Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 1, 2014

Welcome to Skokie Central Church

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

Central United Methodist Church
To Be Loved is to Be Known;
To Be Known is to be Loved
Pastor David L. Haley
John 4: 5 – 42
March 19th, 2017

 

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

“Christ and the Samaritan Woman, icon, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.”

To get to Galilee from Judea, Jesus had to pass through Samaria. He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.

A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)

Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”

He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.”

“I have no husband,” she said.

   “That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”

“Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”

“I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.

The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.

In the meantime, the disciples pressed him, “Rabbi, eat. Aren’t you going to eat?”

He told them, “I have food to eat you know nothing about.”

The disciples were puzzled. “Who could have brought him food?”

Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!

“The Harvester isn’t waiting. He’s taking his pay, gathering in this grain that’s ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That’s the truth of the saying, ‘This one sows, that one harvests.’ I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.”

Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman’s witness: “He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!” They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. They said to the woman, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He’s the Savior of the world!” – John 4: 29, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Following the Gospel, Pastor Haley played this video, a modern interpretation of the Woman at the Well: [video]

If there is one skill I would like to improve in my life, it is the art of conversation. Why? Because not only is a good conversation a pleasure, it can also be transformative. At its best, conversation can be a means of experiencing the love of God which can be expressed this way: “To be known is to be loved; to be loved is to be known.”

All of us can remember pivotal conversations in our lives. We remember conversations with strangers, with strangers who became friends, with friends who became intimates, even spouses. How many remember their first conversation with the person who was to become their husband or wife? A parishioner years ago told me the first time he saw his future wife, she was dancing at a USO ball with a potato on her head. Hey –  if it works, go with it.

Lately, the art of conversation has become not only rare, but difficult. We are spoiled by our devices and communication through social media. Every now and then you see a picture of an entire family sitting at a meal, with everyone staring at their phones, which is why some wise families ban them at the table.

To be skilled at conversation, means to pay attention, to ask questions, and most importantly, to listen. Good conversation take time, which does not happen when we are all in a hurry to get on to the next place and the next person, missing the opportunities we have to have a substantive conversation with the people right in front of us.

Initiating conversations can be tricky, especially for women, for whom conversations can quickly go down the wrong road. Most if not all women could tell stories of conversations begun with an innocent word or look, which head toward harassment. Those of you from Kansas have likely discovered when you walk the streets of Chicago that you are not in Kansas anymore, because Chicagoans rarely make eye contact or greet each other on the street. There is a reason for that: most of us – especially women – have had “learning experiences.” All the more reason genuine conversations are so important.

All these factors are at play in the conversation before us today, the conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well. It is the 3rd conversation we have listened in on this Lent. The first was between Jesus and the Tempter in the desert, and the second was last week, between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. Of this conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the Well, teacher of preachers, Anna Carter Florence, says this: “If I were asked to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.“ (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 93).

In order have a short sermon on a long reading, this conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the Well is important – a model of conversation for us – for three reasons:

First of all, because it was a barrier breaking conversation. Why was the woman at the well so shocked that Jesus asked her for water? Because this was a triple taboo conversation that should never have happened. First, Jesus was a man, she was a woman. According to the custom of the time, men did not speak to their wives in public, much less a strange woman. Second, Jesus was a Jew, she was a Samaritan: there was a long and bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans; as Eugene Peterson put it, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.” Third, Jesus was a religious leader, a holy man; the fact that the woman came alone at mid-day (a different time than most women) raises possible scandalous implications. And yet, barrier breaker that he was, Jesus initiated a conversation.

It is almost appropriate, but if there was ever a time to initiate barrier breaking conversations in our society it is now. The cultural and political disparities of the last election made clear that we all need to talk: Christians and Jews and Muslims, nativists and immigrants, blacks and whites, blue state people and red state people, young and old, people from Illinois and Kansas. By talking to each other, we can hear each other’s story, and, come to appreciate and maybe even understand why people think the way they do. At its best we gain empathy and love for each other, even those who may be our cultural and polital opponents. Wait, I’m starting to sound like Jesus!

The second reason Jesus’ conversation with the Woman at the Well is important is because that it was substantive, about important things; we do not have to hear chit-chat, about weather, how the Jerusalem Wildcats are doing, about cute cat videos on Facebook. Jesus and the woman talk about what is before them: water, necessary for life, with Jesus making an inviting wordplay on the “Water of Life,” also necessary for life, a full and abundant life, that is. Everyone wants to find meaning, to make a difference, to feel that we are known and loved, not only by people, but also by God. “You have made us for yourself,” said St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Everybody knows you can go into any bar and start a fight over politics or religion; in fact, nowadays, it doesn’t have to be a bar, you can do it anywhere, even in church. But it is my experience that when you take a respectful, listening tone to people’s experience in life with God and spiritual things and what’s happening in their lives, people want to talk.

In the conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well, her whole life spilled out, like water from a bucket, that she had had five husbands. We can’t see Jesus’ face or hear his voice, so we don’t know how or why he says this. Contrary to the traditional interpretation, there is nothing in the story which says this woman is disreputable or has done anything wrong, nor does Jesus condemn her or forgive her.

If she was a five-time loser, maybe it’s because she was widowed or abandoned or divorced, which, for a woman in the ancient world – amounted to the same thing. When this passage was studied with a group of women in AIDS-stricken Southern Africa, they pitied the woman and concluded perhaps she must have been an AIDS carrier — killing her husbands while she remained unaffected. In order words, it may well be that the woman’s story is tragic, rather than scandalous. Could it be that the reason Jesus raised the issue is to say, “I know what you know, and that is no barrier either.” “To be known is to be loved; to be loved is to be known.”

How many people are there — both outside the church and inside the church — who live lives full of shame, imposed either by self or others? They don’t feel like they measure up, and they certainly don’t want to come to church to make it worse, because they feel that if people really knew, they would throw me out. It’s a sad commentary on Church today, that the list of those alienated from church grows longer: gay people, poor people, people with addictions or mental illness, even young people; all those who feel that the church will judge them, and not love and accept them. Which – too often – the church and Christians have indeed done.

Hear the Good News: the message of Jesus is that “I know what you know, and that is not a barrier. The Good News of the Gospel is this: The God revealed in Jesus the Christ intimately know us and accepts us as we are, offering even to us, to drink from the Water of Life.

The third reason this conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well is important is that not only was it substantial, but transformative, even life-changing, not only for the woman, but all those to whom she witnesses, including us.

As the conversation progressed, knowing herself to be in the present of a prophet, she asks about race and religion and the things that divided them; things that she had always wanted to ask, but no one would answer. So when Jesus dignified her with an answer, that true worship of God is not defined geographically or racially or even methodically, but by spirit and truth, she drops one last comment: “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, we’ll get the whole story.” As her life had been revealed to him, he now reveals his life to her: “I am he.”

As preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:

“It is the first time Jesus has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.”

And she goes on to add:

“The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is — who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises — speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper, so that you go back to face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face With God,” The Christian Century, February 28, 1996)

How many people are out there there like this woman at the well? Waiting for someone to start a conversation that will break down the barriers that divide – whether of religion or race or culture or class or stereotype – waiting for someone who will treat them with dignity and respect, listen to their questions, accept them, and love them, as Jesus loved the Woman at the Well. Who knows what might come of it?

I know I am “Spirit-led” in sermons when life colludes to illustrate them; and this week that was the case. At a recent SkokieCares meeting, I sat at a table with several people, including the Skokie Fire Chief, the Village Manager, a trustee, the owner of the Holiday Inn and others, but also a young mother who attended out of her own interest and concern, especially her concern for her children. After the meeting, she was standing alone, so I went to talk to her, if only briefly. I was surprised and impressed this week, when I got this note. (I am omitting personal information).

“Dear Pastor Haley, my name is _______, and we met at the Skokie Cares meeting last week.

I just wanted to let you know that your kindness and thoughtfulness have left a lingering impression on me, and I feel like I missed an opportunity to ask better questions in order to learn more about you and how you envision working for a more caring and connected community that reaches out across cultural and religious lines.

Thank you for speaking with me, and I hope to speak with you again soon.  Sincerely, _______”

May the Spirit move us to talk to people – diverse and different people – in order that by the grace of God, our lives, their lives, and who knows how many others, might be touched and transformed by a simple yet compassionate conversation, like this one of Jesus, with the Woman at the Well. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 12, 2017

2017.03.12 “Hidden No Longer” – John 3: 1 –17

Central United Methodist Church
Hidden No Longer
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 1 –17
The 2nd Sunday in Lent
March 12th, 2017

Nicodemus

“Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899”

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — to God’s kingdom.”

“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?

“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.– John 3: 1 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Clandestine meetings, they are called; meetings that occur in secret, because something is illicit and those involved want no one to know. Usually such meetings occur in a private place, under cover of darkness, off the record. One thinks of meeting between lovers who shouldn’t be, drug deals, cloak-and-dagger spy exchanges, and conversations that never happened.

As everyone knows, clandestine meetings are a standard feature of politics, especially in the news of late. Leaks by those who prefer to remain anonymous, meetings which should not have taken place but did, either denied or “not remembered” when questioned about. As everyone knows, multiple investigations have been launched regarding clandestine meetings between members of the Trump Administration and the Russians; who knew what and when did they know it? In the light of the fact that the Russians hacked the recent Presidential election, it remains to be seen where such allegations will lead.  Personally, I am thankful for a free press, who – when there is a lot of smoke, searches for the underlying fire. The Washington Post recently adapted as its motto, “Democracy dies in darkness.” As indeed it does, often through clandestine meetings.

However, in this day and time is it even possible to have clandestine meetings? Now, when we are not only tracked but spied upon by our devices (including our phones), when almost everything we do and everywhere we go leaves an electronic trail, when ubiquitous security cameras record everything we do in public and some in private, is there such a thing as a clandestine meeting? It may take digging, but sooner or later the truth comes out. As Jesus once said, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3) More than we ever thought possible, we should keep Jesus’ words in mind.

In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to talk with Jesus in what might well be one of the most famous clandestine meetings in history, certainly in the Bible.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, hovering on the margins and in the shadows. He was – after all – a Pharisee, a part of the Jewish establish- ment, for whom Jesus was at first a nuisance, but then a political problem and a threat. No doubt it was difficult, perhaps even dangerous, for Nicodemus to follow Jesus publicly, in the bright light of the day; so he visits Jesus at night, being cautious, exercising discretion. He is not the first nor the last of Jesus’ disciples who followed Jesus from afar, as well as those disciples who must be careful about when, where, and how they practice their discipleship.

There are still many countries of the world where the political or religious climate necessitates this; in fact, so do some work environments in our own country. Say too much about questionable ethical or business practices, stand up as a whistle- blower – even if it is the “right” thing to do – and see what happens. I don’t know if you have read about sexual assault in the military; did you know an estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the military in 2012, the most recent year statistics are available? Of those, only 1 in 7 victims reported their attacks, and just 1 in 10 of those cases went to trial. Many – if not most – of the victims were further victimized by going public or pressing charges.

Throughout my ministry I have preached the story of Nicodemus many times, just as I am sure that you have heard it many times. Most often, we hurry to the “good parts,” the parts about being born again and of course John 3:16, where we all stand up and take our hats off, put our hands over our hearts and recite with solemnity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Too often we have made Nicodemus into a fall guy, who asks the dumb questions we have wondered about but would never ask out loud. The kind of questions we ask only in clandestine meetings, which are – after all – the kinds of meetings we prefer if we ever need to visit a counselor, an AA meeting, an AIDS clinic, or even a pastor. “I don’t want anybody to see me coming or going.”

After preaching and hearing this story all these years, I have not only continued to learn from it but now have a new perspective on it: now whenever I hear it I chuckle, because it is such a funny story. Not only is Nicodemus not the bad guy or the clueless foil, Nicodemus is so like us, struggling to understand, which the trickster Jesus never makes easy.

Part of the problem with a text telling a story is that we do not get the non-verbal communication part of the story, which expresses 93% of communication. Don’t you prefer – when possible – to talk to people in person, especially when it’s about important things? As they talk, was Nicodemus or Jesus solemn and intense, or smiling and winking? Did Jesus tap Nicodemus’ arm with an amused grin, when he said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?” Was Nicodemus nodding in agreement, or constantly throwing up his hands and shrugging his shoulders? Were there long silences – during which Jesus heard the wind blow –  or did they talk over each other? When they parted, did they part with a handshake, an embrace, or by “agreeing to disagree?” John doesn’t say.

But even not knowing this, what’s funny about this story?

First of all, as I was saying before, about whether it’s possible to have clandestine meetings. Think about it: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night so as not to be seen or heard, and here we are still talking about it on a Sunday morning two millennia later, on the other side of the planet. So much for clandestine meetings, any time, any place. Sorry, Nicodemus, for your privacy concerns; you might just as well have videotaped and broadcast it on the 10 o’clock news. “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

Secondly, what’s funny are the “word plays” Jesus used; no wonder Nicodemus was confused, people have been confused ever since. Partly, because they are ambiguous: The word we usually read as “born again,“ (Greek “anothen”) can actually be translated in three different ways: “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” Most commonly, it means “from above,” literally, “from top to bottom,” and is the same word used in Matthew 27:51, when, at Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple split “from top to bottom.” So, what Jesus said to Nicodemus was, “Nicodemus, you’ve got to be born from above, from top to bottom.”

Don’t you find it ironic that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of being born again is our best-known understanding? With the result that, this passage has been used in some pretty awful ways. All of us have likely been asked by some well-meaning Christian: “Are you born again?”, meaning, “Are you saved, like I am saved?” Which is perceived by many as, “Are you crazy, like I am crazy?”

As Jesus used it, it was less a command than an invitation. Nicodemus is gestating, like a child in the womb, in the dark of night. He must be born again, anew, from above, from top-to-bottom, and let God work in his life, until God shines in his life, in the light of day.

How can this be? How does one do this? One doesn’t, God does. Don’t you find it interesting that Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ question of “How can this be?” by citing two of the most mysterious, uncontrollable forces in life: birth and wind? If it were a matter of technique or method — Jesus couldn’t have brought up worse examples.

There are those who want the spiritual life to be like logic, like math. Everything must be right and wrong, black and white, with no shades in between. Give me a formula, a method, four spiritual laws, ten steps, help me understand: how can this be? I’ve known people like that; haven’t you?

There are others — as Jesus seems here — for whom the spiritual life is less like math and more like music. It flows, there are melodies and harmonies, crescendos and pauses. It’s like birth, or wind, both powerful and uncontrollable, and we are swept away. You’ve got to let go, and let it flow. What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus is this: “It’s a gift, Nicodemus, don’t overthink it; just receive it!”

From this point on, who says what gets murky; in John’s Gospel, conversations give way to speeches. From here on, red-letter Bibles, highlighting the words of Jesus, get confused: Is this Jesus talking or John? Does it matter?

Regardless of who is speaking, what comes next is the funniest thing of all – in that it is likely the most loved, but also THE MOST misunderstood verse in the Bible: John 3:16. The German Reformer Martin Luther called it, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” We see it on a sign held up by a guy in a rainbow-colored wig sitting between the uprights at a football game. Maybe it is our favorite Biblical verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (New Revised Standard Version)

I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message, which puts the emphasis in the right place: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Which to some, is even more mind-boggling than what Jesus told Nicodemus. Because based upon this verse, what we have been told, and what most people think the Gospel is, is this: “There is a God, but God is angry with us because of our sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all, such that though we know it not, we are all heading for eternal torment in hell. Instead, God decided to vent his anger on someone else, someone completely innocent, his one and only son. With the result that, God’s wrath is quenched, and if we but believe this story we will no longer go to hell but to heaven someday.

Does that sound like a loving God to you? Most thoughtful people who hear it don’t think so either. According to a proper reading of John 3:16, the real truth of the story – as Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright puts it – is this: “the God of creation is a God of love: utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love.” What John’s Gospel says is this: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son;” Not, “God so hated the world that he killed his Only Son.” God has done all the heavy lifting, all we need to do is trust. It is less about heaven someday, than participating in God’s “full and lasting life” now, as Eugene Peterson more correctly renders it.” Being a Christian is less about going to heaven when we die, than it is participating in the revolution of love unleashed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Nicodemus, through misunderstanding, we distort the whole picture. (N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Whey the Gospel is Good News and What Makes It Good, 2015, p. 68-69)

How is this remotely funny, you might ask? I once heard a mythical story about two people who disagreed with each other their whole lives. When one of them died, he got to heaven, where he found out he was wrong. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Too many people are getting it wrong, which is so outrageous it’s funny.

Thankfully, for Nicodemus and for us, the wind continues to blow. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus was one of those who lovingly cared for Jesus body by anointing it with costly spices before placing it in the tomb, which he did in the bright light of day, not caring who knew or saw.

For us, the wind also continues to blow. Through his not-so-clandestine meeting, Nicodemus reminds us that even the best educated and most authoritative among us are still searching, our faith still seeking understanding, even as we still ponder the questions and answers Jesus gave to Nicodemus so long ago. Even when we fall on our face, better to laugh at our efforts, and get up and try again. We can only hope, no one sees.

Nicodemus

“Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 5, 2017

2017.03.05 “What We Learn in the Wilderness” – Matthew 4: 1 –11

Central United Methodist Church
What We Learn in the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 1 –11
The 1st Sunday in Lent
March 5th, 2017

Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.  The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

– Matthew 4: 1 – 11, The New Revised Standard Version

 

One of the more thought-provoking movies of last year was Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, an imaginative film about Jesus’ last days in the wilderness. It takes awhile to get used to Jesus as played by a Scotsman, Ewan McGregor, but it works.

After a month of solitary wandering, Yeshua is tired, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and lonely, weary of not hearing his Father’s voice. He implores, “Father, where are you?” and “Father, speak to me!” yelling with frustration into the wind. The only voice that answers is the devil, his evil twin, a mirror image of himself. This devil taunts Yeshua, trying to plant doubts about whether his father really loves him, and whether his father even loves anyone other than himself. But Yeshua steadfastly refuses to give in to all temptations. In time, he happens upon a family in the wilderness who recognize him as a holy man, offering him shelter and hospitality. In return, he offers them help with some carpentry.

Last Days in the DesertWhile Yeshua, as played by Ewan McGregor, is the center of the movie, a strong supporting role is played by the desert itself. The bleached-out grandeur and ripples of sand that form the Anza-Borrego Desert southeast of Los Angeles (standing in for Israel’s Negev) demonstrate how the desert can be at the same time, both beautiful and threatening. To get a sense of the movie and the story, take a look: [Last Days in the Desert trailer]

For most Christians, the story is both familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar, because each year as we begin our Lenten journey toward Easter, we begin with Jesus in the wilderness. Three of the four gospels tell how, after his baptism by John, Jesus goes into the Judean Desert to fast and pray for forty days. During this time, Satan – the Accuser – tempts and tests Jesus, and each time he resists. By the time Jesus leaves the wilderness, he is ready – in every way – to begin his public ministry.

In other ways, however, the wilderness is unfamiliar to us, and I found Last Days in the Desert helpful in its real images of wilderness, which most of us have a hard time appreciating, having never experienced it ourselves. We tend to think of these scenes in cartoon images, but actual wilderness is real and imposing. Perhaps, at some time or another, maybe on the moonscape of a mountain top or the edge of the Grand Canyon, we have stood on the edge of the wilderness, and while it was beautiful, it was also daunting. Not only is there no entertainment, no iPhone or internet, no YouTube or Facebook, there are no amenities: no comfort, no water, the blazing sun in the day and chilling cold at night.  All wilderness – and especially desert – is a hostile environment; make a mistake, and you die there, even without devils to tempt you. I like what Jesus’ host says to him in the movie, when Jesus asks him why he lives there: “The desert is ruthless; it strips you of your vanities, your illusions, gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are. Isn’t that why you’re here, because your God speaks louder here?”

On the other hand, I believe that even if we have never been in the actual wilderness, most of us know what the wilderness experience is. It might be in a living room or a hospital room or a living room. It might be in the form of a pink slip and a final paycheck. It might be in the form of a divorce, a struggling child, or an illness, physical or mental, like depression or schizophrenia. It might be the space around the slow or sudden death of someone we love, and the long grief which follows. The wilderness experience might even involve the loss of faith. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”

As a pastor, I have had the opportunity, sometimes to stand on the edge of the wilderness and observe – sometimes to experience wilderness with other people. Let me share just one, from this week. In my previous congregation there was a woman who suffered from severe mental illness; I think it was schizophrenia. Sadly, at times it got so bad that for their own safety, her parents had to lock her out of the house. (Can you imagine that?) Sometimes, she slept on the porch; mostly, she was homeless. Not only did she sleep in the homeless shelter at our church, she attended our church. Sometimes, she would leave a door propped open, so she could get in to sleep at night. Sometimes, she came to worship; I will never forget the prayers she shared – like announcements – for friends on the street. Last Thursday night, she slept in the homeless shelter, on Friday she was taken to the hospital, on Saturday, at the age of 61, she died. Life on the streets – especially when you are mentally ill – is hard. When I heard of her death I wept, wishing I had been kinder to her. Not that I was ever mean to her; in fact, I think our whole congregation was kind to her, I just wish we could have done more for her. The wilderness that some people experience in their lives is more than I think I could handle. All of us know families like this – sometimes our own – who wander in a wilderness, not of their own choosing.

Apart from the deprivations of the desert, with this experience also comes temptation, the testing of our character that is part of the wilderness experience. As we have liked learned from experience, it is when we are weak – when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – that we are most vulnerable. In the movie, the taunt of the devil at such at time was to call into question the Father’s love: “Does he really love you?” At such times, we might begin to wonder.

In the Gospel, Jesus is tempted by the devil to turn stones to bread, to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, testing his father’s rescue; to reign over earthly kingdoms, “if only you will bend down and worship me.” In every instance, Jesus chose deprivation over gratification, vulnerability over rescue, and obscurity over honor.

Because Jesus chooses God’s way, what happens in the desert will not stay in the desert: in time he will feed thousands in the wilderness, and teach them to pray for their daily bread. He will not stand upon the temple and bask in adulation, but hang upon a cross and endure the taunts of others. Turning down the offer of power over kingdoms, instead he would offer to all kingdoms the Kingdom of Heaven. Through acts of power, maybe Jesus saved a few hundred or a few thousand in Galilee, but through his willingness to bear his cross, he saved the world. (Debbie Roberts, Journey with Jesus, March 9, 2014)

When our time of testing comes, we won’t necessarily face the same tests Jesus faced, our tests will be different. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.”

In her commentary on this text in Feasting on the Word, Maryetta Anschutz puts it this way:

“Temptation comes in moments when we look at others and feel insecure for not having enough. Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 48)

It seems to me that temptations such as these are rampant in our society today. We – as the Church of Jesus Christ, and as Christians – must choose: will we accommodate and surrender to these temptations, or will we uphold the vows we took at our baptism: “To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, to reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

In the end, Last Days in the Desert ends the way we know it will, with Jesus hanging on a cross, once again experiencing wilderness, utilizing what he had learned in the wilderness to get him through, maintaining his love and trust in God to the end.

This is why we are given Lent; this is why we are given these forty days and forty nights, this is why we begin in the wilderness. This time is given as a gift to us in order that we might enter into ancient practices such as solitude and prayer and study and worship and generosity and learning to trust even when it is almost impossible to do so. Because on that day when we enter a wilderness not of our own choosing, we will need everything we have learned in the wilderness to get us through, as Jesus did. (Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word, “And Suddenly Angels Came, February 28, 2017)

May God be with us throughout these forty days of Lent and especially when we are in the wilderness, until an Easter of unending joy, we may attain at last. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 26, 2017

2017.02.26 “We Don’t Need a Mountain to Know”- Matthew 17: 1 – 9

Central United Methodist Church
We Don’t Need a Mountain to Know
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 17: 1 – 9
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 26th, 2017

transfiguration-mosaic

“Transfiguration”, a mosaic in the entryway to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Six days later, three of them saw Jesus’ glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.

Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”

While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”

When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.

Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”

– Matthew 17: 1 – 9, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Do you ever wonder what we are missing by living here in the flat Midwest, not near mountains of any kind? How many have ever lived near mountains? Do you miss them?

Last week as I was driving, I looked down at my emergency brake and thought about this. You know what an emergency brake is, right? Over the last 20 years, I have owned 2 cars, and I figure I have used the emergency brake maybe twice. Here in the Midwest, there are hardly any hills where we need to use it; most of the time, if we left our car in neutral it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. All our emergency brakes are likely rusted and useless.

What else we miss other than using our emergency brakes is not having hills and mountains as places of pilgrimage and retreat. All the places I have visited in the world near mountains – whether the Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas – are places of adventure, retreat, and pilgrimage. Yes, it takes effort to ascend them – whether by walking, car, or bus – but once you reach the top, the view is commanding, sometimes breath-taking. It gives us a different perspective not only on the world but upon our lives. It makes us feel like we are looking out not only over where we have come from, but where we are going. No wonder we like such high places, towering over the fatlands of our lives.

mt-taborMight this be why Jesus took three disciples with him up Mt. Tabor? Mt. Tabor, 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, rises dramatically out of the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Jesus and his disciples were concluding a busy time of ministry throughout Galilee, and not without controversy. Just before this, Jesus revealed what the next chapter was going to be, how it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Understandably, his disciples found this unthinkable, with Peter grabbing Jesus and protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” So maybe it was time for a break, a new perspective, a pivot point, to prepare for what lay ahead. Up Mt. Tabor Jesus went, with three disciples, Peter, James, and John.

This story of what happened on the mountain, known as the Transfiguration of Jesus, also serves as a pivot point for us in the church year. The Transfiguration story links to three seasons: it concludes the season of light and revelation we call Epiphany; it precedes the descent down the mountain and the road to Jerusalem we call Lent, and it anticipates the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, that we call Easter.

But the story of what happened on the mountain is also one of the most confusing stories in the Gospels. As Peter, James, and John were praying, Jesus was transfigured before them. He was joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and the prophets. No one knew what to say except Peter, who always had something to say. So, as Peter began to babble about tents and memorials and possibly a tourism ministry, there came a voice from heaven, saying the same thing they had heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” It was enough to shut them up and make them fall on their faces in fear. Until there was no more vision or voice, but sunshine and silence, a tap on the shoulder and the voice of Jesus, like that of a parent waking a child, saying: “Get up; do not be afraid.”

If – thousands of years later – we still find this story confusing, it has endured because we also find it comforting. Because while we may not understand what happened on the mountain or what it meant, at least we learn how Jesus would have us react to events that challenge our comprehension and paralyze us with fear.

For most of us, the life and times we live in right now are such times. Most day’s headlines are confusing and sometimes outrageous, full of divisive rhetoric, increased anxiety, and the prospect of an unclear future. This past week there has been much alarming news: increased ICE deportation raids tearing families apart; two Indian engineers shot in Olathe, Kansas, one killed, by a drunken Navy veteran who thought they were from the Middle East, shouting, “Get out of my country.” There are also increasing reports of mosques burned, and Jewish synagogues and cemeteries desecrated. But there was also encouraging news: In St. Louis, Muslims have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for that vandalized Jewish cemetery.

All of us have moments in our lives, where – like Jesus disciples – we are overwhelmed by what we have seen and heard. There are days we would just as soon stay in bed and cover our eyes and ears. There are times where it takes everything in us to find the strength and courage to get up and face our anxieties and fears, some of which are different for each of us, some of which are common to all of us:

  • Our fear of inadequacy, of failing, whether our families, our friends, ourselves.
  • Our fear of shame, of saying and doing the wrong thing, of not measuring up to what we believe is expected of us, of feeling unworthy of love, whether by God or others.
  • Our fear of the other, especially those who might think – rightly or wrongly – seek to hurt or to harm us such as through acts of terrorism.
  • Our fear of dissolution, especially the inevitable changes of aging and illness and death.

Given these fears among many others, we could not do better than to heed the three words of instruction, command, and promise in this story. Those three words are: “Listen to him.” “Be raised up.” “Do not be afraid.”

First, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Amidst all the voices crying out today, too many are filled with resentment and hate. Amid such voices, surely those of us who call ourselves Christians need more than ever to come to church and listen to Jesus. Judging by all those under the big tent of American Christianity, while different Christians hear different things, can we agree that the best way to understand God and God’s will for humanity is to look to Jesus and listen to him? When we do this, we do not hear Jesus say the kinds of things we are hearing today. As the old saying goes, “Who would Jesus bomb, or deport, or deprive of medical care?” After all, as the saying goes, “Jesus was a brown-skinned socialist of Middle Eastern descent who provided free bread and medical care to all.”

Second, Jesus’ command: “Get up.” Except it’s not just “get up;” the word Matthew uses is the same word used of the Resurrected Jesus: “Raised!” In other words, what Jesus is saying is “Be raised up!”

How do we do it, how do we get ourselves out of bed every morning and face a new day, day in and day out, in the face of the anxieties and challenges we face?

I had a professor once, who shared with us how he was having trouble getting up in the morning. He said he resolved to get up, open the window, take a deep breath of invigorating air, and begin with the day. So, he said the first day he got up, pulled himself to the window, threw it open and felt the cold air, and jumped back into bed and covered his head with the blankets. There are some days, that is the way we feel, and not just from open windows and cold air.

How do we do it? Purely by grace. Just when we think we can’t do it, Jesus taps us on the shoulder and reassures us, not only asking us but giving us the courage and strength to get up and carry on, despite our fears. Day by day, God’s Spirit breathes God’s power and grace into us; this is how we ourselves are transformed and transfigured, from frightened, anxious, helpless people into strong, confident, capable disciples able to get up and do what needs to be done; not only to bemoan the state of the world, but to do something about it.

Finally, there is this: “Do not be afraid.” In many ways, these words are a summary of the Gospel, recurring over and again. They were announced at Jesus’ birth to terrified shepherds. They are announced here on the mountain and upon a restless sea to terrified disciples. They were announced to the women who discovered an empty tomb on that first Easter morning: “Do not be afraid!”

To hear these words and to assimilate them into our hearts is needed, now as much as ever, when fear is not only a part of our lives, but used to manipulate us to do things we would never otherwise do. So when Jesus says, “Get up, and do not be afraid,” he was saying that not only to them but to all would-be followers, that part of faith is finding the courage to get up and keep moving forward, even at those times when we are confused, uncertain, or fearful. God does not want us to be afraid, but to move forward with courage and confidence.

Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear. These words spoken about and by Jesus were not an excuse to hide out on the mountain, but to head back down into the valley. They were not an excuse to reside in spiritual fantasy, but to head back into the earthly reality. What lay ahead was the journey to Jerusalem, where – despite his glory – Jesus would be arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified, for then as now the world has no place for the message he preaches. Not until his surprising resurrection at Easter will we understand that in vindication of his life, his message, and his ministry, God will raise him up.

In the end, it turns out that we don’t need a mountain to know, that whether on mountains high or in valleys deep, whether in dazzling light or darkest night, whether during mountaintop experiences or when paralyzed with fear, God is with us, saying:

“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up!”
“Do not fear!”

Amen.

For this sermon I would like to acknowledge two helpful commentaries, that of Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, “Shine!”, at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship Ministries, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/shine-preaching-notes; and Dr. David Lose’s usual helpful weekly lectionary commentary, “Transfiguration – A: “Timely Words,” posted February 22, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 19, 2017

2017.02.19 “Choosing Life, Part 2 – Matthew 5: 33 – 48

Central United Methodist Church
Choosing Life, Part 2
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 33 – 48
February 19, 2017

loveyourenemies

 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

– Matthew 5: 33 – 48, The New Revised Standard Version

 

One of the Great Americans who died last year was Harper Lee, who wrote the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, now an essential part of a good education.

 To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book turned into a great movie and there are many great scenes, but there is one scene that is particularly hard to sit through, and that is this one, where Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch’s accuser (and the likely perpetrator of the crime), spits in Atticus’ face. [Video]

In such a situation, what should we do, what would you do? Most of us know what we would do: we would teach Bob Ewell a lesson, about how not to call people names or spit in people’s faces. But in so doing, we would likely perpetuate the cycle of violence, possibly inviting worse consequences.

How many of us would even have the moral strength to do what Atticus did: at first, like us, to move toward Ewell, but then restrain himself and walk away, a bigger man than ever. Atticus did the right thing, which would have longer lasting and greater consequences.

It is just such moral strength that Jesus asks of us today, in what is surely the most challenging section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the famous six antitheses: “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” regarding six representative issues: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday, we considered anger, adultery, and divorce; today we consider oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday we looked upon practicing these virtues as a way of “choosing life,” not only for ourselves but for others; likewise, not to do so diminishes life, not only for ourselves but for others.

The phrases in this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful that sometimes we forget how demanding they are: “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.”  “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  How lovely, yet how impossible!

I imagine Jesus’ initial hearers saying: “But we live under a brutal occupation by the Romans. You expect us to take it, to do whatever they say, without standing up or fighting back?”

In our time, I think of African-Americans suffering racial discrimination, Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors with tattooed numbers from internment, Hispanic Americans being detained, victims of abuse, women who make less than men doing the same job; LGQBT people sometimes denied even basic rights. In short, all who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Surely, to them, Jesus’ call to forgive and to reconcile and even pray for their oppressors, rings hollow, and sounds like resignation to evil.

Let’s face it, especially right now in our society, it is easier to be mean, to bully, to hold grudges, to ignore those in need. After all, if we give to everybody who begs, we will have nothing left for ourselves. If we turn the other cheek, we will get slapped again. If we are sued, we will hire the best lawyer we can afford to fight back. If we love our enemies, we will be persecuted or killed. If we are nice, we’ll be weak, pushovers, doormats. Are we to take Jesus seriously? Taken at face value, I don’t think Jesus’ teachings would get him elected dogcatcher right now.

Through the centuries, preachers have reassured Christians, “Don’t worry, these phrases are figures of speech.” They are “ideal rules of the kingdom not practical in the real world;” an ethic for somebody other than us. And congregations have collectively sighed: “Thank God; I was afraid Jesus actually meant for us to practice them!”

But doesn’t he? With what we know about Jesus, does he sound like he is pretending? If anything, Jesus is doubling down on previous ethical teaching. As I said last week regarding anger, adultery, and divorce, it is not enough to meet the minimum daily requirements. It is not enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” The last time I looked, I was still married; check! In each case, Jesus BEGINS with the legal standard, but extends and transcends it’s meaning. What God asks of us is not “rule keeping,” but genuine moral and spiritual transformation.

Today Jesus elaborates on three additional issues: the swearing of oaths, non-retaliation, and loving not just our neighbors, but even our enemies.

Jesus is not talking about swearing, at which we may or may not be proficient, but the swearing of oaths, like when we place our hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, “so help us God.” Jesus is saying that, on the contrary, if we are simple and clear and truthful in all our speech, as God desires us to be, then it would not be necessary to swear oaths by all that is holy that we promise to tell the truth, THIS TIME. It sounds simple, but if you haven’t noticed, truth is an endangered species these days.

It’s the same with retaliation, striking back, walking the extra mile, blessing and not cursing. If we humble ourselves, no one can humiliate us. If we give away our coat, no one can take it from us. If we choose to walk that extra mile, no one can force us. When we are in control of ourselves, no one can have power over us. It is a moral power, the likes of which the world has rarely tried; but when it has, it has produced results such as the world has rarely seen.

Mohandas Gandhi thought so highly of the Sermon on the Mount that it influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British in India. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement demonstrated how powerful nonviolence and non-retaliation can be in affecting social change. The images of those who marched in Birmingham and Montgomery, who faced snarling dogs and fire hoses, who rode buses through the south, who integrated lunch counters – even as they were physically and verbally abused without responding in kind – are profiles in courage as certain as any soldier who ever served in combat.

But Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is hard, especially when our eyes are filled with tears and our hearts are filled with anger. Don’t you find that we stumble over it, every Sunday in our prayers? When we struggle to pray, not just for our theoretical enemies, but for our real enemies, not only the people who make us angry, but those who would seek to hurt us? This is hard.

Why should we do it? For three reasons. First, though not mentioned in the text, there is the issue of what holding hate does to us. As Dr. King once put it in a sermon on loving your enemies:

“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” (Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957)

Secondly, when we pray for someone, they become less our enemy and more someone for whom we might have empathy, even compassion, someone who we might be able to love.

But the most important reason – named in the text – is this: Because – says Jesus – this is who God is, and this is what God does. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

As beautiful and as challenging as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the heart of God: God who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak go another mile, lend, love the enemy — because that is how God loves. If we want to follow this God, fleshed out in Jesus, we are adopted into a life in which – before we know what we are doing – we find ourselves loving this way.  (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Jason Byassee, p. 382)

Did Jesus live this way? Yes, he did. Said the ancient Christian teacher, Hilary of Poitier: “The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory.”

Can we do it, especially in this time of polarization and vilification, can we dig down deep, summon the better angels of our nature, practice non-violence, and respond to antagonists with love? Can we turn the other cheek, not respond in kind, forgo revenge, give more than required, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, greet the stranger, love the enemy, and pray for our persecutors? Could we even do what Atticus Finch did? What would happen if we do?

Nobody can say what might happen as powerfully as Dr. King did. In a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” as far back as November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:

“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”

Can we do it? With God’s help – and only with God’s help – I believe we can. As a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be working on it and I know you will too.  Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 12, 2017

2017.02.12 “Choose Life, Part 1” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32

Central United Methodist Church
Choose Life, Part 1
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 21 – 32
February 12, 2017

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Maurice Harron, Hands Across the Divide, from Art in the Christian Tradition”

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.

“Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The overall theme for this Sunday and next Sunday is announced not by the Gospel, but by the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy: “Choose life!”

“Choose life” was not a bumper sticker on Moses’ car, but his final plea to the children of Israel. He reminded them that despite all they had been through, they still had a choice: to choose life by following God and God’s commandments, or to turn their backs on God, forsaking God’s command- ments. Which will it be?

But suppose when Moses said this, some seeker or smart aleck had raised his hand and said, “Rabbi Moses – exactly how do we choose life by following the commandments?” Do you mean just the ten commandments, or all 613 commandments; the 248 positive commandments, one for every bone in the body, or the 365 negative commandments, one for every day in the year? And, Rabbi Moses – a follow up question – how would you have us follow them: literally or figuratively? One might imagine Moses would have had security remove him, or ask for a localized lightning strike from his friend, God.

Ah, there’s the rub. If we “choose life,” which rules do we follow, and how do we interpret them, literally or figuratively? Do we dress like orthodox Jews, or like the Amish, or – as most of us – do we keep our faith hidden, and practice the rules in our behavior and in our heart?

In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is the question: How do we interpret and follow God’s commandments? And – perhaps even more importantly – what is the point of following them at all?

This Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus talks about six representative issues – anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Each time Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Even though Jesus’ antithesis – as they are called – fill less than a page, entire books have been written about them, so there is no way I can address them fully in the short time we have. Let’s split them into two groups of 3 each. Today, let’s do anger, adultery, and divorce. (That sounds bad, especially in church!)

As you might gather from Jesus’ statement, there was no shortage of interpretation about how to interpret the law in his time. Not only were there the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes, even among the Pharisees (the movement to whom Jesus was closest), there were differing interpretations, such as the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammei, about such things as – for example – how difficult or how easy it should be to divorce your wife. I might note it was not the first or the last time, when MEN wanted to make the rules that pertain to WOMEN.

Might I add that while we may look with amused curiosity upon the differing schools of interpretation in 1st century Judaism, it is worse today. To begin with, in a text based society – our text being the Constitution of the United States – how it is interpreted is critical, which is why the appointment of judges is so important.

In regard to religious interpretation, not only do we have more religious options (Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and of course, NONE) we have extremely diverse interpretation just within Christianity. Not only are we Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant, there are over 200+ varieties of Protestants, and far more non-denominational churches. And among each of those of those there is the spectrum of progressive, evangelical, and conservative. Throw in the volatile mix of cultural and political loyalties in the Age of Trump, and today we have Christians denouncing and defriending each other: “My way is the way of life; your way is the way of death.” Now – more than ever – we must learn how not only to respectfully disagree but charitably disagree, without vilifying each other.

Because – in the face of differing interpretations and corresponding animosity – Jesus steps forward to say:

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.”

“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices — they also corrupt.

“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.”*

As Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary points out, the irony is that this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the difficulties of the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus shows us that the complexity of making sense of faith is part of faith, but – even more significantly – he also models the hard work of interpreting Scripture for new times, new places, and new circumstances. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”

At root, what Jesus is teaching in these six antitheses, is about “choosing life.” Jesus is saying that life is diminished, not only when life is taken, but when anger and judgment and insult reign. Jesus is saying that life is diminished, when women are objectified and dehumanized, seen as existing only for the fulfillment of male sexual desire or to carry on the family name. Jesus is saying that life is diminished when women are discarded, solely judged upon their capacity to satisfy privileged and patriarchal needs, or their capacity to bear children. While it was worse in Jesus’ time, while it was bad up almost until modern times, if you haven’t noticed, there are still a lot of these attitudes out there, right up into the highest chambers of our land. (Karoline Lewis, “Choose Life,” Dear Working Preacher, February 5, 2017)

So – as difficult as these ideals Jesus taught may be – when we practice them, we choose life. Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake, God wants us to keep the law for our sake. Think of it as the fence – not keeping us out of, but keeping us in – the good life.

As difficult as they may be – when we practice them, we choose life, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors. Rolf Jacobson, another professor at Luther Seminary, once said of Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, that it would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. At its best, the Law – at its best, and especially as taught by Jesus – reveal the parental heart of a God who desires the health and happiness of ALL God’s children.

David Lose shares a story which he says captures this for him. He says his friend, Frank, who was about eight years old at the time, started an argument with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon, Frank had his sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!

This is the ethic Jesus is teaching: God’s gift of life is for ALL God’s children. “No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. No, you can’t murder and kill. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.” (David Lose, “Epiphany 6A: Love and the Law,” In the Meantime, February 6, 2017)

The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments were still in effect. However, according to Jesus, it is never enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Still married; check!” What God designs of us is not just that we fulfill the minimum daily requirements, but that we internalize them in our heart and practice them in our lives, so that everywhere we go and in everything we do, we respect, honor, and love all God’s children: Christian and non-Christian, black and white, male and female, young and old. When we do this, we choose life. Amen.

*Jesus statement about divorce addressed the cultural situation of his time, where men could easily divorce their wives for trivial reasons, leading to a woman’s disgrace and impoverishment. Even then, the prohibition was evolving, with an allowance for divorce (sexual promiscuity) added to Matthew over Mark’s Gospel, the earliest written. Finally, Jesus’ extreme statement about divorce should be read in the context of the extremity of all the antithesis; what we often view as the moral failure of divorce, is no less than the moral failure of anger, retaliation, or loving your enemy. All these are impossibly high standards, and forgivable.

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 5, 2017

2017.02.05 “What Can We Do? Be Salt & Light” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
What Can We Do? Be Salt & Light
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 13 – 16
February 5, 2017

 lighthouse

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version

In our changed and charged political context, where something previously unthinkable seems to happen every day, one of the most common questions people are asking these days with new urgency, is: “What can I do?”

Indeed, when decisions are being made at the highest levels of government which will affect everyone, but especially those most vulnerable, it is easy to feel helpless and impotent, not only to affect change, but even to be heard. We may write that email or letter, but what are the chances it will be read, even by a staffer, much less our elected representative?

As an illustration of the magnitude involved, the New York Times Magazine recently featured an article about the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. To keep up with the 10,000 letters and messages that come in every day, many desperate pleas for help, it requires the orchestration of 50 staff members, 36 interns and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers. (Jeanne Marie Laskas, “To Obama with Love, and Hate and Desperation,” The New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2017.)

These days, even phone calls – said to be the best way to get elected official’s attention – don’t fare much better. Most House and Senate offices utilize interns and staffers to answer the phone. These staffers keep notes and let their congressperson know what people are saying. Those phone systems designed to handle thousands of calls a day, but in these wild times are being overwhelmed, with voicemail boxes packed to capacity, and in some critical congressional offices, phones ring without ever being answered.

As we have also seen, people are also taking to the streets to be heard, as we saw recently with the Women’s March here in Chicago and in cities around the country and the world. Last weekend, there were mass protests at airports, including O’Hare, against the new travel ban. Here in Chicago, 150 or more lawyers went to the airport to provide free legal aid to those detained without notice. I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the day when I would be inspired by LAWYERS.

frederick_douglassFrederick Douglass (1818-1895), referred to this week by President Trump during Black History Month as though he might still be alive, was an escaped slave, who became a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman, and abolitionist. Frederick Douglass once said: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Sometimes this is what we must do in order to be heard, we have to pray and protest with our legs, as the recent Women’s March.

While all these are “things we can do,” let’s go one step further and ask what we should do as Christians, as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God. Today we get an answer to that, given by Jesus himself in his Sermon on the Mount. As it turns out, the answer is less what we should DO, than what we should BE, which is, salt and light in the world.”

“Me, you say?” “Salt and light in the world?” “Surely, you jest; I can barely make it through the week.” You’re thinking Jesus was talking about people like Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr., people who undoubtedly functioned as salt and light in the world. But remember, as I pointed out last Sunday, when Jesus was talking that day, he wasn’t talking to the high and mighty, the educated or the accomplished; he was talking to ordinary people like us, except poorer: shepherds, fishermen, widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, people whom he pronounced as blessed by God. If he blessed such people and commissioned them to be salt and light in the world, surely every one of us can be salt and light too.

When Jesus said this, he was not issuing a call to change attitudes or actions, which is usually the way we hear it. He did not say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this” or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this.” He didn’t even say, “BE salt and light; what he said was, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning. (David Lose, “Salt and Light,” http://www.workingpreacher.org, 1/30/2011)

But what does it mean to be salt and light in the world? It is common at this point – I have done it myself in the past – to talk about salt and light as universal religious metaphors. Salt is both a preservative and a spice, enhancing flavor. As for light, and that “city set on a hill,” we know about that too. It has been an ongoing idea since America was founded, that America is to be such a “city set on a hill.”

When we ask what this means, and try to translate “what we should be” into “what we should do,” we are likely to fill in the blanks with our own agendas, which may be quite different depending upon whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, watch MSNBC or Fox News.

But as Lutheran Barbara Lundblad points out (Barbara Lundblad, “Too Much Salt or Not Enough? What Jesus Says About Americans and Their Super Bowl, ON Scripture, February 5, 2017), Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light are not nearly as open-ended as we imagine. Salt and Light already meant something to Jesus’ hearers, they were central images of the people of Israel. So maybe Jesus chose these two images on purpose: to be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God, such as in that powerful reading from the Prophet Isaiah, filling in the blanks about what it means to function as salt and light in the world, to be the people of God:

“What is the fast that I choose?” asks God.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…

So what are WE to do as Christians, in these charged and changing times? All that we have talked about and more, but the most important thing we can do is to be who Jesus says we are, salt and light in the world.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Recently, he published an article in Sojourners Magazine, entitled, Five Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era.” He said many useful things, but what he said in short, was this: “When they go low, we go deep.”

Using an historical analogy, Granberg-Michaelson compared today’s times to 1930’s Germany. In 1933, the national synod of the German Protestant churches endorsed the rising Nazi party. In response, a group of theologians and church people – among them theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) – formed what they called the Confessing Church. They could see the problems with the Nazi Party and where it was going, but they could also see the problems that result when the church aligns itself with any political party or political ideology.

karl_barth

Carl Barth

BPK 10.016.073

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In response, two things came of this; first, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, rejecting the subordination of the Church to the State and affirming that the Church belonged only to Christ. But secondly, an alternative church structure, including “underground” seminaries to train clergy. Bonhoeffer believed the dominant form of Christianity in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and to resist it as a matter of faith. So Bonhoeffer focused on Christian formation: shaping a Christian community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on Scripture, and to develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time, which became the basis for his book, Life Together.

Today, says Granberg-Michaelson, we find ourselves faced with a challenge like the one faced by Barth and Bonhoeffer. The public witness of many Christians lacks the spiritual depth and clarity necessary to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time. Once again, we find ourselves in need of basic, enduring spiritual formation – habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling – that will equip us with the clarity and strength to follow Jesus, and to answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

Says Granberg-Michaelson:
“The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be, and what we are called to do, before God.” (Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “5 Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era,” Sojourners, 1-30-2017, https://sojo.net/articles/5-spiritual-survival-strategies-trump-era )

When we do this, when we discover who we are and what we are called to do, what we discover is this: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 29, 2017

2017.01.29 “Blessed Indeed” – Matthew 5: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church
Blessed Indeed
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 1 – 12
January 29, 2017

sermon_on_the_mount_carl_bloch

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
– Matthew 5: 1 – 12, The New Revised Standard Version

In a congregation of travelers and immigrants, is there anyone here who has not at one time or another experienced culture shock?

Culture shock is what we experience when we go to a foreign country, where life is different than the life to which we are accustomed. The language is different, the culture is different, even the food is different. At first, it can be new and exciting, but soon, it loses its novelty. And so you may find yourself anticipating a meal at McDonald’s, or searching for an ex-pat English-speaking bar, as I once did in Paris, even if the other patrons are British or Australian; at least they are speaking English, more or less. To experience culture shock might be described by the title of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

The experience of culture shock; or feeling like a Stranger in a Strange Land, describes how many of us are feeling this week in our own country, in this first week of the new administration. Many of us likely thought that once the campaign was over and the reality of governance begun, President Trump would moderate his views, even as he suggested in the vacillations of his own statements.

But this week, we found out that is not the case. He does intend to build that wall between the US and Mexico, estimated to cost $14 billion. (They built one of those in China centuries ago; and in Berlin, decades ago; both failed.) He intends to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which will not only make everyone’s health care cost more, but more importantly, will take medical insurance away from 20 million people, many of whom are his supporters. Even as he threatens to “send in the Feds” to quell Chicago’s gun violence (761 deaths last year), it has been conservatively estimated that demolishing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement would result in 44,000 deaths a year. Which number most warrants “sending in the Feds?

But so far the most dramatic reversal was this: President Trump’s executive order on immigration reverberated through the United States and around the globe yesterday, slamming the border shut for real people: an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio, among others. As many as a half million legal immigrants, out of the country, find themselves locked out of the United States. But stay tuned: a federal judge has already issued a stay, if not yet on detainment, at least on deportation. I apologize to those with us here this morning who have come from such places as Iraq and Syria. We know you have suffered so much already, only now to find this: the country that has welcomed you, has now closed the door on your people, your friends and even family.

This led one of my friends to post a picture of the Statue of Liberty on Facebook, with these words: “Dear France: Thanks, it’s been great, but we’re done with this now. What address should we ship it back to?”

This week we have been reminded, of what we sometimes forget: that as Christians, we are subjects of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God, and whatever earthly Kingdom we find ourselves in, in our case the United States of America. There are times when the values of the Kingdom of God (Christian values) and of our government align; there are other times when those values conflict. For those Christians who follow the values of Jesus, now is one of those times.

I am not talking about popular cultural understandings of Christian values, which in our country are primarily political and cultural, rather than Christian, which partially explains why 81% of evangelical Christians, 58% of Protestants, and 52% of Catholics voted for President Trump. What I’m talking about are the actual values of the Kingdom of God, as stated by Jesus, which are nowhere made clearer than in our Gospel today. Sadly, either many Christians have never read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; or ignore them.

In these first 12 verses – known as the Beatitudes (blessings), the question Jesus addresses is this: Who are the people blessed by God? Surprisingly, they are not the people we might think.

Surely, these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most beautiful and influential words in the whole Bible.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

These and the beatitudes which follow, are nothing sort of stunning. What Jesus is saying is that those honored in God’s kingdom are the exact opposites of those honored in earthly kingdoms: not the powerful and the prosperous, but the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. I do not think this was intended to be a comprehensive list – these and these only – but rather a representative list: these are the kinds of people God blesses.

And what does it mean to be blessed, anyway? Does it mean to be showered with success and prosperity, health and happiness? To be blessed feels like standing in sunlight, surrounded by cold and darkness. To be blessed is to have someone’s highest regard, to know that you are appreciated and honored and unconditionally loved by them. Blessed means that you are special; not because of something you did or might do someday, but because of who you are.

What Jesus is teaching is radical concept; counter to popular religious teaching both then and now. Almost all of us have been taught to believe a form of Christianity that says God helps those who help themselves, that if you are prosperous and successful you are in God’s favor, but that if you are sinful or poor or a loser or gay God hates you. But as we see in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nothing could be further from the truth.

I think it is easiest to understand if we imagine the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Those gathered to hear Jesus weren’t the high and the mighty, but people like shepherds, fishermen, poor widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, the kind of people Jesus loved hanging out with, his kind of people. Imagine a rural pastor speaking to her small congregation of farm folk. Imagine an urban pastor (like me) speaking to a small but diverse group of people. These are the kinds of people Jesus pronounces blessed. In other words, the people Jesus pronounced blessed that day, were people like us gathered here today.

I think back upon the five congregations I have served, and yes, there have been well-to-do people; but more of them have been ordinary people. They were people who struggle with faith and finances and relationships, even their relationship with God, not a few who struggled with both physical and mental illness. As St. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? Amazingly, surprisingly, Jesus says these are the kinds of people God blesses. (Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, #Blessed: Preaching Notes, UMCDiscipleship.org, January 29, 2017)

By extension of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, it is not a stretch to believe that in God’s kingdom, God blesses all who come before God, hungry and needy in spirit: saints and sinners, those poor in wallet and poor in spirit. God blesses the blind, the lame, the imprisoned, the outcast, the leper, and the prostitute, refugees and immigrants. God blesses Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhist and Baha’i. God blesses Democrats and Republicans and Independents. In Jesus, the blessing of God does not discriminate: God’s blessing is for you and for me and for us all. No matter who we are and what we have done, we are blessed and welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Hearing these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, hearing what kind of people God blesses, how can we not look around, to embrace those around us, and to look upon them not with resentment or hatred, but empathy. When we do this, God’s kingdom becomes not a spiritual place far away, but whenever and wherever we bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and honor each other as God’s children. To be human is to be fragile and vulnerable, and so it turns out that the surprising grace of God is not to reject these things but to gather them into a divine embrace. (David Lose, Epiphany 4A, Recognizing Blessing, In the Meantime, January 24, 2017)

This is why we grieve and are angered by the recent actions towards refugees, people who have suffered so much already. It brought to mind Robert Kennedy’s words in a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5th of 1968, in which he said:

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

If we can do this, we will be blessed indeed. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
God’s Call: That For Which We are Made
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 12 – 23
January 22nd, 2017

seaofgalilee

When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum, nestled at the base of the Zebulun and Naphtali hills.  This move completed Isaiah’s sermon:

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
road to the sea, over Jordan,
Galilee, crossroads for the nations.
People sitting out their lives in the dark
saw a huge light;
Sitting in that dark, dark country of death,
they watched the sun come up.

This Isaiah-prophesied sermon came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.

A short distance down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, Zebedee’s sons. These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father.

From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering. Besides those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.
(Matthew 4: 12 – 23, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

 

Week by week as I prepare sermons on what are – after 43 years of preaching – familiar texts, I look back through my files to see what I have said in the past. Thanks to electronic file storage I have almost two decades of services and sermons in my computer, and another 20 years worth in paper files before that, including sermons written on typewriters.(Anybody remember typewriters?) How many of those sermons are worth repeating? Not many, because while the substance may remain the same, the context has changed.

What I am often amazed at is as I approach a text, an idea or title will come to mind, only to discover that it was an idea or a title I used 15 years ago; somehow those neural pathways are still intact; how much longer I don’t know. How crazy is that; I can’t remember where I left my phone, but I can remember a sermon title from 15 years ago?

What I find most humbling is this: while the texts are the same; the people and the congregations and the contexts continually change. As we hear the scriptures week by week and year by year, babies are born, children and youth grow up, marriages are performed, and funerals are held. Us preachers change congregations; looking out upon a new set of faces, all of whom remain in our minds, along with those old sermon titles. Celebrations are held (Cubs win the World Series); tragedies and wars happen (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sandy Hook). And this: Presidents and administrations come and go; inaugurations are held and Presidents get on Marine One and fly away. Michele and I got married on Inauguration Day 2001, the inauguration of George W. Bush. Yesterday, on Inauguration Day 2017, the inauguration of Donald Trump; we celebrated our 16th anniversary. Every four years I wish we had gotten married on a different day.

Through all these changes we carry on; sometimes joyfully, feeling like we are making progress; at other times sadly, feeling like we are regressing. I have always liked what a pastor said years ago in his retirement speech before Annual Conference: “I’ve served under 10 presidents, thank God I’m still an American. I’ve served under 6 bishops, thank God I’m still a Methodist. I’ve served 5 different congregations, thank God I’m still a Christian.”

Through all this – through whatever happens – as the ancient prophet Isaiah said, “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God abides forever.” And so – in all contexts and in every circumstance of the vicissitudes of life – we sit in the pews to consider the call of God upon our lives, to ask what God is calling us to do next, in changing contexts. This is the case today, as we hear the familiar story of Jesus calling his disciples – and with them, us – to follow him, wherever it may lead.

Note that this development in Jesus’ life occurred after a downturn; when John the Baptist – who baptized Jesus – was arrested. Undoubtedly, that did not bode well for the future of the mission. So Jesus left Nazareth, his hometown, to move to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, perhaps where he could “lay low.” Maybe it got him to thinking, “I can’t do this by myself; if what happened to John happens to me, where will the mission be?”

And so, walking along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers – Simon and Andrew – fishing. Despite their lack of qualifications, Jesus called out: “Leave all thing behind, and come and follow me.” Just down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were as quick to follow, abandoning both boat and father.

For most of us, the most obvious question raised by this story is this: How could they ask no questions, and drop everything and follow? Does that make sense to you? If a car pulls up and offers you a ride, do you get in, no questions asked, even if Jesus is driving?

It’s possible we may be missing some details, such as that they already knew Jesus. But maybe it also had something to do with the dissatisfaction they had not only with their jobs but also with their lives. As St. Augustine famously said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

It is not unusual – especially in today’s economy – to find ourselves in the same situation. We may be looking for a job, or we may have a job, but what we are really looking for is what we call a Job with a capital J: the real work of our lives, that which we are called for and indeed, made to do.

I have always appreciated how author Frederick Buechner’s expressed it in his book, Wishful Thinking:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.  Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 95)

In light of this, as we consider our lives, this gives us three possibilities:

(1) We have a job in which we have found and are fulfilling the call of Jesus to us. I think, for example, of my teacher at the University of Chicago, Martin E. Marty, who used to say, “I can’t believe they pay me to do what I’d be doing even if they didn’t pay me.” Blessed are such people’ who – in my experience – are few and far between.

(2) Our job is not fulfilling the call of Jesus for us, and in fact, may even be inhibiting it, and it’s time to look for another. These are the people who come home from work each night, tired, complaining, and unhappy. If this is the case: life is too short to live this way; make a plan to move on!

Or, finally (3) What we do for our job is one thing (our job and not our life), and so we fulfill the call of Jesus in other ways.  This last category includes those retired from a “job”, at last free to make your life count in the way of your choosing; and I’m not just talking about golf.

In the new political context, this may become more important than ever. If the government is not going to protect the environment and save the planet, not going to protect the immigrant and the stranger and the refugee; not going to work toward an affordable system of health not as a option but a human right; then it falls to us, the people, to take these causes to heart. It may well be that while we have always believed these things to be important, we were too busy earning a living to do anything about it. Now would be the time to heed the call and stand up for what we believe. As Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon said yesterday to the Women’s March in Washington: “Thank you for understanding that sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are; pressing ‘send’ is not enough.” (Susan Chira and Yamiche Alcindor, Defiant Voices Fill Nations Cities, the New York Times, January 21, 2017). Despite all the pessimism I have felt recently, what we saw yesterday with the Women’s Marches around the country and the world is one of the most encouraging things I have seen in a long time; people power at its best. And just to demonstrate what happens when it’s run and done by women: 500,000 people in Washington, D.C., and not ONE arrest.

steveharveytrumpIt’s like this: everyone, I presume, is familiar with the comedian and talk show host, Steve Harvey. Just last week he was invited by both presidential transitions teams – President Obama’s and President Trump’s – to visit Trump Tower and talk with Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Both teams want to enlist him to help address the need for urban renewal in major cities across the country, like Detroit and Chicago.

As you might expect, there were a lot of questions about him being there, and he was asked about it. In response, this is what he said, “There are two things in your life: ‘Your career is what you are paid for, and your calling is what you are made for.’” Steve Harvey is doing this, not because of any political allegiances, but because he experiences it as a calling: he feels like this is what he was made for. Preach it, Steve Harvey! (CBS News, January 13, 2017, (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/steve-harvey-on-his-meeting-with-donald-trump/ 

Whatever we are doing now, whatever we are being paid for, Jesus calls us, to that which we are made for. Whatever that turns out to be at the varying ages and stages of our lives, may prove surprising, even to us.

In my last church there was a man named Paul Woodward, a lifelong member of the First United Methodist Church of West Chicago. Paul was a Korean war vet, awarded the Purple Heart, and the town funeral director, so over the years he had served and taken care of many people. Paul just died last September, at the age of 86. (Paul and his wife Eileen’s anniversary was the same day as mine and Michele’s.)

In 1997, we had just completed a study of our old Church building and found it would cost a million dollars to get 30 more seats, which would not solve any of the problems of invisibility, inaccessibility, or parking. We couldn’t imagine how we would ever find an alternate site around West Chicago we could afford, so we were discouraged about what to do next.

One day my phone rang, and it was Paul. Excitedly, he excitedly said, “You have got to come and see this property!” It was at 643 E. Washington, one of the best locations in town. At that time, the entire back half of the lot was wooded, and there was a house on the property, so – driving by – nobody ever noticed it or imagined how large it was, 5.5 acres. It was for sale for $600,000, and – upon investigation – we found it was owned by a former church member, who would sell it to the church for $220,000. The church voted to buy the property and build the new First United Methodist Church, which is located there today.

Paul often told me, that despite all that he had done in his life, he thought it might be the purpose of his life to have found that property. Upon his death in September, I told this story to Pastor Nancy Rethford, and she shared it at Paul’s funeral.

We may know clearly, or we may not discover until late in life what God is calling us to do, that which we are made for. But I know this; it is never too late to discover and to answer the call to adventure: the call of God upon our life.

albert-schweitzerEvery year when I preach this sermon, I end with the words of Albert Schweitzer, one of the most famous and respected people of the 20th century. Schweitzer, who lived from 1875 to 1965, was an accomplished organist, philosopher, and theologian. As if that wasn’t enough, he gave it all up at the age of 30 to train as a physician and go to Africa as a missionary. In his most famous theological work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer said this:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and set us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906, p. 40.) Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 15, 2017

2017.01.15 “- Matthew 1: 29 – 42

Central United Methodist Church
A Question, An Invitation, A Conversation
Pastor David Haley
Matthew 1:  29 – 42
January 15th, 2017

chicagolakeshorewinter

The very next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and yelled out, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ I knew nothing about who he was — only this: that my task has been to get Israel ready to recognize him as the God-Revealer. That is why I came here baptizing with water, giving you a good bath and scrubbing sins from your life so you can get a fresh start with God.”

John clinched his witness with this: “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. I repeat, I know nothing about him except this: The One who authorized me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One on whom you see the Spirit come down and stay, this One will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”

The next day John was back at his post with two disciples, who were watching. He looked up, saw Jesus walking nearby, and said, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.”

The two disciples heard him and went after Jesus. Jesus looked over his shoulder and said to them, “What are you after?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

He replied, “Come along and see for yourself.”

They came, saw where he was living, and ended up staying with him for the day. It was late afternoon when this happened.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). He immediately led him to Jesus.

Jesus took one look up and said, “You’re John’s son, Simon? From now on your name is Cephas” (or Peter, which means “Rock”). – John 1: 29 – 42, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

With all that we have before us this time of year – not least wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny – do we really have time to wander around a river bank with Jesus?

And what’s with this, anyway? Here we are in Chicago in January, still traumatized from 2016, concerned about 2017 – about things like whether we’re going to lose our health insurance – and we spend three weeks in the Gospel (last Sunday, today, and next Sunday) wandering around river beds and lake shores? Don’t we have more important things to do? Don’t we have our own Chicago River and Lake Michigan shore we could wander around? But at this time of year, who wants to do that?

Whether we want to do it or not or have the time or not, that is where today’s Gospel takes us: same place we were last Sunday – except from a different Gospel – back out to the banks of the River Jordan where John is preaching and baptizing. While there, Jesus asks us a question and gives us an invitation, both of which are more important than we can imagine in the beginning of a new year.

If you’ve read the Gospel of John, you know that the Fourth Gospel, as it is called, is quite different than the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  John was the last Gospel written, around the end of the first century, and thus it has a deeper, more reflective, and symbolic perspective. Someone once said that the Gospel of John is a stream in which a child can wade, and an elephant can drown. In other words, it is both simple and profound, as we find with the question and invitation Jesus issues to us today.

I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be inconspicuous, but if he was, in John’s Gospel his cover is quickly blown. Seeing Jesus, pointing at him, John yells: “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb, who forgives the sins of the world!” It reminds me – an introvert – of my first seminary roommate, from South Carolina, an extrovert. If he was in the cafeteria, whenever I would walk in, no matter where he was sitting, he would yell in the loudest voice imaginable: “Hey, Dave, come sit over here!” If John was like this, something tells me you wouldn’t want to walk in late for one of John’s sermons.

The next day, it happens again. John is with two of his disciples, and Jesus walks by. Again, John yells: “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.”

Frankly, I’m not sure somebody called the “Lamb” would be somebody we’d want to follow. Most of us know how we use “lamb”:  “There he goes, like a lamb to the slaughter,” we say. Does that sound like somebody you’d want to follow?

But curiosity impels them, so follow him they do. Walking away, Jesus looked over his shoulder and says, in various translations, “What are you after?” or “What are you looking for? It could also be translated, “What are you seeking?” or “What do you hope to find?” Might we even expand it to: “What do you need? What do you long for? What do you hope for?”

This is a great question, one we don’t ask ourselves nearly often enough. Which is too bad, because our consumer culture asks it all the time; not so much as a question, but as an answer. Here’s what you need: a new pair of running shoes, a new car, the newest Apple (or other gadget), whiter teeth, to lose 10 lbs.  All of which can be had for a price.

Yes, we are all tempted, all the time; but deep down, we know better. Deep down we know that both our true need and our true wealth is not found in things money can buy. What better way to start off a new year by asking ourselves this question Jesus asks his soon-to-be disciples: “What do we need, long for, and hope for?

This is a simple question, but it can be difficult to answer. Some of our answers will be different, others will be the same. Reflective silence in a noisy world? Authentic relationships in a divisive society and often lonely world? Meaning in a world which often makes no sense? Fulfilling ventures of service in a “me first, for profit” world? Hope and courage when the headlines threaten fear and despair? The fulfillment of a life well lived? We would all do well to ask ourselves this question from time to time, as our situation changes in life: “What do I need, long for, and hope for?”

A follow-up question might be this: For the things that we seek in common, how might our congregation provide them? We can’t be everything to everyone, but what deep need might we meet, what purpose might we organize our efforts around, what hallmark might we lift up, which meets people’s needs? After all – even though we sometimes forget – in the church we are not in the business of selling widgets, nor even entertainment; we are about meeting people’s deepest needs: their need for meaning, relationship, community, spirituality, service, deep connections to God and others. That’s what I want; isn’t that what you want too? It is what Jesus’ followers have found in him, from that day to this.

Don’t you find their answer interesting? They didn’t answer, rather, what they said was this: “Where are you staying?” The translation suggests what they are asking is where Jesus was dwelling, abiding, remaining, hanging out? In other words, they wanted to know where they could hang out with Jesus. Which leads to his invitation: “Come and see.”

It’s revealing that in John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t offer an answer but an invitation, which is not informational, but relational. Might it be that when people ask questions, particularly questions about faith, they are less interested in answers or information, than in relationship? Which is a good thing, because the Lord knows we don’t have all the answers, even though we have sometimes had the pretense that we do. Instead we should be ready to offer ourselves, our time and our commitment to them, regardless of where the conversation may lead.

Right now, in a time when we are all tempted to live in our own bubbles, we need to do more of this than ever: liberals need to talk with conservatives, whites need to talk with blacks, religious people need to talk with other kinds of religious people, including those who are not religious. Let’s commit ourselves to breaking out of our bubbles in 2017, by taking the time to talk to others, by “hanging out” with them, especially those different than us and “our people.”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus invitation is both simple and profound: “Come and see.” It’s clear, it’s non-threatening, it’s relationship, something any of us could offer. For most of us, evangelism is a scary word, recalling images of being accosted by wild-eyed preachers on street corners. But really, evangelism is this: offering a simple and relational invitation to people seeking more than the culture can offer: “Come and see.” David Lose – on whose commentary I’m drawing upon for this sermon – says that the decline of our church traditions will stop the day we (1) know why we value participation in church and (2) can share that with others.

In other words, we invite people to name what they are seeking and longing for, determine to be a congregation that meets those deeper needs, and offer a simple, three-word invitation: “Come and See.” The point is not to fill our pews and balance our budget, it is to invite people into the life we experience in Christ. In the end, it is not even about us: it is God in Christ inviting all of us to a more fulfilling and abundant life than we can buy in any store.

The amazing thing is, God continues to do this even when we settle for cheap substitutes we think we can purchase. Even when we struggle to name or understand or speak of our faith to others. Even when we wonder if we have any faith at all. Even then, Jesus remains, asking us what we are looking for, still inviting us to come and see, never giving up on us.

In this week’s commentary on this text on the United Methodist Board of Discipleship website, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, the Director of Preaching Ministries (and a former clergy member of the Northern IL Conference), shared a story which will be familiar not only to many clergy, but many parents. She says that while her twenty-one-year-old son was home for a visit, he asked her, “Why are you a Christian, mom? And why are you a Methodist?” Of these questions, Dawn wrote:

“I have to admit that at first I was taken aback. How could he not know the answer? I mean, this is a young man who for the first eighteen years of his life spent every Sunday morning in church listening to me preach, and whose entire circle of support came from relationships he made through church, and whose mother and grandfather are both United Methodist ministers! Besides, he might have been on vacation, but for me it was a work day, and I was busy trying to write sermon notes. I didn’t have time for a conversation about faith.

But I made time. I stopped what I was doing, and for the first time, I talked to my son about my faith in a deeply personal way. We talked about faith for a couple of hours that day. I told him that, in part, I was a Christian and a Methodist because of the family I was born into. But at some point in my life, it became more than that, and I made a personal decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I told him I loved Jesus. I told him I believed that in Jesus we see the very nature and person of God. I told him about an experience I had when I was working as a chaplain in which I felt deep in my heart that I had come face to face with the living Lord. I told him that this encounter had changed my life. I told him that for me, there was nothing more important I could do with my life than follow Jesus. My faith in Christ is the center of my being. It is who I am. I then explained in great detail why I found The United Methodist Church to be the best context for me to practice my discipleship.

As we talked over the next two hours, I answered his questions as honestly as I could. I know that he has stopped going to church and for all practical purposes has joined the ranks of the “nones” at this point in his life. I didn’t tell him his eternal life was in danger. I didn’t try to convince him that my way should be his way. I didn’t tell him he should go back to church, or be a Methodist, or even be a Christian. I simply shared my own faith with him as honestly and authentically as I possibly could, because he asked.” (Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, “Come and See – Preaching Notes, January 15, 2017, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/come-and-see-preaching-notes )

A question, an invitation, a conversation: sometimes that is all that it takes. Let’s give it a try. Amen.

[As many weeks, I acknowledge my gratitude in this sermon to David Lose for his insightful commentary upon this text (Epiphany 2A: A Question, An Invitation, A Promise,” posted January 9th on his website, “In the Meantime,” www.davidlose.net ]

 

Older Posts »

Categories