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.

Central United Methodist Church
The “Fine Print” of Following Jesus
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 10: 24 – 39
June 25th, 2017

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       “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher.  A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content — pleased, even — when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, “Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?

       “Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.

       “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life — body and soul — in his hands.

       “What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail — even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.

       “Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven.  If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?

       “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut — make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law — cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.  Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.  If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

       “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me.   If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”  – Matthew 10: 24 – 39, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

 

The “fine print.” We all know the fine print, it is the playground of lawyers, the paperwork which accompanies purchases which we rarely read, at least not fully. Whether software, healthcare, cars, or houses, there are pages of it. In fact it seems the bigger or more complicated the item we buy, the longer the fine print and the stack of paperwork that accompanies it. If it weren’t for laws and regulations – such as lemon laws, for example, which allow you to return a car if it turns out to be defective despite the fine print – honestly, I don’t know how most people would ever manage, and not be taken advantage of, by what’s in the “fine print.”

Of course, most of us have learned this lesson the hard way, when we found out afterwards that because we didn’t read the fine print: no, the item we bought is not returnable; no, the payment we made is not refundable; and surprise, the interest rate, taxes, fees, and service charges were more than we bargained for, because we didn’t read the “fine print.”

In fact, you may not know it, but when you joined Central Church – the fine print stipulated at the bottom of the baptismal statement states that at the time of your joining we took a lien on your house and car and lifetimes savings such that – should you ever leave (including by death) – they are no longer yours but ours, so don’t even think about it (Just kidding!)

Whether or not think you think is funny, you might be surprised to know that in the United Methodist Discipline, there is indeed a Trust Clause not for people but for churches, stating that should a congregation decide to leave the United Methodist Church, the property or the proceeds from its sale reverts to the denomination, not to the congregation. Yes, even the United Methodist Church has lawyers, and they are no fools. In the years to come – as congregations talk about leaving the United Methodist Church, they are in for a shock, as they will literally have to leave everything behind, and start over, as some congregations have done.

But what about in the Christian life? Is there “fine print?” When we hear some preachers tell it – especially some very prosperous preachers (I’m looking at you, Joel Osteen!) – the Christian life is a pathway to paradise strown with roses – and if you do it right –with money and prosperity. So why then – you may ask, when we try to live a Christian life – do we experience so much hardship and difficulty and discord and division?

If you were reading Matthew’s Gospel, and you got to the part where we are today – of which today’s reading is only a part – you might think Jesus was indeed getting to the “fine print” of what it means to follow him. You might even be tempted to say, “Thanks, but no thanks; my life is difficult enough already; I don’t need this.

Last Sunday we heard the need, as Jesus looked out upon the crowds and felt compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. As harvest hands, Jesus calls twelve apostles and sends them out, to do the work he is doing. But he didn’t do it like we sometimes do in the church, when we invite someone to a position of responsbility and say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s only on Sundays, it’s only what you can afford to give, it’s only a few meetings a year, it’s nothing!”

On the contrary, Jesus lays out some serious stuff – the “fine print” – of what will happen sooner or later to anyone who follows him, who says the kind of things Jesus said and does the kind of things Jesus did. Just listen some of them:

“Stay alert, This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves.

“Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me.

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family.

“A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content —pleased, even — when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?

“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.

“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life — body and soul — in his hands.

And finally:

“Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut — make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law — cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

You might be thinking: “Wait: is this what I signed up for? Whatever happened to Christian family values and peace and harmony and joy? Did I miss something?

It helps to know the situation and the people to whom Jesus is speaking. When Matthew’s Gospel was written some 50 years after Jesus, Christians were viewed as atheists (oddly enough), because they refused to worship Caesar, the “official religion” of the Roman empire. Rumors were spread about them how in their secret meetings Christians had orgies (love feasts) and practiced cannibalism (eating body and blood), such that some Christians were even reported to the authorities by the members of their own families.

Thus, to be a Christian might mean a break with family, it might mean social disgrace and economic loss, and if turned in and arrested it might mean at the very least flogging, and at worst facing wild beasts in the Coliseum. No wonder some were tempted to deny their Christian faith to save their lives and the lives of their family members. During such time, to choose to be a Christian was not a choice, made lightly, just as it is still not a choice made lightly in some countries today.

So you can understand how consoling it was for these Christians to hear what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, which was this.

First, that division and discord in life are to be expected, so don’t be surprised or put off when it happens. These days, every headline seems to blare this; every family experiences this; ever one of us has known discord in our lives, which – depending upon how personal it was – was at the same time both sad and disappointing.

But sometimes there is this attitude out there that if we could only get along together – join hands and sing “Kum-ba-yah” – we could live happily ever after. That’s not going to happen; even now in the Christian Church, there are some 9,000 Christian denominations in the world, so we are not of one mind. Jesus warned us long ago that there is going to be division and discord, among family, friends, and even church.

Yes, some of it is avoidable, especially when we Christians become judgmental and hypocritical, or when we begin to think that we have God’s ear and know God’s mind, as no one else does.

On the contrary, there are also times when our Christian commitment to truth and justice is important, even vital. Many would say that now is such a time; when we need to carefully discern what God is calling us to say and to do and to bear faithful witness. Now – more than ever – we need to speak the truth as we believe it and to advocate for justice and the right as we perceive it. It is not easy; it has never been easy. This is the point Jesus was trying to make: trying to be faithful to God and the values of God, has never been, is not, and never will be easy. But if we don’t do it, who will?

The second word Jesus says is also important. When we reap the harsh consequences of attempting to be faithful, we may be tempted to believe that God doesn’t care about us. In fact, if we only knew how many people live this way, who do not feel valued due to their job or lack of one, due to their skin color rather than their character, due to their health (pre-existing condition), or even valued by family, friends, or church, we might be surprised.

And so Jesus says:

“What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail — even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.”

In 1905, these words inspired Canadian school teacher Civilla Martin to write the words to “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a gospel hymn that declares with assurance, “I know he watches me.”  It has been a much-loved in the African-American Church, and it’s not hard to understand why. In a world that insists that black lives do not matter, Jesus declares that even apparently overlooked lives are of importance to God. In a world that says that the life of a rich person is worth 28 times as much as the life of a working person, Jesus says that God pays special attention to those who are poor, those who are struggling, and suffering. God cares, and so should we. In fact, sometimes we are the people God uses to demonstrate this.

Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg chaired the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which gave money to the family of each person who died in the 2001 terror attacks. Starting with the formula and then using his discretion, Feinberg considered a victim’s age, their dependents, whether they had life insurance, and their income and earning potential. Value assigned these loss lives very dramatically: as little as two learn $50,000 for blue collar workers, as much as 7.1 million for executives.

Later, Feinberg reflected on his experience. He said, “As I met with the 9/11 families and wrestled with issues surrounding valuation of lives lost, I begin to question this basic premise of our legal system.” He told NPR: “I had always accepted that no two lives were worth the same in financial terms. But now I found the law in conflict with my growing belief in the equality of all life.”

After the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund completed it’s work, Feinberg received a call from the president of Virginia Tech, asking him to manage the fund that would distribute compensation to the families of the students and faculty killed in 2007 mass shooting. “I realized that Feinberg the citizen should Trump Feinberg the lawyer,” he said. “My legal training would no longer stand in the way. This time all victims – students and faculty alike – would receive the same compensation.” (Liddy Barlow, Living the Word, The Christian Century, Vol. 134, No. 12, June 7, 2017)

The “fine print,” for us as Christians, is this: there is discord in this world, some of which is avoidable, and some of which is not, because it is in the cause of love and truth. In either case, we are called to live with the kind of integrity that values both truth and the person with whom we debate it.

But the greater truth is this: God knows our discord (oh how God knows!), but God’s eye is upon the sparrow, and it is also upon us. In the sight of God, there are no unimportant lives. God values us, each and every one. So don’t worry too much about the fine print. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
Whatever Happened to Compassion?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 10: 35 – 10:8
June 18th, 2017

Compassion

Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”

The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives. This is the list of the twelve he sent:

Simon (they called him Peter, or “Rock”), Andrew, his brother, James, Zebedee’s son, John, his brother, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, the tax man, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, the Canaanite, Judas Iscariot (who later turned on him).

Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.”  – Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Today we begin a new season in the Christian year, that season known as “ordinary time.” We have completed the Lent/Easter cycle, when we recount Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and his subsequent betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Two weeks ago, on Pentecost we celebrated the gift of God’s Spirit, and last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we celebrated God in Community, Holy in One, Father, Son and Spirit.

Ordinary time doesn’t mean “a time when nothing is happening,” it actually refers to the numbers (ordinals) of each Sunday, such as “the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost.” This season -the longest season in the Christian year – continues all the way up to the beginning of Advent in November.

However, the other sense of “ordinary time” is also a good one for this time of year. Summer begins Tuesday, school is out, as are the Adult Bible Class, Sunday School, Choir, and after-church Fellowship. It’s not so much a time when nothing is happening, as a time when different kinds of things are happening, in our lives and families. Children are in day camps, youth are in summer school or summer jobs, families prepare to go on vacation. If we do it right), ordinary time can be a time of renewal, in church, in our families, and in our lives.

One aspect of renewal is spiritual renewal, which is what we seek on these summer Sundays. So we come to church on these summer Sundays to sit before God and reflect upon what’s happening in the world and in our lives, seeking to grow intellectually and morally and spiritually, as we reflect upon the revelation of God revealed in Jesus the Christ. To help us do this, the Gospel readings return to an earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, and what he said and did during that time. So, may what we hear over these summer Sundays from the words and works of Jesus, not only inform but transform us.

May I lament that while this is the theory – what we hope is happening – too often it is not. The truth is, we all have a darker nature, filled with selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and fear. These – rather than our better nature – shape our understandings of culture, community, politics, and even religion, before we even get here. Thus, we often go to church and to the scriptures looking for confirmation of what we already believe, rather than transforming – even contradicting – what we believe. Who wants to hear what someone once said to the 17th century Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, consider that you might be wrong.”

Studies show the less people go to church, which is increasingly the case among “blue collar” people, the less likely their attitudes are to be “Christian.” Even among those who go to church, if all they ever hear is how Jesus died for us, as in many evangelical churches and megachurches, then their attitudes also are more likely to be cultural Christianity – what they think Jesus said rather than what Jesus really said – which you only get by reading and reflecting upon the parts of the Gospels we will be reading this summer. EVEN THEN, as we all know from personal experience, even when we hear these words of Jesus, it can be so hard to accept them, especially when it contradicts what we have been taught, what we believe, how we live.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. What are we to make of the gunman of the week, James Hodgkinson, of Bellville, IL, killed on Wednesday morning in a shootout with police in Alexandria, Va., after he shot at and wounded Republican lawmakers preparing for a charity baseball game. Hodgkinson was not a right-winger, but a political progressive, an activist who had worked for the campaign of Bernie Sanders. I have not seen whether Mr. Hodgkinson had any religious affiliation.

What happens when a person – whether conservative or progressive – moves beyond reason to violence: literally buying a rifle and shooting people? Can anybody explain this? Was he seeking “suicide by police;” because you cannot do something like this expecting to survive it. Did he suffer some psychosis? Did he fall into the absolutism fallacy that assassins and terrorists and shooters fall into: “Those are evil people. Someone should do something about it. I will be that person.”

I understand the country is polarized, emotions are running high, politics is controversial, and many of us are outraged by the headlines every day. People have been de-friended and relationships have been broken – even among families and churches families – by the passions evoked during the last election, continuing through the present – both on the right and on the left. So in the midst of this – if we want to be Christian – what are we to think and to do?

Which brings us to today’s Gospel (finally, you say!):

“Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.”

When Jesus looked out over the crowds, variously translated, “he was moved with compassion,” “his heart broke.” Because, “so confused and aimless they were, like sheep without a shepherd,” or as the NRSV puts it, “harassed and helpless.” Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it?

The idiom used in Greek literally says, “he was moved inside himself”; it was something Jesus felt viscerally. That’s what the word “compassion” means, “to suffer with,” to have empathy with others, even strangers. Jesus didn’t go about Galilee doing what he did because he was paid for it or because it was fun, he did it because he was moved with compassion. He felt what people felt, and did everything in his power – which in his case, was extraordinary – to share and alleviate suffering. As Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary put it in her commentary this week: the two works of Jesus were healing and liberation, to heal their illnesses, and to liberate them from all that enslaved them.

When Jesus looked out on the crowds, or into people’s eyes, in his great compassion, I do not think he saw the outer characteristics that so often distract us: whether people were rich or poor, black or brown (there were no white people), well-dressed or poorly dressed, clean or dirty, moral or immoral, religious or irreligious. Jesus looked beyond all that to look inside people:  to see in what ways they were needy, confused and aimless, battered and bruised. And – seeing that – he looked upon them not with apathy or revulsion, but with compassion.

We believe it is the same way he looks upon us. How many in our congregation and community, if given the safe space to admit it, would say they feel “harassed and helpless”? Young parents at their wit’s end, feeling ill-equipped for the over-whelming role of parenting. People in mid-life transition (or crisis) relating to a lost job? Those coping with the death of a spouse, sibling, or friend? Those whose relationships with their parents or children are not what they’d hoped for? Those who feel they are seen, and dismissed, because of their age, gender, or ethnicity? Black people who feel there is no justice in the world; at least not for them? Young people recently graduated from high school or college who see no clear future? Retirees who wonder if they are valued?

As he feels compassion for the crowds and for us, can we feel it for others? Can we look at the crowds, the stranger, the foreigner, the person “not like” us, listen to their words, look into their eyes and their hearts, and see them to be people in need of compassion?

Sometimes, those who irritate and scare us the most, those most in our face, are the neediest of people. Those who are angry or arrogant, righteous or rude, clowns and cranks; if we could only hear their story, nine times out of ten, somewhere in the past they have been scarred and hurt, and their behavior is a cover up, an acting out. Might it be possible – in emulation of our Master Jesus – to look upon them with compassion, to have empathy for them. I can’t help but wonder if John Hodgkinson wasn’t such a person?

And – in any case, with every person – the practical outworking of compassion will be different. Whether a person needs food, support, a listening ear, counseling, or – as in Mr. Hodgkinson’s case – intervention, to keep him from hurting himself or others.

I can’t say I am always there, but I am working on it, as I hope you are too. We desire to bridge the divides, by looking at and acting towards people with compassion: those who are victims, and those who are victimizers; those who are our political allies and those who are our political opponents; those who (at least theoretically) share our religion and those who follow other religions or no religion whatsoever. Those whom we love and who love us, and those who have a peculiar ability to annoy and aggravate us. Those who are good and those who are evil, and those like us, a mixture of both. Have you ever heard the saying, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, on April 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke to the Cleveland City Club. Speaking of the culture of violence in our country, which in two months time would take his life, Senator Kennedy shared words as appropriate for today as they were then:

“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something.  Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.” (Remarks of Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the Cleveland City Club, Cleveland, Ohio, April 5, 1968, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.)

Jesus, have compassion upon us, as we have learn to have compassion for others, as you have shown us and taught us by your own example. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
Pentecost: Our Church Family Story
Pastor David L. Haley
Acts 2: 1 – 21
Pentecost Sunday
June 4th, 2017

Pentecost

“When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force — no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; even Cretans and Arabs! “They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk — it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters; your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
          When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me,
men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.
          I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below,
          Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
          Before the Day of the Lord arrives, the Day tremendous and marvelous;
          And whoever calls out for help to me, God, will be saved.”

– Acts 2: 1 – 21, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Every Pentecost Sunday, I feel like I am repeating a family story, which we all know well.

You know family stories? Family stories are those stories every family has, about some pivotal event that happened, perhaps even a long time ago, that has shaped our family ever since. It is a story passed down to generations, about such things as how grandpa sailed from Europe living in a tent on the deck of ship, or how Grandpa and Grandma met, beginning the family of which we are a part. Family stories can be about something good, or something bad, like when someone who was an orphan was adopted, or the day that father left and never came back. Such stories become like family DNA, passed down from generation to generation. Every one of us has such family stories.

Even organizations and institutions, including churches, have “family stories.” Ford Motor Company or Bell Telephone have stories about Henry Ford or Alexander Graham Bell, which become almost mythological. Our church has a “family story” you know well: the one about the Log Cabin where our church began. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told it; I’ve got it down to a script, or shall we say: sacred narrative.

Pentecost Sunday is a day in the church when we tell a church family story, not about how our church began, but how THE CHURCH began: it is the story of what happened on the Day of Pentecost. It is a family story that has been passed down from generation to generation, partially because it was a pivotal event in the life of the Church; but – in all honesty – partially out of the hope that it might happen again, especially at those times when we are out of answers and have lost the wind in our sails, like now.

Pentecost was that day 50 days after Easter when the church received the promise of the Spirit that Jesus had promised, turning them from a Memorial Society of Jesus into a Spirit-filled Church, such that by the power of the Holy Spirit they stopped waiting around for something to happen and made things happen, doing the things that Jesus had done. As you heard in the story, The Day of Pentecost was full of sight and sound: the sound of a mighty wind and the sight of flames as of fire, people speaking in multiple languages the praise of God and being understood.

As most of us know, many people now believe Pentecost is still manifested in Church by speaking in tongues, these days more often gibberish than actual languages, as was the case on Pentecost. Actually, the modern Pentecostal movement had a relatively recent beginning, in the Azuza Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Why should it not surprise us that all crazy things – even in religion – come from California?

I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced Pentecostalism; I have. When I was in college I had a friend who was Pentecostal. She used to accompany me when I preached in rural churches, so how could I refuse when she asked me to accompany her to a Pentecostal church? Things quickly got out of hand: people shouting, praying out loud at the same time, even speaking in tongues. It was a too much for me, Methodist born and bred, whose liturgical tastes are more Episcopal than Pentecostal, God’s frozen chosen. I’m sorry to report my heart was not strangely warmed but strangely confused. I always hope that by sharing this story someday I’ll remember her name, which so far has failed to happen.

In Methodist circles, failing Pentecost, failing speaking in tongues, we do our best to recreate it. Preacher Thomas Long once told about visiting a church on Pentecost Sunday, where the pastor decided to add a little drama. So when they read the part about the rushing wind, someone turned on a tape recorder at full volume with the sound of hurricane wind. When they read the part about flames of fire, people in the congregation pulled out flashy red pompoms, and started waving them over their heads. When they got to the part about people speaking in different languages, people who spoke different languages got up and spoke. By that time, said Long, his kids – who had been bored and coloring – were practically standing up in the pews. The choir began to sing, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,” and just when they thought the sermon was about to begin, a man stood up in the balcony and yelled, “They must be drunk on new wine!” Long said, “My children, far from being bored, were beside themselves with excitement.” When they left, his son, who was still a little boy, said: “Wow, Dad! That was really church.” And so some people still believe. (Thomas G. Long, “What’s the Gift?”, Day 1, May 27, 2012)

Don’t worry, you’re safe, that is not going to happen here today, you can go back to your coloring. Unfortunately, such staged events are the closest we come in our modern churches to what happened on Pentecost.  And what exactly did happen? I’ll tell you; I don’t know.

Even though I have been preaching Pentecost for 43 years, I still have questions; maybe you do too. Let me raise some of my questions, and see if they are your questions too?

Here’s one: how is the Spirit of God who descended upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, different from the Spirit of God who is everywhere, including in us? Do you remember, in Genesis 1, in the Bible’s creation account, it says God breathed into human beings the breath of life? Both in Hebrew (“ruach”) and Greek (“pneuma”), the same word can be translated as “wind,” “spirit,” or “breath.” What that says, theologically speaking, is that it is the Breath or Spirit of God that gives us life. Have you ever seen someone die? Though not a scientific explanation, I would say one of the ways to describe what happens is that the Breath of Life leaves our bodies, leaving a lifeless body. If you have witnessed this, you know it is one of the awesome, sacred moments in human life. In this sense, every living human being is endowed with the Breath or Spirit of God, giving us life. How was Pentecost different?

Here’s the second question: What happened at Pentecost? Did the Breath of God or Spirit of God come in some new or different way, than in the way the Spirit is always present? Obviously, it was a miracle, but was it a miracle of speaking or hearing?

Some might say the miracle of Pentecost, the miracle of speaking and hearing, still happens every day, though in non-miraculous ways, when people who are different understand each other, whenever and however that happens. Whether it is people who speak different languages, whether it is people of different political or religious beliefs, whether it is when parents understand teenagers and teenagers understand parents, even when it is two people married a long time who understand each other.

Did you hear the story about the man asked by his doctor about his hearing, and the man told his doctor that his major concern was that his wife was losing her hearing? When he got home, his wife was standing at the sink with her back turned, so he decided to test it. He asked, “What’s for dinner?” She didn’t turn around. He asked again, louder, “What’s for dinner?” Still nothing. The third time he yelled, “What’s for dinner? She finally turned around and said, “I’ve told you three times it’s chicken; how many times are you going to ask?”

And what exactly what did the Spirit do for Jesus disciples at Pentecost? Did the Spirit make them smarter or bolder, did it give them gifts they didn’t already have? Or did the Spirit simply empower them to use the personalities, the gifts, and the knowledge they already had? Isn’t that what the Spirit still does today, use the personalities, the gifts, and the knowledge that we already have, to serve God’s purposes in the world. In other words, we don’t have to wait for some supernatural event to happen, through the empowerment of the Spirit – who is always present – we already have what we need to serve God’s purposes in the world.

The final question I want to ask is this: what does Pentecost and God’s Spirit have to do with me? How can I draw on God’s omnipresent Spirit from day to day?

Back in 2006, Rev. Shannon Kirshner, who is now Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, preached on Day 1, and she used an analogy of “spiritual breathing” as a form of Spirit appropriation, that is the perfect illustration of how we do this. Hear how she describes her experience, and see if it does not describe your experience also:

“I know, at first it sounds strange, even a bit silly, but has anyone ever told you, “Now, just take a deep breath”…?  When I was in my final semester of seminary, I became entangled in a web of thick chaos. My father heard the cancer diagnosis that January. My husband and I were graduating in May. I had just accepted a call to be an associate pastor at my first church. And seminary classes were still ongoing and professors were still demanding.  I’m out of breath just thinking about it all.

During that time of thick chaos, I began to sigh a lot-loud, dramatic sighs. People noticed. “Shannon, do you know how much you do that?” a friend asked me.  Well, no. I had no idea …. At the same time of my heavy sighing, I was enrolled in a “Women’s Health and Wholeness” seminar.  One day, we learned about the cost of stress and chaos on your body. Apparently, when you feel deep stress, you breathe very shallow breaths. And, so, your body compensates for the lack of oxygen by making you sigh. Your body forces you to take a deep breath.

I share this story with you because I have imagined some of you might find yourselves doing the same thing -forgetting to breathe, let alone breathe deeply. We go from task to task, from stress to stress, from activity to activity, from need to need. And before we know it, we are simply breathless. Life has socked us in the gut, the web of chaos winds around our throat, and we cannot breathe.”

Says Rev. Kershner, this is the point of the Pentecost story:

“While it is a lovely story, a meaningful story, a powerful story, we simply cannot keep it contained in the past. God’s Spirit still works this way. The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is at work, here and now. Through Scripture and prayers, through music and proclamation, through experience and relationships, God’s holy breath challenges us, comforts us, scares us, clarifies things for us. The story of Pentecost tells us if we are open to breathing it in, if we dare to pray “Come Holy Spirit,” we will find our own lungs filled to the gills with a courage, a reserve of strength, a passion of faith we did not even know we had. (The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, “Breathing Deeply”, Day 1 (www.day1.net), June 4, 2006)

So there it is: today on Pentecost as we tell again this church family story, a story which still shapes our lives, we affirm its powerful and also comforting message for ourselves: The Spirit of God is with us, the Spirit of God uses us, the Spirit of God still fills us day-by-day with a courage, a reserve of strength, a passion of faith we did not even know we have. And so on Pentecost Sunday, with the whole Church on earth we pray: “Come, Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 28, 2017

2017.5.28 “The Torch is Passed” Luke 24: 44-53; Acts 1:1-11

Central United Methodist Church
The Torch is Passed
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 24: 44-53; Acts 1: 1 – 11
Ascension Sunday
May 28, 2017

Christ_RioJaniero

“As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared — in white robes! They said, “You Galileans! — why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left.” – Acts 1: 9 – 11, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Here we are at Memorial Day. Perhaps it is only in my head, but Memorial Day weekend has a special feel to it, unique to holiday weekends throughout the year. It is hard for me to begin the Memorial Day weekend without hearing the trumpets from Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, as though calling us to attention to remember the sacrifice American heroes have made.

Most often, through the years, I have participated in Memorial Day services, in one way or another. In my former congregation, only a fence separated the parsonage from Oakwood Cemetery, where the town Memorial Day celebration was held, so my commute was about as short as here. A crowd of townspeople would gather, and the gray-bearded members of the VFW and American Legion would lead the ceremony, with all the young children startled and crying at their 21-gun salute. I remember with great fondness a former town mayor, Gene Rennels, a Korean War veteran, and the fine Memorial Day speeches Gene delivered. The Community High School band would play, and one year my son, Chris, who plays the trumpet, played Taps. On a lighter note, it was often a warm day, and – dressed in their wool tunics – inevitably a few members of the band would pass out. We would drag them under a tree, take off their coats, and cool them down. It was a slice of Americana if there ever was one.

Last year I marked an item off my bucket list by attending the Memorial Day service in Arlington National Cemetery, led by President Obama. It was impressive to hear the 21-gun salute by Army howitzers to signal the Commander-in-Chief’s arrival. Even more, how all former members of the military – in uniform or not – snapped to salute as the Army Band stuck up the National Anthem.  It was a Memorial Day I’ll never forget.

What makes such experiences not just memorable but sacred, whether in small town cemeteries or Arlington National Cemetery, is not what happens above the ground but the presence of the honored dead buried there, those who gave their lives in service to our country.Even though they are gone from this mortal life, it is their presence that makes it a sacred place.

This was never better described than in the poem Flanders Field by John McCrae, the brigade doctor, who spoke for those who died in the Second Battle of Ypresin World War I (1914 – 1918):

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

While all this is true and stands by itself, here’s the point I want to make: in what sense are the honored dead present in those cemeteries? The remains of their mortal bodies are interred there, some from as far back as the Civil War, some in freshly dug graves. Some have no living family or surviving relatives who remember them, some have family who visit their graves weekly and even daily. We would like to think there is a place where their spirits are with God, though we cannot comprehend where or how that would be. Yet even though we cannot comprehend it, their presence is real to us, commanding our respect and even affecting the way we live in the world; as McCrae put it in his poem; we take up the torch they carried.

On this Memorial weekend, but also on Ascension Sunday, I believe this also stands as an example of how we might think of the Ascension of Jesus, and how that also is a reality in our lives. Just as with these honored dead, we may struggle to understand exactly how and where Jesus lives, but because we believe he lives, it changes the way we live.Now it falls to us to take up the message and ministry Jesus began in his mortal life.

The Gospels describe Jesus’ Ascension in different ways. Today, for example, we have two accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, one from the end of Luke and the other from the beginning of Acts – two different accounts, though written by the same author. In both, Jesus floats upward, toward heaven, which was the way those who wrote the Gospels understood “returning to God,” whom they thought of as resident in the heavens.

Du Greco à Dali

The Ascension of Christ – Salvador Dali

The late Biblical scholar William Barclay, speaking of the artistic depictions of the Ascension, once wrote, “No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” Isn’t that the truth? If you google “Ascension” you will see all those paintings and pictures of Jesus looking like Mary Poppins, or as if gravity has just been suspended. Perhaps none is more jaw-dropping than a relatively contemporary one, that of Salvador Dali, in which we look up to see Jesus from below I should add, if the ascension is difficult to depict in art, it is even harder to explain in a sermon. And yet – because it is an important part of the Jesus story –we try to understand.

 

Practically, Jesus’ Ascension explains the answer to the question, “If Jesus rose from the dead and is alive forevermore, “Where is he?” “Can I go see him?” The answer is no, because the Risen Jesus is now longer physically on earth, confined to one time and place, but now he is with God, accessible in every time and place.

Theologically, Jesus’ resurrection would have no meaning without his Ascension;essentially they are two different ways of describing to the same thing. Because the point of Jesus’ resurrection was not that he experienced a resuscitation, he is not a zombie come back to life wandering around out there somewhere; it is that because of who he was and the message he preached and practiced, the message of love – even in the face of sin, evil, and death –God raised him up from lowest place in death to the highest place in the universe, to the right hand of God. From there, with scars in his hands and side he reigns in love, and even though we cannot see him or even imagine where that place might be and what it looks like, even though there is no argument or instrument on earth with which we can “prove it,” we believe from there Jesus reigns, that he is Lord of Heaven and Earth. And we pray that someday God will receive our spirits, that we might be where he is.

Meanwhile, now – as long as we live – just as our perception of the sacred dead affects our lives, so does the Reign of the Exalted Christ. If the sacred dead invite us to take up and hold high the torch for which they lived and died, so the Exalted Christ invites us to take up his message and ministry in the world. This is what we promise in our baptismal vows: we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior, put our whole trust in his grace, promising to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

If tomorrow we find ourselves in a cemetery or ceremony, remembering the honored dead, today we find ourselves in Church, remembering and worshiping the Exalted Christ. We honor him in our hearts and exalt him in our lives, through what we say, what we do, how we live, and how we treat others in the world.

The 16thcentury Spanish Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), put it this way:

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila

“Christ has no body on earth but yours;
No hands but yours;
No feet but yours;
Yours are the eyes
Through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world,
Yours are the feet
With which he is to go about
Doing good;
Yours are the hands
With which he is to bless now.”

As tomorrow on Memorial Day, today on Ascension Day the torch is passed, let us hold it high, exalting Christ in our hearts and honoring him with our lives, as we continue Jesus’ work on earth, his hands and feet in the world. Amen.

 

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 21, 2017

2017.5.21 “Never Alone” John 14: 15 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
Never Alone
Pastor David L. Haley

John 14: 15 – 21
The 6th Sunday of Easter
May 21st, 2017

Alone

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  – John 14: 15 -21, New Revised Standard Version

One of the best movies I saw last year was the film Lion, based upon the true story ofLion
Saroo Brierley, told first in his book, A Long Way Home. Lion tells the story of Saroo, five-year-old boy who while looking for his brother, falls asleep on a train and winds up days later in Calcutta.  Not only is he alone, he doesn’t even understand the language. Initially, he takes up with street children, until he is put in an orphanage, from which he has the good fortune to be adopted by a couple in Australia, John and Sue Brierley.

When Saroo grows up, like all adoptive children, he wonders about his family of origin, and begins to search for them using Google Earth, which seems like an overwhelming, perhaps even impossible task. Amazingly, eventually he succeeds. Have a look at the trailer: [video].

On a side note, one of the advantages to going to school in Hollywood is that after this movie came out, our daughter Becca got to meet the star of the movie, Dev Patel, so now I feel like he is a member of our family too.

As an adoptive parent myself, as you might imagine, Lion was an emotional movie to watch. But you do not have to be an adoptive parent to be moved by the plight of orphans, whether here in America or internationally. As internationals or international travelers, most of us have seen them. I – for example – have visited orphanages in China, mostly filled with abandoned girls and children born with disabilities. In Africa, in the eastern Congo, I visited villages of children orphaned by war.

As most of us have found, to hear their stories and to see their plight, tugs at our hearts, and not just out of empathy. Psychologists tell us that one of our primal fears is abandonment, so when we hear stories about or encounter children who have been abandoned, not only does it engender empathy but also threatens us with that fear of abandonment, that we might be left alone in the world prematurely.

For that matter, who desires to be left alone in the world at any age or stage of life? Whether it is to be orphaned as a child or a youth, whether it is when we leave home to be on our own when we go off for college or the military, whether it is when lose a spouse or our parents, even though we hope we have the maturity to handle it, it can be a lonely and fearful time to be left alone.

Perhaps it is for this reason that when we hear Jesus’ promise in John’s Gospel, our ears perk up:
“I will ask the Father to give us another Advocate, who will be with us forever . . . You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you . . . On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  

To appreciate Jesus’ promise, it is helpful to know where it occurs in Jesus’ story, as well as in our own story. In John’s story, it is Thursday, the evening before the crucifixion. After sharing a meal with his disciples and offering them an example of selfless love by washing of their feet, Jesus prepares them for his imminent departure. He is about to leave them and they are understandably distressed; last week I described the scene as the image of a mother about to leave her children. In response, Jesus tells them not to worry (“Let not your hearts be troubled”), that he was goes away to prepare a place for them. But they are still upset, so he assures them that he will not leave them orphaned, abandoned, or alone. Instead, he will send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will be with them.

It is also helpful to remember that what Jesus says here in John’s Gospel was not only for his first disciples, but to all future disciples, including us. John’s Gospel was written late in the 1st century for Christians who had never met Jesus. By that time, most, if not all, of Jesus’ original disciples were dead, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and Jesus had not returned, as many expected. So they wondered, in what sense was Jesus still with them, more than as a memory? John’s answer was that he was with them through the presence of the Spirit, who would be among them and in them.

Here we are, 2000 years later, still telling this story, still living in Jesus’ absence. Year by year, as we recall the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, we acknowledge that he went away (Ascension), and gave us the gift of the Spirit that he promised. (Pentecost.) Having said that, even though we affirm these events, every one of us acknowledges that there are still times in our lives when the Spirit’s presence wanes, and we feel like orphans, abandoned, left alone.

So what does it mean that the Spirit is with us? The specific term Jesus used is that the Spirit would be an Advocate for us. Translated literally, it means “one called alongside,” variously translated as friend, comforter, counselor, or helper, depending upon which translation of the Bible you read. It is someone who stands up for us when we need it; someone who speaks up on our behalf; someone who takes our side, who won’t leave us when we’re down and out or when our back is against the wall. The Spirit is that still, small voice that speaks within us, assuring us that God is accessible, is with us, is on our side.

If we understand the Spirit’s presence in this way, it means we’ve seen how the Spirit works lots of times. Whenever we see someone stand up for others, whether by speaking out or in silent support, we see an example of how the Spirit works. Whenever we see someone emulating the love of Christ in the world, we see a demonstration of what the Spirit does. No wonder Jesus says, “You know him,” because, as it turns out, the Holy Spirit looks and acts a lot like Jesus, or like you or me, whenever we stand up for others and modeling the God’s love in the world.

If this is what the Spirit does for us, then we are never more a community of the Spirit than when we do this for each other, when we come alongside each other, when we are advocates for each other, not only during times of joy, but during times of struggle and loss. By doing so, we keep Jesus’ commandment, that we love one another.

As an example, a few years ago, I served as an “advocate” for a member of our congregation. Someone had to go to court, and – like some of us – English was their second language, so they asked me if I might accompany them. When the Judge called us forward, he whispered to me: “You talk.” I said to the Judge, “Your honor, I’m not a lawyer, I’m his Pastor, and I have come to stand with him.” The Judge said, “While I appreciate your support of your parishioner, you have no standing here and should not be here.” From that point on, I was a silent Advocate, keeping my mouth shut and supporting him with my presence. I know I am not the only one who does such things as this, because I have seen and heard how many of you do such things for each other, not only in courtrooms but in homes and waiting rooms and hospital rooms and a variety of other ways.

I find it sad that as we experience the decline of involvement by nor experience of what this promise means for them, that in in Spirit-led congregations they have Advocates who will stand up for them. They may not be “orphans,” but they have no sense of what it is to experience the kind of connection most of us have experienced in Christian congregations. Many of us wonder if we would even be here without such communities of faith as this, without the faithful advocates who have stood with us and for us and sometimes picked us up and supported us, over the years.

As a pastor of five congregations, I have observed this happen many times over the years of my ministry, in many ways, but one instance stands out. I have in my files a note written 31 years ago by a nurse in Chicago. Before I share the note, let me tell you the story behind it.

In my congregation at Berry Memorial, just a few miles south of here in Lincoln Square, there was an older woman – a German immigrant – who began to manifest symptoms eventually diagnosed as Huntingdon’s Disease. Huntingdon’s Disease is a chronic progressive genetic disease, which begins insidiously, but eventually leads to complete physical and mental deterioration. This woman had no relatives and as her symptoms grew worse, it fell to members of the congregation – one in particular – who took it upon herself to help her get the help she needed – to be her advocate – in ways no one would have imagined.

For example, one 5-degree day in winter, I got a call. The heat in her house had gone out, and she needed help. I went there and found pots and pans frozen in the kitchen sink. When the temperature rose, the pipes burst, flooding the house. I remember lifting the back of the bathtub to get to a pipe, only to see cockroaches run in every direction. After visiting, we would take off as many clothes as we decently could to inspect ourselves before we went into our own houses.

Eventually, as her disease progressed, we helped her sell her house and move into the Methodist Home on Foster Avenue, now Chicago Methodist Senior Services. Parishioners faithfully visited her, even though we could barely converse since Ruth spoke mostly German, which was even further garbled by her disease.

Sometime after that, I received this note from a geriatric nurse practitioner at the Methodist Home:

“Dear Pastor Haley:  Your parishioners’ kindness and charity re this lady far surpass any efforts I’ve seen anywhere.  They are a credit to you and your church.”

This is but one example of the kind of advocacy God’s Spirit does for us in a spiritual sense, but also the advocacy we do for each other, and for others we may not even know, including orphans of all kinds, left alone in the world:

“I will ask the Father to give you another Advocate, who will be with you forever . . . You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you . . . On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Amen.

 

 

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 14, 2017

2017.5.14 “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled” John 14: 1 – 14

Central United Methodist Church
Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled
Pastor David Haley
John 14: 1 – 14
The 5th Sunday of Easter/Mother’s Day
May 14th, 2017

Man Praying by the Sea at Sunset

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” – John 14: 1 -14, The New Revised Standard Version

 “Let not your hearts be troubled.” In some ways, I have spent most of my life trying to practice these words of Jesus.

Those of you who – like me – suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder will understand. I inherited it from my father, for whom it became more debilitating as he grew older. For example, even though he was a crew chief on B-17 bombers in the Aleutian Islands in WWII, I could never get him to fly, even to visit distant family, like me; the anxiety of it was just too much. However, I must admit: the older I get, the more I understand.

The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) defines GAD as “the presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities . . . even when there is nothing wrong, or in a manner disproportionate to the actual risk.” Of course, the preceding anxiety is always far worse than the actual event, such as every worship service, in which nothing happens – and by that I mean no loss of life or limb – other than someone spilling the grape juice or the computer or sound system suffering an occasional hiccup.

Once you become parents – as you are learning, Ryan and Guin, Nick and Odessa – it gets worse. Then, our worries about ourselves are eclipsed by our worries for our precious children. I won’t go down the list of bad things that can happen, you’ve likely already worried about most of them, but just wait until these children become mobile and somehow think that when you say “stop” it means “go.” I’ll tell you right now you have some near heart-stopping mad toddler dashes in your future.

For those of us who suffer from GAD, one consolation right now in the current political situation is that almost everybody is worried sick, so at least we’re not alone. We wake up each morning wondering what the news will bring, whether this will be the day when a new Executive Order is signed for mandatory organ harvests or whether we will declare war not on North Korea but Canada or Mexico. “Let not your heart be troubled?” Jesus, we’re trying!

Even in the context in which Jesus says this, in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples in John’s Gospel before he leaves them, his words are so out of kilter with what’s happening that it’s almost comic or tragic, I’m not sure which. It is as much so when a preacher like me quotes these words to a grieving family in a funeral home, church, or at a graveside. “Let not your heart be troubled?” How could they not be?

James Somerville, a Baptist pastor in Virginia, says that what we have here is the image of Jesus as a mother standing with her hand on the doorknob, with her coat over her arm, watching her children play with Legos on the living room floor. One of them looks up, suddenly noticing she is about to leave, and asks in panic: “Where are you going?”

I got a first-hand experience of this last week with my grandson, almost 2. Whenever anybody starts to leave, he runs around the house yelling “shoes,” looking for his. On Wednesday evening, me, my son, and my oldest grandson, 5, were going to a Washington Nationals game and staying out way too late for a 2 year-old. His mom took him out to the car with us; the look on his face when he realized we were leaving without him, would break your heart.

That’s how Jesus disciples felt, and likely looked. “Where are you going?” they say. To which Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also.” “Can we go with you?” they say. “Where I am going you cannot come,” Jesus says.

“Surely you’re kidding?” they must have said. After all we’ve been through, you’re leaving us? What will happen to us? And Jesus says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Though these words were spoken to Jesus’ first disciples before he went away, they were written for all his disciples – including us – to whom he is no longer physically present. Even in his absence, however, he still speaks to us in our anxious and fearful hearts: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We are still clinging to these words, day by day.

Following Jesus’ shocking announcement, questions fly, and we understand. At times of challenge and loss and bereavement, when we feel anxious or fearful or overwhelmed, we struggle to make sense of what’s happened, and we ask questions too: Why did this happen? Why don’t you love me anymore? Why did he/she die so young? Who’s fault is this; is it mine? Did I do something to deserve this?

As rational beings, questions are important and inevitable: we want to understand if we can, to make sense of things. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Sometimes, there are no good answers, sometimes there are no answers at all. At such times, what we really need is relationship, someone we can trust, someone we can hold on to, and that is what Jesus gave them, not only with himself, but with God.

So when Philip says, “OK, Lord, just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” “Show us God? Is that what you’re asking, Philip?”

Fred Craddock imagines Jesus saying: “Philip, where have you been all this time? Were you there when the lame man at the pool stood and walked? Were you there when the blind man saw his family for the first time? Were you there when the centurion’s son left his sick bed? Were you there when the hungry crowd was fed? Were you there when Lazarus was restored to his grieving sisters?”

“Yes, I was there and I believe in miracles, but I want something more,” says Philip, “I want to experience God.” And so Jesus took a towel, tied it around his waist, and in a basin of water washed their feet. “Oh no, not this; show us God.” And Jesus took up a cross and as he walked up to Golgotha, he turned to Philip, to the Twelve, and to all of us, and said, “Whoever has seen me has seen God.” Jesus healing, feeding, caring, serving, dying: this is the portrait of God.

But that’s not where it ends: Jesus shows us God to show us ourselves. To believe in the God Jesus revealed is not to do a self-embrace or a group hug and wring our hands in anxiety, fear, and helplessness: it is to emulate Jesus: to heal, feed, care, serve, die. To know God carries with it the assignment of modeling the character of God, and doing the work of God. So might Jesus not then add: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; roll up your sleeves and get to work.” (Fred B. Craddock, “More Than Anything in the World,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, 4-13-2011, p. 188).

Whoever we are, wherever we are along life’s journey, whether we have GAD or not, we are going to need these words of Jesus: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Because just as in this scene from the Gospels, life is full of comings and goings, leaving and partings, of parents by children, and children by parents; all of us will eventually break each other’s hearts.

When I was growing up and going away, our family ritual was that everyone would escort you out to the car, where we would say good-bye. As I got older, it got harder, because I realized the day would come when our good byes would be final. That day came, for my grandparents, and my father, for too many friends along the way. Now I am getting to the point where I am the one left in the yard saying good-bye, and more than ever need to hear these words of Jesus:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 7, 2017

2017.05-07 “Life-Giver or Life-Taker” Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

Central United Methodist Church
Life-Giver or Life-Taker?
Pastor David L. Haley
Psalm 23; John 10: 1 – 10

The 4th Sunday of Easter
May 7th, 2017

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

“Let me set this before you as plainly as I can. If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know he’s up to no good — a sheep rustler! The shepherd walks right up to the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate to him and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice. They won’t follow a stranger’s voice but will scatter because they aren’t used to the sound of it.”

Jesus told this simple story, but they had no idea what he was talking about. So he tried again. “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep. All those others are up to no good — sheep stealers, every one of them. But the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for — will freely go in and out, and find pasture. A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” – John 10: 1 – 10, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

It has been difficult this week to keep my mind on “The Lord is My Shepherd” while Congress was monkeying with our healthcare, and not in a good way. Because while we know the Lord is with us, we’d just as soon not walk through the valley of the shadow of death, any sooner than we must.

I’m serious when I say this, because while we – as people of faith – believe in the Good Shepherd, we are also concerned about having a good physician, and whether we can afford them, at all necessary times from the cradle to the grave. As Jimmy Kimmel made clear this week in his moving story about his newborn’s son’s condition and emergency intervention, without adequate healthcare, the time between the cradle and the grave can be tragically short. No person and no parent should have to face it without adequate care and resources, when they are available.

I’ve been concerned about this for a long time, from many perspectives. From having a daughter born as a premie, to wondering if we could afford to put my father with advanced dementia in a nursing home, to – when I worked as a paramedic – having people beg me not to take them or their children to the hospital, because they couldn’t afford it. I once had parents beg me not to transport their daughter to the hospital with symptoms of mental illness, because the last time that happened it cost $25,000. Even apart from those major issues, all of us have gotten those indecipherable bills for astronomical amounts, scared that our insurance might not cover it, and then what? Did you know that since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the number of personal bankruptcies dropped by half?
In an attempt to understand how we got into this mess, post Easter I’ve been reading Elisabeth Rosenthal’s recently published book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back.” The reason governmental intervention has become so important is because the healthcare industry is not what it was when we were growing up, or even what it was 20 years ago. Elisabeth Rosenthal – a physician herself – describes it in detail what happened, which most of us know from experience. It’s all there; I can hardly wait to get to the part about “How I Can Take It Back.” (CT scan in my garage?)

But what does all this have to do with The Lord is My Shepherd, and of Jesus as – if not the Great Physician – the Good Shepherd?

Well, this: I appreciated the observation made by Professor David Lose this week in his weekly preaching commentary that what’s most evident in today’s Gospel about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is the simple and stark distinction between the thief who comes to kill and destroy; and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, whose purpose is give life, “more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” To put it simply, there are “life-givers” that give us life, and there are “life-takers,” that take life from us.

In some ways, the contrasts are clear, the distinctions marked. Among life-givers are the role of God and Jesus and faith in our life, at least as that is supposed to work (but doesn’t always). There are rich and rewarding relationships, which – perhaps more than anything else – make life meaningful and rewarding to us. In addition, there are those who teach us and take care of us along life’s way, too many to count: parents and teachers and mentors and coaches and counselors and doctors and nurses and caregivers, some of whom were only available to us because we could afford them. If asked, “Where would we be without such people,” many of us would have to say, “Six feet under!” Truly, people such as these have been life-givers to us; without them, we might not be here right now.

If those are some of the life-givers, who are the life-takers, the big bad wolves, up to no good in our lives? Some of them we know, they are obvious: disease, which for the most part is random, not the result of anything we do. Did you know most cancer is the result of random cell mutation? Who chooses asthma, or diabetes, or mental illness, or congenital or acquired disabilities, all among those things we call “pre-existing conditions.” And then, there are also the things we do that steal life; some of which – like addictions, for example – once we do them, we have very little control. Once abused, they abuse us back, and steal our lives away. This may be the reason why longevity keeps rising among most groups, except that of white middle age men, who appear to be dying of the abuse that comes from hopelessness and despair, the greatest life-takers of all.
Everyone – rich and poor – are subject to these things that steal life, but none more so than those without access to help, as restricted by poverty and injustice. This is where structural issues such as access to health care become important. While the economics of healthcare is complex, the lack of access to healthcare becomes not only an economic but an ethical issue, a life-taker, quite literally, because people without access will die prematurely. While some seem to think that is OK, how would we feel about that if they are someone near and dear to us: such as a child or a parent who needs help, but can’t get it. This is why for all of us, the issue of healthcare is so personal and so frightening; in the wealthiest society the world has ever known, the lack of access to healthcare is a life-taker.

Beyond these stark contrasts, as David Lose points out, the lines in other areas of our lives between life-givers and life-takers becomes blurred.

As a minor example, David Lose suggests, take email. When we adopted email, we all thought of it as a time saver, and in many ways it is, we don’t have to play phone tag anymore, like we used to. I really like the idea that I can park a message in your inbox, and you can answer it at your convenience. But now, email and other forms of social media, suck up more time than we will even admit, such that I have 38,800+ of those emails parked in my inbox!) Sometimes I wonder, “Why don’t I read books anymore; what’s changed in my life that I don’t read books anymore? Part of the answer is email and social media such as Facebook. So is it life-giving or life-taking?

Consider our jobs, whatever it is we do for a living. Many of us – among whom I include myself – have been blessed to have jobs over the course of our lives that we have loved. Really, I am so thankful for the privilege of living my life as a pastor to five congregations of people. And yet, from time to time, we have so lost ourselves in our work and find ourselves so tired and burned out that it’s hard to remember why we ever signed up for this abuse in the first place. Not to mention the toll it takes upon families and friends, which sometimes we are not even aware of. Are our jobs life-giving or life-taking?

And what about our children? I want to speak very carefully here so as not to be misunderstood, so let me quote David Lose directly. See if you agree? He says:

“There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” (Just for the record, I’ve got good kids who are not – in case you’re wondering – spoiled or entitled, but I’ve also wondered if some of the struggles that you and I may have gone through were . . . good for us even if we didn’t like them.) Life-giving or life-taking?”

And how about our money, which seems to be the driving force in everything, whether government or healthcare. Money can do so many good things for us, for our families, for our congregations, our neighbors, for people in need. But how easy is it for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. I loved Pope Francis criticism of trickle-down, aka “voodoo” economics: “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor,” Francis said. “What happens instead is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger, but nothing ever comes out for the poor.” So we ask: does money then become life-giving or life-taking?

Even church. Church congregations and church people can do wonderful things, and yet we have all known congregations and church people who have done awful things to each other. And we have often wrongly believed – as reinforced by us pastors – that only those things we do at church “count” with God, as if our vocations as parents, friends, spouses, employees, citizens, aren’t equally important to God. In which case, does even church become life-giving or life-taking?

OK, we get it. According to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, there are life-givers and life-takers. In some cases it’s clear what’s life-giving and life-taking; in other cases it’s not so clear, and may vary according to person, and the various times and circumstances of our lives.

But what’s crystal clear is this: God’s purpose is for us to have life, and for that reason Jesus the Good Shepherd came to us, that we might live in God’s house, where our cup overflows with goodness and mercy not only to us, but to others, all the days of our lives, however many those may be.

Here is our choice: not only to choose life for ourselves, but to live as life-givers or life-takers; which will it be? It’s a question we need to ask, and a choice we need to make, every day. Amen.

[As noted above, I am indebted in this sermon to the insights of David Lose, at his blog, “In the Meantime: Where Faith Meets Life,” “Easter 4A: Life-Giving or Life-Taking,” May 4, 2017]

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 30, 2017

2017.04.30 “Walking That Emmaus Road” – Luke 24: 13 – 35

Central United Methodist Church
Walking That Emmaus Road
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 24: 13 – 35
The Third Sunday of Easter
April 30th, 2017

SupperatEmmaus

The Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1601. The National Gallery, London

“That same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. They were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who he was.

He asked, “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?”

They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?”

He said, “What has happened?”

They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.”

Then he said to them, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?” Then he started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him.

They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if he were going on but they pressed him: “Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.” So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.

Back and forth they talked. “Didn’t we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?”

They didn’t waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: “It’s really happened! The Master has been raised up — Simon saw him!”

Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread.” – Luke 24: 13 – 35, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

On the 3rd Sunday of Easter we break out of the locked room we were in on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, and take a walk on the road to Emmaus.

As we know from experience, there is a difference between a solitary walk, where we think about things that trouble us, and a walk we take with someone else, where conversation takes our mind off those things and makes the walk more pleasant.

The walk we go on today is a walk with two companions, one named Cleopas, the other unnamed. Unfortunately, this is not a happy walk, and does not take our mind off things, but only makes them worse, as our companions pour out their hearts about their shattered dreams. Cleopas and his companion had poured their whole lives into following Jesus, and then, not only was he killed, he was crucified as a common thief, humiliated and tortured as they watched helplessly. Now it was over, all of it a shattered dream.

We have all been there. In a recent Christian Century, Jeffrey M. Gallagher gave some examples:  the Cleveland Indian’s locker room after a ten-inning game seven. Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters early on November 9th. The emergency room after an unsuccessful tracheotomy. A quiet office after a pink slip on the desk. A lonely bathroom where a plus sign just won’t appear on a pregnancy test. One way or another, one time or another, we have been there. (Jeffrey M. Gallagher, Living by the Word, The Christian Century, Aprll 12, 2017)

Some say Emmaus might not even be an actual geographical place, but it is still a place we know well. Frederick Buechner says: “Emmaus is the place where we throw up our hands and say ‘Let the whole damned thing go to hang. It makes no difference anyway.’” While for some the Road to Emmaus is only seven miles, for others it feels more like 70 or 700 or 7,000 miserable, endless miles.

As we walk, we are joined by a stranger. It is Jesus, but Cleopas and his friend don’t know that. How could they not? Are tears clouding their vision? Are they so depressed they can’t take their eyes off their feet? Were they in such despair they can’t see clearly anymore? Unrecognized, Jesus says to them what former President Obama said last week here in Chicago at his first official appearance after his post-presidency vacation: “Hey guys, anything happen while I been gone?”

Has anything happened? Have you been on Mars, or in some undisclosed location? Have we found the ONLY person who has not heard what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Then – after describing what happened – they added with a big sigh, in words that land with a dull thud – “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.”

In so many areas of life, we join Jesus’ disappointed disciples to confess: “We had hoped.” James Somerville, for example, talks about our hopes for church. Some of us with long memories remember the “The Churchgoing Boom” which coincided with the Baby Boom (1946-1964). Soldiers and sailors came home from World War II, married high school sweethearts, moved into houses with white picket fences and had babies – lots of them. Like their parents before them they took those babies to church, and nurseries and Sunday school classrooms overflowed. Many churches – like Central – built bigger sanctuaries and added space to accommodate the crowds. For Central, peak membership was 1964, when we had 1,300 members.

That was then; and this is now. Now a typical Sunday morning “crowd” (especially on a rainy Third Sunday of Easter) could fit into a large Sunday school classroom.

What happened? As Somerville puts it, the tide turned: the same cultural forces that pushed people in the door of the church now pulls them out. But we haven’t given up. Whenever a Staff-Parish committee introduces a new pastor to a congregation we hope this one will be the Messiah, the one who can bring the crowds back, who can make it 1955 again. A few years later, when we walk away from that pastor’s “crucifixion,” we sigh and say: “We had hoped that he/she would be the One.”

But – like Cleopas and his companion on the Road to Emmaus – our hopes are too small, just like their hopes were too small. Maybe what we need is not a Messiah who can make it 1955 again, but a risen Lord who can change our lives, the church, and the world again. Which – as Jesus explains to those two on the Road to Emmaus in what’s been called the World’s Greatest Bible Study (fantastic Bible study, just the best Bible study!), this was God’s plan from the beginning: not just to redeem Israel, but to change them and us and the whole world.

Finally, they reach their destination, invite him in, and sit down to eat. They ask the stranger to do the honors, and suddenly the Guest becomes the Host: Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. SUDDENLY THEIR EYES WERE OPENED. Not when he joined them, walked with them, explained the Scriptures to them; only when he took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread. In this way – as portrayed in this Caravaggio masterpiece, The Supper at Emmaus – they were startled into Easter faith.

Last Sunday, on a Sunday off, Michele and I went down to Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago. We heard their pastor, the Rev. Shannon Kershner, and even got to meet her briefly afterwards, when we commiserated how important it is as a pastor to take the 2nd Sunday of Easter off, which I did and she wished she had.

But before Shannon Kershner came to Fourth Presbyterian in 2012, their pastor was John Buchanan, who was their pastor for 16 years. Did you know that every Sunday John Buchanan was pastor he said as a prayer at the beginning of the sermon: “Startle us, O God.” Why? Buchanan says:

“Startle us,” because religion can become routine even though it is about the stunning ideas that there is a God who created us and everything that is, that the world itself is full of the beauty and glory of its creator, that human beings are created in God’s image, that God came to live among us in the man Jesus and in him has promised to be with us and love us every day of our lives and beyond and to free us from anything that oppresses, confines, threatens, even the fear of death and death itself. Somehow we manage to make that boring. So I pray it because I, too, need the reminder that the world is alive with God, our God is a God of surprises and unlikely grace and blessed intrusions into our lives.  (Rev. John Buchanan, Hold to the Good, January 29, 2012)

Still we are startled – as Cleopas and his companion were startled – in the breaking of bread, the celebration of Holy Communion or the Eucharist – ever since. This is why it’s so important, and why we do it every Sunday.

Author and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr imagines Luke – at the time of writing his Gospel – responding to this question: “Okay, it’s the year 80 already, we don’t see Jesus anymore, so how is he present to us? Luke responds, “He’s present in the Eucharist. We know him in this celebration, in the ongoing appropriate of the story. We can’t sit down at the table like the first disciples did. I wasn’t there myself, but we can sit at a new table in our town and experience the Lord’s Supper just as they did, and know him just as they did — and our hearts will burn within us.”

I would go one step further. As Henri Nouwen once pointed out, when we do this, it is not just the Bread and the Cup that is consecrated, but we ourselves. God takes us, blesses us, breaks us (as Jesus’ disciples were broken), and gives us to the world. What happened on the Road to Emmaus, happens every Sunday. (1) We are met on our journey, (2) We hear the scriptures, (3) we share in a meal that reveals Christ, and (4) and are sent out to share and live the good news.”

So you see, this is a great story, a powerful story, a living story, because the Road to Emmaus is still a road we walk today.

Only the older ones among us will remember the late saintly Francis Cardinal Bernadin. In February of 1988, Cardinal Bernadin preached on the Chicago Sunday Evening Club. His text was this story, and he said:

“My life is not so very different from your own. My specific responsibilities as a pastor may vary from yours, but I face the same basic human issues as you. I get caught up in the maelstrom of my work or ministry. I am sometimes bewildered and perplexed by rapid changes in society, both at home and around the world. It’s no secret that I live — by reason of my office and, some tell me, by my very nature — in the “fast lane”. It’s just as easy for me to lose my way on our common Christian pilgrimage as it is for anyone else.”

“Like you, I have sometimes wondered, “Is this all there is to life?” My thirty-six years as a priest and twenty-two as a bishop have been marked by a search for the Lord, by a sincere concern to live my life in accordance with His gospel. But, so often, my search seemed to lead me into darkness rather than light. I felt buffeted and bombarded by problems associated with my ministry. I often felt I was walking alone.”

“Then one day I encountered the Emmaus story in a new way, and it had a profound impact on my life …. As I reflected upon it in prayer, I began to realize how often I looked elsewhere for the Lord rather than right in the midst of each day’s journey!

“In light of the Emmaus story, all of us come to recognize that we do not walk alone! The Lord Jesus is with us. Through His word He helps us keep on the right path. Through the breaking of bread each day He feeds the deepest hungers of our heart and spirit …. The Emmaus story helps us understand the Lord’s presence where, often before, we had experienced His absence …. From this beautiful story we also learn to recognize Jesus in the “strangers” we encounter on our journey, that is, in our fellow pilgrims, in all our brothers and sisters ….” My prayer for you is that you will find in it your own story, as I have.” (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928–1996), “The Journey to Mature Discipleship”, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program #3120, First air date February 14, 1988)

This too, is my prayer for you and for me: that we find our story in this story; that as we walk our own Emmaus Road, we will discover that Christ walks with us. May our hearts burn as we hear his voice speaking to us; may he be recognized among us in the breaking of bread; taken, blessed, broken, and sent, may we go forth to serve him in the world. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 16, 2017

2017.04.16 “Is Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping?” – John 20: 1 – 18

Central United Methodist Church
­­­­­­­Is Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping?
Pastor David L. Haley
John 20: 1 – 18
Easter
April 16th, 2017

The Risen Christ

The Risen Christ

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. She ran at once to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, breathlessly panting, “They took the Master from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The disciples then went back home.

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”

“They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him.

Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”

She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

Jesus said, “Mary.”

Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!”

Jesus said, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.” John 20: 1 – 18, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Easter greetings to everyone; thanks to each of you for celebrating Easter with us today. Last year on Easter Sunday, between the six congregations that meet in our building, we had around 500 people who worshiped at Central that weekend. This Easter, we are glad you are one of them.

On Easter, sometimes we are concerned whether we will have sufficient seating for all who attend. So – in preparation – we sent our ushers out for training at United, and should we need more seats, four of you will be selected to be forcibly removed from your seats and dragged down the aisle. So when the ushers come around, make sure they have offering plates in their hand. Otherwise it will be an Easter you will never forget.

The title I have chosen for this year’s Easter sermon is, “Is Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping?” from an early American folk hymn in the Sacred Harp tradition. I choose this title because in the Easter story that we read today – from John’s Gospel – Mary Magdalene is the star of the show. In fact, though the Easter morning accounts vary, Mary is the one consistent person in all four Gospels. In John’s Gospel, initially she is the only one, and later in the story stands there again, weeping alone.

In passing, may I point out how restrained the resurrection accounts are? Over the past weeks, as we have read from John’s Gospel, we have learned that John rarely suffers a shortage of words. The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, with the Woman at the Well, the healing of the Man Born Blind, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, all take 40 verses or more. John’s account of the Last Supper – only a few verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – takes four chapters. But when it comes to the big finish, when we are ready for the trumpets and Hallelujah choruses, instead, the story is told in whispers, confusion, even inconsistency. As Frederick Buechner once observed: “It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are telling.” (“The Secret in the Dark,” Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog)

So we lean in to hear the story begin with Mary, literally in darkness, defeat, and despair. It was over: Jesus’ life, their relationships with him, the kingdom they hoped he would bring. As Fred Craddock once described it: “Jesus is dead and buried. They’ve cleaned out his closet; they’ve given away what few things he had. They have washed and returned the dishes to those who brought food. They’ve written the thank-you notes. The dog has been returned from the vet. The guests are gone. Four loads of laundry have been done. And now comes the routine, the blessed, joyous routine, of life as it was.” (Fred B. Craddock, “And They Said Nothing to Anyone,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 139).

At some time in our lives, we have all been there. Maybe it was after a political campaign that did not go the way we hoped, after the end of a job or a marriage, or – worst of all – after the death of someone of we loved dearly. We are up at night because we cannot sleep, it feels like morning will never come, and we are anxious not only for ourselves but our children and grandchildren and the state of the world. Is there anybody here like Mary weeping? We have all been there. But there is a job left to do, so like Mary we pick ourselves up off the floor and head to Jesus’ tomb.

When we get there, what we find is startling: the stone – the very big stone – is rolled away. Not bothering to enter, Mary runs to alert the men, Simon Peter and the unnamed Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, who run back to see for themselves.

Speaking of the men, where were they? Up to now they have been the stars of the show, but now – when it comes to the hard part, they are nowhere to be found, and it is the women like Mary who do the heavy lifting. Maybe they were sunk in guilt or depression or fear; or maybe they were like men still are today when we are in over our heads: we don’t talk about it, we don’t cry about it, and we certainly don’t ask for help. Typically, the one thing they were good at is running; who but men could turn the resurrection of Jesus into a footrace? (Race you to the tomb; first one there wins!) Even after they got there and went in and saw the abandoned grave clothes, though one believed instantly, we don’t see either of them running to tell anybody about anything. Once again, Mary is left alone at the tomb alone, weeping.

When Mary finally looks into the tomb, the grave clothes have turned into angels. They weren’t very good angels, they must have been like Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because instead of saying “Why you seek the living among the dead; he is not here he is risen,” like the angels in the other Gospels, all these angels say is “Woman, WHY are you crying?” More than one of us men – not to mention angels – have gotten into trouble with THAT question. Undeterred, even by these second class angels, Mary says: “They took my master, and I don’t know where they put him.” Is there anybody here like Mary weeping?

Like Mary, there is so much about this story we don’t understand. No one saw Jesus rise from the dead; what happened in that tomb was between Jesus and God. No one knows for sure what happened to Jesus’ body, after all he was resurrected, not resuscitated. Barbara Brown Taylor compares the empty tomb of Jesus to those cicada shells you find on tree: each one has a slit down its back, where the living creature inside had escaped. She adds: “If you had asked them, I’ll bet none of them could tell you where they left their old clothes.” Is it any wonder that throughout history, Easter has been the occasion of our greatest doubt but also of our most profound faith.

Which is why what happens next is the strangest but most important part of the story. As Mary stands there weeping, she turns and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him, because she thinks it is the gardener. Was it because her eyes were filled with tears, or was it because Jesus had gotten himself some new clothes? (Somewhere in this story there is a naked gardener). Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, Mary said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

Jesus said, “Mary.” And Mary said, “Rabbi!”, only two words, yet expressing all the emotions involved. I have always loved how the great Scots preacher Peter Marshall put it in his sermon, “The Grave in the Garden:” “Christ had spoken her name, and all of heaven was in it. She uttered only one word, and all of earth was in it.” Says Marshall, “If we believe this, it is one of the loveliest stories in literature. It is a story over which, without shame, men might weep. It is a story which we cannot read without feeling a lump in our throats.” Is there anybody here like Mary weeping?

We get it; it was the voice that did it. There are deep connections in the voices of those we love. My father died five years ago; and about two years ago I was looking for some family connections on the internet and came across an audio archive that a local university professor had put together, to make a people’s history, which he did by interviewing ordinary people, of whom my father was one. When I clicked “play,” and heard my father’s voice again – for the first time since he died – like Mary, I wept. So we understand how Mary’s moment of recognition came through Jesus’ voice, surprisingly unchanged by the transformation he had gone through.

Part of the message of this story is that not everyone takes the same path to Easter faith, there is no “one way” to get there. In this story alone, there are three disciples: one sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes. Another sees the same thing and there’s no indication he believes anything. Another is surprised into believing by the sound of her name. John leaves room for all of us: for those who see and believe, those who see and remain uncertain, those of us who must hear OUR name called BEFORE we can believe. Whatever the path, whether sudden or slow, faith removes the distance between the first Easter and today.

For Mary, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. For us, Easter begins when we hear the Gardener call our name, and we know who he is. That’s where the miracle happened and continues to happen – not in an empty tomb long ago and far away – but in our encounter with the living Lord, when He calls our name, in all the ways he does that. Can you hear him, calling your name? (Barbara Brown Taylor, Escape From the Tomb, The Christian Century, April 1, 1998, page 339).

anne-lamottHallelujah AnywayLast week the writer Ann Lamott was here in Chicago to promote her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. She says she has been traveling around the country for nearly two weeks, and without exception, her audiences have been filled with lovely bright people who feel doomed. On her birthday (April 10), Garrison Keillor profiled her on his “Writer’s Almanac.”

Anne Lamott was born in San Francisco in 1954, to parents who were ardent supporters of social justice and civil rights, but also atheists. But Lamott says: “I always secretly believed that there was a God — I always secretly prayed. I always found these religious kids.”

She was a good student and a talented tennis player, but she had a lot of anxiety. “I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon […] I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting.”

She dropped out of college after two years and decided to become a writer, like her father. She sold some magazine articles and wrote her first novels, but even though she was productive and successful, she was drinking a lot. It got so bad that every morning, she would have to call her friends to find out what had happened the night before, because she couldn’t remember.

One day, when she was really hung over, she heard some old spirituals coming out of a little Presbyterian church in Marin City, California, so she went inside to listen to the music. She went back the next week, and the next, but she never stayed for the sermon. Gradually, she says, she began to feel the presence of Jesus around her. “It would be like a little stray cat. You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, ‘No,’ because you can’t let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, you have a little cat, and I didn’t want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: ‘Oh, whatever. You can come in.’” Through her books, in her distinctive way, Anne continues to witness like Mary long ago: “I have seen the Lord.”

Once we hear his voice, there is no going back to the way things used to be: “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’” The human Jesus who once lived in one time and place is now the Risen Jesus, accessible in every time and place. Because he lived, died, and arose, everything is different: death is different, and life is different. Though we may not have eyes to see it any more than Mary did Jesus, God’s New Creation has begun. It began in a garden, and began again in yet another garden, until all creation returns to the garden God intended from the very beginning.

Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping? You bet. But at Easter, though we may come with question marks, we exchange them for exclamation points. Though we may come like Mary weeping, thanks to the promise of this day, we leave like Mary rejoicing: “I have seen the Lord.” Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 9, 2017

2017.04.09 “This Day and Every Day” – Palm/Passion Sunday

Central United Methodist Church
This Day and Every Day
Pastor David L. Haley
Palm/Passion Sunday
April 9th, 2017

Entree a Jerusalem

“Entree a Jerusalem, Bernadette Lopez”

        Pastor’s Haley’s sermon below is preparatory to the reading of the Passion of Jesus according to Matthew, Matthew 26:14 – 27:66

After weeks of journeying toward Jerusalem with Jesus; today, on Palm Sunday, we arrive there. Would it be fair to say that as we head down the Mt. of Olives and see the city gleaming white and gold before us, we feel almost as much emotion as Jesus felt, to see Jerusalem again?

JerusalemIt has now been four years since I was there; I still remember it like yesterday. The holy city, spiritual home to three of the world’s great religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a city like no other. Almost every day in the Old City there is a religious procession of one kind or another. When we were there we wound up in several; one we thought was a wedding turned out to be a bar mitzvah instead.

As you might expect, because of the religious and cultural tensions within Jerusalem, security is tight. I often felt under-dressed by not carrying a weapon. Not only are there the three religions as well as the religious factions within each religion, there are the authorities, whose job it is to keep the peace. As it has always been through the centuries, Jerusalem is a tinderbox; you never know when or where violence may erupt.

Now, take everything I just said and go back 1,987 years, when it was worse. Occupied by Rome, the “authorities” of the time, Jerusalem was the spiritual home of Judaism, the site of the Herod’s Temple, God’s presence on earth. Yet resentment seethed in the streets, that Jews should be ruled by this pagan occupation. Regularly, rebellions broke out, and some so-called messiah or another other would wind up being crucified, using broken human bodies as examples not to even THINK about rebellion.

This was even more true during Passover, when the population of some 40,000 people (smaller than Skokie) swelled five times. Security was tighter than usual; the Roman governor Pontius Pilate wanted no bad news reaching the Emperor Tiberius of things getting out of hand. While callous to Jewish sensitivities in the past, causing repeated near-insurrections, in the new political environment since the death of his sponsor Sejanus, Pilate adopted a policy of appeasement.

For example, the Jewish historian Josephus notes that while Pilate’s predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. The next day, when they were discovered by the citizens of Jerusalem, they appealed to Pilate to remove them. After five days of demonstrations, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which the demonstrators dared by baring their necks, rather than submit to desecration of the Mosaic law. Pilate relented and removed the images. Just as he would appease them to order the crucifixion of Jesus.

Given all this, it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine what you might see in ancient Jerusalem. Imagine the sound of warhorses as Pilate and his guard enters the city. Led by the Roman standard, see and hear chariots and warhorses, armored Roman soldiers carrying their swords and shields. Most of the time Pilate stayed at the fortress of Caesarea, on the coast; but at Passover, when the city was crowded with pilgrims, he stayed at Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, for closer monitoring of the pilgrims.

Now imagine a Roman sentinel, looking out from Jerusalem over the Kidron Valley, seeing a religious procession forming as they descend the Mount of Olives. Instead of a Roman standard, they carry palm branches. Instead of soldiers in armor, it looks like Galileans peasants, and women, and children. Instead of a warhorse, their leader is . . . riding a donkey? How humiliating is that?

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

Who was this? Jesus, a man of humble beginnings, with friends in low places: fishermen, tax collectors, sinners. A ragged rabbi who preached loving God and loving your neighbor, even your enemies. Even though he considered himself the Messiah, he didn’t like to talk about it, and even instructed his disciples to tell no one. He rode a donkey and not a warhorse into Jerusalem, because he didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, which were the only ideas about the Messiah they had. At heart Jesus was a country boy, an itinerant preacher on a rural circuit, visiting the bright lights (well, not that bright) of the big city – the holy city – of Jerusalem. Who will have the greater impact? Jesus upon the city, or the city upon Jesus? We know the answer, don’t we?

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

Two processions, two kingdoms: Rome, and the ways of Rome as represented by Pilate; God, and the ways of God as represented by Jesus; they are on a collision course. One is an imperial kingdom, that rules by power and violence and death; the other a peaceable Kingdom, that rules by peace and love and life. Which will win?

We may think we know the answer to this, but in truth, the verdict is still out. It is choice we must make every day, an allegiance we must choose, between empire and imperial ways, or the Kingdom of God and kingdom ways. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

May what follows in this story we hear today and what happens in this week – Holy Week – give us the courage to choose God and the ways of God, this day and every day.  Amen.

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