Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
No One Knows
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 24: 36 – 44
November 27th, 2016
“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.
“The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing — until the flood hit and swept everything away.
“The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field — one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill — one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.” – Matthew 24: 36 – 44, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
How do we feel, this Sunday after Thanksgiving?
In many ways it is a strange thing, is it not, that because someone (Abraham Lincoln) declared a national day of thanksgiving, little could he have foreseen what that would mean: stores full of last minute shoppers, gridlock traffic, long car trips, packed airports, and Civil War, the Sequel when talk around the Thanksgiving table turns to politics, an especially dangerous time for such discussions, when people have sharp objects in their hands. And what about turkeys: turkeys have been protesting ever since: did you see this cartoon that was in the New Yorker (#not my holiday)?
After such a holiday, how do we feel? Tired? Disoriented? You may have had family come to you, or you may be here visiting family, which – while pleasant – can also be disorienting, unsettling to our usual schedule.
We also remember, that for some, family holidays such as Thanksgiving can be sad, even depressing. Do you remember – as I remember – how sad it was as a young adult to be far from home on a holiday? When we are older, holidays can also be sad times for those who families are far away, or even worse, dearly departed.
Dare we admit it: some of us might be renewed, even hopeful after Thanksgiving? Because if a holiday goes well, it can be renewing. (I say this speculatively, having rarely experienced it). Now that Thanksgiving is past, we enjoyed the time with family, and move into the holiday season, which is for some of us our favorite time of year. And so, despite all, we are hopeful, looking forward to the lights, the music, genuinely good times with family.
In the light of the election, one of the most divisive in American history, others have arrived at similar conclusions. David Brooks, a columnist with the New York Times – and a conservative at that – seems to have concluded that no good could come of this and has retreated into spirituality. He has been promoting the values of mutual respect, civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. We may have lost the country, but at least we can regain our own little patch of the world, such as family, congregation, and community.
So on this Sunday, in this season of Advent – whether we are tired or disoriented or discouraged or even hopeful – the Gospel calls us to keep awake, to be vigilant, to be ready for whatever comes, which some have called the “good news of the end of the world.” For it is exactly at such times that God is near.
After hearing the Gospel this morning, you may wonder if the tour group is lost, and have gone in a circle. Didn’t we just hear this story from Luke two weeks ago, what Jesus said when his disciples pointed out the beauty of the Temple, how he shocked them by saying that it would all come crashing down? Here we are again two weeks later, still talking about such things, except this time from Matthew’s Gospel.
Remember, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote their Gospels 40 to 50 years after Jesus, and some 10 years after the events Jesus predicted would happen, had happened: the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Think about it this way: we all remember how terrifying 9/11 was; imagine if on 9/11 Washington had been destroyed, the White House and the Capitol demolished, and tens – possibly hundreds – of thousand people were killed, included people we knew. If you can imagine that (and shudder), then you have some sense of how shocked, scared, even disillusioned both Jews or Christians were after the Jewish Temple was destroyed.
Most early Christians expected Jesus’ return, thinking that if anytime was a good time, this would be it; but it did not happen. In fact, some scholars think the Gospels were written to encourage Christians confused and discouraged by Jesus’ delayed return. For this reason, Matthew, like Mark and Luke, devotes a section of his Gospel exhorting Christians to stay awake, to be ready, to be vigilant. If they aren’t, Matthew suggests, they might miss God’s advent among them, just as most had missed it the first time.
If Christians were losing their edge after only fifty years, what about us, after 2,000 years? Now, more than ever, Jesus’ call to vigilance about what God is doing in the world falls on deaf ears.
It’s like this: remember after 9/11, how vigilant we were? The phrase is, “If you see something, say something.” Since then – in the name of vigilance – we have endured countless indignities, such as the loss of our razor blades, toothpaste, and water bottles, the loss of our shoes and almost our pants when we take our belt off, the loss of our dignity when we get patted down. We’ve become dulled to the endless looping tape messages about unattended baggage. To the point where, should something happen, we are so irritated, annoyed, and distracted that we are no longer vigilant nor ready to act.
But what if we interpret Jesus’ warning as less about his return, and more about a call to spiritual vigilance in life, waiting and watching for the advent of God in our lives? Because the truth is – as we have likely all learned but easily forget – anything can happen at any time. Uncertainly, surprise, unexpected events; good or bad can happen at any time. Events in which we can clearly see God’s hand, OR, things that happen that make us wonder where God is.
Viewed in this way, we could easily supplement those examples Jesus gave in his mini-parable, with examples we know, real-life examples closer to home. Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, another not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other not. Two kids were making their way through high school; one succumbed to a drug addiction, the other not. Two couples were joined in marriage; one stayed married, the other did not. Is this random, predictable; or do we simply do not not know? No wonder, upon hearing Jesus’ words, his disciples asked him, when will these things be? No wonder his answer was, “Only God knows; no one knows, not even me.” No one knows!
Our lives are filled with unexpected, surprising, life-altering events; we never know from day-to-day when one is going to happen. But here’s the startling thing we learn from Jesus’ words: even in the middle of such things, we are invited – even commanded – to watch for the advent of God.
Doing this isn’t always easy, especially when what happens is tragic. Sometimes we must wait to see where God is at work, and waiting is always more difficult. Yet the promise throughout Scripture is that God meets us at our point of greatest need, and accompanies us in the most difficult of circumstances.
When we think about it, isn’t this one of the main reasons we come to church? To try and see God at work in the ups and downs of our lives, to hear these words of exhortation and encouragement, to be surrounded by other Christians, some of whom struggle to see God, and others who have experienced God in their lives, and can share with us what they’ve seen. Whatever else church is, it should at the very least be a place where you can count on the mutual comfort and consolation of God’s people.
In life, no one knows when tragedy will strike; no one knows when blessing will occur. But we know this: at both times, God is present. Sometimes – with tears in our eyes – this is hard to see, and we need help. Sometimes we see clearly, and we can help others. That’s the way the body of Christ worked in the first century, and that’s the way it still works today.
In Chicago, we have had too many examples of this, in young lives ended by street violence; to the degree that we have become numb to it. As of Wednesday, there had been 702 homicides in Chicago, with 108 victims 18 or younger. Yesterday, the family of U.S. Representative Danny Davis gathered at Carey Tercentenary African American Methodist Episcopal Church in North Lawndale, to lay to rest his 15-year-old grandson, Javon Wilson, 15, felled by a bullet as he tried to break up a fight over clothing in his family’s home. As they gathered, they did just what we’ve been talking about, they tried to make sense of such a tragedy and they comforted one another, but they also agreed it was a clarion call to end the violence. Rep. Davis estimates he has delivered eulogies for about two dozen young Chicagoans whose lives were cut short by violence, but this one – his grandson – was the hardest. He ended his eulogy with a prayer for peace from St. Francis of Assisi and then declared: “Let Javon’s life be a cry out for love and peace.”
In conclusion, I never preach this Gospel without thinking of the story told by the Rev. John Buchanan, former Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, about his granddaughter. At the time, she was attending a parochial school. One night around this time of year her mother was tucking her into bed and asked if she had learned any new songs, at which point she sang in the dark from her bed:
“Stay awake. (clap-clap)
Be ready. (clap-clap)
The Lord is coming soon.
The Lord is coming soon.” (clap-clap)
Buchanan said his granddaughter loved that song and would sing it at a drop of a hat, with the result that, at their house, it was Advent all year long. (Rev. John Buchanan, Hope for the Long Haul, Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, December 2, 2001)
Like her, may we take Jesus’ words to heart, and may we be awake, ready, and vigilant for the advent of God in the events of our lives, both good and bad, each day and every day, all year long. Amen.
[I want to acknowledge my debt this week – as many weeks – to David Lose, for his commentary on this text, “Watching for God Together,” posted 11/24/2016 (in his dedication he wrote it on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day!) His weekly comments may be found at his blog, “In the Meantime,” http://www.davidlose.net/]
Central United Methodist Church
A King for This Hour
Rev. David L. Haley
Luke 23: 33 – 43
Extended Advent 2/Christ the King
November 20th, 2016
“When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God — ha! The Chosen — ha!”
The soldiers also came up and poked fun at him, making a game of it. They toasted him with sour wine: “So you’re King of the Jews! Save yourself!”
Printed over him was a sign: this is the king of the Jews.
One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: “Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!”
But the other one made him shut up: “Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him — he did nothing to deserve this.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.”
He said, “Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise.”
– Luke 23: 33 – 43, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Children, youth, parents, do you remember this? “Now I want you to sit here in the corner for 5 minutes, and think about what you have done. And after that I want you to go apologize to your brother/sister/the dog (as the case may be).”
Since the election 12 days ago, our entire country has had time to think about what we have done, not that we won’t have plenty of time to do this over the next four to eight years. So far, a variety of reactions has emerged.
First, there are those who are frightened, even terrified. Debie Thomas, who I’m going to talk more about later, says her husband is an emergency room physican, and the day after the election, he treated an unprecedented number of panic attacks during his eight-hour shift; almost all racial minorities and/or women.
Second, there are those who feel defeated and discouraged, not only at the misogyny that prevented the cracking of the glass ceiling for a woman as president, but also that eight years of President Obama’s significant accomplishments might now be dismantled, with enormous and wide-ranging consequences for every aspect of government and everybody. I have talked to several defeated and discouraged pastors – mostly liberals like myself – who say they spent a lot of time in the last two weeks looking at blank sheets of paper and editing whole paragraphs out of sermons, thinking the better of it.
Then, of course, despite all these concerns there are also those who are hopeful that Donald Trump’s election will finally bring change to Washington; that’s the reason people say they voted for him. They may change, or they may not; we don’t know yet; nor whether those changes will be for better or worse. Judging by this week’s initial appointments; it’s not looking good.
As a diverse congregation of Christians, the reality is that we share these views among us and more. Today, on Christ the King Sunday, I wonder if God isn’t asking us as Christians to “think about what we have done?” Not in the corner, but here in church, as contemplate Christ on the cross, our Gospel from Luke on this Christ the King Sunday.
To add a different voice to our contemplation, I would like to share the insights of Debie Thomas, who writes as a guest blogger on the site Journey with Jesus: A Webzine for the Global Church. I am always looking for new voices and new insights on familiar texts, and Mrs. Thomas is one of the best I’ve found recently I don’t usually do this, but Mrs. Thomas insights are so good and so well-expressed that I want to share them with you. Did I mention Mrs. Thomas is of Indian-ancestry, and therefore brown-skinned, which is why – post –election – she wrote this:
“I am shaken to the core. Sure, I’ve been disappointed by election results before, but never have I felt so betrayed and unhoused. I feel as if a tidal wave of hatred has washed over the people I love. I feel as if my country has just shown my brown-skinned body the door.
At the same time, I’m aware that I enjoy a great deal of privilege, relative to other people now quaking at the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am a U.S citizen, I live in a progressive part of the country, I’m economically secure, and my religious and sexual identities place me squarely within the majority. Alongside my frightened search for allies and protectors this week, is the conviction that I need to stand up for those who are more scared and vulnerable than I am.
It’s hard to write in a moment like this. Hard to believe that words matter, hard to place faith in flimsy sentences on a screen. All I want to do right now is act, move, hide, fight, run. Why waste time on words and stories?
And yet, what seems clearer by the day is that America has just suffered an epic failure in storytelling. Millions of us — specifically, millions who profess faith in Jesus Christ — have given ourselves over to the wrong story. A story of greatness. A story of conquest. A story of victory at any cost.”
As Mrs. Thomas goes on to say (and I summarize), if this were true, you might think that on Christ the King Sunday we would expect to find something “kingly.” Something glorious from the Book of Revelation, perhaps, about Jesus on his heavenly throne, decked out in fancy robes and a jeweled crown.
What we find instead is this: a crucifixion scene. A stripped and suffocating man, his body wracked with pain. A crowd of mockers spewing hatred at his naked body. A man hanging between thieves, derision in his ears, speaking blessing and promise to one less fortunate than himself. Says Mrs. Thomas:
“Can we pause for a moment and contemplate the paradox? This is our king. This is our king. If there is any moment in the Christian calendar that must smack all smugness out of me — all arrogance, all gleefulness, all scorn — surely this one has to be it. Our king was a dead man walking. His chosen path to glory was the cross. If paradise was anywhere, it was with him, only and exactly where his oppressors left him to die. Today. With Me. Paradise.
What does it mean in this time and place to honor Christ’s kingship through his passion? What does the cross offer us by way of example, warning, and benediction? What story can we write that will echo our king’s?
I can only begin to speculate. But as I sit with this week’s lectionary passages, what strikes me most is what I don’t see:
I see no path to glory that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no permission to secure my prosperity at the expense of another’s suffering. I see no tolerance for the belief that holy ends justify debased means. I see no evidence that truth-telling is optional. I see no kingdom which favors the contemptuous over the broken-hearted. And I see no church that thrives when it aligns itself with brute power.
Where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with a king who makes us uncomfortable.
During this week when millions of voters decided to “Make America Great Again,” I am wondering what it means to bend the knee to a king who exchanged his crown for a cross. As I engage in strained conversation with Christians who voted differently than I did, I am struggling to honor a sovereign who spoke words of blessing even in his darkest hour. As I hear people calling for a quick return to forgiveness and unity, I am remembering that grace in the Crucified One’s kingdom is neither easy nor cheap; it cost the king his life. When I’m faced with those who tell me to make peace at all costs, I’m trying to hang on to the fact that Jesus died because he made no peace with oppression. When I’m tempted to couch either denial or apathy in some version of “Calm down; God’s in control,” I’m reminded that Jesus’s kingdom is incarnational through and through; it’s a cop-out to expect God to act when I will not.
Even as Jesus hung on the cross, he spoke hope to a thief who needed solace. He hung in the gap between one man’s derision and another man’s hunger, absorbing both into his broken body. This is our king. My prayer for this hard season in America’s history is that we will find ways to walk as Jesus walked — to spend ourselves for love of the Other. To listen, to protect, to endure, and to bless.” (Debie Thomas, A King for This Hour, Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, November 13, 2016)
My thanks to Mrs. Thomas, for her articulate insights on this Christ the King Sunday, balancing the tensions of this post-election period and what it means for us to follow Christ as our King. During this hard season may we indeed seek ways to walk as Jesus walked, to spend ourselves for the love of the Other: to listen, to protect, to endure, and to bless. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Take Your Stand
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 21: 5 – 19
November 13th, 2016
“One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, “All this you’re admiring so much — the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.” They asked him, “Teacher, when is this going to happen? What clue will we get that it’s about to take place?” He said, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, “I’m the One,’ or, “The end is near.’ Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.” He went on, “Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling. “But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name. You’ll end up on the witness stand, called to testify. Make up your mind right now not to worry about it. I’ll give you the words and wisdom that will reduce all your accusers to stammers and stutters. “You’ll even be turned in by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. Some of you will be killed. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Even so, every detail of your body and soul – even the hairs of your head — is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it – that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.” – Luke 21: 5 – 19, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
It is hard to believe it was just last Sunday that we gathered here, elated about the Cubs winning the World Series. Now, here we are, a week later – some of us, maybe many of us – deflated and concerned – even scared – about the results of this week’s Presidential election and the future of our country.
Maybe the ancient Roman poet Juvenal (A.D. 100) was right when he said long ago, “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.” He was satirically describing the only remaining cares of a people who no longer tended to their historical birthright of political involvement. You know the Roman empire right? O wait; mighty as it was and as long as it lasted (507 years), it’s long gone.
Sorry, I’m reverting to cynicism already. But I’m finding it hard not to be cynical, when you look at the peculiarities of this election.
For starters, consider that Hillary Clinton WON the popular vote count (a number expected to grow by several million as more votes are counted), winning by more votes than John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Al Gore in 2000. Yet she was defeated in the Electoral College, that antiquated system we keep intending to change, and never get around to changing, and thus are shocked election by election.
Another peculiarity is that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States by just over a quarter of the population (27%), with 47% of eligible voters not bothering to vote. What this means is that 75% of the people will be governed by someone only 27% of the population voted for. So much for majority rule?
But the biggest peculiarity and concern of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is this: not only are there serious concerns about his qualifications, experience, and even character for the presidency, the most troubling aspect for most of us is this: throughout his campaign he has given a nod-and-a-wink to racists, hate groups, and bullies, including often acting like one himself. The question on many people’s minds – especially those most vulnerable – is this: will this continue in a Trump Presidency? Perhaps not since Tennessean Andrew Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1829 has there been such concern about the man coming to fill the office of the Presidency of the United States.
I spent a lot of time this week looking at a blank sheet of paper, wondering what to say this morning. Like some if not most of you, I’ve been through the complete spectrum of emotion, from disbelief to shock to grief to despair and anger. On Election Night, as it became apparent what was happening, the moment that brought me to tears was when CNN commentator Van Jones – who is African-American – asked how people were going to explain this to their children in the morning. He said, you tell your children not to be a bully; you tell them not to be a bigot; you tell them to show up ready and prepared; and then you have this outcome. He said he was getting texts from Muslim friends asking if they should leave the country; texts from other immigrants and people of color fearful of what the future might bring.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure any of us know the answer to that. Historically, after elections, candidates have tempered their positions from their campaign extremes; it remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will do this; there are some indications that he may. As someone said, we will now get a chance to see what Donald Trump actually believes; in contrast to both the Democratic and Republican parties which he has essentially demolished.
Look, I understand we have differing beliefs, different cultural and political understandings and sympathies in religion and politics, even among our families. I know some of you are Republicans, some are Democrats, some independents; and some nothing, content to be among those who do not vote: I respect your right to do this. Our role here today is not to discuss politics; it is to discuss and align our faith and our values – including political values – as we struggle to balance our allegiance to Jesus as Lord AND our allegiance as citizens of these United States. As we must learn, the two allegiances are not synonymous.
What then is our role as followers of Jesus in a society that is sometimes for us and sometimes against us? What role does our faith play, at a time when so many of the values important to us appear threatened?
This is the question asked and answer given in today’s Scriptures, as we begin this season of the church year we call Advent. During Advent we prepare ourselves not only for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, especially in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. What exactly would that look like, not only in the lives of individuals, but in human community and society.
You might say the first thing we must learn is that before things go well, more often than not, they go badly. Before things come together, they fall apart. Maybe that’s how we best learn what is really important to us, a truth particularly applicable following this election.
In the Scriptures, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, we have examples of how badly things can fall apart, even for people of faith. But more importantly, we learn how people of faith should behave when they do.
In the interest of time, I would like to focus on the Gospel, but in passing, I would like to point out I could preach the same message from the Old Testament, from the book of Isaiah the prophet. It was a time when the worst that could happen, did happen. The Jewish people were invaded and conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon. Just when everything they had known including their spiritual certitude came crashing down around them, an audacious prophet named Isaiah dared to dream of a day when God would “create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things would not be remembered or come to mind; even a time when “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Even at the worst of times – when our spirits and dreams are crushed – God’s Spirit leads us to dream and to work towards the kind of world we seek, not only for ourselves but for our children and their children. Should we mention that along the way there are definitely going to be set-backs?
It is a similar lesson we learn from today’s Gospel. One day when Jesus was teaching in the Temple, his disciples were not listening, because they were awed by the beautiful architecture of the Temple. Not impressed, Jesus said, “All this you’re admiring — the time is coming when every stone will end up in a heap of rubble.”
Luke is writing some 10 to 20 years after the events Jesus was predicting had taken place: the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans. The Jewish historian Josephus claims that over a million people were killed. Those who survived, whether Jews or Christian, were terrified and distraught and disoriented, trying to figure out how to live and believe and hope, now that life as they had known it, had ended. In an effort to calm and comfort the faithful, Luke had Jesus address their situation.
So, when they asked Jesus that day, “Is it the end?”; his answer was, “No, not yet.” He went on to describe what would happen, all of which has continued to happen through the centuries: imposters will try to trick the faithful (sometimes they succeed); war and conflict will rage, and disasters will be prevalent. Then Jesus adds some shocking statements: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
According to these words of Jesus – trying times, tough times are not a time to panic, but, rather, a time to testify. A time not to abandon the values and behaviors we have learned from Jesus, but to stand up for them, whatever the cost might be.
Writing several years ago about this passage, Roberta Bondi, professor of church history at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said:
“Before the end comes, I am going to testify to the truth of the gospel that because each person is of infinite value to God, no one ought to withhold from anybody what they need for life. That wealth is not God’s reward to the righteous or poverty God’s punishment. That God’s most particular concern is for the helpless, the poor, and the outcast. That getting revenge on the personal or national level is wrong. And I should expect a lot of trouble for speaking out.” (“One Plot at a Time,” “Living By The Word,” Christian Century, Nov. 2, 2004 (Vol. 121, No. 22), p. 17.)
If I began quoting an ancient Roman, let me end by quoting another. As an graphic example of “taking our stand,” I love the ancient Roman story of Horatius at the bridge, as told by the Roman historian, Livy, which I summarize:
“As the Etruscan army approached the fortified city of Rome, the most vulnerable point was a wooden bridge, which they would have easily crossed had it not been for the courage of one man, Horatius, on guard at the bridge.
As the enemy forces poured down the hill, the Roman troops threw away their weapons and fled. As his fleeing comrades approached the bridge, Horatius stopped as many as he could to yell at them: “By God, can’t you see that if you desert your post escape is hopeless? If you leave the bridge open in your rear, they will soon be in the city.”
Urging them to destroy the bridge any way they could, Horatius offered to hold up the Etruscan advance, alone. Proudly he took his stand at the outer end of the bridge; sword and shield ready for action, one man against an army.
The advancing enemy paused in astonishment at such courage. Two others soldiers were ashamed to leave Horatius alone, and with their support he won through the first few minutes of danger. Soon, however, he forced them to save themselves and leave; the demolition squads were calling them back before it was too late.
Once more Horatius stood alone. For awhile the Etruscans hung back, each waiting for each other to make the first move, until shame drove them to action, and with a fierce cry they hurled their spears at the solitary figure barring their way. Horatius caught the spears on his shield and, resolute as ever, straddled the bridge and held his ground.
The Etruscans moved forward, and would have thrust Horatius aside by the sheer weight of numbers, but their advance was suddenly checked by the crash of the falling bridge and the shout of triumph from the Roman soldiers who did their work just in time.”
It is unclear whether Horatius survived, or as the historian Polybius said, “threw himself into the river still wearing his armor and weapons, deliberately sacrificing himself because he valued the safety of his country and the glory which would later attach itself to his name more than his present existence and the years of life that remained to him.” (Livy II.10 (Penguin’s The Early History of Rome, p. 116); Polybius VI.55 (Penguin’s The Rise the Roman Empire, p. 348)
In accordance with our beliefs and values as followers of Jesus, like Horatius we must take our stand at the bridge. I like what Bernie Sanders had to say after the election:
“To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
In addition, right now in our country, there are a lot of people scared of what the future will bring, refugees and immigrants and people of color and even women, because some nativists and racists and bullies are interpreting Mr. Trump’s election as open season to harass those that they resent.
Not as a comprehensive solution – but as one small symbolic gesture – some of us are wearing safety pins to show we are willing to take a stand in the defense of the vulnerable against harassment. If you would like to take up this symbol of safety to identify yourself as a “safe place” for people of all origins, colors, shapes, sizes, genders, lifestyles, religions, and abilities, safety pins are available to you today as you leave.
Until we see what the future brings – with prayers for our country and for our leaders and for all our citizens – like Horatius at the bridge – in this small way let us take our stand. Amen.
Our closing hymn, 11-13-16, was a new hymn written post-election by Presbyterian pastor and song-writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Here are the words:
By the Streams of Babylon
DIX 126.96.36.199.7.7 (“For the Beauty of the Earth”)
By the streams of Babylon we sit weeping bitter tears.
Here so many hopes are gone; now we’re filled with countless fears.
Yet, O God, you tell us: “Rise! See the world through faithfilled eyes!”
We will rise and seek your way, knowing love will one day win.
We won’t let fear rule the day; we will welcome strangers in.
Every day, we’ll seek and find countless ways to be more kind.
By your grace, we’ll rise above even in this troubled hour.
Where there’s hate, we’ll choose to love; we will speak your truth to power.
With the poor and refugee we will build community.
We will pray for those who lead even as we take a stand.
We will rise with those in need, seeking justice in the land.
We will learn and listen well from the truth that others tell.
We will rise and work for peace; we will treasure your good earth.
We will march, that wars may cease; we’ll see every person’s worth.
God, now give us faithfilled lives as we heed your call and rise.
Biblical References: Psalms 137:1; Joshua 24:15; Ephesians 1:1718; Deuteronomy 10:19; Hebrews 13:1; Matthew 25:3146; 1 Timothy 2:12; Psalms 34:14; Micah 6:8 Tune: Conrad Kocher, 1838, in chorale Treuer Heiland (“For the Beauty of the Earth”)
Central United Methodist Church
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 6: 20 – 31
All Saints’ Sunday
November 6th, 2016
“Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
– Luke 6: 20 – 31, The New Revised Standard Version
To borrow a phrase from Garrison Keillor, it has not been a quiet week in Chicago: “How ‘bout dem Cubs?”
This week I was in Washington, D.C., and everywhere I went wearing my Cubs hat, it sparked conversations, about how people not normally even Cub fans were rooting for the Cubs, the greatest underdog team in baseball. Flying back yesterday, even the TSA agent who searched my suitcase – when he saw my Cubs hat in the suitcase – paused and said, “So did you watch the game?”
They did it; at long last they did it. As everyone who watched the game knows, you no longer need to go to your doctor for a stress test. I watched it with my son, and we were up walking around the room, too agitated to sit. Millete said she couldn’t take it, and hid under a blanket, asking Ernie to let her know what happened. Another person tweeted: “If this is what the World Series is like, how will I survive Election Day?” Some churches were quick to make the most of it, as this church who posted this Cubs “promise” logo
And how about that celebration on Friday? News reports are that as many as 5 million people attended, making it the 7th largest mass crowd in recorded history, according to some reports.
And, of course, amidst all the celebration, there has been no small amount of nostalgia and remembrance, as people remembered Cub fans of the past (like Steve Goodman, who wrote “Go, Cubs, Go) who never got to see the day they hoped for, like we few, we lucky few. It is a dream come true.
Cubs paraphernalia has been showing up not only in Wrigleyville and Chicago, but in graveyards around Chicago. Harry Caray’s grave at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines now looks like this [photo]. The baskets of apples are a reference of course to Caray’s famous comment in 1991: “Sure as God made green apples, someday, the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series.” One of my former parishioners who died just a few months ago, was a huge Cub fan, and thanks to one of his relatives, now has his name written in chalk on the exterior wall of Wrigley Field, as do many others.
I personally think of my Dad, who was more of a Cardinals fan than Cubs fan, but who lived and breathed baseball and taught me to love it as well. My Dad died in 2012, but I know if I had had a chance to talk to him this year to say, “How ‘bout dem Cubs?”, he would have said, (because he would have been watching them), “The Cubs have a great baseball team this year.” I wish my Dad could have seen it.
All this goes to show that it is not only at our sad times, but also at our happiest times, we remember those dearest to us who have died, not only with regard to baseball, but in life. This is what we do in church on All Saints Sunday, coincidentally also this year the “1st Sunday after the Cubs Won the World Series.”
Perhaps, for those who are young, the remembrance of those gone before might not be significant yet. Some may have yet to face the loss of anyone near and dear. But as the years go by, you lose family members and friends, and there begins to be a cumulative weight of grief you carry, sometimes brought to the surface by a reminder or a memory, a photograph, a song, a piece of clothing. The longer you live, the worse it gets, until you realize you know way too many people in cemeteries. As our oldest seniors remind us, it is even possible to survive your spouse, your family, your dearest friends. So on All Saints we remember the dead, especially those near and dear to us; it is not only appropriate, but important to us that we do so.
When we talk about “saints,” who are we talking about? I have always loved how the author Frederick Buechner describes those we remember when he says:
“On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and the wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots, tosspots, and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we love them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kinds of seedy sainthood of our own.”
The “blessed dead,” we sometimes call them, but what does that mean?
“Blessed”, is not a word easy to define. In ancient Hebrew, the verb for “bless” literally means, “to bend the knee,” to bow before someone. To confuse matters more, the English word comes from Old English blētsian, from blōd blood; stemming from the use of blood in consecration. From such roots, our usage of the word “blessed” has come to have various meanings: to be held in reverence, venerated, or honored; to be blessed in the sense of enjoying happiness, and specifically in reference to the bliss of heaven; to be blessed in the sense of knowing pleasure, contentment, or good fortune. While we believe the dead are “blessed,” we may wonder whether it is possible to know “bliss” in this life.
Jesus thought so, but not for the reasons we might think. In the Gospel for All Saints’, we read that section of Jesus’ preaching known as the Beatitudes (Blessings); today, from Luke’s version. There, this sense of happiness, contentment, and bliss – blessedness – is pronounced by Jesus upon those who, in our estimation, might seem least blessed in this life: those who are poor, those who are hungry, those who mourn, even those who are hated.
I like the way Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ words in his version, The Message:
You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.
As if to make the antithesis of “blessing” ever clearer, Luke adds a set of “woes,” especially cautionary to those of us who live in an affluent and often arrogant society. As Peterson translates them:
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
“There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests — look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.”
According to Jesus, even in this life, we can know blessedness. Blessedness is like standing in a bright light, in a spotlight, embraced by love and understanding, though we may have tears in our eyes. The values that lead to blessedness are the values of Jesus’ kingdom. When we embody and experience those values, rejoice and be glad; for ours is the kingdom of God.
To be clear, they are the opposite of many of the values promoted right now in America, especially as we approach Election Day this Tuesday, the most critical election in our lifetime. Indeed, aren’t these values, the values of Jesus’ kingdom, – where ever person is valued, especially the least, the last, and the lost – the ones we want and that we want our children to know, that they might have a chance to blessed in this life, as we have been blessed, as those who taught us the way of Jesus are blessed.
Given this, you can begin to see how we might consider those gone from us, who live only to God, as “blessed.” It has more to do with our belief about God than with any understanding of the afterlife. It means that in a spiritual sense beyond our ability to understand, we believe those we love who have died have completed their journey of life and have come to their final destination: they now behold the face of God, where they are blessed.
Whenever I start remembering these people I have loved, not only family and friends, but dear parishioners, it gets to me. Rarely do I get through the writing of my “All Saints” sermon without a few tears. But though I grieve their loss, there is also a sacred presence to their memory, the sense that they are with us; and that someday – best of all – we will be with them, where they are.
I apologize, but I always end my All Saints sermon the same way, the only way I know how, with a poem by Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet and farmer, which has become special to me. Over the years, Berry has written a poem every Sunday afternoon after a walk around his farm or in the woods. He calls them “Sabbath Poems.” In this poem, he describes such a sense of what I am talking about:
Some Sunday afternoon, it may be,
you are sitting under your porch roof,
looking down through the trees to the river,
watching the rain.
The circles made by the raindrops’ striking
expand, intersect, dissolve, and suddenly
(for you are getting on now,
and much of your life is memory)
the hands of the dead,
who have been here with you,
rest upon you tenderly
as the rain rests shining upon the leaves.
And you think then (for thought will come)
of the strangeness of the thought of Heaven,
for now you have imagined yourself there, remembering with longing this happiness, this rain. Sometimes here we are there, and there is no death.”
(A Timbered Choir, “The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997.” 1996, V, p. 201).
Sometimes here we are there, and there is no death. That is what it is like – in this life – to be blessed, just as we believe those who have preceded us are blessed. Let us remember and thank God for them.
Central United Methodist Church
What to Do While We Wait for the Vision
Pastor David L. Haley
Habakkuk 1: 1 – 4; 2: 1 – 4
October 30th, 2016
“I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.“
– Habakkuk 2: 1 – 4, the New Revised Standard Version
Is it just me, or is the tension killing all of us? And not just about one thing! How are we supposed to calmly go about our lives with all these avalanches about to fall upon us?
First, the Cubs in the World Series. How about that game Friday night, a cliffhanger to the end? And then last night’s game, which left us all deeply disappointed. And tonight, well, that may be the final verdict.
Secondly, only a week from Tuesday, we will at long last know the outcome of this year’s presidential election. What I’m worried about is what’s going to happen afterwards. Thursday, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “Some Donald Trump Voters Warn of Revolution if Hillary Clinton Wins.” As an example, the article quoted Paul Swick, 42, of Wisconsin, who owns a moving business. Mr. Swick went with his wife and daughter to see Mr. Trump speak in Green Bay last week. Mr. Swick considers himself a “Bible Christian” and “Thomas Jefferson liberal,” and said he hoped to beat Mrs. Clinton “at the ballot box.” But Mr. Swick, by his own estimation, also owns “north of 30 guns,” and he said Mrs. Clinton would have trouble if she tried to confiscate the nation’s constitutionally protected weapons. “If she comes after the guns, it’s going to be a rough, bumpy road,” Mr. Swick said. “I hope to God I never have to fire a round, but I won’t hesitate to. As a Christian, I want reformation. But some-times reformation comes through bloodshed.” (Ashley Parker and Nick Corasaniti, the New York Times, Thursday, October 27, 2016)
Thirdly, though without the immediacy of the other two, as we have been discussing through the month of October, we also have anxiety about what’s going to happen to the Church, not only in our lifetimes, but in our children’s lifetimes. Let me be clear: what I have been saying is not that the younger generations do not have faith – they do and will; what I am saying is that everything I have seen and read says that their faith is not going to be expressed as we have expressed ours, through institutions such as denominations and congregations. So I am anxious about what is going to happen to congregations such as Central and others that we have known and loved, which have been important to us and to our faith.
In the book I have quoted most often through this series, Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-first Century (Pilgrim Press), by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, they lament the decline of church as we have known it, but cite 19 different models of emerging church:
The Simple Cell
The Dinner Party
The Soulful Village
The Family Chapel
The Community-based Enterprise
The Innovation Lab
Same Time Next Year
The Community Center
The Mission Base Camp
The Gallant Fortress of Defiance
The Small Venue Multisite
The Spiritual Theme Park
The Moment of Grace
Many of these are aspects of things we already do, and hold possibilities for us as we seek to morph into both vital and sustainable new forms of “church.”
But as we await answers on all these things and more, what do we do? In today’s Old Testament text not only do we have an answer of what to do, but a model, which is to remain faithful, doing what we do best. We have this model in the form of a 6th century BCE Biblical prophet whose name we can barely say, by the name of Habakkuk.
What happens is this: When Habakkuk looks around, he sees nothing but trouble. So the book by his name starts out as a lament, a complaint to God:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
Habakkuk’s words still resonate powerfully with us in times of conflict, injustice, and violence, whether in our personal lives and in our society and world.
God answers Habakkuk, but not in the way Habakkuk expects. God responds by sending upon Israel an invading army of Chaldeans, which Habakkuk does not find acceptable, any more than we would, since after all they are more evil than the evil he sees around him.
Not satisfied, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Habakkuk plants himself where God can see him – not on a roof but in a watchpost high on a rampart wall – where he says:
“I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
In time – the text does not say how – God answers Habakkuk, and says this:
Write the vision; write it in big letters on a billboard,
so that it can be read on the run:
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.”
“The righteous shall live by their faith.” These words, recorded by this ancient Hebrew prophet, have resounded through the centuries. It was quoted by Paul in Romans (1:17), and taken up by Martin Luther, at the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which we commemorate today.
But what do they mean? We think of faith as an inner quality, a confidence we have in God. But did you know this word could also be translated as “faithfulness”? The righteousness shall live by their faithfulness: demonstrating our inner faith in God, through outward deeds of faithfulness, justice, and righteousness.
Even as we wait for answers, even if the answers don’t come or come in ways we do not like, still we are drawn to God; to a life of faith; to places of worship like this one; to this gathered group of loving, struggling, beautiful, and flawed people; to this font of blessing; to this table that feeds us with God’s love and compassion.
On previous Sundays, we have asked and discussed among ourselves these questions:
Why are you a Christian?
Why do you worship at Central?
What issues in your life, in your neighborhood,
or in the world, really concern you?
What are your hopes and dreams for Central Church,
for our community, and for the world?
Today we are going to ask what is that we have, that others need? Sometimes we forget what that is; I like this cartoon that recently ran in the New Yorker: (“What is it again that we’re the leading provider of?”)
So today, for the final time, turn and talk to each other, and ask each other this question:
What can our church and our people offer the neighborhood
and the world that no other organization can offer?
What can you offer the world that no other person can offer?
As we await answers to these questions that concern us –
Who will win the World Series?
Who will be elected President?
What will happen to the Church?
– what if we – like Habakkuk – would station ourselves at our “watchpost,” whether it is a quiet room, outdoors in nature, a place at work, in a church chapel or sanctuary, on even in a place inside ourselves. What if we did that and said: “Here I am, God. I will keep watch and I will see what you will say to me!” As not only Habakkuk, but many others throughout the Bible teach us, it is even OK to yell at God about the trouble we see.
Most of all, as we wait for the future to emerge, let us definitely establish a “listening post” to listen to what God is telling us through each other, but also through our neighbors, just as we have talked to each other over these past four Sundays. This is where we are going to go next.
The tension may be gripping, but for God’s faithful people, we join Habakkuk’s final affirmation:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
– and dare we say it:
if the Cubs don’t win the World Series,
if our preferred presidential candidate does not win,
if we cannot yet see what the future of the church is going to be –
yet we will rejoice in the Lord;
we will exult in the God of our salvation.
God, the Lord, is our strength;
God makes our feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes us tread upon the heights.”
Central United Methodist Church
“A Time for Hopes and Dreams”
Pastor David L. Haley
Joel 2: 28 – 32
October 23rd, 2016
“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.” – Joel 2: 28 – 32, the New Revised Standard Version
It was difficult to know how to introduce my sermon today, given that overnight the Chicago Cubs might win the National League pennant for the first time since 1945, and by the time I speak to you this morning, we would know for sure. So either we would still be on pins-and-needles awaiting the outcome of a game tonight, OR we will all be hung over from last night’s victory celebration.
And, who knows what surprises a win would bring? When the White Sox won the American League pennant in 1959, Robert Quinn, the Chicago Fire Commissioner, ordered a celebratory five-minute sounding of the city’s air raid sirens. During the height of the Cold War, this frightened thousands of citizens, who ran out into the streets thinking for sure the Russians were coming. Quinn later apologized, but was defended by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who said Quinn acted in accordance with a City Council proclamation that “there shall be whistles and sirens blowing and there shall be great happiness when the White Sox win the pennant.” So this morning, we hope there shall be (whistles and sirens) and great happiness when the Chicago Cubs win the pennant.
Obviously, a lot of people are excited about this, because it has been a long time coming. Our hats off to those “Die Hard” Cub fans, who have faithfully shown up year-after-year only to have their hopes dashed. In the sense of the Gospel admonition that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” it is they who should have been given front row seats to these games rather than the fair-weather suburbanites who buy up all the good seats only when the Cubs are winning.
Last Sunday, when Millete and John played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for their postlude, I told them what they should have played was “Go, Cubs, Go,” written by the late great Cub fan Steve Goodman, the song now sung after every Cubs home win. Before he sadly died of leukemia at the age of 36, Goodman also wrote “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” in which he said:
“But what do you expect,
when you raise up a young boy’s hopes
and then just crush ’em like so many paper beer cups.
Year after year after year
after year, after year, after year, after year, after year
’til those hopes are just so much popcorn
for the pigeons beneath the ‘L’ tracks to eat.”
Goodman’s words – Biblical in proportion, though in Chicago style – recall the words of the prophet Joel that we read earlier:
“I will repay you for the years
that the cutting locust,
the swarming locust, the hopping locust,
and the devouring locust have eaten—
my great army, which I sent against you.
You will eat abundantly and be satisfied,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has done wonders for you;
and my people will never again be put to shame.”
No, he was not talking about the Cubs, he was talking about another devastating time in the history of Israel. Somewhere around 4th BCE, their lives were threatened not by an army of warriors, but of locusts, devastating their crops and therefore their supply of food. It wasn’t clear which hurt worse; the hunger pangs in their bellies or the implication that God was angry with them, thus allowing this to happen.
Just as in painful times in our lives when we cannot imagine happiness or joy again, Joel spoke a word of hope, promising a time that a time would come again “when the threshing floors would be full of grain and the vats would overflow with wine and oil.”
As Dawn Chesser said on the United Methodist Discipleship website, it would be like God saying to us:
- I promise that one day, the clean-up from the floods and fires, the hurricanes and the tornadoes, the earthquakes and the bombs, will be finished; and your homes and businesses will be rebuilt.
- I promise that one day, this period of unemployment will be over, and you will have work again.
- I promise that one day, you will be finished with your divorce, and you will be in a better place.
- I promise that one day, your grief will become manageable and you will smile and laugh again.
- I promise that one day, the war will be over, and you will be able to go home.
- I promise that one day, there will be justice rendered against those who have persecuted you.
- I promise that one day, you will no longer be a slave to your addiction.
- I promise that one day, your life will be restored, and you will once again praise God and give thanks for all God has done for you.
As if this wasn’t enough, the prophet Joel then goes so far as to say that the day would come when God would “pour out God’s spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” That’s right, on great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers, on newborn sons and daughters, on all God’s people. One day, all of God’s children will be restored; and they will once again dream dreams, and see visions that lead to a better tomorrow.
After all, when we are down and out, isn’t that when it’s hardest to imagine or dream of new ways of doing things or better days to come? Too often, all we know is what has been; we cannot dream of what might someday be.
As we have discussed on two previous Sundays now, this is the situation we now find ourselves in, in the church in North America in general, and our church, Central Church. As we have discussed, two major realities confront us: first, the rise of a new generation of adults who are largely disengaged with Church; and, second, the coming “death tsunami” of the elders who have kept our churches in existence. By the year 2050, most of the “church-as-we-have-known-it” churches will almost certainly no longer exist.
Given this, right now, we are all seeking answers, and we don’t know what they are going to be. Just as when the Cubs are losing, you can’t see any hope of winning; just as when the crops are failing you can’t imagine overflowing harvests; so in this time of decline of Christendom and Church we don’t envision the glory days of the Fifties anytime again soon. The thought of a world where only a small percentage of the population is interested in Christian church membership sends cold chills down our spines. And yet that is the world that is coming, and quickly.
The good news (if there is any) is this: in the history of the church it has happened time and again, and for those willing to listen to God’s Spirit and be willing to adapt to what new thing God is doing, God will make a way where there is no way.
Consider, for example, that tiny group of Jesus’ followers, no more than about a hundred, after his death, resurrection, and ascension? Just when they felt small and alone and wondered what would happen next, they were surprised on the Day of Pentecost by the explosion of God’s Spirit, to the degree that Peter even quoted Joel’s prophesy, saying, in essence, “That thing Joel spoke of; this is that!” And look at what happened after that; due to that and many other inexplicable and unexpected events, we are sitting here today.
Once again we are at such a time in the Church, when we are out of answers. There is no “doing what we have always done,” no “going back to the glory days,” no “magic bullets” or “programs in a box” that will suffice. Once again, as at Pentecost, we are back to Joel’s advice: listening to God’s Spirit speaking through each other.
As on previous Sundays; this is what we are going to do, turn and talk to each other. Like we also did, move around as necessary, find someone to talk to, and – for about 3 minutes each – ask each other this question:
What are your hopes and dreams for Central Church,
for our community, and for the world?
Let me conclude with this: At the end of the last day of the 1991 Cubs season, Cubs announcer and prophet Harry Caray said this:
“Well, a lot of things happened today, and they were all great. And they were all thrilling. And they were all dramatic. Too bad we couldn’t have had a victory that meant a pennant. But that will come. Sure as God made green apples, someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in a World Series. And maybe sooner than we think . . .”
If the Cubs can win the World Series at long last, how much more can we look to new ways and brighter days, through the leading of God’s Spirit, speaking through each other. Go Cubs! Go Central! Go God!
Central United Methodist Church
The Times, They are a-Changing
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 18: 1 – 8
October 16th, 2016
“Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice — otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.'”
Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” – Luke 18: 1 – 8, The Message
Did you hear the news? This week Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, a bit of a surprise for all those who write real literature. As everybody knows, Bob Dylan’s most celebrated work is from the Sixties, in such well-worn standards as “The Times, They are a-Changing:”
“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.’” (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)
Last Sunday, we began a conversation about how the times are a-changing, especially in regard to the Church, including our church. We found that, increasingly, how we do Church is unsustainable, as we find ourselves living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older. Over the next twenty to thirty years, most of our people (including most of us sitting here today) will disappear, and the question becomes, “How will the Church survive?” The answer is, it will not, at least not in the form that we have known.
Given this, the future for us lies in figuring out what the Spirit of God is doing in our time, and – as Bob Dylan said in his song – not standing in the way of it but getting into the path of it.
As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon say in their book, Weird Church: “Although sustainability is the buzz word right now; sustainability is not the critical issue; spiritual vitality is the critical issue. Where there is spiritual vitality, we can find a way for sustainability.”
In order to find out what God is doing, we have to take a look at what’s happening. While there are many changes in society that are affecting the situation of the church; I would like to briefly point out three of them.
First, cultural and demographic change. The Sixties: those years Bob Dylan sang about, were a time when thinking about many things began to change: race, sexuality, women’s rights, and environment, to name a few, but also religion. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom, in his massive A Religious History of the American People, says that the sixties were the time when the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment that had held dominance in America for over 300 years came to an end.
One significant event influencing this was the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system based on national origins that had been American immigration policy since the 1920s. What this did was open the door to immigrants, especially immigrants from South Asian and Asia. (Some of you and your families are likely here today because this happened.) Suddenly, down the block there was not only the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic Church or even a Jewish synagogue, but Mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples and Mosques, and people began to realize religion – and religious freedom – involved more than just Christians.
One of the most significant books of this election year has been that of Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America. He notes that for the first time the number of white Protestant Christians in America has dropped to 46%. So when I hear people talking about wanting to “Make America Great Again,” I think this “pre-sixties America” is the America they long for, and it is not going to happen. You know as your Pastor I am deeply thankful, not only for the diversity within our congregation, but within our country. Like the Stars and Stripes of our flag, it brings tears to my eyes.
But the second major change that’s affecting the church is generational change: our children and grandchildren practice religion and spirituality differently than we practice ours. It is true that a larger percentage of the younger generation are not religious (those who identify as Nones); it is more correct to say they are differently religiously. More people tend to be what we might call “free-agents,” people who are not tied to or dependent upon and perhaps not even interested in, traditional religious institutions or religious practices, including attending church at 10:30 on Sunday morning.
Robert Bellah, in his 1985 book Habits of the Heart, first called this different perspective on faith, “Sheilaism,” based on a young nurse he interviewed named Sheila:
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” . . . “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic . . . I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” . . . In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”
Most of us would agree! Not only has “Sheilaism” become the dominant spiritual perspective across America, it’s also the spiritual perspective of most people in the church. As Bellah pointed out, this privatized way of thinking turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it, but otherwise it has no claim on you. Increasingly – especially among blue collar people and younger people – it has less claim. They see no need of a church or pastor to find God, which they do in nature, in community, in service; in short, in ways other than traditional church.
The third major change which has occurred more recently and which has amplified and accelerated the second is this: technological change, specifically the invention of the internet and social media. When Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he enabled the faithful not to be dependent upon priests and the church, but to have a one-on-one relationship with the Bible and each other. In our time, the invention of movies and TV initiated a one-to-many relationship, in which a teacher or preacher – a talking head – spoke as one to many, whether in church or on TV.
Now, the invention of the internet and social media has created a “many-to-many” model, furthering cutting ties to established institutions such as church. As we are all still learning, social media is a platform for breaking news, sharing ideas, organizing movements, seeking support, gathering information, convening groups, and making money, not to mention watching the latest cat and dog videos.
As Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon put it in Weird Church:
“Why give money to support the overheard of the church when you can organize a meet-up group in the park or coffee shop on your schedule? Why sit through a sermon when you can listen to an inspiring TED talk while taking a walk or sitting on your back patio? Why drive in traffic to a meeting when you can create a Google hangout with friends from all over the world in your pajamas? Why watch a movie in a theater when you can access it on your TV at home?”
And so, here we are, with nobody beating down the door. And we wonder, if the stream of religion and spirituality (and almost everything else) flows outside the institutions we have built, what will happen to denominations, to congregations, to professionally trained clergy, to people sitting in pews on a Sunday morning? The days are growing short for denominationally based, neighborhood franchise churches like Central, awaiting our boxes of curriculum and offering envelopes from headquarters. What then shall we do? We shall go looking for where God is, by looking at where the problems are.
A model for us doing that today is the poor woman Jesus used in his parable, the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In fact, it says Jesus told them the story to remind them how it was necessary to seek and pray consistently, and never despair or give up. Considering what we face, that applies to us, doesn’t it?
This poor woman with no support or resources had a problem. Big deal, we might say, I know lots of women (and lots of people) with problems; tell her to take a number. (In fact, this week in particular we have heard more than we wanted to hear, at this time and date, about the problems women face, and from a presidential candidate at that.) As happens time and again, this woman’s rights – perhaps even this woman’s body – was being violated, and she was seeking justice. Time and again, she went before a judge who couldn’t have cared less, maybe he thought she was a liar or overweight or less than attractive. Time and again, she kept going back to that Judge – “My rights are being violated – I am being violated” – until that Judge was worn down, until – as Eugene Peterson puts it – he was “black and blue from her pounding.” Until he said, “This woman won’t stop badgering me, until I get her some justice.” And so he did.
And so Jesus said: “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, God will.’ Isn’t what Jesus is saying is this: look at what and where the problems are: because where the problems are, there God is.
So we are going to go looking for our problems. Like this poor widow, we are going to go to God in prayer about them, asking for God’s help and direction, but we are also going to turn and talk to each other. Like we did (so well) last Sunday, move around a little bit, and find another person to talk to. We’ve talked about some of the problems facing Church, but for about 3 minutes each, ask and listen to each other answer this question:
Like the poor widow,
what issues in your life,
in your neighborhood,
or in the world,
REALLY concern you?
These problems that we face – in our lives, in our church, in our neighborhoods, and our country – are the problems our children and grandchildren will face. Frankly, it is not them that should get on our bandwagon, but we who should get on theirs; learning from, adapting to, and supporting the ways they are not only practicing faith, but confronting the problems that confront all of us. May God lead us, that we might be humble enough to learn from them.
“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin.’ (1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music)
Central United Methodist Church
Bloom Where We Are Planted
Pastor David L. Haley
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7
October 9th, 2016
“These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29: 1, 4 – 7, the New Revised Standard Version
Do you know that feeling you get when you have to do something you’ve never done before? Say, like go to a pool party when you know you are a lousy swimmer, maybe even afraid of the water? Go to an event where you don’t know anybody, when you are an introvert? Walk down the hall of the hospital in one of those backless medical gowns, before you have a procedure you’re also never had before? The feeling we get when we have to do such things is called “ANXIETY.” “EXTREME ANXIETY!”
Having inherited a good dose of anxiety genetically, one of the things I liked about being a fireman were the constant challenges to test such anxiety; I guess you could call it exposure therapy. Want to learn if you have acrophobia (fear of heights); climb a 100 ft. tower ladder. Want to see if you are claustrophobic? Crawl through a smoke filled maze with an air pack and a blacked out face mask. One anxiety-raising challenge I remember in particular was appropriately called a “church raise”: firefighters suspend a standing ladder with ropes at four corners; while they hold it upright, you climb up, over the top, and down the other side. Not only does it test your fear of heights, but also your trust in your colleagues.
In the church, however, – and I’m speaking for myself as much as for all of us – we don’t like anxiety. We liked the “tried-and-true”, the “way we always done it before,” unfortunately, even if it no longer works anymore. We are like the old joke about church Trustees: “How many Trustees does it take to change a light-bulb?” “Ten: one to change the bulb and nine to talk about how great the old light bulb was.” In the church, to try the new and different produces in us collective anxiety.
So it is with such anxiety that I begin a new series today, expanding the conversation begun at our recent Church Council gathering, about how the Church in general and Central Church, along with all other churches, is changing.
To do this, I want to use the Old Testament readings from the time of Israel’s time in exile, as our reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah today. What I’m suggesting is that we in the Church are now also in a time of exile, culturally and generationally, wishing for the way things used to be but are no longer, strangers in a strange land.
Appropriate to the experience of exile, I’m still unclear about exactly where this series and this conversation will go. Gil Rendle says it’s appropriate for a leader to propose a solution when we know clearly what the problem is; not so much when we not only don’t know what the solution is, but we don’t even know what the problem is. Then, he says, the best thing a leader can do is to lead the community to face into its problems. So that’s what we going to do. To have a congregational conversation about it, so that out of this conversation can come the adaptation and vision necessary for Central to remain a vital congregation into the foreseeable future.
I also want to tip you off that when I say conversation, this is exactly what we are going to have. It will not be a monologue, but a dialogue – a conversation – in which we do some talking among ourselves. And yes, I’m nervous about this too. It’s different than anything I’ve done for 42 years. I still like that old light bulb!
I wish I had begun this last Sunday, when we first read from the OT book of Lamentations, that lament written for and by people in living in exile: “How lonely sits the city (church?) that once was full of people.” Or Psalm 137 (my paraphrase): “By the shores of Lake Michigan, there we sat and wept, when we remember the fifties and sixties.”
Seriously, the situation at the time of Lamentations and Jeremiah was one of the most anxious and fearful times in Jewish history. Everything that could go wrong went wrong; in 587 B.C., Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The king, the priests, all the leaders and many of the people were taken away to exile in Babylon.
What happens when everything you believe in and live by comes to an end, as least for life as they had known it? In exile against their will in Babylon, far from their homeland, they felt as though they had lost their identity, their purpose, even their God.
What I’m saying is that we in the Church in the United States are a people in exile, both culturally and generationally, and find ourselves to be strangers in a strange land. Like that light bulb, the familiar ways that we have known and trusted for so long have ended. Yes, there are a few – like the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time, who say: “Just hold on, keep doing what you’re doing, if you build it they will come; be a “turn-around church,” but the signs are that what is changed in society and culture regarding religion and religious practice is not only going to continue, but to get worse. If so, what will become of this institution called Church, what will become of United Methodism, and what will become of Central United Methodist Church. What will – what do we want to be like – 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now?
Here’s a summary by Gil Rendle of some of the seismic shifts impacting all churches right now, but especially the United Methodist Church:
■ Our United Methodist denomination is increasingly unsustainable, living off more and more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older.
■ We are projected to close more than 10,000 churches in the next several decades.
■ We have fewer large churches because they are becoming mid-sized; fewer mid-sized churches because they are becoming small; and we have fewer small churches able to support the salary and benefit packages of full-time clergy.
■ Driven by generational patterns that are both constant and accelerating, people are increasingly not drawn to organized religion and do not resonate with congregational forms.
In the current mission field, we have two tasks to attend to, neither of which we do well:
■ Improve and do better what we do with the “affiliated”, those with a allegiance to Christ who are highly middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and who appreciate membership and institutions.
■ Create a whole new thing (which we have no idea how to do) with the “unaffiliated,” those with an allegiance to Christ, but who are other than middle class in lifestyle, values or economics and avoid member-ship in favor of participation and avoid institutions in favor of communities and movements. (Waiting for God’s New Thing: Spiritual and Organizational Leadership in the In-Between Time, by Gil Rendle (2015); posted on the website of the Texas Methodist Foundation, https://www.tmf-fdn.org/leadership-ministry/learning-resources/congregational-resources/
You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in religion or sociology to know this, we are seeing it here at Central. There was a time when membership was an important number; now very few people are interested in being a “member” of anything, it smacks of a country-club exclusivity. There was a time when attendance was an important number, but what does that mean now when people consider themselves active if they attend once or twice a month? For decades we have talked about tithing – giving a percentage of income to God and the church – except in rare instances giving has never exceeded more than 2%. Now, to most of the younger generation, it makes no sense to pay an institution or professionals to do what they can do for themselves, often online at that. Practically speaking, the younger generations – including all those who went through Sunday School and Youth groups – are gone from the Church. Even though many (but not all) still consider themselves Christian, they no longer feel a need for institutional church. They might agree with what Mae West once said about marriage: “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” What then shall become of congregations, including our congregation of Central United Methodist Church?
What shall we do? To those in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah assured them that no matter how despairing or how alien they might feel in their “new normal,” God was not done with them yet. So, while in a strange land, they should make the most of their time there. And so Jeremiah tells them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, find life, and work for the betterment of the people and the place where they found themselves:
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
This is what we are going to do to. Over the next four weeks, we are going to talk to one another and listen for God’s word to us. We are going to embrace our exile, as an opportunity to become deeply invested in each other and our neighborhood. This will mean getting to know one another and to understand the issues and possibilities our community holds, in order for us to seek peace and prosperity not only for ourselves, but for our neighborhood and community.
Today we would like to begin the conversation by inviting you to find a partner (one on one, if possible). This might mean moving around so you can sit with another person; afterwards you can return to where you are sitting. We’ll take a few minutes to share and listen to one another. (Remember, good listening skills include questions that begin with: How and Why). I’d like you to answer the following questions:
Why are you a Christian?
Why do you worship at Central?
Anybody want to share what you learned? I invite you to email me over the next week if they want to share more.
Let’s end with this: While we wait, work, listen, and pray, let’s bloom where we are planted, like cactus flowers in the desert. Cactus flowers grow in the adverse conditions of the desert, under the hot sun with little water. They bloom in the cool night, away from the day’s withering heat. Often they cannot even be touched because they are surrounded by prickles and thorns. And yet, they are one of the most beautiful of all flowers.
Like the cactus flower, let us bloom where we are planted. Even though we may feel ourselves in exile from the life and the church we have known for so long, even though we may not know what the future is going to be, let us bloom where we are, and – in the name of God – be the best and most beautiful we can be. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
What We Need is Here
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 17: 5 – 6
October 2nd, 2016
“The apostles came up and said to the Master, “Give us more faith.” But the Master said, “You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.‘” – Luke 17: 5 – 6, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
“Give us more faith!“ Whenever I hear this request Jesus’ disciples make in today’s Gospel, I think of this scene from the 1975 movie Jaws. It’s what happens when Police Chief Martin Brody (as played by the late Roy Scheider) first meets the great white shark known as Jaws. (I apologize there is one mild expletive; you only need to watch the first 35 seconds.) [Video].
“We’re going to need a bigger boat.” That’s the way Jesus’ disciples felt in today’s gospel, except a bigger boat was not what they needed (although there were a few times on the Sea of Galilee when they could have used one). What they knew for sure was that they were going to need more faith. The reason why they felt they were going to need more faith was because Jesus continually challenged his disciples – not only them but all who would be his followers, including us – with high expectations.
For example, preceding this, Jesus has asked them to take up their crosses, to give away their possessions, not to harm in any way the least of these, and – just before this – to forgive all who wrong them, not just once, but as many times as it takes. No wonder then, that they have “a bigger boat moment.” They come to Jesus to say, “We’re going to need more faith.” We might note that out of all the challenges, it was the demand of forgiving someone (repeatedly) that finally brought them to their knees. Do you appreciate that?
In light of this, what’s wrong with seeking more faith? After all, isn’t that why we are here this morning? To keep the faith we have, and – if possible – to increase our faith.
There may have been a time in our lives when we thought we had enough faith; not too little, not too much. I have always liked how Charles Swindoll, in his book, Improving Your Serve, caricatured some people’s search for faith:
“I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.” (Wilbur Rees, in Charles Swindoll’s Improving Your Serve)
But then, the day arrived when we felt our faith was inadequate not only for the demands of discipleship, but even the challenges we face in life. It was, quite likely, a “bigger boat” moment for us.
Maybe we’re struggling with health issues, and we feel that if we only had more faith – maybe someone told us– that if we only had more faith, we could be healed.
Maybe we’re worried about somebody we love, like our children, and we can’t seem to turn things around. Maybe somebody even said, “You gotta have faith!’ We thought we did have faith, but we worry it might not enough.
Maybe life is not working out like we hoped. Maybe we’re struggling with finances and jobs and working hard and just not getting ahead. Isn’t that the American dream? “Believe in (have faith in) your goals deeply enough, work hard enough and you will accomplish them.” There is even an enormously popular brand of American religion called the Prosperity Gospel. It consists of the idea that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and successful, if you only have enough faith that God will help you accomplish these goals. But so far it hasn’t worked out.
Maybe we even hope for a heroic faith, especially as we look at the world around us, a faith that makes a difference in the world that we are leaving for our children and grandchildren. After all, we look at what those who had great faith did, like Dr. King and all those who worked in the Civil Rights movement; like Desmond Tutu and all those confronting apartheid in South Africa; like what the people in Germany did, streaming out of churches singing hymns and holding candles in defiance of the Communist government, and walls fell. And yet, today there is talk of building more walls, and we often feel inadequate to the challenges before us. There seems to be more – not less – shootings, stabbings, injustice, hacking, and name-calling – and we feel like we need more faith, not only to make a difference, but sometimes just to get through the day.
And then – truth be told – there are those who have lost what faith they had. Just as we talk about the “nones,” (those who affiliate with no faith tradition), there are also the “dones”; those who once were active in a faith tradition, but are no longer. As a pastor, you’d be surprised how often this conversation comes up. When people find out I am a pastor, especially when I work with people outside the congregation for weddings and funerals, nowadays it seems like the first thing people want me to tell me is how they are either not religious, or no longer religious, that while they grew up in the church (especially the Roman Catholic Church), they no longer participate. It is true that the world we live in can be quite corrosive to faith, and many no longer feel the need to check that box.
So we’re all listening, all leaning in, to see what Jesus says, when his disciples ask for more faith. And what does he say?
“You don’t need more faith. There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Go jump in the lake,’ and it would do it.”
What? If I understand it, what Jesus is saying is that there is no “more or less” in faith; you either have it or you don’t. Faith is not a dimmer switch, which you turn down to decrease and up to increase; faith is more like an “on/off” switch; you’re either sitting in the dark or sitting in the light. What Jesus seems to be saying is, faith is not a quantity, faith is a quality, an attitude of trust in God. You either have it or you don’t.
Think of it like this: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), one of the most important thinkers in religion and philosophy, said that faith is buoyancy in God. He said faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water (he didn’t say anything about sharks). No ocean is that deep, but his point is clear: if we are fearful and struggle as we float, we sink and drown. But if we trust that the water will keep us up, and we relax, then we float.
I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. I could have saved a lot of money going to school, I could have learned a lot more from relationships and less from books, I could have spent a lot less time trying to believe impossible things. I could have done what I am now trying to learn to do, in my old age, which is to relax, knowing that it doesn’t all depend upon me. Ultimately, it is not in my hands, it’s in God’s hands. We did not create the world, we did not bring ourselves here, and we have little control over how and when we shall leave here. But, because of what we have learned about God through Christ, we trust in God. And we float: we do what needs to be done, we respond to the needs of those around us, we care for the people who come our way. And when the time comes, we lay back and float on the great deep, like all the generations who have one before us.
One of the great things about this time of year is to look up and see formations of flying geese. As they fly in these formations, they are carrying out the plan for which God created them; which they do, not by thinking about it or taking classes or reading books about it. It’s implanted in them by God, like faith in most of us.
When I see them, I remember of one of my favorite poems, by Kentucky poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, entitled, The Wild Geese:
Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
– Wendell Berry (Collected Poems 1957-1982)
So it turns out, we don’t need a bigger boat after all; the one we have is sufficient. You want faith? You got it; use the faith you have. What we need is here. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Cosmos Sunday
Pastor David L. Haley
Proverbs 8: 22 – 31; Psalm 148: John 6: 41 – 51
September 25th, 2016
Praise God in the highest heavens; praise him beyond the stars.
Praise him, you saints, you angels burning with his love.
Praise him in the depths of matter; praise him in atomic space.
Praise him, you whirling electrons, you unimaginable quarks.
Praise him in lifeless galaxies; praise him from the pit of black holes.
Praise him, creatures on all planets, inconceivable forms of life.
Let them all praise the Unnamable, for he is their source, their home.
He made them in all their beauty and the laws by which they exist.
Praise God upon the earth, whales and creatures of the sea,
fire, hail, snow, and frost, hurricanes fulfilling his command,
mountains and barren hills, fruit trees and cedar forests,
wild animals and tame, reptiles, insects, birds,
creatures invisible to the eye and tiniest one-celled beings,
rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, dark-skinned and light skinned,
men and women alike, old and young together.
Let them praise the Unnamable God, whose goodness is the breath of life,
who made us in his own image, the light that fills heaven and earth.
- Psalm 148, from A Book of Psalms, by Stephen Mitchell.
Perhaps you have had this experience: you have visited the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago or another planetarium some-where else and attended a sky show. You sat in a reclining seat in a darkened theater looking at a canopy of what appears to be real stars. If you didn’t pass out and go to sleep (admittedly it is difficult), soon the projector began to whirl, taking you on a journey through the stars, and I’m not talking about a light speed star cruiser. Even so, it is an awesome experience.
And humbling. First, because of what a privilege it is. As I have stressed repeatedly through our celebration of the Season of Creation, how privileged we are among ALL the people who have ever lived, to understand these things in ways not possible for them. And not only to explore earth and the seas, as they did, but space, the final frontier, only attainable in our lifetime.
It is humbling secondly, because of WHAT we now know, and how mind-boggling that is. We live on the single blue planet, the 3rd Rock from the sun, in a solar system of 9 planets orbiting our sun. Our sun is but a single star in our galaxy, known as the Milky Way. How many other stars are in the Milky Way? The Milky Way Galaxy is estimated to contain (ready?) 100 to 400 BILLION stars. How many galaxies are there in the known universe? The Hubble Space telescope reveals an estimated 100 BILLION galaxies, with that number likely to increase to about 200 billion as space telescope technology improves. I’m not even sure if I can do the math on how many stars – with possible planets circling them – that might be. In the light of this, almost certainly somewhere out there, there is a Yoda, and (as in Star Wars) a space bar with all kinds of creatures.
If that’s not enough, look at it this way: we’re riding a blue planet rotating at 1,000 miles per hour, traveling around the sun at 66,660 miles per hour, circling around in the Milky Way galaxy at between 420,000 and 540,000 mph and finally, the Milky Way is moving at 2,237,000 mph, traveling through a universe which is itself still expanding. Makes you want to hold on to the pew and fasten your seat belts (wait, we don’t have seat belts!), doesn’t it?
It seems fitting that we should end our three-year celebration of the Season of Creation with Cosmos Sunday, acknowledging that we are visitors here on the stage of time and space, in one tiny corner, for only a moment. And while we may view ourselves as the apex of creation – Masters of the Universe – in fact we are so small, so finite, and understand so little, especially when we look up into the night sky, the same as our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago.
When we look up – as our ancestors did – we see different things, depending (as they did then) upon what they believed, and now upon what we know. In the past, when people looked into the heavens they saw the realm of the gods. Humans lived on earth, the middle kingdom, and the dead lived under the earth; this mythology still informs many people’s thinking that heaven is above and hell below.
When others looked up, they recalled ancient stories, told in those groupings of stars we know as constellations. Isn’t it sad most of us still struggle to know those constellations, like Orion and even the North Star, not to mention the astronomical bodies they really are? (Polaris)
It reminds me of when Lucy and Linus Van Pelt were looking at the sky in the 1969 Charles Schulz film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown:
Lucy says: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there…gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind. (A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1969, Directed by Bill Melendez and written by Charles M. Schulz.)
Our problem is – when it comes to cosmology – there is so so much to understand beyond duckies and horsies! The word “cosmology” is from the greek word “kosmos,” which means “world,” and we use it to talk about “the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe.” Traditionally, before science, people thought about cosmology in mythological, religious, and philosophical terms, like the heavens being the realm of the gods, for example. It was not the function of mythologies to teach HOW God created the world, but why God created the world, which is entirely a faith proposition.
But now, there is physical cosmology, which is the scholarly and scientific study of the origin, evolution, structure, and fate of the universe, and the scientific laws that govern these realities. Modern physical cosmology – as determined by observational astronomy and particle physics – does indeed teach us HOW the world was created, and that theory is currently dominated by the Big Bang theory.
So now if you want to know about the universe, we do so less by reading ancient texts than by visiting astronomical observatories and particle physics accelerators such as Fermilab in Batavia, or the CERN collider near Geneva, Switzerland. There, the search is on for the Higgs boson particle – the “God particle -” believed to give mass to matter. This is the new reality, and this is why – students! – in your biology and chemistry and physics classes you will have to spend time memorizing electron orbitals, which, even though you will never see one – is what everything (including us) is made of. Not only are we tiny mortal creatures in a corner of infinite space, we are creatures of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and chemical reactions creating energy, which we call life. It is a good thing we don’t have to think about it or understand it, in order for it to happen, otherwise most of us would be in a lot of trouble
Given all this, we might ask the question we asked last Sunday, where is God in all this? That depends . . .
When some look at the cosmos, pondering what we know, they see emptiness and blackness, inhospitable to life, infinite waste, long millennia of evolution lurching toward life, a random progress positing no room for intelligent design, or a Creator.
Others look into the cosmos and almost certainly know there are other blue planets circling distant stars, with creatures like or unlike us; surely in such a vast universe, we cannot be the only intelligent life (and I use that term relatively.) Do they believe in a God like ours? Did a Son of God redeem them, or were we the only creatures in the universe who needed redeeming? Or the other unthinkable possibility, what if they are even more evil than us (hardly imaginable) and intend to slaughter or enslave us upon first contact? No wonder science fiction has been speculating about such things for some time now, as in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.
Others – likely most of us here today – look at the universe and despite the void and the waste and the randomness and death, feel the hum of energy, of the joy of life, the trace of a Creator who not only imagined the Big Bang, but continues to create in every moment, to whom the entire universe is an extension of being, and to whom we are beloved creatures. As Pope Francis put it last year in his work Laudato Si (2015):
“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each . . . and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth.”
So, the evidence and information about the cosmos is neutral. It is possible to look into space, mostly lifeless, and conclude there could not be a god, as the first human in space, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin did, in 1961. But it is also equally possible to look at this universe and believe that it could not be without origin or design or purpose, and to praise a Creator who brought it into being, as the crew of Apollo 8 did as they orbited the moon on December 24, 1968. Either of these choices is not a matter of knowledge or reason, but a matter of faith. Most of us choose faith?
At the very least, in awe and humility it reminds us of our place in the cosmos, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, like this:
“If I can summon the energy to put on my bathrobe and go outside, the night sky will heal me — not by reassuring me that I will be just fine, but by reminding me of my place in the universe. Looking up at the same stars that human beings have been looking at for millennia, I find my place near the end of the long, long line of stargazers who stood here before me.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”)
I want to conclude by putting not only our knowledge, but our place in the cosmos into perspective, by showing you a video created by Dr. Danail Obreschkow, an astrophysicist at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He actually put the video online a few years ago, but it was only recently shared on Facebook, and since then has surpassed 30 million views, 620,000 shares, 140,000 reactions, and 20,000 comments.
The video starts with a woman’s smiling face, zooms out to show a universe view, then zooms all the way back in again. Says Dr. Obreschkow: “It’s generated a little bit of debate about religion and science, about our role in the universe.” “It makes people talk about both how small they feel and how big they feel at once.” Let’s take a look at the Cosmic Eye:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” – Psalm 8: 3 – 4
- 24 Hours That Changed the World Series – 2010
- Advent 2010 – A Life Giving Christmas
- Advent 2011
- Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood Series – 2009
- Church at the Passages of Life Series – 2007
- Conversations with Jesus Series – 2008
- Eastertide Sermons from the Book of Revelations Series – 2010
- Fearless: The Courage to Question Series Lent 2011
- Five Practices of Fruitful Living
- Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes
- Heewon Kim – Pastoral Intern 2013 – 2014
- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
- Kelly Van Pastoral Intern 2011-2012
- Lay Sermons
- Lessons in Practical Christianity Series – 2009
- Lizzie Sherfey Pastoral Intern 2010-2011
- PoWeRSuRGe Series – 2009
- Psalms Series – Summer 2013
- Qualities of Jesus – 2015 Lenten Series
- Roll Down, Justice! A Lenten Biblical Seriew
- Season of Creation Series 2014
- Sermon on the Mount – 2011
- Stories from the Family of Faith Series 2014
- The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem Series Advent 2013
- The Story of Job Series – 2009
- The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
- Worship Series – 2008