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 | February 18, 2018

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

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

Temptation in the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 11, 2018

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

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

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

6 - Warner Sallman's Head of Christ

6 – Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ

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

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

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

7 - Richard Neave's conceptualization of Jesus

7 – Richard Neave’s conceptualization of Jesus

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

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

8 - Donato Giancola's conceptualization of Jesus

8 – Donato Giancola’s conceptualization of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 4, 2018

2018.02.04 “The Uplifting Power of Faith” – Isaiah 40: 21 – 31

Central United Methodist Church
The Uplifting Power of Faith
Isaiah 40: 21 – 31
Pastor David L. Haley
February 4th, 2018

Eagle

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” – Isaiah 40: 28 – 31

This has been one of those weeks where I began to worry whether I would come up with a sermon. While some might cheer such news – like hearing school has been dismissed due to snow – I’m sorry to disappoint you; eventually I did.

The reason is, writing a sermon requires focus, and lately I have been so concerned over the State of our Country, I have found it hard to focus. The legendary investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, who helped uncover the Watergate scandal in the 1970s that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, who wrote two classic best-sellers, All the President’s Men and The Final Days, (and a Republican, BTW) says that what is happening now is worse than what happened with Nixon in the ‘70’s, it’s more like what happened with Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50’s. Either the institutions of constitutional democracy will hold – and be upheld – or we will start down the road toward autocracy.

If you’ve been stressed out by this also, know that we are not alone. According to a report issued by the American Psychological Association last November, nearly two-thirds (63%) reported that the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, more than the perennial stressors like money (62%) and work (61%) Even more notable is that 59% said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember, a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For many of us, it presents a dilemma between keeping up with the news and staying informed, and what that is going to do to us, which is increase our stress. As the report stated, “With 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern. These can range from mild, thought-provoking discussions to outright, intense bickering, and over the long term, conflict like this may have an impact on health.” Indeed, it has. (APA Stress in AmericaSurvey: US at ‘Lowest Point We Can Remember;’ Future of Nation Most Commonly Reported Source of Stress, the American Psychological Association, November 1, 2017
http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point.aspx )

What to do? When we are anxious, discouraged, even depressed, for some of us, it may necessitate taking a break from the news, in order to reconnect with the people and habits that renew us, which keep us calm, civil, and sane. For most of us, it also includes turning to the resources of our faith to raise us up from whatever pit into which we have fallen, which is what we do today.

Through the centuries, through difficult times, God’s people have always found encouragement, faith, and hope in the Scriptures. Few Scriptures in the Bible do this so well as today’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.
Isaiah chapter 40 is one of the great chapters of the Bible, the beginning of what is known as 2nd Isaiah. While 1st Isaiah (chapters 1 – 39) sounds a message of judgment, 2nd Isaiah offers a message of comfort and encouragement.

The context is this: around 587 B.C., after having their homeland, Judah, and their capital, Jerusalem, destroyed, God’s people are taken off into exile in Babylon. Finally, after 70 years, they are allowed to return.

As you might imagine, the entire episode, spanning generations, was not a pleasant experience. They were forced from the homes, scattered as the temple was laid waste, becoming refugees from their homeland, like many today. In exile, they wept beside the rivers of Babylon, longing for Jerusalem. Even when they returned, they felt faint and powerless, even the young felt weary and exhausted. Their faith suffered: as they wondered whether God had forgotten them, saying, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

In our sufferings, in our misery, amidst the scandals of our time, we forget who God is, who God has always been. We forget that God – the Creator of the Universe – is immortal, while we – on the other hand – are mortal, like grasshoppers, like grass, which is here one day and gone the next, as Isaiah said. When we mistake either our oppressors or even our elected leaders as sovereigns, Isaiah reminds us that in time, it is the Lord who brings princes to naught, who makes the rulers of the earth as nothing: “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (vv. 23-24)

Through Isaiah’s words, we stand before a tapestry of good news that reiterates how those who are exhausted, faint, powerless, or weary, renew their strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run without growing weary, walk without fainting. We are renewed and inspired by the thought of the Eternal One, who not only sits above the circle of the earth, but gathers up the lambs, calls us by name, who never grows weary of renewing God’s people, generation by generation, through all the ages and stages of our lives, through whatever crises may come.

Seventeen years ago, on that first Sunday after 9/11, it was to Isaiah 40 that I turned that morning, for a word of hope. It was a larger and different congregation than I had addressed only a Sunday before, because in the week’s course of events, we had all been changed; I can still remember the look of shock and fear in people’s eyes. It was from Isaiah 40 that I preached, and “The Power of Your Love” that we sang: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Even further back, in 1981, the movie “Chariots of Fire” came out. It told a story from even earlier in the century about a runner, Eric Liddell, a devout Scots Christian who ran for the glory of God.

Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of Scots missionaries. While he had many gifts, one of his greatest was that he was the fastest runner in Scotland, nicknamed the “Flying Scotsman.” After years of training and preparation, he was chosen to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Several months before the games, he learned that the heat for his best event – the 100 meter race – was on Sunday, and according to his Christian conviction of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, refused to run. Instead, he trained for a longer event, the 400 meter, which was to be on a Thursday. He ran the race and won gold, setting a European record that lasted 12 years.

Instead of resting on his laurels or capitalizing upon his fame, the following year, in 1925, like his parents before him, Eric Liddell returned to China as a missionary. In 1941, due to Japanese aggression, life in China became so dangerous that the British government advised British nationals to leave. His wife Florence and the children left for Canada to stay with her family while Liddell accepted a position at a rural mission station which served the poor. Eventually, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell returned to Tianjin, where he was interned in an internment camp along with 2,000 other men, women, and children.

​In the early 80s’, when I was studying at the University of Chicago, I had as a teacher, the theologian Langdon Gilkey. Gilkey had also been interned in those camps, and he wrote a book about it, Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. In his book, Gilkey said of Liddell:

“Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humor and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”

Eric died in the camp of an inoperable brain tumor on February 21, 1945, five months before the camp’s liberation. All of Scotland mourned his death, as the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. He was laid to rest, in Weifang, Shandong, in the country he loved so much. In 1991 the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial headstone, with a simple inscription from Isaiah 40:31: “They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.”

One of my favorite scenes from Chariots of Fire takes us back a century, when Liddell – as played by Scots actor Ian Charleson – reads Isaiah 40 in church, just as we do today, juxtaposed over the scenes of his fellow runners. [Watch here].

God’s people have gotten through before, and whatever happens, we will get through again, uplifted by our faith in a just and loving God. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 28, 2018

2018.01.28 “Enter The Crazies” – Mark 1: 21 – 28

Central United Methodist Church
Enter The Crazies
Mark 1: 21 – 28
Pastor David L. Haley
January 28th, 2018

The Scream

“Edvard Munch, The Scream”

 

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1: 21 – 28, the Revised Standard Version

     

Today, I want to revisit a sermon preached 9 years ago, entitled “Enter the Crazies.” (How many remember?) The reason I want to revisit it is because, sadly, in the intervening years it has become not less, but more relevant.

The idea for “Enter the Crazies” came from a sermon preached by The Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler in 2006, who was then and still is the Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, GA. In his sermon Rev. Candler describes an experience I recognize, as will many of us. Rev. Candler said:

“I have served five churches in my ordained life, and it never fails. In every place I have ever ministered, just when things are beginning to go right, the crazies show up. Just when I am having a delightful conversation, some crazy person interrupts. Just when the committee has reached a spectacular decision, the crazy one jumps up to speak. Just when it looks like the entire congregation is happy, the crazies show up angry and upset.” [“The Crazies”, preached on Day 1, January 29, 2006, http://www.day1.net].

Unfortunately, most of us know what he is talking about. I have served in seven different ministry settings, both rural and urban, and in every place, Rev. Candler’s experience has been true. Just when things were going well, “enter the crazies.” We go to church to peace and comfort, some lesson of love; and, instead, what we find is some crazy person, disturbing us.

“Wait,” you say? “Let me get this right. Pastor, are you calling us crazy?” No. Maybe. Yes. All of us are on the spectrum of what is normal, or abnormal, whatever that is. All of us have “issues” of some kind or another, which make us act out. Some of us have addictions, some of us suffer from various forms of mental illness. Even those of us who consider ourselves “normal” have problems; as the old saying goes, “All the world is mad except Me and Thee and sometimes I wonder about Thee.” Being human includes this as part of our human experience; where did we ever get the idea that “church” would ever be a crazy free zone? What I’m calling the “crazies” today are when our issues become disruptive and threatening to our relationships and our health and our safety, not only to us but to others. When we cannot tie them to any known pathology, some would go so far as to call them evil. Think, for example, of the Las Vegas shooter,  Stephen Paddock; investigators do not yet know WHY he premeditatively killed 58 people. Was he angry, deranged, or just evil?

Since I preached this sermon almost 10 years ago, the situation has become more troubling, evoking fear in all of us. Because, now, it’s not just a question of people being disruptive, but rather of them being murderous. Because of the easy access to lethal weapons (easier than access to mental health care) – no one knows when or where the crazies are going to erupt. Will it be in a workplace, as in San Bernardino? In a restaurant, as in Orlando? At an outdoor concert, as Las Vegas? At a church, as in Texas? In a school, as in New Town? This week, the shooting at Marshall County High School, in Benton, KY, where a 15 yo showed up with a handgun killed two and injured 19 others, was my high school, the place where I grew up. But do you know that this was the 11th school shooting since the beginning of the year? It is becoming difficult – if not impossible – to tell, who the crazies are, and when and where they will pop up. It may well be that our greatest failure is not only that this continues to happen, but that we have become normalized to it.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, many among us feel like the crazies have now taken over the hospital, and are running (ruining?) the country. The values most of us believe in mostly strongly, are the exact opposite of those which now appear to be running the show, whether it is anti-education, anti-science, anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-women, even anti-truth! The old crazies that we thought were dead – such as racism and white nationalism and misogyny and even glib talk of nuclear war – have come back like zombies to confront us again; the crazies have taken over. When and where and how do we begin to stop this?

The answer is suggested in Mark’s Gospel, when – for the first time in Jesus’ ministry – the crazies appear. In Mark’s Gospel, this occurs just 20 verses into chapter 1. In these 20 verses, Jesus shows up, is baptized, does a sojourn in the wilderness, begins his ministry, and calls disciples; so far, so good. But on their very first outing, just where you’d think they’d be safe – in church, no less – it happens. A man who had apparently had been sitting there calmly and civilly, became disturbed – demon possessed, as Mark describes him, in the terminology of the time – and stands up and yells at Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Wouldn’t that have interrupted the offertory! Thank God, at least, guns had not been invented!

What to do? Have the ushers escort him out? Hit the panic button under the pulpit? Sadly, not only schools but churches are having to think seriously about such things, and formulate plans for violent or active shooter situations. (When the day comes when a pastor has to wear a sidearm to church under his/her robe, is the time for me to retire.)

Jesus Casting Out DemonsIn Jesus’ case, he neither ignores the man nor becomes impatient, and he certainly does not allow himself to be taken captive. Instead, with authority he addresses the man – or more properly, the demon possessing the man – saying:

“Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly — and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!”  

Do you wonder, as I wonder, what Jesus looked like when he did this? Was he angry, or did he remain calm? Did he yell, or did he whisper? Did he touch the man, or remain at a distance? Did he point at the man, make a gesture of invitation, or one of authority? Quiet! Stop! Come out!

As a pastor, as a firefighter/paramedic, I’ve seen many confrontations over the years; thankfully, none were deadly. In college, once when I was alone working in the ER, , a man walked through the door with his hand in his back pocket and said he had a bomb. That was an interesting conversation; I still remember my stomach turning upside down. Eventually, a police officer subdued him; fortunately there was no bomb. Once, on a medical call, a man attacked a police officer; our fire officer ordered us to stay out of it; thankfully, reinforcements arrived. On domestic calls or with intoxicated or disturbed individuals, you never knew when they were going to snap, calm one moment and beserk the next. Or, who they would talk to, maybe me, maybe someone else. But I will tell you this: always the best way was to remain calm, and to speak with comfort, confidence, and authority. This is the way I see and hear Jesus confronting this man.

Confrontation – even real ministry – to crazies does not mean bending and being shaped by their agendas or trying to cater to their endless needs or responding to their complains and demands. Real ministry means listening and speaking the truth and doing the right thing in love, even when the “right thing” may be difficult for everybody.I cannot tell you the exact right things to do in the face of all the complex problems we face today, whether racism, hatred for the stranger and immigrant, the opioid crisis, or gun violence. But I will say that there does come a time when we need to stand and say like Jesus: “Quiet! Stop! Come out!” And then work together to find a solution, to stop the hate, to stop the dying, to stop the killing. In fact, we are sworn to do so.

Today, as Ed and Patty affirm for Baby Charlie his baptismal vows – and we re-affirm ours with him – we use a words and a ritual that go back to the very beginning of the church, almost to the time of Jesus. As with most rituals, often we go on autopilot and fail to realize what we are saying, which is unfortunate, especially in regard to the first two, literally the entrance vows to the church, which say this:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do we? In whatever forms they present themselves? When is the time and how is the way, to stand up to the forms of evil – the crazies – in our time and place, and say, calmly, confidently, and with authority: “Quiet! Stop! Come out!” even if it means putting ourselves on the line. Because in the face of evil of any kind, there are only three choices: to be perpetrator, a bystander, or resister. By our baptismal vows, we are sworn to resist.

With life-changing authority, Jesus speaks. To the crazies who show up around him. To the crazies who show up around us. To the crazy inside each of us: “Quiet! Stop! Come out!”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 21, 2018

2018.01.21 “Jonah: God’s Reluctant Prophet” – Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10

Central United Methodist Church
Jonah: God’s Reluctant Prophet
Pastor David L. Haley
Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10
January 21st, 2018

Jonah

“Icon of the Holy Prophet Jonah cast from the belly of the beast, by Odarka Kish, 2016”

 

Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.” This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.

Nineveh was a big city, very big — it took three days to walk across it.

Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it — rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives. He did change his mind about them. What he said he would do to them he didn’t do.”  – Jonah 3: 1 – 5, 10, The Message

 

Three weeks into January, we in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church are in appointment season, a season you probably didn’t know existed. As you also know, this year Central is in the mix; I’m thankful I at last am not, other than for appointment to retirement.

For those unfamiliar with the appointment system, our Bishop – Bishop Sally Dyck – and her cabinet work as matchmakers, to match the needs of congregations with the gifts and pastors. Once a decision is made, somewhere a phone will ring, and a pastor is offered an appointment. If they accept, they are taken by the District Superintendent to an interview with a congregation’s Staff-Parish Committee. As the three of us ordained pastors (Sylvia, Lisl, and me) can tell you, that means anxious moments on both sides, for churches and for pastors.

Eleven years ago, when I was appointed to Central, I recall those moments like yesterday. After 17 years at my previous congregation, after we moved into our new building in the fall of 2006, Bishop Jung made it clear it was time for me to move. We were offered one place, did a windshield survey, but it was clear that it would not work well for us, so we said, “No.” You realized that if we had said “Yes,” we would never have known any of you. No pressure!

We knew the next call was coming, we just didn’t know when or where. One day Michele said, “I wonder if they would offer us Central?” ‘Hmmm,” I thought, “that could work!” We hoped and prayed that when the call came, it would be James Preston, and he would offer us Central. Finally, the phone rang: it WAS James Preston, and he said, “David, I want to talk to you about Central.” That was followed by the drive up, the windshield survey, the interview, the acceptance, the appointment: the rest is history. I invite you to begin praying for your next pastor – whoever he or she may be – because very soon – if not already – their phone is going to ring.

God has always called people into ministry and service through various forms and ways, sometimes through intermediaries and technology, sometimes by calling our name. Today in the Gospels, for example, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, James and John, inviting them to leave their nets and boats behind to follow him.

But it is the Old Testament lesson I find most relevant, when long ago, God called a reluctant prophet named Jonah, to go and preach to a place and people to whom he did not want to go.

Jonah, son of Amittai, lived in the vicinity of Galilee during the 8th century B.C., when God called him to go to the Assyrian capitol of Nineveh. More reluctant than Amos, more fearful than Jeremiah, less confident than Hosea or Isaiah, Jonah comes across as one of the sourest yet most successful of Old Testament prophets. While others preach to Israelites, proclaiming God’s word to God’s people, Jonah is called to preach to foreigners, the Assyrians, his worst enemies.

The text does not elaborate whether it was Jonah’s Bishop who called, or whether they met at IHOP to discuss the terms of the offer; the only thing clear is shaking his head to say, “No!” “Thanks but no thanks, God; “Give me a five-point charge in rural west Tennessee, but don’t send me to Nineveh; anywhere but Nineveh!” It reminds me of the pastor in KY, who got appointed to the town called “Hell-for-Certain.” (Yes, there is an actual town of that name. So he wrote to his mother and said he was being sent to Hell-for-Certain.” That’s how Jonah felt.

The reason Jonah said “No” is not because the parsonage or schools were bad or because his wife worked too far away, it was because he really did not like those people, the Assyrians, of which Nineveh was the capital. In Jonah’s opinion, reflecting that of his contemporaries, they were a horrible people with nasty habits. The Assyrians had humiliated and crushed the Israelites, stripped them of their culture and land. They were Israel’s longtime enemy, and therefore God’s enemy, right? Surely God could not love them, and would never forgive them for what they had done. Sure, he would go, if he could preach hellfire and damnation, because surely, they deserved it. Sure he would go, as long as God pushed the bomb’s-away button in the end, only then would justice would be served. But – just in case – for now, when God said: “Go west to Nineveh;” Jonah bought a ticket to go east to Tarshish, in the opposite direction.

It reminds me of a story I once heard – which like the story of Jonah itself – might be true or false, history or legend. I heard about a pastor in our conference, who after a Charge Conference at which he said everything was rosy, later that night loaded everything into a truck and drove off into the sunset, until he was finally tracked down. That’s a Jonah story, and there have been times in my life and ministry where such a scenario seemed appealing, if not recommended.

If you know anything about the Bible, you know what happened next: Jonah was so miserable that even the ship’s crew finally threw him overboard, to save themselves. Which led to a profound religious experience, in the belly of a beast (or whale) by which he was swallowed. But while there he composes a Psalm, which suggests we can indeed have a spiritual experience anywhere, despite the smell. But really, it was Jonah – in his guilt-  that smelled, so bad that even the whale spit him out.

You can run from God, but you cannot hide. And so, “God says to Jonah a second time: ‘On your feet and on your way to Nineveh!” This time Jonah obeyed, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager taking out the trash.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, he obviously spends a lot of time on his sermon: it consists of 4 words in Hebrew, 7 or 8 in English, depending upon what version you read. His delivery must have had all the enthusiasm of Rev. Lovejoy on the Simpsons’: “Forty days more . . . and Nineveh . . . shall be . . . overthrown.”  It had to be one of the most boring sermons in history (with the exception of a few I’ve preached). “Maybe Jonah thought, “Let’s not go overboard, because after all, I’ve done that.”

What happened next surprises everybody, including Jonah. Despite his lack of enthusiasm or eloquence, it works. EVERYBODY in Nineveh repents, from the king down to the cows. So successful is Jonah’s preaching, even God repents, sparing the city from invasion.

Given what’s we’ve learned about Jonah, you may not be surprised at what happens next. Upon learning the city is spared, Jonah gets furious, losing his temper and yelling at God: “I knew it, I KNEW you were going to do this! When you kept saying “that GREAT city”, I wondered if you didn’t have a soft spot for the Assyrians. I KNEW you were rich in mercy, not easily angered, ready at the drop of a hat to turn plans of punishment into a program of amnesty!” Amnesty? Where have we heard that word before? (O wait, our government is shut down over it!)

Oddly enough, the thought that God is good to everybody sends Jonah into a funk, as indeed it still might to conservatives today. Jonah sits under a shade tree, which makes him feel better. Then God, who gives and takes away, who gives us not what we want but what we need, sent a worm to eat the plant, such that it withers and dies, and the sun beats down upon Jonah’s head, to the point he wishes he were dead. Once again, God speaks:

“So I take it you’re angry about the plant?”

“Mad enough to die”, says Jonah!

“Let me get this straight,” God says. “You feel sorry about a plant (which BTW you didn’t plant); but Nineveh (that GREAT city) has more than 120,000 people, (not to mention the animals), who don’t know their left hand from their right. “Jonah, shouldn’t I be concerned about them?”

The book ends without telling us what Jonah said, if anything. Did he say, “Maybe?” Or “Good point, but does that mean I have to like them?”

So, who knew? All this time we thought Jonah was a whopper of a fish tale, but who knew: 800 years before, it really a story of how God loves everybody, including our enemies. How did we miss that?

The Bible is a book, both human and divine. Human, in that it arises out of human lives and societies, sometimes projecting onto God our dislikes and prejudices, our tribalism and provincialism, in essence making God in our own image, rather than the other way around. When this happens, religion – including our own religion – can serve the baser forms of egoism, tribalism, and nationalism, as some Christianity and other religions do now.

On the other hand, the Bible also reflects an unfolding progressive revelation, and at its best moments – especially in the life and teaching of Jesus – becomes for us the Word of God: calling us to transcend egoism and tribalism and racism and nationalism; and to seek the common good of all people, because God loves us all. As Jesus put it in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’” (Matthew 5: 43-45)

Today we worry about the influenza epidemics, but I am equally concerned about the epidemic of xenophobia, nativism, and white nationalism spreading across our country. At its worst, the flu may be deadly to the body, but even at it least, hate is deadly to the soul.

At such a time as this it is useful to recall this ancient story of Jonah, called by God to preach and to save a people he didn’t like.

Reminding us that sometimes – like Jonah – we still confuse what we hate with what God hates, and forget that what we may hate, God loves, more than we can even imagine.

Reminding us that God’s love for others – including those who are different, outsiders, or even our enemies – is at least as great as God’s love for us.

Reminding us that “wickedness” springs not from the fact that you are not like me; or that your people are not like my people; but rather that none of us are like God, who loves all of us equally.

Jonah reminds us that God’s plan – even though we may not like it – is that all of us should turn from wickedness, toward the only God who can free us from a whale of a problem; toward the only God who can transform entire cities; toward the only God who can do the hardest thing of all: melt hateful human hearts, in order that we might love one another, as God loves us.

One last thing: your next Pastor? Pray they are not like Jonah!

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.

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