Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 1, 2014

Welcome to Skokie Central Church

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

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

Jesus Rio web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | May 6, 2018

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

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

Memorial 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 29, 2018

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

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

Vine

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 22, 2018

2018.04.22 “Welcome, Old Friend” – Psalm 23

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

Shepherd Herding Sheep on Road

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 15, 2018

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

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

Christ a Apostles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 8, 2018

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

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

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

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_Caravaggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 1, 2018

2018.04.01 “The Courage of a New Beginning” – Mark 16: 1 – 8

Central United Methodist Church
The Courage of a New Beginning
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Easter Sunday
April 1st, 2018

The Risen Christ

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back — it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Mark 16: 1 – 8, the New Revised Standard Version

It is always a joy to welcome each other to church on Easter, even on years like this one, where apparently Mother Nature did not get the memo, that Easter should be accompanied by warm temperatures and budding trees and blooming flowers. It reminds me of the little boy who got his holidays mixed up and, when asked, “What is Easter?” said: “That’s when Jesus came out of the tomb, saw his shadow, and now there’s six more weeks of winter.” This year, not far from the truth.

I expect you also come to Easter worship service, fearful today. Not only because a Chinese spacecraft the size of a school bus might fall on us (What better place to be than in church)? But also because today is also April Fool’s Day, so perhaps you came to church this morning fearful that that you would find no one here, or that the ushers would jump out and scare you, or that I might show up dressed as the Easter bunny. You need not fear; that is not going to happen. However, when we are ready for the Easter Alleluia, we are going to turn on the electric current we have wired through the pews.

In many ways, April Fool’s Day is an appropriate day to hear this year’s version of the Easter story, from Mark’s Gospel. Because as you read Mark’s version of what happened when the women returned to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning, time and again it seems someone is about to jump up and yell to them: April Fool!

It began as they walked and talked, worried about who would roll away the stone, which you would think they would have thought about before they left home. When they get there, they discover the stone IS rolled away. As they enter the tomb, they find – not Jesus’ body – but a young man dressed in white. The Easter message they receive is not “April Fool!” but “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He is not here, he has risen.” Barely believing what they have heard, they receive an Easter commission: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes ahead of them to Galilee; there they will see him.”

I doubt anyone remembers this, but in 2012, when I preached Easter from Mark’s Gospel, at this point I asked a rhetorical question: “Ready for the big finale, the happy ending, when shouts of Alleluia fill the air?” In the silence, a little girl in the back of the congregation yelled out, “YES!” But in Mark’s Gospel, it never happens. What happens is the women run from the tomb in terror, amazement, and in silence. There, Mark’s Gospel ends. Is this any way to run a resurrection?

Is it any wonder that, from early on, Christians found this an unsatisfactory conclusion? And thus, from early on, additional, more satisfactory endings were added. While no Gospel provides an unambiguous, totally convincing account, at least in Matthew and Luke and John – all written after and drawing upon Mark’s Gospel – what happens after Jesus’ resurrection is expanded and elaborated on, with Jesus appearing to his disciples and giving them the Great Commission, to go into all the earth and make disciples.

And yet, when all is said I done, I like the way Mark ends his Gospel, and am even thankful this is the version of the Easter story that I get to preach, in this, my last Easter sermon.

Why? Because I find it true to life. Doesn’t the women’s experience – fear and astonishment, followed by silence – sound right to you? Fear! Let’s face it, we all know something about fear. If you have ever spoken in public, for example, you know what fear is; fear of mispronouncing, fear of choking, fear of losing your voice, fear of falling down, fear of everything, which makes it even harder to talk. Astonishment: in the presence of God, who calls into being things that are not and gives life to the dead, who would not be astonished beyond words? Silence: At times of fear and astonishment, who’s chatty and glib; we can hardly talk? And anyhow, who’s going to believe them? Are they going to walk into the coffee shop, where the men are, and announce Jesus body is not where they left it, but BTW an angel WAS there, announcing Jesus risen? “Did you hear what those women said?” “Yeah, they probably went to the wrong tomb.” I mean, since when have men not believed women? [Fred Craddock, “And They Said Nothing to Anyone,” The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock, 2011]

For this reason, the more we think about it, the more we may decide we like Mark’s ending, because it’s not neat, and doesn’t try to explain the inexplicable. Mark doesn’t show up with a tape measure and a seismograph and a video camera and explain or prove what happened, he simply announces it; make of it what you will. Mark doesn’t try to summarize what it means, as St. Paul did in his First Letter to the Corinthians, written before Mark’s Gospel, where it takes Paul 58 verses to try and explain it, not even mentioning an empty tomb. Nor does Mark get into the heavy lifting of WHAT Jesus’ resurrection means, whether that we all get to go to heaven and live with Jesus, the most popular though not necessarily the correct interpretation; whether the resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus’ message, of right over wrong, love over violence, and life over death; or finally, whether Jesus’ resurrection means that a new age has begun for all humanity. Mark leaves that up to us, to decide for ourselves.

Rather, the simple, intriguing way Mark puts it is this: “Jesus isn’t here in a tomb where you expect him; tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Back to Galilee, back to where it all began, back to where they live, have families, raise children, and work and play. It was nothing less than a new beginning.

What an intriguing promise for us as well: that Jesus isn’t in a tomb, off in the past, but out there ahead of us, where we will meet him. Not in the places we might expect, in the rituals and institutions we have made to hold him, but out there, where we live, have families, raise children, work and play, and eventually die. Wherever we go, whatever we go through, he goes before, and will meet us there.

Where Jesus is leading us is into the Kingdom of God, a place beyond prejudice and poverty and politics. Kingdom life is a life that needs not be defined by death or grief or loss, even though they are still with us. In this week in which we remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, we remember what also what Dr. King told us, that Jesus is calling us into the kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and love, truth and justice, reconciliation and restoration. [Nathan Kirkpatrick, “Tell It Again,” Faith and Leadership, March 22, 2016]

In the play by John Masefield, “The Trial of Jesus,” the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion reports back to Pilate. Pilate’s wife asks the centurion to tell her about Jesus’ death. After hearing his description, she asks, “Do you think he’s dead?” “No, my lady, he replies. “He’s been let loose in the world where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth.”

No wonder we come to church on Easter Sunday to hear this story again – even braving a spacecraft falling on our heads or the ushers who might jump out to scare us. Because no matter who we are, no matter how great our fears are, in life or in death, Christ is risen and goes ahead of us, making not only this day but every day into the possibility of new beginning.

John O'DonohueJust recently I discovered the Irish poet, philosopher, and former priest, John O’Donohue. O’Donohue, who was born and lived most of his life in solitude on the rugged west coast of Ireland, believed that it is within our power to transform our fear of death so that we need fear little else life brings. It is cruelly ironic and tragic that he died unexpectedly in his sleep in January 2008 at the age of 52, robbing the world of a genuinely original religious mind who – as much a surprise to himself as anybody – became a bestselling writer and public speaker whose popularity only increases with the passing of time. [You may learn more about John O’Donohue at his website, www.johnodonohue.com]

From the early 1990’s, O’Donohue led a dawn Easter mass at the ruins of the ancient Corcomroe Abbey. In one of those masses he said this (I only wish I could say it in his broad Irish accent):

“On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us let fall away the useless baggage that we carry – old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling – and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have.

We don’t realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through dark valleys in their lives. We weren’t put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are meant to give it away generously.

The dawn that is rising this Easter morning is a gift to our hearts and we are meant to celebrate it and to carry away from this holy, ancient place the gifts of healing and light and the courage of a new beginning.” [John O’Donohue, Dawn Mass Reflections at Corcomroe Abbey, from Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O’Donohue in conversation with John Quinn]

On this Easter Sunday morning – and for the rest of your life – I leave you with the morning prayer O’Donohue wrote for himself:

“May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.”

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 25, 2018

2018.03.25 “Collision Course” – March 25th, 2018

Central United Methodist Church
Collision Course
Pastor David L. Haley
Palm/Passion Sunday
March 25th, 2018

PalmSunday

Pastor’s Haley’s sermon is preparatory to the central reading of Palm/Passion Sunday, the Passion of Jesus according to Mark 14:1 – 15:47

It was a newspaper headline recently, addressing the tension between Special Investigator Robert Mueller and President Donald Trump, which occurred to me was also the perfect title of what’s happening in the Jesus story on Palm Sunday. The headline was: “Collision Course.”

As Jesus entered Jerusalem on that day we call Palm Sunday, did he know that he was on a collision course with the religious authorities, and ultimately, the Roman Empire, who would execute him as just another rebel left to rot on a cross as a public warning to any who would rebel against Rome?

It’s a mystery, of course, how such things happen in life, and what they mean, especially for those of us who believe in what we call divine providence, the idea that God directs our paths. Consider, for example, what happened here in Chicago just last month, when the paths of two strangers collided.

On February 13th, Chicago Police Commander Paul Bauer was downtown, on duty and in uniform, parking his police cruiser at Lake and Clark streets, when he heard a radio call about a fleeing suspect. That suspect was 44 year-old, four time felon, Shomari Legghette, who, went stopped by police nearby for questioning, fled. Moments later, Bauer saw Legghette running, exited his vehicle and chased him. The two collided at a stairwell outside the Thompson Center, falling down the stairs, followed by the sound of six gunshots. Bauer, a husband and father, a respected officer and leader, lay bleeding in the landing, shot six times, soon to be pronounced dead at Northwestern Hospital. Legghette was arrested moments later, carrying the weapon, later traced to a gun shop in Wisconsin. Was the collision of these two chance, a horrible accident of life? Or was it a predestined destiny for these two to meet that day, by the God who – as we sometimes say – directs our steps?

On that day long ago in Jerusalem, it was not only two different people, but two different processions that entered the city, again either by accident or divine destiny. Entering the city in one procession was Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, who most of the time stayed at the fortress of Caesarea on the coast, but at Passover – when the city was crowded with pilgrims – stayed at Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, to more closely monitor the situation. Preceded by the Roman standard, you can imagine chariots and warhorses, and armored Roman soldiers carrying swords and shields.

But descending down from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley, came a very different procession. Instead of the Roman standard, they carry palm branches. Instead of soldiers in armor, they are peasants, mostly Galileans, fishermen and farmers, women, and children. Instead of a warhorse, their leader is . . . riding a donkey? Obviously, this is a low-budget procession; how humiliating is that?

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

It was Jesus bar Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble beginnings, with friends in low places: fishermen, tax collectors, sinners. He was a ragged rabbi who preached loving God and loving your neighbor, even your enemies. Even though he may have thought of himself as the Messiah, he didn’t talk about it, and instructed his disciples not to either. He rode a donkey and not a warhorse into Jerusalem, because he didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, which were the only ideas people had. At heart he was a country boy, an itinerant preacher on a rural circuit, visiting the bright lights of the big city, the holy and unholy city of Jerusalem. Who would have the greater impact? Jesus upon the city, upon the authorities, upon the Roman Empire, or would all those – in one hard giant fist – come down upon him? We know the answer, don’t we? If not, we will after today’s reading.

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

Two processions, two kingdoms: Rome, and the ways of Rome as represented by Pilate; God, and the ways of God as represented by Jesus; they are on a collision course. They always were; they still are today. One is an imperial kingdom, which rules by power and violence and death; the other a peaceable Kingdom, that rules by peace and love and life. Even today, these two ways of being in the world remain on a collision course. Perhaps the youth protests we are seeing in yesterday’s March for Our Lives, against the entrenched gun lobby, is another example of it happening again.

What about us; where do we fit in? We may think we know the answer, but today as we cry out, both “Hosanna to the coming King” and “Crucify him” on the same day, we know that on any given day, we do not know which we will choice we will make. It is choice we must make every day, an allegiance we must choose, between empire and imperial ways, power and greed and violence and lies, or God’s Kingdom and kingdom ways, love and peace and justice and truth. Every day we must pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Finally, this leaves us wondering: like Jesus and Pilate, like Commander Bauer and Shomari Legghette: who or what in our future, are we on a collision course with?

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 18, 2018

2018.03.18 “When the Hour Has Come” – John 12: 20 – 33

Central United Methodist Church
When the Hour Has Come
Pastor David L. Haley
John 12: 20 – 33
The 5th Sunday in Lent
March 18th, 2018

Grain 1

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there willmy servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” – John 12: 20 – 33, the New Revised Standard Version

 

Just two weeks from Easter, we are also 17 days from the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in American history, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968.

From the time of his rise to public prominence after the Montgomery Bus Strike, Dr. King as well as his family lived under the shadow of death threats. When a bomb exploded on his front porch in 1956, he courageously chose to face his fear, and not to back down but continue the work he believed God had called him to do.

In 1958, a mentally disturbed woman stabbed him in the chest while he signed copies of his book, Stride Toward Freedom, at a bookstore in Harlem. The next morning in the New York Times, it was reported that the knife blade was so close to his aorta, the main artery supplying blood to the heart, that if he had sneezed, he likely would have died. Afterwards he received a letter from a little girl, which said, “I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
By 1968, the threats were almost daily, and serious. When King went to Memphis in support of the garbage worker’s strike, after a protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28 became violent, the national news media, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). King vowed to return to Memphis to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him.

On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches, his “I’ve Been to the Mountain- top” speech, one of the greatest speeches in American history. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. To this gathering, King poured out his heart and his last testament. In the speech, King seemed to have a premonition of what lay ahead. In fact, the next day would be his last.

We will return to Dr. King’s speech later, but understanding that historical moment and how Dr. King felt that night, April 3, 1968, helps us in our understanding of how Jesus must have felt, in our reading from the Gospel of John today.

At this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry has reached its apogee. After the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, crowds follow Jesus, but at the same time it provokes an equal and opposite reaction; there are rumors of a plot to kill him. Like that night years ago in Memphis, the threat of death was in the air. “The hour has come,” said Jesus, “Now my heart is troubled.” But, foreshadowing and transcending his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, he resolves: “What should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Such feelings, such statements, and such courage might not be understandable to us, except for the fact that we too face such moments in our lives. We may not be powerful religious leaders or modern-day prophets stirring up storms of controversy like Jesus or Dr. King, but sooner or later, the “hour” comes for each of us, and our heart is troubled, as we face the prospect of the imminent end of our lives.

Images and conversations come to mind, out of my years of ministry. I can see in my mind’s eye the face of a young woman, at Northwestern’s Prentiss Women’s Hospital, being treated for cancer, as she says to me: “I don’t think I’m going to beat this.” She was right; she did not. I recall a conversation with someone with multiple recurrent tumors, with both of us acknowledging: “Now you know how you’re going to die, you just don’t know when.”

But shouldn’t all of us know that already? Because even though we may not be facing a known imminent threat, our egos blind us to the fact that human mortality is still 100%; we are all going to die. It’s only a question of time; some of us obviously have less time than others. Did we not begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What shall we do? Panic? Fight? Despair? Or embrace it, and go gracefully, in confidence, courage, and peace? In this text – facing his own death – Jesus gives us an image to cling to, an image that he must have loved, because he used it so often:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The example of a grain of wheat that dies, only so that it can be reborn. Even though we are not farmers, most of us have held in our hands, and buried carefully in the warm soil, a seed, for which we patiently wait, to grow and harvest. It became such a powerful symbol that it was found in many other early Christian writings, such as by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, as he discussed the resurrection. Jesus uses the wheat grain to explain the seemingly paradoxical statement that if anyone wants to save their life, they must lose it, give it away. Still, – as then – to follow Jesus means to live this way; to let our lives go, to live in risky love, to be buried like a grain of wheat, in order that new life might spring forth.

This letting go is not just a general concept, it is something we have to do in every area of our lives. We don’t want to be 60, or 90; we want to be 30 again. But that’s not possible; we’ve got to let it go. We don’t want to accept that our children are growing up, becoming responsible and independent, we want them to remain in our control and under our management. But that’s not an option, to be good parents, we have to let them go. We don’t want to acknowledge that our bodies (and minds) are not what they used to be, and that we can’t do everything the way we used to do it. We have to acknowledge that old ideas and beliefs that we once held – perhaps for a long time – have proved to be untrue, even harmful, and we have to let them go. We absolutely do not want to accept that we are going to lose those we love, just as those we love will eventually lose us. We’ve got to let them, and ourselves go, and be buried in death, like a grain of wheat. There is a Buddhist saying I’ve always appreciated: “Go ahead and die; then live the rest of your life.”

While Jesus bore fruit through his dying for us; we bear fruit not by dying, but by living, so that when we do die others might acknowledge the seeds we have sown, planted in the lives of our families and our friends, our children, our church and our community and country.

It has been my privilege, as one who has presided at many funerals and memorial services, to have had a front row seat for this over the years. For example, yesterday I went back (not to preside but to attend) a Memorial Service out to West Chicago, for a friend’s father. In his life, he had served as a teacher and former principal of West Chicago Community High School, and served on many boards and commissions in the community. Even though he died January 2 at the age of 88, 200 people filled the hall at the American Legion, with stories to tell about his life and how he – through his life and work – had helped them. Through his life, seeds were planted, that continue to blossom and bear fruit. After 45 plus years in the ministry, with nobody’s threatening me yet except the Grim Reaper himself, I pray that I have planted some seeds that will continue to bear fruit. Wherever age and stage we are at in our lives, every one of us desires this too.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, until his assassination by right wing death squads in the Cathedral in San Salvador on March 24th, 1980, was the fourth Archbishop of El Salvador. Since that time, he has been celebrated as a modern-day martyr and candidate for sainthood. About a year before he was assassinated, on April 1, 1979, he preached these words of Jesus, and – like King – in words that would soon be more personal than he could know. He said this:

“To each one of us Christ is saying: If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats; the Lord goes with you.” (Oscar Romero, April 1, 1979, Rivers in the Desert by Rowland Croucher (ed.) Albatross Books, 1991, page 398).

Now, in remembrance of Dr. King, and that night in Memphis fifty years ago, when he realized his hour had come, let us conclude with the powerful words of his speech, one life that continues to bear fruit. [Video] (From the Smithsonian Channel, January 29, 2014).

Central United Methodist Church
Snakes! Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 14 – 16
The 4th Sunday in Lent
March 11th, 2018

Snakes.Christ top

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.” – John 3: 14 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version

 

As I prepare to move, I have been sorting, and this week I went through yellowed newspaper articles that I wrote at my first church, Trinity United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN, between 1976 to 1979. It brought back memories, and a few chuckles.

For example, one article I began with the words, “Recently while visiting my girlfriend in Chicago . . .”. Unfortunately, the masthead, the picture, and the signature were of the Senior Pastor, the Rev. David Hilliard. Therefore, in the next newsletter, with the same masthead, picture, and signature, with the title, “What’s Black and White and Red All Over?” Dave wrote:

“By now I hope that most people have realized that the article in last week’s paper which had my picture on the masthead and my signature at the conclusion was, in truth, written by my associate, Rev. David Haley. Now, ordinarily, I would be glad to claim most of the articles written by David, but when I read the first line of that particular article my only reaction was, “Oh, my Lord.”

He went on to assure the congregation that his only girlfriend lived in Memphis, who was his wife, Patsy. After the shock and correction, he and I and the whole congregation had a good laugh about it, for a long time.

But another article – taken from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church – was more pertinent to today’s readings. It seems a family in a certain church there had become inactive, and all efforts to re-involve them in the life of the congregation were futile. One day one of the boys, John, was bitten by a rattlesnake. The father sent for the pastor to come pray for John. The pastor came, and this was his prayer:

“O wise and righteous Father, we thank you, for you, in your wisdom, sent this rattlesnake to bite John in order to bring this family to its senses. They have not been inside your church for quite a few years. It is doubtful if ever before in his life this boy has felt the need of prayer. Now we trust that this will prove helpful and will lead him to repentance and recognition of a need for Christ in his life.

“Now, O Lord, will you send another snake to bite Jim, and another to bite the old man? We have done everything we could for years, but all our efforts did not accomplish what this one snake has done. We thus have to conclude that the only thing that will bring this family to their senses is rattlesnakes. Lord, in Thy mercy, send us bigger and better rattlesnakes.”

While we may laugh (or cringe), believe it or not, it is indeed snakes (or a snake) that is the controlling image in two of today’s three readings. “Snakes?” you say, as Indiana Jones did in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Why did it have to be snakes?”

Unless you are a herpetologist, us humans have a timeless and universal fear of snakes. They even show up as evil creatures in our ancient mythologies, as the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. (“It was the snake that made me do it!”)

For those of us who grew up in warmer climates, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, snakes were something you had to watch for, before you step, especially when walking through the woods. For example, once my cousin and I, his mom and a friend were walking down a creek bed in the fall. Just as my cousin was about to take step, the friend grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up, interrupting his next step. The reason being, he was about to step on a poisonous copperhead, expertly camouflaged in the leaves. To this day, when I see even a stick lying on a path that looks like a snake, my internal “snake” alarms go off. So, the last thing I want to hear about when I come to church is a story about snakes. But that is what we get today, the story of a snake, lifted up, foreshadowing Christ, to which we look for health, healing, and life.

The first occurrence, which serves as a reference for the second, is an obscure story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, about the children of Israel in the wilderness, following their exodus from Egypt. Though God had delivered them from bondage, the people complained against God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (I know, God’s people complaining, it’s hard to believe.) Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

Today we might “What kind of God would send snakes to bite people?” According to this story, an angry God, sick and tired of people complaining how that even though God had miraculously delivered them and provided for them, it was taking longer than they thought, and it was harder than they thought.

There’s a reason such a story would be in the Old Testament. This is because the Biblical revelation is progressive, meaning that it gets better and clearer as revealed over time. It is true that the older parts reflect more ancient and primitive understandings of God, projecting upon God how we might act if we were God; anthropomorphisms, they are called. After all, if I were God and delivered my people from bondage in Egypt, saved them through the miracle at the Red Sea, lead them with a pillar of fire, gave them manna to eat and water to drink, and they do nothing but complain, I might want to let some snakes loose, too. Let’s face it, if God acts like we act, we are all in deep trouble.

But – like those wayward parishioners in Virginia – in this story snakes did the trick, and the people repented: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses:

“Make a poisonous snake, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a snake of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

In other words, when Moses did what God said, the repulsive sight of a snake in the wilderness was transformed, so that it became a symbol of health, healing, and reconciliation. Are you bitten by a snake? Look up!

Yes, it’s a puzzling, fantastic story, and we probably wouldn’t even be reading it if it didn’t show up in an unexpected place, the Gospel of John, right before our favorite verse, John 3:16: “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.” How come nobody ever holds up a sign at a baseball game, saying John 3: 14 & 15: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”

It must have been frustrating to Nicodemus, the Jewish rabbi who came to Jesus, to whom Jesus tells this story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with his questions, seeking to be persuaded through reason and logic, to arrive at a clear decision. Jesus, on the other hand, says the spiritual life is “from above”: unearned, uncontrolled, and uncalculated. Jesus goes so far as to compare the spiritual life to birth and wind, two of the most mysterious forces on earth. And then, like a snake on a pole, as in the wilderness, to which one simply looks up.

As it was for Nicodemus, it can be frustrating to those of us who come to church seeking simple explanations or straight-forward answers. Thankfully, it is not snakebite that plagues us, but the thousand mortal ills that life brings to us, leaving us wondering sometimes if there even is a God, and especially – in the light of the world we live in – whether God is a God of love. As we come with our questions, what Moses and John and Jesus tell us is to look up, to glimpse God’s great love for us. There is nothing we can do, other than to behold what God has done. For Jesus would indeed be lifted up, but before he does so in resurrection and ascension he would be raised up – like a snake on a pole – on a cross. As we sit – transfixed at the sight – John says: “This is how much God loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

As we make our way through Lent towards Easter and the looming cross, it can be frustrating to read John’s Gospel. Sometimes, like Nicodemus, all you want are the facts, “ma’am, just the facts.” But as the last Gospel written, with more time to contemplate Jesus’ story, John always goes further, deeper. Yes, Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, but when all is said and done, it’s the Temple of his body he’s talking about, which will be raised in three days. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. Next week, we hear that Jesus is a grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies, but in dying, he bears much fruit. Sometimes we need the facts, but sometimes we images, something we can contemplate, like stopping in a church or cathedral amidst flickering candles, to sit before a crucifix, to contemplate God’s great love in Christ.

Snakes.Christ fullAt the summit of Mt. Nebo in Jordan, from which Moses looked west over the Holy Land, there is a metal sculpture erected by the Franciscans, and designed by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni, commemorating the Bronze Serpent. The sculpture features a serpent twisted around a pole, with its head, at the top, encircled by a loop of its body.

But clearly, the sculptor was thinking of more than snakes, and likely of this verse in John 3, because in addition to depicting the serpent made by Moses, the body of the snake looped around itself suggests the head of one who has been crucified. The lyrically shaped crosspieces, evocative of outstretched arms, remind us of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Like a snake on a pole, once an object of horror and revulsion, so the cross of Christ has been transformed to become for us a symbol of love and life. As we look beyond it to the One lifted up, may we find there what we need, health and healing and happiness, abundant and eternal life with God.

Amen.

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