Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 1, 2014

Welcome to Skokie Central Church

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

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Central United Methodist Church
Praise, Praise for Everything!
Thanks, Thanks for it All!
Pastor David L. Haley
Farewell Sermon
Hebrews 12: 1 – 3
June 10th, 2018

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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” – Hebrews 12: 1 – 3, the New Revised Standard Version

The day that we have anticipated and dreaded for so long has come; my last service and sermon as Pastor of Central. Last Sunday I reflected on my years here at Central; today I want to reflect back upon my 45 plus years of ministry. As Woodrow McCall said to Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning western, Lonesome Dove, “Aye God, Woodrow, it’s been quite a party, ain’t it?”

On that day 50 years ago, when our pastor, the Rev. Tommy Bullock, asked me, as we were in the church kitchen washing dishes: “Have you ever thought about entering the ministry?”, little did I imagine how life-changing his question and my eventual answer would be. When I preached at my home church on December 31st for their 50th anniversary, I got to reunite with Tommy Bullock, now in his eighties, and personally thank him for inviting me into the ministry.

Although my answer that day was no – because I thought a life in ministry would be boring – his question along with other factors became seeds that were planted, until I eventually acknowledged the call of God in my life and said, “Yes.” Even then, how little I imagined (to paraphrase Dr. Seuss), “the places I’d go, the people I’d meet, the things I’d do.”

From country churches in Kentucky and Tennessee, to Chicago Temple in Daley Plaza, to Trinity UMC in midtown Memphis, to Hermosa-Salem and Berry Memorial in Chicago, then to West Chicago, then here to Central.

And the people I would meet! To this day, they are with me: Tommy Bullock, Wayne Lamb, Ed Crump, Harrell Philips, Robert Bruce Pierce, Jimmy Holmes, George & Charlotte Comes, Dave & Nancy Hilliard, Earl & Mabel Major, the Amis Family, Victor Fujiu, Richard & Joyce Licko, Bill & Florence Heideman, Fred Littell, Dave & Lana Runyan, the Gsedl Family, and yes – you, the people of Central. To most of you, those names will mean nothing; to me, they are people who have blessed my life more than I could ever have imagined.

The things I’d do: baptize babies, and since I don’t have any more to baptize, I can say it: all without tears! Drive a youth group through the Smokies in a school bus. Instruct confirmands; stand before starry-eyed couples getting married; mediate the joys and struggles of relationships not only in the lives of others, but in my own life; visit the sick and shut ins and come to love them as family; observe bedside vigils at the bedside of beloved parishioners; officiate at the funerals of strangers and loved ones.

I know you won’t believe this, but over the course of a lifetime, pastors can grow old and cynical. I once heard a pastor say he’d rather do funerals than weddings, because they pay better and last longer. As a retiring minister confessed in his farewell remarks to Annual Conference, after 35 years of ministry: “The first person saved under my preaching has backslidden. The first persons married under my ministry have divorced. But the first person I buried, has stayed there.”

The list of things I never thought I’d do as a pastor goes on for awhile: take care not only of church people but church buildings, as well as build a one new one. JR Graves once wanted to know why I, a pastor, owned a pipe wrench; I told him if you’d lived in the houses I’ve lived in, JR, you’d know. But not just maintenance, organizing: advocate for agencies and institutions like Thresholds and Moms-In-School, work in homeless shelters, travel to refugee camps in Africa; serve as a chaplain in hospitals and homes and streets and in police and fire stations, even become a firefighter/paramedic myself, picking up a secondary thread in my life, which began when I worked my way through college in an emergency room. I could tell a million stories, but I’ll never forget, for example, early on a Sunday morning when I told Michele – who was in the shower – “I don’t think you’ll have to play today; the church you’re supposed to play at – St. Andrew Lutheran – is on fire,” and then run out the door to fight it. And to think I thought life as a pastor might be boring!

Now that my appointed ministry is ending, I acknowledge there is much I’m going to miss about the ministry, and the wonderful life I’ve been privileged to live because of it. But before I tell you what I’m going to miss, may I tell you what I’m not going to miss?

I won’t miss the weekly worship and sermon cycle, with its deadlines and resulting anxiety. To live the preaching life is to live the ancient Greek Myth of Sisyphus, who rolled the stone up a hill each week, only to see it roll back down again. I’ve lived this life for 45 years; I’m not sure what I’ll do when I have anxiety-free Saturdays. Robert Bruce Pierce, the late pastor of Chicago Temple, used to say when he woke up on a Monday morning without a deadline, he’d know he was in heaven. He is; and I will be too, though not that heaven just yet, at least I hope not.

I won’t miss forms and bureaucracy. As the denomination of the middle class, Methodist middle managers brought home what they learned at the office, and thus structured the United Methodist Church. Personally, I look forward to never attending another Charge Conference or ever filing a form in triplicate again. On the other hand, maybe it was good training for Social Security and Medicare and Medicare Supplemental.

Likewise, I won’t miss the 24/7 responsibility that goes with ministry. It was Richard Bolles, the author of What Color is your Parachute, who once said ministry requires a variety of skills like no other profession: building manager and public speaker, counselor and fund raiser, CEO and janitor, umpire and activist; So that there’s always something that needs to be done. When I was out, I felt guilty I wasn’t home, working on a sermon; when I was home working on a sermon, I felt guilty that I wasn’t out, visiting someone. I look forward to getting out from under that. I’ve told Michele she for sure needs to keep working, because I look forward to leisurely roaming the aisles of Home Depot looking for things to buy.

But here’s what I will miss:

I never thought I’d say this, but I will miss the weekly discipline of preaching, engaging in a sacred dialogue with the Word and the world. Throughout my ministry I have tried to embody what the most famous theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, once said, that a preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Sometimes, even when I had my finger on the text, people heard that as preaching politics, a charge leveled not only at the prophets of ancient Israel, but which got Jesus crucified as a rebel against Rome. However, not to fulfill this prophetic responsibility, and to remain silent, or preach about trivial topics – as some preachers choose to do, is not only to acquiesce to the evils of church or society, but ultimately to become an accomplice.

What I will really miss is being engaged with people, at the most important and difficult moments of their lives, a privileged access that clergy are granted. The memory of a lifetime of names and faces at such times of life, makes me at the same time want to sing the doxology but also to lament. As I have been going through files in preparation for moving, it has been like my life passing before my eyes: names and faces of children, youth, young adults, singles, couples, veterans, seniors, and even the blessed dead, who I remember being with, at some of the most joyous and sometimes saddest moments of their lives.

I will miss the engagement and involvement that goes with being a pastor; the responsibility to serve not just a congregation, a precedent set by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley when he said, “The world is my parish.” As one of my mentors, Martin Marty once said: “The best clergy are those engaged beyond their congregation, who do something outside of their church, whether it is serving on a board or commission or doing community organizing or serving – as I did – as a chaplain beyond the church setting. In my ministry I have embodied this, though the forms have changed from church to church. For me, the turn it took was to serve as a hospital and then a fire and police chaplain, with the added privilege of getting to serve as a firefighter/paramedic alongside them.

Here in Skokie, one of my great joys and privileges was to serve for the last several years as President of the Niles Township Clergy. Just as it has been a joy to serve the diverse congregation of Central, so it has been a joy to work with other Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams. Last Wednesday, for example, at my last meeting with them, Beth Lindley, Skokie’s Director of Human Services; Richard Kong, Director of the Library; and Dr. Catherine Counard, Director of the Skokie Health Department, met with clergy in the Log Cabin, to share some good things that are happening in the Village in regard to such issues as anti-racism. When they threw me a farewell party and read a letter of thanks, I told them, it has been one of the joys of my life to go from where I grew up, very white, Protestant, mostly Scots-Irish, to work with people and religious leaders who are different, and yet have so much in common, both in faith and in our desire to serve not only our congregations but our communities.

As a result of this lifetime of ministry, like a good traveler, when I look at a map I don’t see places or buildings, I remember people and faces. Such that today as I retire, I do so with my own personal balcony of saints.

Our “balcony” is an image I first heard from Rev. John Buchanan, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. On All Saints Sunday, when John would talk about that great “cloud of witnesses who surround us” – he compared them to our “balcony.”

As you remember, in the past, many gymnasiums, theaters, and churches had balconies. Such that, whenever as children or youth we would do something, such as play basketball or act in the high school play or read Scripture in church, our parents might sit in the balcony, to cheer us on. Now, says Buchanan, in life, our balcony consists of the people who influenced and on inspired us and even now – from heaven – cheer us on. So that not only on All Saints Sunday, but days on days such as this, it is appropriate to look up, acknowledge, and give thanks to our balcony, our saints.

As I retire, I am so thankful for my balcony, the relationships that a lifetime of ministry has given me: the people I have been privileged to get to know and work with, many of whom have passed on, though not all, some are sitting here today. In addition to my parents and my wife Michele and my family, I would never have made it through forty-four plus years of ministry in five congregations, without these people, many of whom I cannot think of today, without getting teary-eyed. Without them – without you – ministry would have been a chore; with them and with you – it was an honor and a privilege, a wonderful way to spend a lifetime, for which I am grateful.

The late Huston Smith, the scholar of world religion and a resident of my personal balcony (even though I never met him) ended his autobiography, Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, with a quotation from the martyr Saint John of Chrysostom, who while being drawn and quartered was said to have exclaimed: “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.”

Today, at the end of my appointed ministry I can’t think of a better ending than this: “Thank you, Trinity, Memphis! Thank you, Hermosa-Salem! Thank you, Berry Memorial! Thank you, West Chicago! Thank you, people of Central! Thank you, God: Father, Son, and Spirit: “Praise, praise for everything! Thanks, thanks for it all!” Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 3, 2018

Central United Methodist Church
We Have This Treasure
Pastor David L. Haley
2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12
June 3rd, 2018

6.3.18 graphic
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” – 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12, the New Revised Standard Version

It was Sunday, September 2, 2007. I still remember the walk from the parsonage to the church, one of the longest walks of my life, to meet Central’s congregation for the first time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet you; it was that I had been at my last church for 17 years and had put down deep roots there, with people, with the church, and the community. Having said goodbye to them, it was time to start all over, and say hello to you, also knowing that the day would come when I would also have to say goodbye to you. Now, after 10 ¾ years, that time has come.

If this were a church as old as Chartres Cathedral in France, which has been around for 900 years, ten years would not be much. Not even as much as my former church, founded in 1835. But for Central, founded in 1930, with not even a good solid century yet, a decade is a long time. Not as long as my friend and predecessor, Bob Burkhart – no slouch – who did 20 years. Which means that, with Bob’s predecessor, Harry Connor, who did ten years, Central has only had 3 pastors in 41 years. As I informed your next pastor, Timothy Biel Jr.: No pressure!

Since next Sunday (my last Sunday) there will be family and friends here and I want to reflect upon my whole ministry; today, I would like to reflect upon our time together at Central.

As usual, the lectionary delivers an appropriate reading, quoting the first Christian pastor, the Apostle Paul. Like me, Paul was an itinerant preacher, traveling from church to church, some of which he spent a lot of time in and also developed deep roots. Paul was always writing back, reflecting his pastoral heart: sending greetings and giving thanks, addressing controversies, and sometimes even defending his own ministry.

While Paul could occasionally get worked up with boasting, at other times his humanity and humility shone through, never more so than in today’s reading. He wrote: “For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” But then he continued with lines that have resonated with every Christian pastor, every Christian since:

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

“Treasure in clay jars,” “earthen vessels,” some might even say, “cracked pots,” however you render it, we get the image: a precious treasure, stored in clay pots, easily broken, and the treasure spills out.

As all of us “earthen vessels” know, we are easily broken, fragile and mortal. And not just physically but emotionally: subject to joy and elation, discouragement and despair, sometimes in the same day. Especially as the pastor of a congregation; there are just too many factors beyond our control. Come to church on Easter, it’s overflowing; come when there 10 inches of snow or its 10 below; we’ll be looking at empty pews, a lot of lumber. Preach a sermon everybody raves about; preach another that makes people leave. Baptize a baby; but then do the funeral of a beloved parishioner. Confirm a teenager; never see them again. One step forward; two steps back; that’s the way church and ministry is, and that’s what Paul was talking about. In 2,000 years, not much has changed, only the details.

In our ten years together, as you know, I have never had grand dreams or ambitions. Rather, I have tried to do what Christian pastors have always done, and to do them as well as I could: lead worship, preach, teach, counsel, visit, and administer the congregation. No one person can do them all well; but every pastor must do them (or delegate them) because they are the basic skills of ministry. It is a peculiar skill set unlike any other profession, and can be – in turns – fulfilling, exciting, heart-breaking, boring, and often overwhelming, as Paul expressed well so long ago.

To many, what clergy do is best described by the phrase: “six days invisible, one day incomprehensible.” While I hope it is not true that I have been incomprehensible, it is true that I was often invisible, though not inactive. There is the weekly service and sermon, our primary time together, which never happened without preparation, planning, research, inspiration, and – yes – anxiety. It is our most important time together, when we gather as disciples of Jesus, seeking relationship with God, to reflect on the Scriptures, to pray, and to support and encourage each other. I don’t expect you to remember my sermons – depending upon when you ask, I probably can’t remember them either – but you probably also don’t remember the meals you ate yesterday or last week or in last years or 10 years ago; and yet, here we are, well-fed and alive. It might not be measurable, but spiritually, I hope I have fed you well.

In addition to our reflections on the Scriptures, I am grateful for our weekly celebration of Holy Communion. I have long thought it important, as it was for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. From the beginning of Christianity, these two – Word and Table – were always together; it was only after the Protestant Reformation that they were torn apart. This remains true, even if our incentive was practical: I can still see the woman in my mind, a recent refugee who spoke no English, who came to Central on a Sunday early on when there was no communion: “No (hand-to-mouth gesture), she asked?” Of course – if you can’t speak the language, sacraments such as Holy Communion communicate. So, we’ve celebrated it every Sunday since. I will never forget the beautiful spectrum of skin colors of your hands, receiving the bread and the cup; this is the way it should be. I will never forget that Sunday when two vanloads of residents from local group homes showed up, many severely handicapped; the only way we could serve the bread and the cup was by helping one another: this also is the way it should be.

I am thankful for the diversity of Central’s congregation, as my last, it was the fulfillment of a dream. I grew up in a place in which there was no diversity, where almost everyone was white and Protestant and mostly Scots-Irish. My previous four churches were predominantly white, with a sprinkling of others, so I am so thankful to end my ministry with a congregation like Central, made up of people from different countries and cultures, who come together in worship and service. There is a saying that “nothing is real until it is local.” Here at Central, God’s global church, in embodiment and anticipation of the Kingdom of God, has been made both local and real: I thank you for this.

My greatest sorrow in regard to Central? Those we lost in death; the remembrance of them fills me with grief and sadness. Most of us clergy enter the ministry thinking a church is like a photograph: a still life, all our ducks in a row. In reality, it is more like a video, a passing parade, herding cats. The baptized babies grow up, become rebellious teenagers, get confirmed, and go away, never to return. The middle-aged wake up one day to find ourselves “old!” As someone once said, life is divided into thirds: youth, middle age and “You look good.” Over time – over a decade – people we love age and die. In our congregation, as every congregation, in our imagination we can still see them sitting in their pews, in the same seats some of you now sit in.

One of the most shocking statistics to me is that our highest average worship attendance during my tenure was about 4 years in: from 102 in 2007 to 124 in 2011. In succeeding years, we lost two large extended families that alone counted for almost 25 people. I personally officiated at the funerals of about 45 people during my time here, and would estimate twice that number moved away, for various reasons. So, given that our average worship attendance is now 95, it means that we have exchanged much of the congregation. The congregation I met in 2007 is not the same congregation here today. Given this, over my ten years here, given the trends and troubles of our time, I am thankful for all of you who make up our congregation.

I’m also thankful we were able to make progress on our buildings and facilities, if progress is the right word to use. Christianity is the religion of the Word made flesh, the incarnation of God in the world; in the same way, a congregation’s buildings are the incarnation of a congregation in a community; how they look and how they are used speaks volumes about the congregation. The Sanctuary, the Educational Building, and the Log Cabin are busier than ever thanks to improvements and updates.  However, with buildings the vintage our buildings are (as most Chicago church buildings), there is always more to be done, and the “fix it” list is never-ending. That’s why I’m asking any gifts given in honor of my retirement be made to the Building Fund, as one of the very best things I can do for my successor, Rev. Timothy Biel. In the future, I hope Central’s facilities can become an even more active and attractive venue of God’s work in the world.

Finally, I’m grateful we were able to embody our congregation’s motto, “Keeping God Central in hearts, minds, and lives,” in a way we never imagined: not only in our congregation but by sharing it with five others: Jesus Love, New Harvest Haitian, St. James Episcopal Filipino, and the Arab and Assyrian congregations, consisting of recent refugees. While the overlap and logistics often us crazy, by hosting these congregations we are able to reach out to our community, have a significant outreach to spiritually hungry people (especially new immigrants), and also help support our facilities for all of us, in a way we can no longer do only by ourselves.

My final hopes and prayers for you? That you can continue to grow and to change and to reach out. When print advertising has died, when the promises of social media have evolved into problems, the very best way for congregations to grow and reach people are the very same they have always been: people reaching people by word of mouth. If they like what they find, each new person will bring others; as opposed to those who have been here a long time, who rarely do.

Care for each other. The problem with diversity is that it is sometimes hard to build community. That person with a different skin color, speaking a different language, maybe wearing different clothes and practicing different customs, can be intimidating. Cross that anxiety barrier and reach out: learn names, ask about family, tell them you’re glad they are here.  Whether you grow as a congregation or don’t grow, care for one another. This was Jesus’ command.

Finally, get out there: cross barriers, have conversations. I have always been amazed what happens when you do that. I have often said I can’t wait to retire, free from the responsibilities of ordained ministry, to begin my real itinerant ministry: to get out, walk around, and talk to people, to do what Jesus did.

One of the people I have gotten to know by doing this, is an older African-American man at the Leaning Tower YMCA by the name of Bobby. Bobby is usually on the rowing machine, dressed in three layers of clothes, sweating like crazy. So first we do a fist bump, and then in response to my asking how he’s doing, Bobby usually says this: “Everything’s going according to plan.” In these crazy, chaotic, times, not only in our congregation but in the world, I keep taking heart in Bobby’s word: “Everything’s going according to plan.”

Meanwhile . . .

“we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and not us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

In the days and years to come, may the life of Jesus be visible in me, and also in you. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 27, 2018

2018.05.27 – Trinity Sunday – John 3:16

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Pastor Haley was away this Sunday, attending his daughter’s high school graduation. Central’s preacher – via video from A Sermon for Every Sunday – was the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City. Pastor Butler is the seventh Senior Minister and first woman to serve as Senior Pastor of the legendary Riverside Church. She preaches on the most-memorized verse in the Bible, John 3:16, one that was a familiar part of her youth and which she feels deserves a closer look. Her sermon may be viewed either at YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ul3WRouiMI or Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/257046567

 

Central United Methodist Church
Tell Me How This Ends
Pastor David L. Haley
Acts 2: 1 – 21
Pentecost Sunday
May 20th, 2018

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When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

– Acts 2: 1 – 21, The New Revised Standard Version

 

It was March of 2003, the invasion of Iraq was underway, and Major General David Petraeus was in command of the 101st Airborne Division heading for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Six days into the campaign, the division was stopped 30 miles southwest of Najaf by a blinding dust storm and an attack by Iraqi irregulars. Rick Atkinson, a Washington Post journalist, reported that Petraeus hooked his thumbs into his flak vest, adjusted the weight on his shoulders, and said: “Tell me how this ends.” Today we know the answer to his question; it doesn’t.

Today, in the Book of Acts, we hear another episode that involving wind and fire, how the Church begins. Today, however, in my third to last sermon, I would also like to ask General Petraeus’ question: “Tell me how this ends.” I’m not talking about the end of the world, nor how the Church in the world winds up, but about local churches like Central: what is the future for us? I am not a prophet not the son of a prophet, nor do I have a crystal ball, I can only read the signs of the times and speculate about what might lie ahead.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, in our reading from Acts, chapter 2, we hear how the Church begins, at that dramatic and mysterious outpouring we know as Pentecost. Pentecost was the day 50 days after Easter when the church received the promise of the Spirit that Jesus had promised, turning them from a Memorial Society for Jesus into his Spirit-filled Church, such that by the power of the Holy Spirit they stopped waiting for something to happen and made things happen.

It included special effects, the sound of a mighty wind and the sight of flames as of flames of fire, and with people speaking in multiple languages, united in the praise of God. Even though I’ve been preaching this story for over 45 years, I’m still not clear what Luke is telling us. Was this an actual historical event that happened as Luke tells us; or was this a symbolic event, so obviously full of symbolism, such as the wind of the Spirit, the flame of God’s presence, and the sound of many languages spoken yet understood, a reversal of the Tower of Babel.

Either way, it is a fantastic story, which may leave us with one of two reactions. The first is that – not having such an experience as they had – we have failed. Thom Shuman, the Presbyterian pastor who writes our communion liturgies, suggested recently on Facebook that pastors and churches need to address what he called the Pentecost Syndrome. Because – in his conservative estimate of 99.9% of our churches, windows aren’t going to be blown open, tongues aren’t going to be uttered, flames aren’t going to dance on our heads, and 3,000 folks aren’t going to rush through the doors to be baptized and join. Not having had such an experience, we may feel like we have failed as churches and pastors, because we are not ‘successful’ (whatever that means!), we are not growing, we are not fill-in-the-blank. Which of course, as he says, “is a massive lie.” Because in Christ’s Church, numbers do not define success.

Others might conclude that what happened to the Church on Pentecost is the ONLY way to proceed, that when the Spirit arrives we don’t have to do any of those mundane things that concrete-and-mortar, real people churches do. In response to that, several years ago, teacher of preachers Thomas Long called us to note where the Pentecost story is positioned in the Book of Acts. It’s sandwiched between two stories: on one side is the story of the selection of an apostle to replace Judas; on the other side is a story about the early church breaking bread, attending to the teachings of the apostles and trying to take care of the poor among their midst. In other words, the Pentecost story is positioned between the election of officers and struggling over programs of Christian education, worship, and service. So whatever Pentecost was about, it doesn’t relieve us from these mundane responsibilities. (Thomas Long, What’s The Gift, Day 1, Pentecost, May 27, 2012)

So, given how The Church begins, given where we are now, tell me how this ends? As I said before, I can’t do that, but I can speculate.

In terms of the global, national, institutional church, in case you haven’t heard, we are faced with the prospect of division and schism. While the specific issue that divides us is are two very different perspectives on human sexuality, the underlying issue is two different approaches to the interpretation and authority of Scripture, and I am not sure that can be resolved, without implications not only for human sexuality but other important issues as well.

Just a week ago, the Commission on the Way Forward met here in Chicago and proposed 3 approaches, only one of which they recommended, the One Church option, which would be to remove the prohibitive language regarding homosexuality in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, and allow conferences, local churches, and pastors to practice their conscience. It remains to be seen whether this will be affirmed in a special session of General Conference scheduled for February, 2019, any more than previous proposals in the past. Even more incredibly, a constitutional amendment affirming the rights of women and girls, which required a two thirds majority, somehow, incredibly, failed just short of passing; although I understand there is some question whether the wording which may have led to confusion.

Meanwhile, across the church, there is evidence of decline in denominations, congregations, worshipers, and finances. This is not peculiar to United Methodism, but to every form of the Church in the U.S. (and Europe.) It is not so much a failure of the Church – not so much what we have done or not done – as it is a major shift in the demographics, culture, and practice of religion. Most of us do not have to look far to see this; we see it in our own children.

What will happen to bureaucratic, institutional, brick-and mortar forms of the Church like Central United Methodist Church? This remains to be seen, as we find ourselves in that “no man’s land” between the Church as it “used to be,” (as most of us have known it), and the church as it will be, in the future. Given this, you might not be surprised at the theme for next month’s annual session (my last) of the Northern IL Conference: “Navigating Uncharted Waters.” Change is certain; exactly what change will be required is not.

Historically, this is nothing new; it is only new to us as we have experienced it in our lifetimes. Historically what has happened is that the Spirit has moved, and new movements have been born. Out of Pentecost, the Church was born. In the third century, after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, monastic orders were born. In the middle ages, St. Francis and St Claire became wandering preachers, and the Franciscans were born. In England, John Wesley was banned from pulpits and churches and preached in fields and streets, and Methodism was born.

But over time, everything once again solidifies, as Bishop Robert Schnase once said of the United Methodist Church, into a “giant hairball” of denomination and discipline and rules, and soon, everything is cold and gray again. It is at such times – such a time as now – when the Wind of the Spirit blows again and new movements are born.

Dear people of Central, as my time here comes to an end, be open to the winds of the Spirit that will blow through your next pastor, Rev. Timothy Biel, Jr. Be open to the winds of the Spirit that are already blowing in town and community, making our town quite likely even more cosmopolitan than ancient Jerusalem. This weekend you can observe this firsthand just a few blocks from here, at this weekend’s Festival of Culture: people from different countries and cultures, speaking different languages, practicing different religions, yet united in the praise of God and the service of neighbor.

Dear people of Central, don’t hide out or hole up in this place and this building waiting for people to come to you – as the early Christians did while waiting for Pentecost – but by the wind of the Spirit be blown out into streets and homes, as happened on the day of Pentecost. Deep down at heart, we know that in Christ’s Church, institutions and buildings are never an end in themselves; only a means toward an end, which is the love of God and the service of our neighbor, the first and greatest commandments. Anything short of this becomes idolatrous.

Dear people of Central, don’t berate yourselves, that our Pentecost is not their Pentecost, like the one we read about in Acts, as though somehow, we have failed. On the contrary, give thanks to God, that our congregation is a modern form of Pentecost: people from all over the planet, united here in the praise and service of God, caring for each other.

Tell me how this ends? I can’t! Because thanks to the perpetual gift of the Spirit to the Church, you never know what’s going to happen, even when things are at their worst.

I end with a story about such a church, as told by retired United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon, in his sermon on A Sermon For Every Sunday, “Presence Matters.” (Note: The story begins at about 9:10 in Bishop’s Willimon’s 13:5 minute sermon) [video]

Central United Methodist Church
When It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 24: 44-53; Acts 1: 1 – 11
Ascension Sunday/Mother’s Day
May 13, 2018

Jesus Rio web

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24: 44 – 53, The New Revised Standard Version

As Adam said to Eve as they were leaving the Garden of Eden: “My dear, I think we’re entering a time of transition.” It is that time of year when many are in transition. It is the season of graduations, weddings, and retirements, as well as the season when leases are up, so some people are also moving, me and my family being among them, although not because our lease is up.

Day by day, it’s becoming more real that our congregation is in a time of transition, as we prepare to switch from me as pastor, to Rev. Timothy Biel Jr. as your pastor. My head spins these days, as we make decisions about details and begin to sort and pack, in preparation for the monstrous job of moving. Movers and contractors have been contacted, and the two transition Sundays, June 17th and 24th have been booked, after my last service and sermon on June 10th. I finally had the brilliant idea I’ve been waiting for (for months!) and booked the author and speaker Jane Rubietta for those two Sundays, who is going to do a two-sermon series on – guess what? – transition!

For those of us in transition – and given the circumstances that would be all of us – it can be an anxious and stressful time. A few years back I pointed out the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, and this is an appropriate time to mention it again. The Holmes and Rahe Stress scale was devised in 1967, as a way of putting a point score to stressful life changes, in regard to how they affect illness. For example, on a list of 40 life changes, here are the first six:

Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Detention in jail 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50

[To see the complete Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, see here).

What you do is take note of the events on the scale that have occurred in your life during the last calendar year and add up the total number of points. In any given year, regardless of your stress level, you start off with a ten percent chance of going into a hospital within a two-year period. If you score between 150 and 200 points, your vulnerability for a serious illness within a two-year period increases to approximately 50 percent; if you score over 300 points, your chances rise to 80 percent. So just remember that any time we make a major move (like me and my family and Pastor Tim and his family are about to do) and change our location, our house, our church, our job, and our friends all at the same time, the stress scale says we might also just as well call ahead and reserve a hospital room. Fortunately, I’ll be living near Lutheran General, so I can just crawl over.

After all the anticipation and preparation for leaving, the time finally comes when we actually have to say goodbye. (Not forever, hopefully, just in regard to my time as your pastor). I’m not looking forward to that moment any more than you are (except for those few who saying, “Is that guy still here?”) A church consultant, Roy Oswald, once compared saying goodbye to running through thistles. If you have to run through thistles, it’s painful and something you want to get over with as quickly as possible. However, in the case of pastors leaving churches, it’s not something you want to do as quickly and painlessly as possible, as that only causes more problems than it solves.

It is such a moment today – that time when Jesus said goodbye to his disciples – that is portrayed in today’s readings, on this Ascension Sunday. Ascension Day is celebrated in the church 40 days after Easter, which falls on a Thursday, but since none of us are here on Thursday, we celebrate it on Sunday. It is of course also another minor festival known as Mother’s Day, so today we are exalting Jesus, and mothers; not to the same degree, but for some of us, almost!

I have to say this year I am finding many parallels in Jesus’ going-away story. “I’m going away; where I am going you cannot come. But wait here, and you will receive the promise of the Bishop (the Rev. Timothy Biel Jr.) not many days hence.”

I would be the first to admit that – even apart from the universal and timeless difficulty of saying goodbye – for us moderns, the accounts of Jesus’ ascension are difficult to comprehend. Only Luke tells the story, and he tells it twice, at the end of Luke’s Gospel and again at the beginning of Acts, both of which were written by Luke. In both, Jesus floats upward, toward heaven, which is where people in that time and place thought God resided, in the heavens. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of that scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion wave goodbye to Dorothy as she rises from the Emerald City in a hot air balloon, saying “No place like home!” (Wonder if this is where L. Frank Baum got the idea?)

The late Biblical scholar William Barclay, once said about artistic depictions of the Ascension: “No one has ever succeeded in painting a picture of the Ascension which was anything other than grotesque and ridiculous.” Which is true: if you google “Ascension” you will see paintings and pictures of Jesus (like this one by the Spanish artist Rafael) looking like Mary Poppins, as if gravity has just been suspended, and he keeps levitating into the air.

And yet, as difficult as it is for us to understand, I’ve always believed the story of Jesus’ Ascension important. Because, first, practically, it answers the question any perceptive child might ask: “If Jesus rose from the dead and is alive, “Where is he?” “Can I go see him?” The answer is no, because Jesus is now no longer physically on earth, confined to one time and place, but now with God, exalted to the highest place, accessible in every time and place.

But secondly, in a literary sense. After all, how do you end a story about someone risen from the dead? You can’t have him riding off into the sunset, Lone Ranger style, with his disciples asking, “Who was that bearded man?” You can’t have him slip on a magic ring like Frodo in Lord of the Rings and disappear from sight, without explanation. You can’t have him die at the end of the story, because he has done that already, defeating death. And so he ascends, toward heaven, symbolizing his return to God.

Finally, thirdly, theologically, Jesus’ resurrection would have no meaning without his Ascension; they are two different ways of describing to the same thing. The point of Jesus’ resurrection was not that he experienced a resuscitation, like some kind of zombie come back to life, still wandering around somewhere out there. Rather, the point is that because of who he was and what he did, God raised him up from the lowest place to the highest place, where God is. From there, with immutable 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 that from there he reigns, depending upon us to bring forth his kingdom forth on earth. And we pray that, when we die, God will receive us, that wherever he is, we might be with him.

Yes, it is hard to understand and comprehend, but when we put these things into the context of our own life experiences, it can help us understand, not only the difficulty of saying goodbye, but how, even in absence, there is presence.

When I was growing up, my family, like most of our families, was scattered all over the country. My Uncle Donald and his family, my cousins, lived in Detroit, MI, and Aunt Martha and her family lived in Frankfort, KY. Whenever they would come to visit we would enjoy it, but then would come the time for them to go home and for us to say goodbye. It seemed to me that I spend a large part of my childhood saying goodbye. It would start in the house, then move out into the yard for another round, and then we would stand around the car and watch them get in, not buckling their seat-belts because seat-belts hadn’t been invented. (Maybe if Jesus had got into a 1957 Chevy and driven off into the sunset, it would make a lot more sense to us.) In the final scene, as they drove away, we would stand in the yard and wave, until they disappeared from sight.

Finally, I was the one who went away, and they would be the ones left behind. The time came when I would leave with tears in my eyes, because I knew the day was coming when they would no longer be there to wave goodbye. That day came, and now, whenever I remember them, I don’t do it so much with sadness, as with joy and gratitude for them, as the one left behind to carry on their legacy, as we now hope our children and grandchildren will do for us. Yet even though they are gone from me and from mortal life – they are – in a very real way, still with me, as your loved ones are with you.

After saying goodbye, Jesus’ disciples returned to Jerusalem without him, knowing that though he was absent in the old way, he was present in a new way. Like them, now in our time and our lives, let us continue his work on earth, exalting him in our hearts and honoring him with our lives. Amen.

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 6, 2018

2018.05.06 “No Greater Love” – John 15: 12 – 13

Central United Methodist Church
No Greater Love
David L. Haley
John 15: 12 – 13
May 6th, 2018

Memorial 1

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15: 12 – 13, the New International Version

There are times when Scripture illuminates life, and other times when life that illuminates Scripture. To hear and understand Jesus’ words in the Gospel today, may I offer my experience when as an illustration?

As I prepare to conclude my active ministry, one of the things I am inexpressibly thankful for, is that my life and ministry took a turn I never anticipated, when it opened a door for me into the fire service.

This happened in the late 80’s, when I was the pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, and we were living on Winnemac Street. My son Chris, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, came in from the back yard and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out there.” Not believing him, I went out to discover that the back steps of a two flat across the alley were going up in flames.

I called 911, and in a few minutes, heard the siren of Engine 110, near Foster and Western, head our way. It went to a second alarm, and in no time, there were firemen and fire trucks and fire hose everywhere. But there was also this guy standing there with a cross on his helmet, Father Tom Mulcrone. I said, “They let people do that?” I got to know Father Mulcrone, and decided that when I moved, I was going to do that. In 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I went to the fire station and offered to be their Chaplain. They were starting a firefighter class, so I took that and got certified as a firefighter; in a year or two I went to night school and became a paramedic. Because I stayed there so long to build a new church, I wound up doing that almost two decades. I have now been a Chaplain for 28 years.

Experiencing that life, that brotherhood and that job literally changed my life and ministry, including the way I preached. I was no longer a “wannabe” academic, as I once was, but thoroughly grounded. People have often told me they like the way I preach, because it is down to earth, about real life issues. If this is true, I attribute it to this door opened to me, which changed my perspective on life.

In the same way, it changed the way I read and hear Scripture. So today, for example as we hear Jesus’ lengthy remarks from his farewell discourse in John chapters 14 through 17, let’s face it, as with Jesus’ first disciples, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused, and we begin to nod off. What is he saying?

For assistance, I check the commentaries; written, of course, mostly by academics. They talk about love, and the three Greek words for love, they discuss what Jesus means by friends, and what it means to be Jesus’ friends. But to me, they miss the most obvious thing to me in the passage, probably because they never experienced it. What they miss is this blockbuster phrase, when Jesus says: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Surely, the author of the John’s Gospel intended it to refer to Jesus’, who gave his life in sacrificial love not only for his friends but for strangers and for all of us. But for over two millennia now, whenever another human being has so embodied the kind of selfless love Jesus was talking about by sacrificing their life for others, it has not been an occasion not only to recall Jesus’ words, but to give a real life example powerful enough to make grown men and women weep. I know, because I have been one of them.

Whether it is soldiers remembering a sacrifice that happened long ago, as this picture of a soldier at the Viet Nam wall; or whether it is firefighters or police officers gathering for the funeral of one who gave the ultimate sacrifice, as Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer recently did, it is a startling and graphic reminder that Jesus was not talking about some pleasant, ethereal virtue, but the possibility that the ultimate expression of really loving others could mean sacrificing one’s life not only for friends but for strangers one has never met.

I have both officiated at and attended LODD (line-of-duty deaths), heard the pipes and drums, the playing of taps and the ringing of final call bells; we do it every year in remembrance of the 343 members of the FDNY who gave their lives on 9/11. I will never forget walking up Arbor Avenue in West Chicago in 1992, behind the pipes and drums of the Chicago Emerald Society, and – behind me – a hearse bearing the casket of a 21-year-old police officer – Michael Browning – killed in the line of duty, followed by thousands of police cars and police officers. At such services for the fallen, almost inevitably, Jesus’ words are recalled: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In life, the sacrificial love Jesus was talking about, doesn’t get any more real than that. After all, it was exactly what Jesus did.

However, experiencing the honoring of such ultimate acts of sacrificial love, also opens our eyes to this: not all who live lives of sacrificial love do it by dying; in fact, most do it by living and serving. For most of us, the list of those is long who have demonstrated this to us, by living rather than by dying.

Many of us think of our parents, who raised us, some of whom worked multiple jobs to provide for us. Many of us think of teachers or coaches or scout masters or pastors, who were pivotal for us because of the personal attention and example they gave to us. Some of us think of doctors and nurses or caregivers who took care of us or members of our family unselfishly, not because of how much money they would make but because of their integrity and compassion. We may not even have appreciated it at the time, but now, as we look back and recognize their significance in our lives, we wish we could go back and thank them, for what was nothing less than the love they had for us, demonstrated in their words and deeds.

Recently I was doing a mental inventory of all the places I engaged in ministry, and as I remembered each place, I also remembered people. Some were church people, some were pastors, some were District Superintendents. None of the things they did could be described as heroic or earthshaking; mostly it was the same, simple day-to-day stuff required of all of us: fulfilling responsibilities, staying true to our word, being kind, looking for ways to encourage and care for one another.

I think of Rev. Julian Warren, the pastor of a little church about 5 miles from my house, founded in 1861, probably about a quarter of the size of this room. Julian was no megachurch pastor, but he was a great encourager, encouraging beginners like me. I think of Dr. Wayne Lamb, the Paris District Superintendent, a elderly white haired man, who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to preach. I think of Robert Bruce Pierce, pastor of Chicago Temple, who took me on as a pastoral intern and as Minister to Young Adults. I think of Rev. George Comes, the senior pastor I worked with at Trinity UMC in Memphis, TN., who once said, “I went to a counselor who told me I needed to learn how to curse. Now I’ve got rid of the illness but can’t get rid of the cure!” All these are gone, but in very real ways, they laid down their lives in sacrificial service to others, following Christ their Master. I am sure, all of us can think of people who showed us such love in life. We can only hope that people will remember such things about us, someday.

BeltrameBut the ultimate sacrifice – the literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words happens, more often than we think. It happened just two months ago, on March 24th. In Trebes, France, a terrorist claiming allegiance to ISIS stormed a supermarket armed with a handgun, a hunting knife, and three homemade bombs. He shot two people dead and took two other hostages. Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, 45, of the French Gendarmerie nationale, and deputy commander of the anti-terrorist unit in his region, exchanged himself for the final hostage, a woman. After a three hour stand off, the terrorist stabbed and shot Beltrame, who died from his wounds.

Tributes poured in for Lt. Col. Beltrame, but it turns out there was more to the story. He was a practicing Catholic, and had been planning to marry on June 9. He had already married his wife, Marielle, under civil law, and the couple were planning a church ceremony. Instead, the priest who would have officiated at the wedding was called to Beltrame’s bedside, where Marielle was keeping vigil, to give him the last rites. The priest, Father Jean-Baptiste, quoted John 15:13 and said:

“He knew, as Jesus told us, that “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.” “He knew that if his life began to belong to Marielle, it also belonged to God, to France, to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.”

Father Dominique Arz, national chaplain of the gendarmerie, said this:

“The fact is that he did not hide his faith, and that he radiated it, he testified. We can say that his act of offering is consistent with what he believed. He went to the end of his service to the country and to the end of his testimony of faith. To believe is not only to adhere to a doctrine. It is first to love God and his neighbor, and to testify of his faith concretely in everyday life. In the happy or unhappy, even dramatic circumstances of our lives.” (Terry Mattingly, Get Religion, ”Sacrifice in France: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life . . .”, here)

“Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 29, 2018

2018.04.29 “Chosen to Bear the Fruit of Heaven” – John 15: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
Chosen to Bear the Fruit of Heaven
Pastor David L. Haley
John 15: 1 – 8
5th Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018

Vine

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15: 1 – 8, New Revised Standard Version)

 

What a relief today to turn from something we know little about, shepherds and sheep, to something at least some of us know something about: vineyards and vines.

When I was growing up in West Kentucky, there were many kinds of vines. Kudzu, for example. Kudzu is not a native but an invasive species, which has pretty much taken over the south. Once it starts growing it covers everything. As youthful tree-climbers we discovered early on that we could climb those trees, fall into the kudzu, and not get hurt.

Then there were wild grapevines, which didn’t bear grapes, but had their usefulness in a different way. Occasionally we would find a sturdy vine over a creek and cut it loose at the bottom, to make a swing out over the creek, Tarzan style. This worked well, at least until some unlucky swinger fell into the creek when the vine finally broke from overuse.

And then of course there were real grapevines. My grandfather had a Concord grape vine in his back yard; in my memory, that was the most wonderful grapevine in the world. In the summer, when the grapes were ripe, there were few things more delicious than eating those clusters of luscious blue grapes. If we had only known what the rest of the world knows, that the best use of grapes is not to eat them, but to make wine of them, then there might have been a 1959 Marshall County Merlot. But, for us, as Methodists living in a dry county, that was not an option.

As I have traveled the world and seen real vineyards, I now know how little I know about them. What I do know I have learned through drinking the fruit of their vines, which is that each one is almost miraculous: how a grapevine can take the sun, the air, and the dirt it grows in, to create a wine that is distinctive. Think Jesus performed a miracle when he turned water into wine; grapevines do it every day. I admit I have never had a sensitive enough palate to taste all those things reviewers describe, such as, for example, the flavor of peach and currants and even a hint of asphalt? What?

Whatever we know about vines and grapevines, and however we learned it, is what makes Jesus’s words today in John, chapter 15, even more intriguing: “I am the true vine, you are the branches; whoever abides in me, and I in them, bears much fruit.”

It would have been a familiar image for Jesus’ hearers, because they lived in a country filled with vineyards. Because of this, they likely also knew that the metaphor of the vineyard was often used for Israel in the ancient Hebrew writings, either as productive and unproductive. In his parables, Jesus often drew upon vine and vineyard symbolism, such as The Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), the Two Sons (Mt. 21:23-32), and the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9).

Personally, I’m glad Jesus didn’t give us four spiritual laws, six stages of spirituality, or ten steps to spiritual growth, but rather these wonderfully elastic, descriptive, and lush metaphors. The power of a metaphor is not that it defines a thing, but that it points to something else. Thus, all the metaphors Jesus used – bread, light, door, shepherd, life, way, truth, and now vine – point to relationships: with God, with Jesus, and with each other. Thus, Jesus’ image of the vine speaks to us about our rootedness, our interconnectedness, and our fruitfulness.

First, our rootedness in God. In our roots is where we find identity and meaning, an enduring source of strength. Like grapevines, the further we get from our roots, the less rooted we are, and also less likely to produce fruit.

Early in our lives, we find our roots almost exclusively in family. As we grow older, we find it in our people: our friends, our ethnicity (Scots-Irish), even our country (USA). While such roots never go away, over time, they erode, or at least no longer provide us with the sense of rootedness they once did. The old homestead is gone, maybe beloved members of the family are gone, or are scattered all over the country. So as we go through life and grow away from all the things we once considered our roots, where then do we find them?

Jesus’ metaphor of the vine invites us to find our roots in God. Eugene Peterson renders it this way in The Message: “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” If we can do this, then we go through life like a turtle, carrying our house on our back, always at home wherever we are, ready to gain all things or lose all things, to let anything and everything go, because – whatever happens – we abide in God.

The second thing the image of the vine speaks to us about is interconnectedness. Isn’t that one of the unique things about a grapevine? When you look at the branches of a vine, they are indistinguishable; it’s hard to tell where one branch ends and another begins. All the branches run together as they grow out of the central vine. The image is that of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling.

Such ideas are ancient. For example, the Hindu image of the Net of Indra. As Alan Watts once described it: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so on, ad infinitum . . .” (Alan Watts Podcast – Following the Middle Way #3 alanwattspodcast.com) so that any change anywhere is reflected in every part, everywhere. Now we talk about 6 degrees of separation and how the wave of a butterflies’ wing can affect climate across the world, and how all human beings, despite our superficial physical characteristics, have 99.9% the same DNA.

As Dr. King put it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be . . . This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Reflected in the notion of the Vine is the truth that, the closer we come to God, the more we realize our mutual connection to each other. Did you hear how the 1st Letter of John put it (again, from The Message):

“If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.”

The third and final thing the image of the grapevine teaches us is that the ultimate value of the grapevine is not that it should just be ornamental, taking up space, but that it should bear fruit. Is there anything more disappointing in the plant world (except maybe briars, stinging plants, or cockleburs) than grapevines that bear no grapes?

But, someone might say, “What kind of fruit are we supposed to bear?” If we were Catholic, that fruit might be children, and – Catholic or not – some of us may feel that our children are the greatest fruit of our lives. But the fruit God intends us to bear means more than children: it means virtue, it means character, it means service. It means love and charity that make the world a better place. It means the care of the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, and the elderly.

Indeed – if it is God’s intent that our lives bear fruit, should we be surprised to know that God is at work in our lives to make this happen? And so, from time to time, God does a little pruning; we’ve all experienced it. Sometimes, when you’re going through painful experiences, it’s hard to tell the difference between being “pruned” and being chopped down, which often leaves us confused, hurt, and angry. But eventually, better days arrive and we grow back, and – most, if not all of the time – we are better, happier, and even wiser for what we have experienced.  Of course, it’s always hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, when we are going through it.

Consider, the early Christian community to whom John was writing. As a result of their Christian faith, many had been thrown out of synagogues, rejected by friends and family, and therefore felt alone and orphaned; like they had been cut down. But John offers for them a different perspective for them: they’ve not been cut down, just pruned. And saying, at the same time: “Even when you feel pruned or cut down, even when you feel confused, hurt, even angry, even then Jesus is with you, abiding in you, and will not let you go.”

Such sentiments are not limited to John’s audience 2,000 years ago, but likely also describe the feelings of many of us who sit in church pews today. To those, who feel like they have been cut off, or alone – Jesus says today: “I am with you, abiding in you, holding onto you, loving you, and I will not let you go.”

To this day, I miss my grandfather’s grapevine, though not as much as I miss my grandfather and grandmother. Even now, when I visit my Mom, though my grandparent’s house now belongs to someone else, I wonder whether that grapevine might still there, and whether I might be able to sneak into the back yard and taste those grapes again. I have even looked longingly at grapevines in the Burpee Catalog, and – who knows – now that I will have a plot of ground I can call my own – I might see if I can plant a grapevine of my own, where my kids and grandkids might come and taste those grapes and spit grape skins at each other, as I did.

And yet, whether that happens or not, thanks to metaphors like this one, through them we cultivate a taste for something greater than grapes: our rootedness in God, the rich interrelationship of our lives, and the desire that – as long as we live – we might continue to bear the fruit pleasing to God.

In the words of a hymn, “I Am the Vine,” songwriters John Bell and Graham Maule put it this way:

“I am the Vine and you are the branches,
Pruned and prepared for all to see;
Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven
If you remain and trust in me.”

Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 22, 2018

2018.04.22 “Welcome, Old Friend” – Psalm 23

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

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 15, 2018

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

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

Christ a Apostles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 8, 2018

2018.04.08 “How Do You Spell BELIEF?” – John 20:19-31

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

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

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_Caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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