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.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 13, 2017

2017.08.13 “Anybody Scared Yet?” – Matthew 14: 22 – 33

Central United Methodist Church
Anybody Scared Yet?
Pastor David Haley
Matthew 14: 22 – 33
August 13th, 2017

Christ & Peter

Christ and Peter

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  – Matthew 14: 22 – 33, from The New Revised Standard Version

 

Anybody scared, yet? I never thought – and never wanted – to see it, but this week some of us got a nostalgia trip to our youth, which began when President Trump began using language like “fire and fury” to respond to equally descriptive threats by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, which has made many of us downright jittery and some absolutely fearful. North Korea has been using such bombastic language since the end of the Korean War; what’s new is – for the first time – we have a President responding in kind.

Most scholars and statesmen – including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis – have assured us that war – especially nuclear war – is not imminent, that we all should “sleep easy at night,” which we are trying to do. However, the language being used (locked and loaded) is not making it easy. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping – the adult in the room – has called President Trump, calling for calm.

I want to acknowledge this is a difficult issue, with many variables. It’s not even clear that North Korea has the capability to fulfill their threat, although most experts agree they are moving closer, and likely will be capable in a few years. Most military leaders think military options are risky, because of the risk of escalation to a regional war. But what makes it particularly risky is the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, which – for good reason – have not been used since they were used against Japan in WW II.

While a couple of generations have grown up ignoring this threat, the rhetoric of this week took some of us back to our youth, when – during the height of the Cold War with Russia (anybody remember that?) – we prepared for nuclear attack, in our homes and schoolrooms. Those of you who are older will remember when we were all knowledgeable about bomb shelters and ICBM’s (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). With macabre humor, we watched movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), or “War Games” (1983).

We also know about The Doomsday Clock, which is run by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which midnight represents the danger of nuclear disaster. For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock has stayed set at three minutes before midnight, the closest it has been to midnight since the early 1980s. In 2017, we find the danger is even greater, with the hands advanced to two and a half minutes to midnight. The Clock is ticking, and global danger looms. Are we scared yet?

And now, just yesterday, we have Charlottesville, in which we go back not just to our youth, but the Civil War.

OK, so let’s all take a deep breath. As we know, while this threat of nuclear warfare has our attention right now, we know that life is full of threats, to our safety, our sanity, or health, and there are many things that make us scared, for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, especially at night when we are trying to sleep. What are we to do?

For Christians, who follow Jesus, today’s Gospel suggests what we should do in times of fear and high anxiety.

Needing some time to get away, some prayer time, in the evening, Jesus sends his disciples on ahead across the Sea of Galilee to the other side. The winds blow, the waves rise, threatening the boat and its passengers. The Sea of Galilee is not that big – you can see the other side – but by early morning they have still not made it across, and are beginning to fear whether they will. As with us, the mood is FEAR: the phrases “terrified,” “cried in fear,” “do not be afraid,” and “became frightened,” all occur in eleven verses. In the night, when the wind and waves are strong, when our bodies and souls are tired, we fear; sometimes even despair.

Throughout the history of the church, time and again the Church and the people of the Church have found themselves fearful:  filled not just with existential fear, but genuine “wondering-whether-we-will-survive” fear: whether of disease, persecution, or war. So is it any wonder this is such a beloved story, inspiring both art and music. Time and again, we are those disciples, in the ship of the church, rocked by the wind and waves, scared for our future and our lives.

Just then, the story takes another turn: just when they are ready to start singing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island, suddenly they see a ghost, walking on the water toward them. “And they cried out in fear!” But then, out of the darkness comes a voice: “Take heart – buck up, pull yourselves together – it is I; don’t be afraid.”

What happens next is perhaps the strangest story of all. While Matthew, Mark, and John tell this story (Luke doesn’t include it); only Matthew adds this part about Peter.

When it says they cried out in fear, what do you think they cried? “Jesus, we’re sinking here. Stop fooling around out there, walking on the water, and get over here and save us. (In Jesus’ name; Amen.) That’s what I would say (and pray), wouldn’t you?

Except Peter; who comes up with a brilliant idea: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” If you’ve tried walking on water lately, without water skis, or at least knowing where the stumps are, you know this is not going to end well. At first, at Jesus’ invitation, it works, as long as Peter keeps his eyes on Jesus. But then, when Peter hears the wind whistling in his ears and sees the waves surging around him, he sinks.

Is it any wonder that Christians have used this story, not about how to walk on water, but for lessons in discipleship? The moral of the story is obvious, right? “In the midst of our fear, in the midst of the storm, as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’re OK; but if we ever take them off Jesus, to note what’s happening around us, we sink!”

But that’s rather simplistic, isn’t it? At some time or another, most of us have tried that and failed, especially at those times when the storm within us or around us was too great.

Instead, I like what Father Michael Renninger, the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, says about the strange thing Peter did. All Peter wanted to do, says Father Renninger, was not wait for Jesus to come and save him, but to go to Jesus, in order that he might do what Jesus did. Says Father Renninger:

“Is anybody scared yet? I am. Are there lots of storms brewing in our world? You bet. But like Peter, we can make a Christ-centered decision that fear is not going to control us; exhaustion is not going to constrain us, that the darkness is not going to dictate our behavior. We do not have to hide passively in the boat waiting for Jesus to show up and jump in. We can listen when Jesus says come, and I understand that I will only get closer to Jesus, I will only triumph over the storm, if I do what Jesus did. Doing what Jesus did; doing what Jesus does. Isn’t that the vocation and call of every Christian, doing what Jesus did? . . . For Peter that meant leaving the security of the boat and walking on the water.” (Father Michael Renninger, “What are You Afraid Of,” August 13, 2017, A Sermon for Every Sunday. You can see Father Renninger’s excellent sermon here.)

So – in the midst of our fears, in the midst of the storm – answers begin to emerge. If we want to walk on the water, we’ve got to get out of the boat. If we want to do what Jesus did, we might want to pray more, as Jesus did. We might want to forgive those who wronged us, to be peacemakers, even to love and pray for our enemies, as Jesus did. And – in the ugly times we live in – we might want to resist: to be more vocal and courageous for love and peace and justice in the world, sorely needed right now.

Anne LamottDuring these scary times, I’m thankful for those who – like Jesus – speak out in the dark and extend a hand in the waves. For example, this week, the author Anne Lamott said on her Facebook post (of which I share only excerpts) – what many of us feel:

“We are so doomed. There is nothing we can do. We are at the mercy of two evil ignorant syphilitic madmen, the two worst people on earth. I mean that nicely.

“Where do we even start? We stop trying to figure things out. “Figure it out” is not a good slogan. We practice trust, and surrender, and attention to what we know is beautiful: dogs, art, the Beatles, each other’s eyes. And we don’t give up hope. Emily Dickinson said that hope encourages the Good to reveal itself. We need all the Good we can summon in these Locked and Loaded days….”

“How do we get to hope in these dark ratty days? We don’t think our way to hope. We take the actions, and then the insight follows. The insight is that hope springs from awareness of love, immersion in love, commitment to love….”

“Get outside, even just to the front porch, and look up into the sky and into the tree tops, and say the great praise-prayer: WOW. Listen for the sound of birds – or bird. Surely there is one lousy bird somewhere in the vicinity. Close your eyes and really listen. If birdsong was the ONLY proof we have that there is a bigger deeper reality than what transcends what we are seeing on the news, it would be enough for me. Eyes closed, breathe, listen: secret of life.”

“And lastly, take care of the poor, right now. In Hallelujah Anyway, I wrote that when I got sober, I was taught that happiness lay in going from big shot, to servant. If you want to feel loving feelings, which is hope, do loving things. Send a donation to a group that feeds and shelters and clothes people, in your neighborhood, or Syria. Don’t tell yourself you have no money; pack up clothes and shoes to take to a shelter. Or cash in the money in your laundry room change cup, and give it to people on the street. Give away three dollars to moms on the street with kids, and give the kids colored pencils and journals, or index cards, and say, “It is good to see you,” even if you have tiny, tiny, judgment issues involving bootstraps and combed hair.’”

“If you have time, register a few voters. Also, maybe a ten-minute nap; the writer Robyn Posin says rest is a spiritual act. Father Tom Weston urges, “Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.” Ram Dass tells us that ultimately, we are all just walking each other home. Let’s get started.”

“Am sending you love, whoever you are, and as Pastor Veronica says, ‘God bless you good.’” (These are excerpts, for the entire post check out Anne Lamott on Facebook, posted, Friday, August 11, 2017)

Are we scared yet? You bet. Get out of the boat, keep your eyes on Jesus, do what Jesus does, and as Pastor Veronica says, “God bless you good.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 6, 2017

2017.08.06 “All Will Eat and Be Filled” – Matthew 14: 13 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
All Will Eat and Be Filled
Rev. David L. Haley
Matthew 14: 13 – 21
August 6th, 2017

Bread and Fish

Now when Jesus heard about the execution of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.Matthew 14: 13 – 21, from The New Revised Standard Version

 

If there are any words there stand out in this story of Jesus feeding the multitudes, it is these: “All ate and were filled.”

Throughout the history of the Church to this day, there has been a profound connection between spirituality and eating. Not only in the symbolic feast we celebrate every Sunday in Holy Communion, but in the enjoyment of food with each other.

In fact, when I read these words, I had flashbacks of feasts I have known within the fellowship of the church.

When I began my ministry in the early ‘70’s, I imitated the itinerant ministry of Jesus and did some rural church circuits. In the south, they had the tradition of yearly summer “revivals”; in which few people got revived, but a lot of people ate a lot of food, and I was one of them. Part of the tradition was that each night you preached, a different family would have you over for dinner before the service. Given that many of them were farmers, you would not believe the feasts that they served. Killing the livestock, stripping the garden of vegetables, making more kinds of pie than any one person could or should reasonably eat. And after that – they still expected you to preach! I can still remember the sight of those loaded tables, recall the taste of the food, and remember the warm hospitality of those families.

And what can we say of church potlucks? To paraphrase (I think) Will Rogers, “I’ve never met a potluck I didn’t like. I can’t remember any church potluck I’ve attended in 45 years at which anyone went hungry. Here at Central, as you know, our potlucks are not just abundant, they are international. Sometimes you can tell what congregation has worshiped in the building last by the way the building smells, all of it good. (BTW, the next one is September 10th.) So these words from today’s Gospel resound, do they not? “All ate, and were filled.”

So profound has the connection between spirituality and eating been, that for all four Gospels, there was one story about Jesus that stood out: the miracle of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, not even counting women and children. It is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels, and remains a crowd favorite to this day.

Why do you think this would be?

Was it because they were there, like I was at those farmhouse dinners so many years ago? No, because the Gospels weren’t written until some 50 years after Jesus. They were telling the stories of Jesus they inherited, and this one was a favorite.

Was it because it involved a miracle? If so, they gave us precious little information about what happened – to the point of disinterest – about how Jesus fed 5,000+ people with five loaves and two fish, assuming they didn’t get very tiny pieces. Even then, there were 12 baskets full left over, to take the Jerusalem Food Depository, I imagine.

Was it the language they used to tell the story, reminding them how Christ still fed them (and us) in Holy Communion? “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples, and the ushers (I mean, disciples) gave them to the crowds.” Sound familiar?

Was it because this scene provided such a compelling portrait of Jesus: filled not with disdain but compassion for people, healing those who were ill (free healthcare!), providing those who were hungry with food to eat. Just as God in the Old Testament provided manna for the children of Israel in the wilderness; once again, in Jesus, God was back, providing for God’s children, not with adequacy but abundance: “All ate and were filled.”

Apart from it’s comforting spiritual message of how God provides for our needs, is that all this story says? In addition to being inspiring, what does this story ask of us?

After all – in this story – it wasn’t only their spiritual needs Jesus met, it was their physical needs. Jesus didn’t pass out Bibles, he healed those who were sick and fed those who were hungry, which – in this case – was all of them. In fact, Plan A was Jesus instructing his disciples: “You give them something to eat.” When that didn’t work out, Plan B was that Jesus performed a miracle, but it was still his disciples who distributed the gifts.

It’s not only God, it’s not only Jesus, pulling bread out of a hat in the wilderness; in God’s kingdom we are recruited into a partnership to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to shelter the refugee, to do the work of God in the world. How Christians can read the Gospels and NOT get this is a mystery to me. Or maybe that is the problem: they are not reading the Gospels.

What I do understand is this: like Jesus’ first disciples, we often feel overwhelmed by the need. Fives loaves and two fishes are hardly enough to feed the twelve, much less 5,000+ people. Except now, the number of people is at 7.5 billion, of whom about 800 million, or roughly one in nine, are hungry. In some places, like North Africa, people are literally starving. What can any one of us do in the face of such need? We take what we have, we do what we can. Like working at food pantries or food depositories or soup kitchens to feed the hungry. Like putting together yard sales – as Mariano is doing – to raise money to feed the refugees from Marawi City in the Philippines, threatened by ISIS.

Even so, thoughtful Christians will know that such efforts – as useful as they are – must be supplemented by the need to shape public policy, to feed the hungry and care for those who are ill, and need affordable access to health care.

We may love this story that begins with Jesus healing the sick, but how is it that we remain the only industrialized country in the world without universal access to healthcare? Because of this, we are closer to this scene in the Gospels than we imagine.

For example, have you heard about Remote Area Medical? Remote Area Medical is the brainchild of Stan Brock, 81, a British cowboy who in the 1950s managed one of the world’s biggest ranches, overseeing 50,000 cattle in Guyana in South America. When Brock was badly injured by a wild horse, he was told it would be a 26-day hike to the nearest doctor. When he recovered, he decided to come up with a way to provide health care to deprived areas, places like the Amazon, Haiti and Uganda.

Then one day he got a call from Sneedville, Tenn., where the hospital had closed and the dentist moved out. “Can you come here?” So Brock loaded a dental chair on the back of a pickup truck and brought in a dentist as well, and 150 people lined up, desperate for oral care.

The result is that while it continues international work, Remote Area Medical also treats people in the world’s most prosperous country, right here in the U.S. Just a few weeks back, they held a health fare in Wise, VA., and 2,300 men and women showed up, some camping out for three days beforehand to make sure they would get in to get treated. (Nicholas Kristof, “No Insurance, But for Three Days, Health Care is Within Reach,” the New York Times, July 27, 2017)

Crowds in the wilderness? It is still happening; where is Jesus when you need him? Except – while we still need Jesus – he now needs us. He is still saying to us his disciples, overwhelmed though we may be: “YOU give them something to eat; YOU take care of them.” Not having Jesus’ wonder working power, it will take that special combination of creativity and compassion, that is the gift of God’s Spirit.

For example, in the May 2008, New Yorker magazine, novelist Ian Frazier told the story of Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City. Church of the Holy Apostles is a landmark, with a arched ceiling and gorgeous stained-glass windows. Over the years, the Episcopal congregation dwindled in size as the neighborhood changed, until the 200 members could no longer afford to pay the bills to keep it going. A rector suggested that “if Holy Apostles is going out of business, it might as well do some good before it does.”

So in 1982 the church launched a free-lunch program. Thirty-five people showed up. The program grew and attracted people and outside support. In a few years, the congregation was serving 900 lunches daily and bursting the seams of its mission house.

In 1990, during roof repairs to the main sanctuary, a fire broke out that caused major damage. During insurance-covered restoration and renovation, while the pews were out, members came up with an idea: Why not leave the pews out and use the worship space, empty and unused Monday through Friday, for the lunch program?

Church of the Holy Apostles

Church of the Holy Apostles New York, NY

To this day the church serves 1,200 meals a day. Volunteers do most of the work. They take the tables down on Friday afternoon and set up folding chairs for the weekend. The multi-million dollar budget comes from businesses, foundations, the city — and the 200 members – who, instead of closing down a church, are part of a vital and compelling community of faith.

Frazier asked Elizabeth Maxwell of the Holy Apostles staff about the religious motivation behind the program. She said:

“Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and the hungry and those in prison . . . In all the intricacies of scriptural interpretation, that message — feed the hungry — couldn’t be more clear. Those of us who worship at Holy Apostles feel we have a Sunday-Monday connection. The bread and wine of the Eucharist that we share with one another on Sunday become the food we share with our neighbors during the week. We believe that our job as Christians is to meet Jesus in the world. We meet him, unnamed and unrecognized, in the guests who come to the soup kitchen every day.” (Ian Frazier, “Hungry Minds,” The New Yorker, May 26, 2008.)

No wonder we love this story, because while Jesus may have fed 5,000+ people that day, through this story and its inspiration in the lives of people like us ever since, Jesus is feeding more people than ever – including us – in both soul and body.

As for all those wonderful meals eaten in churches; may the best one may be yet to come, when – in the words of the Gospel – “all will eat and be filled.” Amen.

 

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 30, 2017

2017.07.30 “Look Around” – Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52

Central United Methodist Church
Look Around
Rev. David L. Haley
Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52
July 30th, 2017

mustard seed

“Parable of the Mustard Seed”, a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel, Germany. (from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN)

“Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

          “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.  So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52, The New Revised Standard Version

It was one of those “reason-you-travel” moments, in the Yuan Gardens in Shanghai. We were walking through a gift shop, and began a conversation with a man who worked there. What made it different than most was that he pushed no sales pitch, but engaged in conversation with us, about us, about himself, about our two countries. It’s said that the three topics tourists should never bring up in the PRC are the three “T’s”: “Taiwan, Tiahnamen, and Tibet.” We didn’t bring those up, but both agreed that when we live under governments and leaders that are – shall we say – less than satisfactory, “we the people” must find a way to get by, to live our lives as best we can. It was one of those conversations that builds bonds between people and nations, which reminds us that no matter who we are and where we live, most people have the same basic goals, which Thomas Jefferson described as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But let’s admit it: when news from the highest levels of government is ugly and disturbing, when government seems incompetent and dysfunctional, when we are scared to think what might happen if a major crisis along the lines of 9/11 occurred today, like – for example – a nuclear confrontation with North Korea – then it is hard to stop and smell the roses along the way.

It is even more difficult to look for signs of God’s kingdom -peace and justice, for example – when the news is distracting and disturbing. Indeed, those of us who look for signs of God’s kingdom may find ourselves discouraged, and wonder if we have regressed rather than progressed.We may even wonder sometimes, if we are only deluding ourselves, whether there are any signs of God’s reign on earth at all.

In light of this, we can be thankful for Jesus’ words today, for helping us have eyes to see and ears to hear. As on the last two Sundays, Jesus speaks in parables, those tiny vignettes of life that are really stealth bombers, sneaking in under the radar to blow up our preconceptions, get our attention, and make us think and see and hear in different ways.

The question to which all of these parables are an answer is this: “What is the kingdom of God like? What do you think the kingdom of God is like? Is it being “born again?” Is it living in faith and trust in God? Is it when we see signs of peace and justice in life? Is it when Christians work and worship together in community – in what we call church – to embody the reign of God, regardless of what is happening in society? Is it when society also manifests signs of God’s kingdom in tangible ways, such as – for example – making sure everyone has access to health care, one way or another.

If any of these are what we believe the signs of God’s kingdom are, let’s admit it: on many if not most days we are disappointed, because too often, we don’t see it.

So to help us have eyes to see, Jesus says – using these parables not only as examples but as an example of how to live: “Look around you, look around.”  When Jesus looks around, he gives us these examples:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”

Don’t you love it at the end, where Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood this?” “Do you get it?” And while they answer, “Yes,” I’m not convinced. In fact, not only did Jesus’ disciples not get it, those who wrote the Gospels didn’t either. They were so worried others wouldn’t get it, that they inserted allegorical interpretations of Jesus’ parables, which is like telling a joke which nobody gets and then making it worse by trying to explain it.

With our western, logical-rational, literal-historical way of thinking, we don’t get it either. We want everything to reduced to a formula, laid out in five steps, be spelled out in three points. We think that if it didn’t happen, it can’t be true. However, for most of human history, the stories told over and over, the stories that have influenced us the most, have nothing to do with whether or not they happened; in fact, sometimes these stories impart the most truth. Jesus’ little parables? Aesop’s fables? King Arthur? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? All these are genre of these simple stories Jesus told, which have inspired us ever since.

When we do get it, we we do learn how to look around and see signs of God’s kingdom, we become the spiritual student Jesus described when he said:

“Every student well-trained in God’s kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it.”

Even when the world around us may grow more threatening, we will learn how to look for and find hope in scenes of life around us. We’ll be like Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, able to pull anything out of our overcoat. We’ll be able to find the right thing, old or new, in the libraries of our soul, thus becoming a spiritual Master as Jesus was, able to see God in anything and everything.

Here’s an example: inspired and challenged by Jesus to look around for signs of hope, in the midst of all the bad news, I found some good news this week. It is a story which begins with tragedy, but now brings tears to our eyes with its life and hope.

We first met Pei Xia Chen, at one of the most difficult moments in her life. In December of 2014, her husband, NYPD officer Wenjian Liu, and his partner, Rafael Ramos, were ambushed and killed in their patrol car by deranged gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who then killed himself. Incidentally, Liu was the first Asian-American NYPD police officer to die in the line of duty.  At his funeral in January of 2015, attended by thousands of NYPD officers, the tearful widow spoke about her husband, her “best friend” and “hero” whose parents were “his everything.”

On the night her husband was shot, Chen had the foresight to ask that his semen be preserved with the hope of one day having their child.

Last Tuesday, more than 2½ years after his death, Chen gave birth to their daughter, Angelina, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. On Tuesday, Liu’s parents came to see Chen and the grandchild that once must have seemed inconceivable with the death of their son. Liu’s mother, Xiu Yan Li, said, “The past three years have been the most difficult. This is the best news we’ve gotten.” When Angelina is a month old, the family plans to take her to visit Liu’s grave. “This way, said Chen, “I can tell him he has a daughter.” (Joseph Goldstein, “Daughter of Slain Police Officer is Born, Two Years After Father’s Death,” the New York Times, July 26, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/nyregion/daughter-of-slain-police-officer-is-born-2-years-after-fathers-death.html?_r=0)

Even when the news is bad, people, look around, look around. As Jesus taught us, look around and you will see in the scenes of life around you, signs of life and hope, signs of the kingdom of God on earth. May we see it with our eyes, and practice it in our lives. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 23, 2017

17.07.23 “Wheat or Weed?” – Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43

Central United Methodist Church
Wheat or Weed?
Rev. David L. Haley
Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43
July 23rd, 2017

Wheat

“Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” – Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43, from The New Revised Standard Version

We have come here today to talk about important things like God and religion and church and society and good and evil. But because all those are controversial things, instead we are going to talk about farming, which is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel. Farming is non-controversial, that is, unless you are talking to farmers, which – thankfully – I am not. I made that mistake once many years ago with a relative who was a farmer in Oklahoma, and I eventually escaped to be here with you today.

Jesus used disarmingly simple stories from such things as farming, to talk about important, even controversial things, in a parabolic way. Eventually people figured out what he was saying and what he was up to, which is why they nailed him to a cross. But before that, he left us a collection of these intriguing stories called parables.

C. H. Dodd, one of the great NT scholars of the last century, once defined a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application as to tease it into active thought.” (C. H. Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom.) The point of a parable was not to explain things, but to disrupt previous explanations. Most New Testament scholars agree that Jesus’ original parable is the first part of the text, with the explanation likely added later, in the form of an allegory, likely because even Jesus’ early followers couldn’t stand the wild ambiguity of parables. With parables, when you think you have got it, you almost certainly have not.

You began Jesus’ parables last Sunday with Lisl, with the Parable of the Sower, about God as an extravagant sower of seed, even wasting a lot of good seed in the parking lot. We continue with another seed story today, with Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

A farmer is sowing seed, but this farmer must have been either a Hatfield or a McCoy, or maybe Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd, because that night “an enemy” came and sowed weeds among the wheat that had been sown. (“Oh, that wascally wabbit!”)

Nobody knew nothing until the wheat came up, and with the wheat came the weeds. Some speculate Jesus was talking about the dreaded bearded darnel, a devil of a weed. Known in the Bible as “tares,” bearded darnel’s roots surround the roots of the good plants, sucking up nutrients and water, making it impossible to root out the weed without damaging the wheat. Above the ground, darnel looks identical to wheat, until it bears seed, which can cause everything from hallucinations to death.

But really, for the sake of the parable, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point; the point is that the wheat and the weeds were all mixed together. Even when the farm workers wanted to pull it all up and start over, the farmer said, “Nah, let it grow, because if you pull up the weeds you’re gonna pull up the wheat.” “Wait until harvest, and we’ll get it then.”

Some of us who grew up on or around farms understand. Rev. Barbara Lundblad, for example, is a Lutheran pastor and a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but she grew up on an Iowa farm. She describes what would be going on there about now:

“It’s already the middle of the summer and if I were back on the Iowa farm where I grew up, I’d probably be “walking the beans” for the second or third time. “

“Now that phrase may sound odd to you if you’ve never lived on a farm . . . I walked, and my dad, my mom, my sister and brother too. We walked up and down between the mile-long rows of soy beans. Down one row, back another. We walked acres and acres of soybeans to pull or chop the weeds out of the row . . . the weeds you couldn’t get with the cultivator and tractor…. “

“Sometimes, when the day was very hot (which it almost always was in Iowa in July) or when I was very tired and didn’t want to be there (which was almost always true), I’d look down at the weed in my hand and realize it was indeed a beautiful green soybean plant. With luck my dad would be several rows away from me and I’d stick the plant back, hoping no one would be around to see it wither and die.”

Lundblad added: “I wish I had been more familiar with Matthew 13 then. I could have told my dad, “Dad, remember what the scripture says: Don’t pull those weeds, for in gathering the weeds we might uproot the plants along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” (“Bad Farming”, a sermon preached by The Rev. Barbara K. Lundblad, on Day 1, July 26, 1998)

But you don’t have to be a farmer or to have farm experience, to understand that really, Jesus was not talking about farming. he was talking about life, about people, about human institutions including church, even about us.

All people, including us, and all human institutions made up of people – whether Government or Church, Marine Corps or Girl Scouts – because they are composed of people – are a peculiar mixture of wheat and weeds, good and bad. Sometimes the wheat prevails, and sometimes the weeds prevail.

Quite likely, Jesus’ words were addressing the situation of the early church, where it didn’t take long for both wheat and weeds to appear, with each side labeling the other the weeds, just as we still do.

Throughout the centuries, it has always been a temptation to think this way, proving that it is difficult to wait upon God for the weeding. Tragically, the results have often been some of the most tragic episodes in the Church’s life. Crusades were organized to drive out infidels. Inquisitions rooted out heretics. Native Americans and African Americans were deemed sub-human. Women accused of being witches were hung or burned, like weeds. Those deemed “weeds” – whether or the basis of theology or race or gender or sexual orientation – were excluded. What was lost sight of was that all those “weeds” were people. Some of those labeled “weeds” by us were in fact delicate and beautiful flowers, because God has a special place for people like them.

It does not mean we ought not use our critical faculties to evaluate truth statements or dispute falsehoods, not does it mean to apathetic in the face of injustice or need. What it does mean is that while inept farmers may think they know the weeds from the wheat, wise farmers know that weeds can’t always be distinguished from the wheat, and can’t be pulled without damaging the wheat. The more we think we know about who are the weeds, the more we prove ourselves to be not only inept gardeners, but perhaps the real weeds, ourselves.

Father Michael Renninger is the Pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Richmond, Virginia, and this week in a “Sermon for Every Sunday,” he put it this way: “How often do we look at people, and upon the basis of what we see, make a snap judgment and decide that is all we need to know?”

“He’s gay”
“She’s divorced”
“They’re Muslim, or Mexican, or Jewish, or immigrant”
“He drinks”
“She’s unfaithful”
“They don’t go to church”
“She watches Fox news, he likes CNN”

Says Father Renninger, when we make these snap judgments, thinking we know all we need to know, once we actually get to know people, experience often teaches us otherwise. (Rev. Michael Renninger, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Richmond, Virginia, “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” July 23, 2017).

“Be patient, be gentle, let God do the judging, gathering the harvest and separating the wheat from the weeds,” says Jesus. Why? Because this is what God does with us. Christ plants within us the seeds of the gospel, but the Enemy sows weeds also. God sees all and knows all, but remains patient and forbearing with us, giving us the chance to live and change and grow. Personally, I’m thankful God has such a lax system of agriculture. Now, if I can only remember that when I’m up to my neck in the weeds.

One of my favorite poets was the 18th century poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake, who was largely unrecognized in his lifetime, but is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. And – it just so happens – Blake is buried just across the street from John Wesley’s City Road Chapel in London, in the same cemetery where Wesley’s mother, Susanna Wesley, is also buried, in Bunhill Fields Cemetery.

In his Auguries of Innocence, Blake’s poem reminds me of what Jesus taught in his Parable of the Wheat and Weeds:

“Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.”

There is wheat and there are weeds, including in us. Nevertheless, God in love forbears, allows us to live and grow and even prosper, and asks us to do the same for others, even those we are tempted to call “weeds.” When this we rightly know, through the world we safely go. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 2, 2017

2017.07.02 “You Never Know” – Matthew 10: 40 – 42

Central United Methodist Church
You Never Know
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 10: 40 – 42
July 2nd, 2017

Water cup

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” – Matthew 10: 40 – 42, from The New Revised Standard Version

 

Do you get your rewards? Have you had your church card punched by the ushers today for your loyalty rewards for coming to church? Ha, ha, you say, if only!

Meanings do change. For some of us old timers, a reward was something you saw promised on a poster with somebody’s name on it that said, “Wanted!” Which mean, of course, that we never got any rewards because we never ever saw that person.

In the modern world, rewards programs are something with which we are well acquainted, if not good at. We have our airline and hotel and our shopping rewards cards, which we use as frequently as we remember; now if we only had a wallet or a purse big enough to hold them all.

As you know, some people pay attention to this and make it their business to work the system for their benefit. As an example, I follow the blog of Brian Kelly, aka The Points Guy, www.thepointsguy.com who flies around the world in First Class, staying in the best hotels and resorts, all using the points he earns from credit cards and travel. Obviously, he has learned how to work the system, which – let’s face it – most of the rest of us fail at. I have lost through expiration, 70,000 miles on United Airlines alone, not to mention other airlines who are no longer even in existence. Although – to my credit – I have not been dragged off a plane once! (which I guess would be minus points!)

But how about in God’s program, what the system there? In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes just one example of how we get our rewards (points!) in God’s redemption program, one of the best out there, one in which points earned never expire.

Now I know some may cringe when we talk about points and rewards in God’s kingdom, which, as St. Paul and generations of theologians since have reminded us, in God’s kingdom it is not about points and rewards at all, but God’s gracious acceptance.

But strangely enough, before St. Paul wrote his letters and epistles and worked out his doctrine of justification by faith, Jesus talked about rewards, as he does in our Gospel today. And those rewards come not only to those who do God’s works, such as Jesus’ disciples, but also to those who welcome them, even though simple acts of kindness and generosity, like giving a cup of cold water to one who is thirsty. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “none of these will lose their reward.”

To whom was he talking, and what did he mean? Previously, as we have seen, Matthew chapter 10 is all about discipleship.  Jesus commissions twelve disciples and sends them out, to cure the sick and drive out evil spirits, to proclaim and to portray the Kingdom of God.

But then, as we saw last week, Jesus gets to the “fine print.” He warns them of coming persecutions and trials, tells them who to fear and who to ignore, reminds them that their words and their works will spark division. All of this is part of being a disciple of Jesus. He then calls them to take up their cross, promising rewards for their faithfulness, and I don’t mean frequent flyer points.

What he says is this:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

Ending with the most descriptive promise of all:

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Really, is that all it takes? Can it really be so simple as to offer someone a cup of cold water? Note that Jesus isn’t even talking about what the disciples are supposed to do, he’s talking about those who welcome them – even if it is just by giving them a cup of cold water. We’re not talking about prophets and apostles and preachers, the so-called stars of the show; we’re talking about but the bit players, the B actors, the people in the pews. Yes, even through gestures as small as giving a cup of cold water to those who are thirsty and other acts of mercy and kindness,  we too are drawn into the mission of Jesus, and gain our rewards.

What this tells us is that Christian discipleship – following Jesus – doesn’t have to be heroic. We don’t have to be Albert Schweitzer or Mother Theresa or cure cancer or work miracles, even something as simple as offering a cup of cold water to those who are thirsty counts in God’s reward program.

Once we know this, we can easily think of other things to add to the list. Smiling at strangers and greeting them, rather than ignoring or scowling at them. Offering to those who grieve, a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear. Welcoming those who are new to church or school or to the neighborhood, with simple gestures of welcome and friendship. Contacting a legislator about an issue that is important to us – or more importantly – to someone else, like health care. Thanking a police officer or firefighter or public servant or member of the military for their service. Supporting those who work in social service agencies, food pantries or soup kitchens, – or better yet – doing it ourselves – as those who care for the “least of these.”

All these types of things may seem like small, ultimately unimportant gestures; except that, according to Jesus, in the kingdom of God there are no small gestures done in faith. Every act of kindness has an impact beyond what we can imagine. Indeed, Jesus seems to be saying that no act of kindness or generosity will ever be forgotten. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” Every act of kindness and generosity reverberates with cosmic significance, and even though we may never know the difference such acts have made, every act of kindness and generosity done in the name of Christ ripples out into the world, and is gathered into the great waves of God’s work to love, bless, and save the world.

I think we all know what I’m talking about, because at some time in our lives, everyone of us has been the beneficiary of someone’s else simple yet extravagant kindness, which proved life-changing.

When I graduated from seminary here in Chicago in 1976, at that time I was a member of the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church, and my first appointment was to be the Associate Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, in mid-town Memphis, Tennessee. I loaded everything I had into my car, which I think at the time was a Ford Pinto, which tells you how much I had.  When I arrived in Memphis, I found out that they had no place for me to stay, just yet. The senior pastor, Rev. George Comes, picked up the phone and called one of the most gracious and generous couples in the congregation, Earl and Mabel Major, who took me into their home, until the church could find me a place to live. They were the kind of people such that when young homesick Bible salesmen showed up at their door, they would wind up staying for a week. The friendship begun then was to be one of the significant and influential friendships not only of my life, but of my children’s lives, up to and beyond their passing, a few years ago. Perhaps you have such people in your life, who influenced you through life-altering, simple acts of kindness and generosity.

So you never know, what difference you will make. Whether it is through simple acts of kindness expressed to you by others, or simple acts of kindness expressed by you to others, you never know what difference it will make. As Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, none of these shall lose their reward.” Amen.

[This week, as many weeks, I want to acknowledge the helpful insights of David Lose, www.davidlose.net at “Pentecost 4A: “Even,” In the Meantime, June 26, 2017]

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

170625 graphic

       “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.

 

 

 

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