make ends meet, keep our family together, raise our children, deal with disease or addiction or whatever personal struggles life has given us, without worrying about government; perhaps this is why many do not vote. Sometimes, in the midst of our own struggles, we get discouraged, maybe even tempted to despair.

Thankfully, the season of Advent welcomes such feelings and confessions, especially in regard to our faith. And it does so in two ways. (1) Through the acknowledgment, that while there are times we feel God’s presence, there are other times – maybe even much of the time – when we do not, and we wonder where God is. (2) With the result that, the seeds of our spiritual lives are planted in the fertile soil of our longing and yearning for God, and for God’s presence in our lives and in the society in which we live, especially in such times as these.

Given this, it should be no surprise that we begin a new Christian year with Scriptures which express such feelings, which we learn are both ancient and contemporary, personal and universal. Hear, for example, the text we read earlier from the ancient prophet Isaiah, imploring God:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brush or makes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

The situation is this: Isaiah is an old man, returned with his people from exile in Babylon. Once released, the Jewish refugees were allowed to return to Jerusalem only to find a city in ruins, a temple in ruins, their lives in ruin. In his youth, Isaiah had had a powerful vision of God in the temple, calling him into service. But now perhaps he stands in the rubble of that same temple and cries out amidst the devastation: “God, tear open the heavens and come down!”  Isaiah prays the prayer of all people who long for God, people who feel God’s absence more than God’s presence.

“Where is God?” thus becomes the question with which Advent opens. It is the church’s wisdom that the best way to prepare for God’s coming among us – at Christmas or anytime – is to first spend some time waiting in the darkness, acknowledging our need, emptying ourselves. As we wait, we pray that most primal of prayers: “Dear God, help us,” perhaps the oldest and most often prayed prayer in history.

At some time or another in our lives – maybe even today – all of us have prayed it. When we prayed it, we may have felt like we were only talking to ourselves. Or maybe we prayed it at the bedside of someone in pain or dying, asking for God’s help for them, but nothing happened. Maybe we prayed in the midst of a disaster or tragedy, “God, tear open the heavens and come down” but there was no response, at least none that we could perceive. Is it a comfort to know that this is a common experience of people of faith?

But perhaps what’s most amazing of all is that even at such times, thanks to the bedrock of our faith, we do not give in to resignation and despair, but maintain faith and hope. Indeed, even Isaiah’s invocation of God ends in such a way:

“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Today, as we light Advent candles that give voice to our longings, we say, both, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and “Dear God, help me,” because deep in our hearts we believe God hears our prayers and – in God’s own way and God’s own time – answers.

Deep in our hearts we believe that in the birth of a child in Bethlehem long ago, God did come down.

Deep in our hearts we believe that at his baptism in the Jordan River, God did tear open the heavens.

Deep in our hearts we believe that as he walked the dusty roads of Galilee and healed the sick and welcomed the outcasts and restored the unclean, as he taught that it is better to give than to receive, and that the highest and best any of us can ever do is give our love and our lives away as he gave his away, God came down to us.

Deep in our hearts we believe that as he died in humble obedience, God did tear open the heavens and come down, such that on the third day, death could not contain him, and the love and power of God defeated the powers of violence and injustice, the sin and death that had captured him, and inevitably capture us all. (with acknowledgment to Rev. John Buchanan, “Dear God, Help!”, Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, November 20, 2005.)

But even though ultimately defeated, these evil powers over us continue to raise their ugly heads – like zombies who keep coming back from the dead: hate and injustice, racism and sexism, bigotry and bullying, lies and greed, not to mention the zombie theory of “trickle down” economics, which keeps coming back even though it has never, ever, worked, anywhere.

As for our current situation, I agree with something else Dan Rather said: that at such times as we are going through now we have to reach back into our history, and remember the hard times our nation has endured in the past, and survived. George Washington holding together his ragged army in the cold of Valley Forge; Abraham Lincoln guiding us through the crucible of the Civil War; Susan B. Anthony fighting for women’s right to vote; Dr. King pursuing the way of non-violence through a time of violence and turmoil. Our country has survived wars and assassinations, political scandals and terrorist attacks; somehow, we will survive what we face now, too.

Meanwhile, we ask, as Isaiah asked so long ago, “Where is God?” In Advent, we remember that sometimes there is no immediate or apparent answer to this question. And, while there are times that there are things we can do about our situation, there are also times where there is nothing we can do but sit in the dark and watch and wait.

In a previous time such as this – a time which our own increasingly resembles – Nazi Germany in the early ‘40’s, German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis for his role in the German resistance, for which he would eventually be executed. But a year and a half before that, in November of 1943, he wrote from his prison cell to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in words that have become my favorite description of what it is we do in this time called Advent:

“My dearest Maria, by the time you receive this letter it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me. A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task, and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors being opened from the outside, is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.” [21 November 1943, Love Letters from Cell 92, 118].

In Advent, we watch and we wait and we hope, for ourselves and for our country, for the God who works for those who wait. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
What to Put Above the Church Door
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 31 – 46
Christ the King Sunday
November 26, 2017

CtK

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

          Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”– Matthew 25: 31 – 46, New Revised Standard Version

It was about 20 years ago, that I finally got to see one of the places I’d wanted to see for a long time: Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.

My desire to see it went back to the early ‘80’s, when I was studying at the University of Chicago Divinity School. One day at the weekly luncheon retired professor Joseph Sittler was speaking, who by that time in his life had become blind. There was a time for questions and my professor, Martin E. Marty, who had studied with Joe Sittler, asked: “Joe, if you could have your sight back for one day, what would you most like to see?” Professor Sittler thought for a moment, and said: “I would like to see Chartres Cathedral again, which stands for just about everything I believe in.”

It took me about a decade, but I finally got there. I was traveling alone, and took the hour train ride from Paris to Chartres, arriving late in the day. So late on that January day, that as I walked through the medieval city streets trying to find the cathedral, it got dark. If you have ever walked medieval streets, you will know there is no order whatever, and it is easy to walk in circles and get lost, which I did. On top of that, a fog set in, so thick you hardly see a hundred feet ahead.

Just when I began to wonder if I was ever going to find the cathedral – which had to be close – I entered what appeared to be a plaza with light, and wondered if it might be the cathedral. As I walked across the plaza in the fog, slowly, out of the fog and darkness, the illuminated façade of the cathedral emerged. It might as well have been a spaceship, it was so stunning to see. I opened the door and went in, and somewhere inside a choir was singing; I was like stepping back in time 800 years, when Chartres was built. It was an experience I will never forget.

I have now been back to Chartres several times since (and hope to go back again). If you have been there (or for that matter to almost any European Cathedral, you will know what is almost always carved above the portal of every cathedral: a massive tympanium of the Last Judgment. At the top and center is Christ, surrounded by his mother Mary and Peter and the other eleven apostles; not far away are the prophets of ancient Israel. And down below – way below – are the people, being sorted in judgment. As you come and go to church, the Last Judgment gives you more to think about than, say, when the next round of bingo is.

Cathedral relief

It is such a sobering image of the Last Judgment that Jesus gives us about today, in words if not in stone, on this last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. It is also the final parable we read this year from Matthew’s Gospel, before turning to Mark’s Gospel, next Sunday. And wow! – does Jesus give us something to think about! And not just us, but all who would follow him, in any sense of the word.

Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment has so shaped Christian history and theology that it’s almost impossible to hear it without hearing Mozart’s Requiem playing in the background, or imagining that we are standing before the Last Judgment on the portal of a Cathedral, or – best of all – in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, beholding Michelangelo’s spectacular rendering of the Last Judgment. And yet, despite it’s importance, how is it that so many contemporary Christians seem to be unaware of this parable, and its profound moral and spiritual lessons?

As with all Jesus’ parables, this one is not meant to be taken literally, as a detailed description of what is to come, but as an open-ended stories to make us think, not about what we shall encounter in a future life, but how we should live, right here and right now.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” the story begins, using a term from apocalypic literature that Jesus often used of himself. “All the nations” will be gathered before him. In Jesus’ time, this term was used specifically of the Gentile nations, just as “the least of these my family” was used specifically of the followers of Jesus. In the decades after Jesus, when Christians were a persecuted minority, this parable must have been a comfort to them as they suffered hardship, knowing that Christ was with them, and that a criterion of judgment in the last day was how indeed how Gentile nations such as Rome treated them, especially in their time of need.

Now we might ask, what does this parable say about how modern nations and leaders treat those who are “the least of these,” whether it is persecuted Christians in Egypt or Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar, or, even how our own nation and leaders treats those in need, whether following natural disasters (Puerto Rico) or those in need of healthcare? What does it say about those who call themselves Christian, and yet come up with a tax bill like the one now before Congress, which primarily benefits the wealthy and hurts almost everyone else? Have these people never heard this parable, about how nations and people are judged not by how we treat the wealthy among us, but those who are the “least of these,” in need of life’s basic necessities, healthcare among them.

Having heard this story, who could forget what happens next? Standing in judgment, the King, the Son of Man separates nations and people like a shepherd sorts sheep and goats? The sheep are on his right side, his good side, to whom he says: “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

And to the goats are on his left side, his bad side, he says: ‘You accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Both sides, sheep and goats say: “What?” “Lord, when did we see you?” Which sets up the two most startling surprises of the story: (1) Those who did it or didn’t do it, didn’t know when they did it. And (2) the second surprise, which is that when they did or didn’t do it, it was as to the King himself.  “I tell you, when you did it to the least of these – those who were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison – you did it to me.” Or, to the goats, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

From this, we draw two moral and spiritual lessons: (1) to look for Christ in every person, and (2) therefore to treat every person, as though they were Christ himself.

We know this is not easy. It is easier to see Christ in the rich and beautiful, or family and friends, in people we know and love. It is much harder to see Christ in those who annoy us and disturb us and repel us, those from whom we often avert our eyes.

When I used to work in a homeless shelter at my last church, it was on any early morning shift, when the guests were asleep. When they woke up, we collected their bedding, served them breakfast, and cleaned up. Since most of them lived on the streets, when they were sleeping, as you might imagine, they smelled and snored and were not the most attractive crowd. When they woke up, evidently not all of them had read Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” so – as with all people – some were easy and some not so easy to get along with. But according to Jesus’ story, Jesus slept among them too, wandering with them the streets and roads of the world. And so it is with all those in need – including us in our times of need; Christ is among us.

I’m sure in Jesus’ story, that those who discovered their omission surely said, “Lord, if only we’d have known it was you, we would have acted differently! We would have thrown a party, baked a cake. We would have treated you like the King you are! If only we’d known!

Which is just what Christ doesn’t want. Christ doesn’t want us to treat him differently than we treat everybody else; he wants us to treat everybody else, as we would treat him. And so he has come to us disguised as those who are hungry, thirsty, as strangers, poorly dressed, sick or imprisoned. He indentifies with these so closely that the way we treat them, becomes the way we treat him. What he is watching for is to see whether or not we will see the need before us, and respond with compassion. Which means that what we need every day as Christ’s followers, is eyes to see, hearts to feel compassion, and hands and feet and sometimes pocketbooks to respond.

So maybe it isn’t a bad idea to have the Last Judgment portrayed on the doors of those cathedrals. In fact, maybe we need to do it, too. Just as they did it to communicate the Gospel to those who were illiterate, maybe we need to do it for those who are Biblically illiterate, especially in regard to the most important stories of the Gospel, such as this one.

It would also serve to remind us that the point of all our church going – through the seasons of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany, through Lent and Easter and all those ordinary Sundays after Pentecost, culminating in Christ the King Sunday today, is to remind us that one day we will stand before Christ to answer for the lives God has given us, and the criterion of judgement will not be what we professed, but what we actually did, especially in response to our brothers and sisters who were in need. Lord, when did we see you?

But those scenes of Last Judgment? There’s one thing they got wrong: Jesus the Christ? He is not sitting up there, top and center, on a rainbow. He’s down at the bottom, the very bottom, among the people, among us. Don’t try to identify him, because you almost certainly won’t recognize him. Just go about your life, day-by-day until the end comes, and treat everyone as you would treat him. There you will find him. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
Parable of the Talents: Commendable or Corrupt?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 25: 14 – 30
November 19, 2017

 Horn of Plenty

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ – Matthew 25: 14 – 30, the New Revised Standard Version

In just a few days we will take our seat for one of our most beloved family rituals; no, not football, but the public and private holiday that is Thanksgiving.

As we gather around the table, thankful for those who can be there and missing those who are not, our minds may be divided this year. Yes, we will be thankful our blessings, for our families, and for what we have, which is considerable. Not all of us have completely smooth sailing, but for the most part, we have been blessed beyond measure, and as we gather for Thanksgiving, we are sincerely thankful to God.

But in addition to gratitude, we may also feel anxiety this Thanksgiving, that something has gone badly wrong. The list of concerns is almost too long to enumerate: North Korea, white supremacy, mass murders and gun violence, climate change, sexual harassment, and now the possibility of a changed tax code, which is almost certainly going to cost us more in many ways, not less. Given that it also adds to our national deficit – it is going to cost our children even more. According to a Gallop Poll conducted in September, 73% of U. S. adults are dissatisfied with the way things are going; in other words, three out of four Americans have measurable anxiety about the state of the country. So pardon us if we get a little Thanksgiving dyspepsia, and not just from eating too much turkey.

For those of us who are Christ-followers, as we give thanks for our blessings and say goodbye to some of them, there is a third thing to keep our eye on, which is, “What are we doing with that which we have received?” Or to put it more in line with Jesus’ Parable today: “with that which we have been entrusted?” Or, at least that’s what we might think.

I’ve been preaching Jesus’ parables for over forty years now, but without knowing exactly what Jesus had in mind, I can’t tell you for sure what they are about, or even who the good guys and bad guys are. Jesus’ parables are less like classical than impressionist paintings, open-ended. I like that description of Jesus’ parables from Clarence Jordan that I gave you a few months ago: “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” The Parable of the Talents, which we hear today, is one of those stories.

For starters, we need to remember this: we need to stop reading parables allegorically, such that the “Master” is automatically God or Jesus. Because if God is like the masters in many of Jesus’ stories, we are in deep trouble!

Secondly, in this story, a talent was not a special gift or ability, as we often think of it. Rather, a “talent” was the largest denomination of ancient currency. Actually, they were big pieces of precious metal, like gold, which weighed as much as 60 – 120 pounds each; you are not going to be putting a talent in your pocket. Each talent, substantial as it was, was roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. So right from the start, that makes this story almost unbelievable, to think that ANY master would EVER entrust such an amount to slaves, and then skip town hoping for the best.

Also, the wheeling and dealing for which this Master commends his servants, would have been outrageous to most ancient hearers. The master and his servant’s behavior with the money would have been morally reprehensible; because somebody somewhere was likely getting cheated. After all, usury – charging interest – was prohibited for Jews and Christians up until the 16th century.

In a city like Chicago, a city with a history of ward bosses and machine politicians, we recognize the kind of guy this Master was. As Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkett put it long ago: “I seen my opportunities and took ‘em.” In fact, you want to know what’s funny (or sad, depending upon how you look at it); when I preached this parable 10 – 15 years ago, you know who I used as a contemporary example for the Master of this parable? Donald Trump, on the Apprentice, hiring and firing. And now he’s President. What does that say about us?

And what about the poor third servant? Definitely a conservative, he kept safe that with which he was entrusted, making not a penny more, nor a penny less? Maybe he had just listened to Jesus’ parable of the ten Virgins which precedes this story, those ill-prepared maidens who ran out of oil before the Master arrived, and wanted to make sure that what happened to them, never happened to him? No sir, he was keeping that money safe, in a hole (a very big hole) in the back yard. And for doing so, he gets cursed and kicked out. You’re fired!

So, the so-called Parable of the Talents could be about this: about money, but more likely about trust. The Master trusted his servants, and his servants trusted their Master, to the degree of emulating him. Except for the third; who did not trust the Master, knowing him for what he was, a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter.” “I was afraid,” he said, “and hid your talent in the ground.”

If this is the meaning, I could preach a good message – and many preachers likely are today – on what we do with what we got, and the opportunities we squander in life, because we are afraid. Some of us are afraid of God, which is no surprise given how badly God is portrayed in much of Christianity. Rather than the God of love that Jesus preached, God is an angry God, a God who would send us all to hell in torment for eternity if he hadn’t taken it out on his own innocent Son, letting us off the hook. No wonder many people no longer want anything to do with Christianity in its current cultural form.

So this parable might be saying: “Don’t fear, trust the Master, and most of all do not squander the opportunity and resources with which God has entrusted us, but make the most of them.” That’s a good message, many preachers preach it, I have preached it. Only problem is, as a professor I once had used to say: “Good sermon, bad text.” Because that might not be what this parable is about.

What it could be about, is something completely different. What if the Parable of the Talents is not about what to do, but what not to do?

Let’s review the clues. Look at the behavior of the master: an absentee landlord who does no work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Look at the behavior he asks of them: the profit-making he demands would have been seen in Jesus’ time as coming at the expense of good people; greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. Look at what the master tells the third slave, whom he treats harshly: his punishment is specifically for refusing to break God’s commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

So if this parable is not about making the most of our opportunities and using what God has given us, what’s it about? Jesus tells us explicitly in verse 29: “To all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. In other words – tell me if you’ve heard this before: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

Is the Master’s behavior something God would commend, let alone imitate? Is the kind of behavior the Master commends the behavior God expects of us? Some might think so; I do not. It would fly in the face of all that we know about Jesus and what he taught about God.

If you have any doubts, just wait until next Sunday, and the story Jesus tells then, the parable of the sheep and the goats. In that parable Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be made of the basis of how much money we’ve made, or how religious we were, but rather on whether our walk matched our talk: what we did when we saw the least of our brothers and sisters in need: whether in prison, in need of food and clothing or health care. (Thanks to Sarah Dylan Breuer for her excellent commentary, SarahLaughed.net, Proper 28, Year A, November 9, 2005.)

So, maybe this parable is less about “making the most of what we got,” than it is about caring for those whom the world leaves out, like that poor third servant who did the right thing, but then got kicked out for doing it. Such people are like the people Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount; those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are humble, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, peacemakers, people persecuted for righteousness’ sake, like that third servant. They may not have a place among the wheeler-dealers of the world, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Maybe Jesus is saying to all those who can see and hear, that the world in which people like the Master and his flunkies always come out on top – seeing their opportunities and taking them – is passing away, to be replaced by the Kingdom of God. The question before us again becomes trust, but in a different way: whether we trust God enough to risk living as Jesus taught, rather than in the manner of the wheeler-dealers of the world, always trying to fleece us, whether in Congress or on the streets.

As we sit down to celebrate this Thanksgiving, let us remember those kicked out and cast out by the masters of the world. I have always liked and most years used, “A Child’s Thanksgiving Prayer,” written years ago by a child in the Spanish Mission of the United Methodist Church in Miami. It goes like this:

On Thanksgiving Day,
I thank God for my family and my sister.
I thank God for the rain and the sun.
I thank God for my Teddy Bear.
I thank God for my teachers and for my friends.
I thank you, God, for life and love.

On Thanksgiving Day,
I pray to God for all the poor people
who are hungry today because
they have no food, no home, no family
and no friends. They are all alone.
Only God remembers the poor.

On Thanksgiving Day,
I pray for the children who are hungry,
who have no parents, and no loving church.
I pray that God will spend Thanksgiving with them.
Please God visit me and love me;
I am not poor, but I love you too. Amen.
(CHISPA Spanish Mission of The United Methodist Church, Miami, Florida)

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 5, 2017

2017.11.05 “A Gallery of Saints” – All Saints’ Sunday

Central United Methodist Church
A Gallery of Saints
Pastor David L. Haley
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5th, 2017

All Saint's Sunday

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. . .” – Hebrews 12: 1, the New Revised Standard Version

Each year, if there is any Sunday that knocks us down, then picks us up and helps us go on, it is today, All Saints Sunday. All Saints Sunday is when we remember those who have died, especially those who have died over the last year.

It knocks us down because it powerfully reminds us of our losses – not just those who have died over the last year – but all those we have lost who were and still are dear to us.

Each year I approach All Saints Day like one walking on thin ice, afraid that it will crack and I will fall through, overwhelmed with grief for all those whose deaths I mourn. Nobody tells you when you start out in the ministry that one of the saddest things you will have to do is bury the older members of your congregations, one by one, especially when you have long pastoral tenures, as I have. For me, it has worked out to be about a third of the congregation per decade. After five congregations over 44 years, it becomes a cumulative load of grief and loss – like that thin ice – threatening to give way at any time.

But you don’t have to be a pastor to feel this way. Those of us who are further along in life understand: as we age, so many of our family and friends die before us, if we ourselves are fortunate to survive. Recently on a late-night talk show, the British actor John Cleese remarked that he doesn’t fear death, because the best people are there. (and some of the worst ones are here!) Some of us appreciate such statements more and more.

Given this, it should not be surprising that one of the major ways people have dealt with grief and loss, in addition to facing our own mortality, is through religion and faith. And – of all the metaphors and images religion offers – one of my favorites has become the one suggested by the writer of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, in chapter 12, verse 1:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . .”

Did you catch the image: that our lives are like a race we run, in an arena, watched and cheered on by a gallery of spectators, our “cloud of witnesses.”

Several years ago, the Rev. John Buchanan, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, focused this image even more when he compared our “cloud of witnesses” – our saints – to “our balcony.” If you remember, in the past many gymnasiums, theaters, and churches had balconies. When, as children or youth we did something, such as play basketball or a role in the high school play or read Scripture in church, our parents may have sat in the balcony, cheering us on. So, says Buchanan, now, in life, our saints are “our balcony,” the people who influenced and inspired us and now, in heaven, cheer us on. All Saints Sunday becomes our day to look up, acknowledge and wave to our saints, our balcony.

While All Saints Sunday may remind us of many; today, we want to remember five saints from Central, who have died in the last year.

Ilene KoniorThe first of these is Ilene Konior, who died November 17, 2016, at the age of 82. Ilene Ehrhardt was born in Chicago on September 10, 1934 to James and Ina Ehrhardt, graduating from Lake View High School in 1952.

During High School Graduation practice, Ilene met her future husband Ron Konior, when they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. They ended up going to a square dance with a group from Lake View Lutheran Church – which is ironic, since Ron does not dance – and began dating after that. They got married April 2, 1955 at Lake View Lutheran Church, where they were members for many years. They would have two children, Karen and Christine, and in 1968 the family moved to Skokie; soon after they became members of Central.

We remember Ilene in many ways. She was a wonderful cook, and a world class cookie baker. She was also a musician, playing the piano at church and at local nursing homes, and also singing in the choir. She was a caring and loving person, caring not only for her family but for people beyond her family. Even after she began to exhibit signs of dementia, she continued to be her caring, loving, mild mannered self. As the disease progressed, the one thing she never lost was her contagious smile, which those of us who knew her will always remember.

Helen BextelHelen S. Bextel died May 20 at the age of 102. Helen was born at home in Providence, Rhode Island, October 13, 1914, to Karl Wilhelm and Emma Kristina Sward, immigrants from Sweden. Her father died when she was just 4 years old. After her father’s death, her mother struggled to care for their four daughters and one son. Faith, which was an important part of their family life, helped them through hard times: Every Sunday it took two streetcars to attend the Swedish Congregational Church, where Helen was eventually confirmed.

Helen was the only one of her siblings to receive an education, graduating with a secretarial diploma. Eventually, she was employed with a jewelry company. Her boss, Harold Van Cleve Bextel, eventually became her husband, in 1934. Helen worked until she became pregnant with her first child, Harold. A second son, Donald was born eight years later. When Mr. Bextel invested in a new business with his brothers, the family moved to Skokie. Mr. Bextel died in 1970 at the age of 64.

Helen volunteered – both in the community and at Central – in many ways. She served as PTA president for Lincoln school and served four terms as president of PEO Educational organization. For two terms, Helen tutored one day a week at Thomas Edison school, of which she says: “I loved every minute.”

Helen was a member of Central for 70 years. Although she served in many ways, the way we knew her was as the Rummage Queen, organizing an annual rummage sale. Her real claim to fame was her hard work, constant smile, good nature, and peaceful negotiations, at the “right time.”

Several years ago, Helen moved to Tamarack Retirement Home in Palatine, to be closer to her family. It was there she lived out her last years, cared for by family and new friends. We were blessed to have Helen in our congregation and in our lives.

Ruth JaklinRuth Jaklin, died June 18th, in Bluffton, SC., at the age of 87. Ruth was born on January 17, 1930; I think Ruth grew up in Chicago, and at one time, I think she was a deaconess, for sure a long time Methodist.

How we most knew Ruth at Central was as part of a team, with her husband Roger. Roger and Ruth were often seen, organizing the golf outing for HARP (Happy Active Retired Persons), maintained the rose garden, and also serving in the office as Central’s bulk mailing experts.

After Roger’s death in 2012, Ruth had a hard time of it. Her health was deteriorating, but even so she hated leaving her home and moving to a assisted living center. Then – last year – the hardest move of all, to South Carolina, to be near her family. Most of all, Ruth missed Roger. My favorite saying of Ruth’s throughout all of this – which I heard her say often – was: “What are you going to do?” Ruth is survived by her son Roger Jaklin, Jr. and his wife Robbin and her grandsons Benjamin and Daniel.

Leone O'RoarkLeone O’Roark, died July 19 in Glenview, at the age of 101. Leone Nelson was born September 30, 1915 in the upstairs back bedroom of her parent’s home on Kostner Street in Chicago. Her father, Louis, was an auditor at the Chicago Post Office, and her mother, Mamie, stayed home to care for the family. She had two brothers, and a sister who died at the age of three from scarlet fever. Her family attended Irving Park Methodist Church, which her mother had attended since 1901.

After high school, Leone’s first job was as a cashier for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934. While still living at home, one night her brother brought home a school friend, Joe O’Roark, to sample their mother’s home cooking. They were going to a movie and asked Leone to join them. One thing led to another and Leone married Joe in the living room of her home in 1941. They had three boys, Joe Jr., Bob, and Michael, who blessed them with grandchildren and great grandchildren. Tragically, her husband Joe was killed in an auto accident in 1961, leaving Leone a widow for 56 years. Her oldest son, Joe, Jr., died last year.

Besides raising her family, Leone worked in the Devonshire office of Skokie Park District for twenty years. After her retirement, she volunteered for Meals on Wheels, delivering meals for 25 years, and was honored for her service by the Village of Skokie.

Leone joined Central Church in 1949 when services were still held in the log cabin. Through the years, she did everything: she picked up the altar flowers at Margie’s every Saturday morning; she took care of the altar; she was an offering counter; and every month she folded, put on labels and stamps, and mailed the newsletter.

On her 97th birthday, Leone moved out of the home she had lived in since 1949, into a nearby assisted living facility, the same one Ruth Jaklin lived in. Two of my favorite Leone stories are these: Once when Kathy Shine remarked to her at Bible Study on Sunday morning that she was glad she was there, Leone replied: “Where else would I be?” (I hope Kathy did not explain her options). The other is once when I visited her at Lincolnwood after she could no longer come to church, she told me that on Sunday morning she sat and watched the clock, thinking: “Now they’re starting the service, now the choir is singing, now the Pastor is starting his sermon, etc.” (“Where else would I be?”) For 73 years, Central and those of us who were late-comers to Central were blessed with Leone’s cheerful personality, her presence and her service.

Russ NelsonRuss Nelson died September 8th at the age of 95. Russ grew up with 4 siblings on the north side of Chicago. As a teenager he and his older brother, Harry, were members of a gospel quartet and sang in Chicago churches.

Russ was a veteran of World War II, where he served as a Navy Radioman aboard two oil tankers that refueled aircraft carriers and supplied high-test gasoline for the Air Force, serving one year in the Atlantic and one year in the Pacific.

Russ enjoyed roller-skating at the Riverview Roller Rink, an interest that was to prove significant. On one of his leaves, a girl skating alone caught his eye. He asked her to skate with him. She said, “No.” Russ persisted. Eventually she joined him, not only for roller-skating, but as his life’s companion. Russ and Mildred were married for 55 years, until her death in 2003. They had one son, Kevin, who lives in Evanston.

Russ and Mildred came to Central in the late 1960’s. Russ made his living as a commercial artist, winning seven design awards, and over the years, gave Central many artworks. Russ’s final oil painting of the Church now hangs in the Narthex. We are thankful for Russ’ life, his talent, his generosity, his service to our country and to Central.

If there is any Sunday that knocks us down – as we remember those we have lost – it is today. But – at the same time – by remembering these and all those we have known and loved – All Saints picks us up and helps us go on, filled with gratitude and hope. Inspired by their friendship and their examples of generosity and service – how well they ran the race set before them – let us lay aside every weight and run with perseverance the race set before us.  Amen.

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