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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Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 “Life is Not Fair (It’s Grace)” – Matthew 20: 1 – 16

Central United Methodist Church
Life is Not Fair (It’s Grace)
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 20: 1 – 16
September 24th, 2017

The Red Vineyards near Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888

“The Red Vineyards near Arles, Vincent van Gogh, 1888.” 

God’s kingdom is like an estate manager who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  They agreed on a wage of a dollar a day, and went to work.

        “Later, about nine o’clock, the manager saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He told them to go to work in his vineyard and he would pay them a fair wage. They went.

        “He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o’clock. At five o’clock he went back and found still others standing around. He said, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing? 7

       “They said, “Because no one hired us.’

       “He told them to go to work in his vineyard.

       “When the day’s work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman, “Call the workers in and pay them their wages. Start with the last hired and go on to the first.’  “Those hired at five o’clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

       “He replied to the one speaking for the rest, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we?  So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

       “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”– Matthew 20: 1 – 16, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

We have heard it, from the mouths of our children. Almost certainly, at some time or another, we have said it ourselves: “Life is not fair!”

Usually when we say this, we are comparing ourselves to others, which most often, brings no joy. We enjoy the car we drive, until we see our neighbor with a nicer or newer one. We are OK with our marriage, until we see the couple down the street, who seem to love each other more. We love our kids, but wish they were better-rounded and more accomplished, like our friend’s kids. We are OK with our grades, until we hear about friend – who studied less than us – who aced the test. As I said, comparing ourselves to others, rarely brings joy.

But then there are other times when comparing ourselves with others has nothing to do with it; sometimes life is observedly unfair. A car crashes into another stopped at an intersection; people – even children – die. Terrorists fly an airplane into a building; thousands of innocent people die. An earthquake or a hurricane strikes, not once but twice, and people lose everything, including those who lose their lives. Life is not fair. We say this to our children, we say it to ourselves, because it’s true.

However, while it is true, it is also true to say that most of life is grace: the undeserved, unmerited gift of God. For most of us, most of the time – especially to those of us born into the privileges of race and class and time and place – life is good. If only we could open our eyes to see it.

To help us open our eyes, Jesus once told a story, known as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. As Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms once said, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.” That’s the way this story is.

He told it after Peter had said to him, basically, “Life’s not fair. A rich young ruler had come to him, asking to be his disciple, but after Jesus told him to first go sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, he went away sorrowing, for he had much. Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? Let me tell you, it’s easier to gallop a camel through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter God’s kingdom.” This shocked his disciples), who asked: “Then who has any chance at all?” (Seriously, how much stuff did they have?)

And Peter – who speaks for us – you can almost hear the whine in his voice – says: “But it’s not fair: we left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” Jesus replied:

“Yes, you have followed me. In the re-creation of the world, when the Son of Man will rule gloriously, you who have followed me will also rule, starting with the twelve tribes of Israel. And not only you, but anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields — whatever — because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.”

On that note Jesus tells this story, which begins not in church but out in a parking lot, because it is a scene we can still see today, if we look.

Early every morning, day laborers line up and wait for the trucks and vans to come by, to offer them a job for the day. Many are immigrants (though not all); all are willing to work hard for low pay. It might be landscaping, harvesting crops, replacing roofs or digging ditches, even the repetitive (and dangerous) work of meat packing plants. There are no benefits like health insurance or pensions; the work may even shortcut OSHA safety guidelines, such that should you get seriously injured or even killed, you’re on your own. But when 50 line up for work, and only 5 are needed, you take what you can get. People give these laborers a lot of grief, but they work harder than anybody, at jobs most of us would not want or do. Despite the grief they get, our economy would not survive without them, the crops would rot in the fields. Cesar Chavez, an early advocate of farm workers’ rights, once said: “I’m angry, that I live in a world where a man who picks food for a living can’t afford to feed his family.” Sadly, this is still true today.

Out there in that parking lot, the boss pulls up in his Ford F-350, and takes a load of workers to the field, promising them a day’s wage, a dollar a day.

But what’s with this boss, who seems more concerned that there are people waiting and not working, than how many are actually needed? He basically begins a shuttle service, going back around 9 to pick up more, back around noon, back around 3, even back at 5, around quitting time, to find workers still waiting. He said, “Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?” “They said, “Because no one hired us.’ “Let’s go,” he says.

At the end of the day, everybody lines up to get paid. Those hired last, who worked only an hour, get a dollar. When those hired early see this, they say, “Woo hoo, we’re going to get rich!” But then, those hired at 3 get a dollar. Those hired at noon get a dollar. Those hired at 9 got a dollar. Bringing up the rear, those hired at dawn, get a dollar. When they see this, they grouse to the boss, “These last workers put in one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.’

To which the owner says, “”Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn’t we?  So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money?  Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?’

In other words, if you want a world that operates on bean-counting rules of fairness, you need to find another parable. In this parable, in my kingdom – everything moves according to generosity, and everybody gets enough to live.” “Here it is again, says Jesus, the Great Reversal: “The first end up last, and the last end up first.”

What does it mean? There are some things, this parable is not. It’s not an allegory, in which the late guys are the good guys (Christians), the early guys are the bad guys (Jews), and the boss is God. After all, the boss is generous like God, but is that the kind of boss you’d want to work for, get paid by? As Thomas Long says, “this parable is not a blueprint for labor practices or economic systems any more than the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a class on parenting or the Great Banquet a manual of table etiquette. Any company that paid people who work one hour a day the same as it paid full-time workers would soon have a hard time finding employees willing to show up at nine.”

What the parable may be, is this: it’s almost certain Matthew shares this parable to illustrate the tension brewing between Jesus and his opponents, and especially their failure to accept his radical sense of grace; hard to stomach for some, still today. We see it today when old immigrants (unless we’re Native American we’re all immigrants) hate new immigrants, we see it when Christians who like old ways of doing church hate new ways of doing church. As I said at the beginning, comparing ourselves with others rarely brings joy to anybody, especially when it involves trashing others.

What this parable definitely is, is this: a window on the kingdom of God. It allows us to imagine a world characterized by generosity and mercy, rather than ambition, greed, and competition. It parallels a father waiting for his lost son and who welcomes him with open arms, a king who invites guests to the wedding banquet from the streets, rather than let the table be empty. It is a world in which those who stand ignored, idle, and discarded by society are nevertheless of great value to God – worthy, regardless of their circumstances, to live with dignity each day. And yes, it is a world with implications for both the market-place and economic justice. As Thomas Long says: “After letting our imaginations dwell in the surprising generosity of this parable and of God, we can no longer look at that parking lot filled with farm workers who are paid unjustly and who are viewed as disposable, and rest easy.” (Thomas Long, “Imagining Economic Justice,” On Scripture, September 24, 2017)

But if we leave it at this, we miss the truth it offers us to live each day. Because when we hear this parable, more often than not we identify with the laborers working all day who feel taken advantage of, rather than the late-comers who received unexpected generosity.

Yes, life is sometimes unfair, but we have a choice to make, every day. Do we keep careful track of what we think we deserve but didn’t receive, or do we give thanks for all we’ve been received but don’t deserve? Do we live moaning about what we lack and what we want, or do we give thanks for the surprising abundance we have? Do we envy what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all we have been given, including life itself? Do we choose to live in bitterness and misery, comparing ourselves to others, or do we choose joy, thankful for all the blessings God has given us? (David Lose, “Pentecost 16A: Choosing Joy,” In the Meantime, September 20, 2017))

 

Before he died on December 30th of last year at the age of 97, scholar of world religions and lifetime Methodist Huston Smith contemplated what he wanted his “last line” to be, to bring the curtain down, so to speak. After a lifetime not just of teaching but practicing the Great Religions of the world, Smith found he couldn’t settle on just one, but picked three.

His first was to echo the British author Elizabeth Pakenham (mother novelist Antonia Fraser, whose last words were “It has all been very interesting.”

His second was more an observation, that the older he got, the more – as he put it – the boundary between “me” and “not me” thinned and became transparent. So he could look back on the paths he had traveled and think, “This is me.” He could look at his wife of sixty-five years, Kendra, and think, “This is me.” He could feel his hip replacement and think, “This is me.”

But his third and favorite was borrowed from the martyr St. John Chrysostom, who while being drawn and quartered was said to have exclaimed, “Praise, praise for everything. Thanks, thanks for it all.”  Says Smith: “I savor the words in my mind, roll them on my tongue, and repeat them as my own: “Thanks for everything! Praise for it all!” Whether – at the end – he got to actually speak them, I do not know. Because, as the 13th mystic Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”  (Huston Smith, The Huston Smith Reader, 2012).

Life is indeed unfair. But life is also grace, pure gift, where apart from who we are or what we do, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first, in parking lots, in fields, and marketplaces, as they are in the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 “God Give Us Magic Eyes” – Matthew 18: 21 – 35

Central United Methodist Church
God Give Us Magic Eyes
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 18: 21 – 35
September 17th, 2017

Forgive 7 x 70

 

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”

Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.

“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’

 “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

– Matthew 18: 21 – 35, The Message

 

One of the movies which – once you see, you will never forget – is the 1979 science-fiction horror film Alien, by director Ridley Scott. Alien stars Sigourney Weaver, and other such as Harry Dean Stanton, who died this week at the age of 91. The film’s title refers to a highly aggressive extraterrestrial that stalks and attacks the crew of a spaceship, one by one.

In one unforgettable scene, after one of the actors (John Hurt) collapses, a baby alien erupts horrifyingly from his chest. (After this scene you will never see John Hurt (who also just died this year) in any other movie without feeling sorry for him.)

Oddly, this was the image that came to mind as I thought about today’s text, about the touchy topic of forgiveness. Congregations are full of people who know we should forgive, who know there is a value in doing so, but who find it impossible to do. Being abandoned or abused by a parent, cheated on by a spouse, or double crossed by a business partner, as examples, are experiences that never leave you. On the contrary, they sit deep inside and fester, until one day in an conversation in a living room or hospital room or anywhere, it erupts – like that alien – as well as the extent and depth of the hurt. Forgive? We’re working on it. Or not.

As an example, when I first moved to Skokie from West Chicago, I went looking for a barber. In the past, I’m used to interesting, lively, sometimes shop-wide conversations. This barber cut my hair and never said one word the whole time, not to me, not to the other barber in the next chair. Turns out, as I heard later, the other barber was his brother, and somewhere along the way they had a falling out, and do not speak to each other! I never went back; I figure I have enough discord to deal with in my life, I don’t need a mad barber with a straight razor near my throat. (They already made a musical about that, Sweeney Todd).

We might shake our heads in disbelief, but we know people who can’t forgive even small things not to mention BIG things, we might even be one of them ourselves. Lewis Smedes, who I’m going to talk more about later, says: “Forgiveness is the hardest trick in the bag of personal relationships.”

Before deep psychic wounds became the work of counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, they were viewed as moral, even theological issues. And, since our religion and faith has also to do with our relationships with each other, rightfully so.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, the argument goes like this: since we have all fallen short of the standards of a just and holy God, we are all in need of forgiveness. But since God has also been revealed as not only just and holy, but merciful, our sins have been forgiven. Amazingly, God has chosen mercy over justice; this is why it’s called amazing grace.

But then the other shoe drops: because we have been forgiven, we are to forgive others. In other words, our forgiveness of each other is rooted in God’s forgiveness of  us. Jesus even went so far as to put it in the prayer he taught us to pray every day (maybe he thought it was something we would need to be reminded of every day): “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  We pray it, we know it, but to do it? As we all know from experience, that is the HARD thing.

In today’s Gospel, Peter (our mouthpiece and spokesman), raises the issue with Jesus, after Jesus had raised the issue of what to do about those who sin against us. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” “Seven times?” After all, that would cover every day of the week.

But Jesus replies, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” We’re not off the hook after the 490th time, but infinitely. Not good news to those of us who have trouble getting past just ONE very bad slight. What are we to do?

To convince Peter and us, Jesus tells one of his maddening little stories, called parables, stories which delight us and confuse us and maybe even outrage us. This one is called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

In many ways, it is an outrageous story. What was with that guy? After the $100,000 he’s had been forgiven, he couldn’t forgive a measly $10 bucks?

And what does it mean? Does it mean that if I do not forgive those who injure me, God will withhold forgiveness from me? Is God’s forgiveness conditional on me letting go of grudges and hurts? Am I in trouble? Or is the point that human forgiveness of small things is rooted in God’s forgiveness of big things? In the story, the King forgives the servant an incalculable amount: 10,000 talents would be the wages of a day laborer for more than 150,000 years. Meaning, there is no way to measure God’s generosity when it comes to forgiving. Seventy-times-seven doesn’t do it; neither does 10,000 talents. Forgiveness cannot be measured on a calendar or calculator.

What’s missing most of all in the story is a changed attitude, which Lewis Smedes once called “magic eyes.” “Magic eyes’ are what we need to see both life and people – including those people who we feel have wronged us – in such a way that we might begin to forgive.

In this story, there is none of this. On hearing his reprieve, there is no rejoicing, no gratitude, no celebration with wife and children, who are spared imprisonment, no reflection on his new freedom. All we hear is that on the way out he rebuffs the plea of another, for much less than he had been forgiven. He does not have the gift of magic eyes, to see himself as a gifted person, the recipient of mercy rather than justice. What the parable really portrays is the incredible kindness of God, who surprises us by not dealing with us acording to justice, but mercy. And then asks us, whether we will view others in the same way, not with justice, but mercy.

So yes, forgiveness is a theological issue we have to think through, a psychological issue we have to work through, but perhaps more than anything else, forgiveness is a spiritual issue requiring a change of heart, “magic eyes” through which we can see others, especially those who have hurt us.

Forgive & forgetThe best book about forgiveness that I know of – other than the Bible – was written by the late Lewis Smedes, a former professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. It is called, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, and has now sold over 500,000 copies. (Smedes died in 2001 at the age of 81 after falling off a ladder). I have a copy somewhere, but I searched both my office and house and cannot find it. I probably gave it away to someone struggling with forgiveness; if I had known it was so good when I bought it I would have bought a case.

Like Jesus, Smedes begins with a parable; you should not be surprised to hear it’s entitled: “The Magic Eyes.”

“In the village of Faken in innermost Friesland there lived a long thin baker name Fouke, a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Fouke was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Faken preferred to stay away. Fouke’s wife, Hilda, was short and round, her arms were round, her bosom was round, her rump was round. Hilda did not keep people at bay with righteousness; her soft roundness seemed to invite them instead to come close to her in order to share the warm cheer of her open heart. Hilda respected her righteous husband, and loved him too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart ached for something more from him than his worthy righteousness. And there, in the bed of her need, lay the seed of sadness.

One morning, having worked since dawn to knead his dough for the ovens, Fouke came home and found a stranger in his bedroom lying on Hilda’s round bosom. Hilda’s adultery soon became the talk of the tavern and the scandal of the Faken congregation. Everyone assumed that Fouke would cast Hilda out of his house, so righteous was he. But he surprised everyone by keeping Hilda as his wife, saying he forgave her as the Good Book said he should. In his heart of hearts, however, Fouke could not forgive Hilda for bringing shame to his name. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her as if she were a common whore. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her. He only pretended to forgive Hilda so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Fouke’s fakery did not sit well in heaven. So each time that Fouke would feel his secret hated toward Hilda, an angel came to him and dropped a small pebble, hardly the size of a shirt button, into Fouke’s heart. Each time a pebble dropped, Fouke would feel a stab of pain like the pain he felt the moment he came on Hilda feeding her hungry heart from a stranger’s larder. Thus he hated her the more; his hate brought him pain and his pain made him hate. The pebbles multiplied. And Fouke’s heart grew very heavy with the weight of them, so heavy that the top half of his body bent forward so far that he had to strain his neck upward in order to see straight ahead. Weary with hurt, Fouke began to wish he were dead.

The angel who dropped the pebbles into his heart came to Fouke one night and told him how he could be healed of his hurt. There was one remedy, he said, only one, for the hurt of a wounded heart. Fouke would need the miracle of the magic eyes. He would need eyes that could look back to the beginning of his hurt and see his Hilda, not as a wife who betrayed him, but as a weak woman who needed him. Only a new way of looking at things through the magic eyes could heal the hurt flowing from the wounds of yesterday.

Fouke protested. “Nothing can change the past,” he said. “Hilda is guilty, a fact that not even an angel can change.” “Yes, poor hurting man, you are right,” the angel said. “You cannot change the past, you can only heal the hurt that comes to you from the past. And you can heal it only with the vision of the magic eyes.”

“And how can I get your magic eyes?” pouted Fouke. “Only ask, desiring as you ask, and they will be given you. And each time you see Hilda through your new eyes, one pebble will be lifted from your aching heart.”

Fouke could not ask at once, for he had grown to love his hatred. But the pain of his heart finally drove him to want and to ask for the magic eyes that the angel had promised. So he asked. And the angel gave.

Soon Hilda began to change in front of Fouke’s eyes, wonderfully and mysteriously. He began to see her as a needy woman who loved him instead of a wicked woman who betrayed him. The angel kept his promise; he lifted the pebbles from Fouke’s heart, one by one, though it took a long time to take them all away. Fouke gradually felt his heart grow lighter; he began to walk straight again, and somehow his nose and his chin seemed less thin and sharp than before. He invited Hilda to come into his heart again, and she came, and together they began again a journey into their second season of humble joy. (Lewis M. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve, Harper, 1984)

Through struggle and parable, through divine grace and human help, may God – who has forgiven us – give us the magic eyes we need to forgive others. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 10, 2017

Central United Methodist Church
Jesus is in the Room
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 18: 15 – 20
September 10, 2017

Come together

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” – Matthew 18: 15 – 20, the New Revised Standard Version

Today, after the two services of summer, our congregation is together again. While multiple worship options are a good thing, it is also good to have the congregation together. No more saying, “I haven’t seen so-and-so in awhile,” with me answering, “O, he/she was at the early service today.”  It’s good for people to worship together, eat together, and be together, to ask how we are doing and take note of those who are missing.

Two who are missing this morning are Jaz and JoAnn Faber. They are – unfortunately – on the west coast of Florida (near St. Petersburg), with JoAnn’s stepmother. When I expressed my concern on Facebook, JoAnn’s answer did not comfort me: “Don’t worry, Jaz is good with duct tape!” I fear it’s going to take more than duct tape to withstand Hurricane Irma, so are prayers are with them – and all of those today – in the path of Hurricane Irma.

Inevitably when people attend Central for the first time, they express surprise that we are so diverse. Make no mistake, our diversity is a blessing, but for those not accustomed to it, it can be intimidating. Sometimes we are a little shy, because we feel like we know so little about who people are and where they have come from. So we fall short of true Christian community, and remain a group of strangers, with the only thing uniting us being our faith and our worship, not to mention that we are all facing in the same direction. (Except the choir, facing the opposite way. Welcome back, choir!)

The truth is – in any church, whether megachurch or small church, whether a church is diverse or homogeneous, whether United Methodist or untied Methodists (the most common typo), people are people, and sometimes we don’t get along.

This is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel: the perils and promises of Christian community. It actually begins on a discordant note: as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him — work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” The NRSV is even more blunt, saying, “Treat them like a Gentile or tax collector.” I dunno, how do YOU treat Gentiles and tax collectors, especially considering that we are Gentiles; if not tax collectors.)

To me, such words sound suspect coming from the lips of Jesus, for multiple reasons. First, they sound like they come from later in Christian history, when Jews and Gentiles quickly discovered this love stuff only goes so far; sooner or later problems must be named and dealt with. Second, it is contradictory, of that which precedes and follows it. Just before, Jesus talks about the shepherd that has the ninety and nine sheep, but risks everything to go after the one sheep that is missing: wouldn’t that apply here? Just afterward, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive, Jesus says: “Not 7 times, but 70 x 7, in other words, infinitely. Third, really, Jesus was good to tax collectors and Gentiles, making a tax collector an apostle (named Matthew at that) and healing whoever was in need, whether Jew or Gentile. So what Jesus says here doesn’t seem to fit. We must remember that the Gospels began as collections of Jesus’ sayings, and sometimes it is hard to tell which are authentic, and which they put in Jesus’ mouth.

Practically, there are problems too; I wouldn’t run out too quickly to point out another’s faults unless you have good insurance. In my experience, sometimes it is those eager to “point out another’s faults” as much as it is those who refuse to listen. My grandfather, for example, was once kicked out of the Baptist Church because he was attending church with my grandmother, a Methodist. People can and do misinterpret Jesus’ words and use them in hurtful ways. I do agree with Jesus, however, that it is ALWAYS better within the church to talk TO people rather than to talk ABOUT people, behind their backs; that always only causes more trouble.

And it should be acknowledged, from time to time there are serious problems. Because, as I said earlier, people are people, and sometimes the neediest of them come to church and cause problems. Some people are antagonists, who cause trouble wherever they go. What about gossips, or inveterate liars; sadly, I’ve known a few of those. What about sexual offenders: some congregations have had known sex offenders show up and ask, “Can I worship here?” What would we say to that? While churches and denominations and congregations are wise to think about such things beforehand and develop plans of action, their application always both requires the love of Jesus and the wisdom of Solomon, the key principle being no one should get hurt: physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

While there are perils in Christian community, thankfully there are also great promises. “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Well, we know that’s out, because any two of us rarely agree about anything, sometimes even how and what to pray for. In fact, as the old saying goes, “Where two or three are gathered together, you’re have five opinions.”

But the best promise is Jesus’ final word here: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What an amazing promise, that – even when we are not alike and can’t agree – Jesus is in the house.

Every time our congregation comes together – whether there are 2 or 20 or 200, Jesus is here. And not just in the worship service or Bible study or prayer group, but when we eat and when we meet. And not just in church rooms, but in disaster zones and hospital rooms. Especially this weekend, as the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma face what’s left and take care of the homeless and hold funerals for those killed, how comforting to believe that Jesus is still with us – even in times of disaster. At such times, through Jesus we believe God knows the depths of our suffering.

But while for most the thought of Jesus’ presence is comforting, for others it is challenging. Depending upon what we say or do, the way we talk or treat others, the thought of Jesus’ presence might be embarrassing, even disturbing.

These days, by what they say and do, it appears that some church committees and congregations and even denominations might prefer Jesus not be in the room, because should he overhear their discussions and decisions, he would be appalled. For example, that recent declaration of evangelical leaders out of Nashville who condemned LGBTQ people, could have possibly imagined Jesus was sitting at the table with them, when they came up with such a harsh and hurtful declaration?

And what about us, do we remember? When we are in worship or at a potluck; when we are in committee meetings or Council Boards, do we remember that Jesus is there with us? When we are making decisions about where our money will go or whom we will welcome, Jesus is there among us. When we question – on controversial issues – whether we should speak or stay silent, Jesus is there among us. When we are discussing our mission statement, our vision, our future, Jesus is there among us. (With thanks to Karoline Lewis, “God Is With us,” at Dear Working Preacher, September 03, 2017)

It was so important he even reiterated it again at the end of the Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Exactly how is he with us? I don’t know. But it really doesn’t matter how, if we believe it is true.

Grapes of WrathI have always loved those wonderful lines from John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath, spoken by Tom Joad, especially as played by Henry Fonda in the 1940 movie of the same name, words that have inspired artists from Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen. Like Jesus, Tom Joad promises to be with those who need him, even after he is gone. And so he tells Ma:

“Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.”

​So it is that the God in whom we believe, and Jesus – God’s incarnation on earth – is an immanent God, Emmanuel, who has promised to be with us. “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, “I am there among them”

Gathered back together, despite our difficulties, whether we are different or alike, whether or not we agree, Jesus is in the room. May all that we say and do be pleasing to him. Amen.

Central United Methodist Church
What Does It Mean to Walk the Way of the Cross?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 16: 21 – 28
September 3rd, 2017

Get Behind Me Satan

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  – Matthew 16: 21 – 28, from The New Revised Standard Version

 

Today we come to a time of transition, Labor Day weekend. While we still have just short of three weeks left in meteor-logical summer (September 22), for most of us, summer is over: vacations are past, the kids are back in school, pools close tomorrow, our jobs call for attention.

In church, today is the last 8:30 am service, next Sunday we return to 10:30, and you will get to greet the separated brethren who have been attending the “other” service throughout the summer. While multiple service options are a good thing, it will also be good to be together again as a congregation.

As I watched the people of Texas struggle through the waters this week, I wondered if we are entering another time of transition. I wonder whether that time of dystopia that we have all worried about for so long, is upon us. Long pondered in the media, in movies like Mad Max and TV shows like The Walking Dead, with dystopian books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the top of the best seller list, has it begun to happen? Have we reached a time when the civilization we have known and enjoyed for so long, has begun to break apart? Maybe we should ask those people clinging to boats and standing on top of houses in Texas. (And by the way, it’s not just Texas: while we were concerned about our Texas neighbors, other places around the world such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sierra Leone in Africa have also been hit hard.

According to scientists – to whom too many in power refuse to listen – climate change and global warming are clearly on display in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. With the warmer temperature, Hurricane Harvey absorbed more moisture, dumping the largest rainfall amounts ever on Texas, and now Louisiana. When public policy and planning fail to listen to the warning voices and to prepare for worst case scenarios (occurring more often), then we are left with the long-term consequences: disaster and dystopia: flooding, displacement, chemical pollution, loss of utilities, even food and water. Yes, millions of dollars are being donation, but the distribution is a logistical nightmare. Recovery from Harvey alone is expected to go for years and cost up over $100 billion.

Who and what is next? What if it is us? Can we imagine ourselves in the situation of those people in Texas? Even more frightening to think about, what will our children and their children face? I almost feel the need to warn them, definitely to protect them (if I only could), to tell them to prepare. This has begun to feel like a time of transition – when we know for sure certainty that everything has changed; in this case for the worst.

It is also a time of transition in today’s Gospel – a crossroads – for Jesus disciples, and for us. In her commentary on Working Preacher this week, Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary describes it this way:

-It is that “moment when you catch a glimpse of what life calling yourself a Christian really means – and makes you hesitate.”

  • It is “the moment when you are told that the life you thought you wanted, planned for, prayed for, was not the life God had in mind for you.”
  • It is “the moment when you might have to choose whether or not you are willing to have something else, or someone else, have more control over your life than you do.” (Karoline Lewis, “The Cross at a Crossroads,” Working Preacher, August 27, 2017)

 

For Jesus’ disciples, it was a shocking turn of events. Last week, we heard Jesus ask his disciples who they said he was, and St. Peter the Good won the prize, with the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” For that Jesus called him Rock, upon whom he would build his Church, and gave him the keys to the kingdom. So far so good.

But today – without even knowing it – St. Peter becomes St. Peter the Bad. Says Matthew, “From that time on, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and BE KILLED, and on the third day be raised (which after the “Be Killed” part,” I’m sure nobody heard). And Peter took him aside, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “God forbid it! This will never happen to you.” The text doesn’t say it, but you almost have to wonder if Peter didn’t say, “Because you got me!”

Jesus flashed, turning around to get in Peter’s face: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.” And so Peter the Rock becomes the Stone of Stumbling, Peter the Confessor becomes a mouthpiece for the Devil.

Jesus went on to say:

“Listen up! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

It wasn’t something they wanted to hear, and it isn’t something we want to hear. For them, it was shocking transition, the idea that following Jesus might involve suffering, carrying a cross, even death on a cross. It was a new notion, that to follow Jesus involves not just “I’m Saved; Your Saved Maybe,” but walking in the way of the cross, in the way of sacrificial service, to the point of losing your life. It gave Jesus’ first disciples pause, and it still gives us pause. We like the “happy ever after” part; not so much the “bearing the cross” part. As I have said in the past, if we put our finger on the text, there is no getting around the way of the cross, in being Christian, in following Jesus.

Some might say our resistance to this theology of the cross – especially here in America – was never on better display this week than in the public shaming heaped upon celebrity preacher Joel Osteen, for not initially opening his church to flood victims. (In the age of social media, you do not want to mess up; St. Peter lucked out on that one).  Some of the criticism was justified and some was not (he eventually did open his church), but it is Osteen himself who sets himself up for criticism. He is the Christian 1%; he and his glamorous co-pastor wife Victoria live in a $10.5 million house in an exclusive section of Houston, and are said to be worth some $50 million, not bad for a preacher without a seminary degree.

Osteen is the preacher of a particularly American strain of Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel. As Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel put it in an article in the Washington Post, “Here’s Why People Hate Joel Osteen:”

“The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.” (Kate Bowler, “Here’s Why People Hate Joel Osteen,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017)

I believe Joel Osteen – and those who follow him – have the same problem Peter has in today’s Gospel: they have no place for the theology of the cross. The idea that, once you decide to follow Jesus, it may not make your life happier or healthier and especially not wealthier, but on the contrary, harder, because there will be a price to pay, as Jesus did, as Peter did, as Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, did, just a few weeks ago.

You know as well as I know, while there are some who don’t get and don’t like the theology of the cross – and are meanwhile getting rich in the process – across America, there are Christians who do. While Joel Osteen may get all the attention (and money), there are tens of thousands of pastors who will never be Joel Osteens, never realize “Their Best Life Now,” because they are too busy serving their congregations and communities, getting by on modest and – more often – inadequate salaries. They don’t write books because they don’t have the time, they are busy leading struggling congregations, writing and preaching heartfelt sermons, holding the hands of ailing parishioners, being active in their communities.

There are millions of committed church people, organizing dinners and yard sales, working in food pantries and homeless shelters, working as volunteers in hospitals and hospices, very few of whom are wearing Rolex watches, but who are following Jesus in the way of the cross. They are working in Texas this week. It has been my privilege to have worked with such people in all the congregations I have served, including this one. They are Christians who get it, who understand what it means to walk the way of the cross, to live lives in sacrificial service to God and others.

One of the best things we have done here at Central is to mentor students and candidates in ministry. I am so proud of them, out now serving in their own churches and ministries, though none of them serve or ever will serve anything like Lakewood Church, of which Joel Osteen is the pastor: Lizzie Weed, Kelly Van, Stuart Salvaterra, Heewon Kim, Sam Mutschelknaus, Taekhwan Lee, Tom Rawlinson, and Hope Reyes Chernich. At West Ridge UMC in Rogers Park, ast week Taekhwan led a vacation Bible school, and had 34 children in attendance from the neighborhood.

Hope Reyes Chernich and her team pastor, Lindsay Long Joyce are serving two churches, United Church of Rogers Park and Irving Park UMC, two buildings both in danger of falling down and in danger of closing, as they have been for about the last 50 years.

Irving Park UMC is surrounded by $1,000,000 homes, the house across the street from the church, a single family residence, is bigger than the church. Fallen from its glory, Irving Park has about 30 people in worship on any given Sunday. But Hope says there was a couple who visited, then they were gone for awhile, then they came back. They volunteered to start cleaning, to make the building a more attractive place. Now others have joined them; who knows whether it will be the spark to begin to turn things around. They will never be a Lakewood Church, but who knows what might happen when people understand what it means to walk the way of the cross and begin to do so;  to know – as Rev. Margaret Williams puts it – the “joy of service.”

“Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free?

No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”

Reluctantly, humbly, gladly: we embrace it. Amen.

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 27, 2017

2017.08.27 “Who Do You Say That I Am?” – Matthew 16: 13 – 20

Central United Methodist Church
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Pastor David Haley
August 27th, 2017

Who do you say I am

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. ”  – Matthew 16: 13 – 20, The New Revised Standard Version

 

One of the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had was in January of 2009, when my family visited Rome. Everyone knows St. Peter’s and the Vatican, but what’s really interesting is to take the archaeological tour, 45 feet under the floor of  St. Peter’s. There, you can walk down an ancient Roman street through a 1st century necropolis, or cemetery. Some of the tombs are Christian tombs, decorated with early Christian art, and one tomb in particular stands out: it is thought to contain the mortal remains of St. Peter, or at least what’s left of him after 2,000 years. Are those bones authentic? Who knows; it’s not like they could do DNA tracing. But on June 26, 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the relics of St. Peter had been found.

It’s a wild story really, that one of the largest churches, both in terms of building and institution, would be built over the remains of a 1st century Jewish fisherman. We can only wonder what St. Peter have said if someone would have told him this would happen?” (Hint: it would likely be unprintable!)

For anyone who is remotely a Christian and knows the Gospels, we have what might be characterized as a celebrity crush on St. Peter. Simon bar Jonah – as he might prefer to be called, other than “Your Holiness” – we feel like we know, despite the fact that he lived 2,000 years ago, in another culture, speaking a language incomprehensible to us, Aramaic. We know Peter was impulsive and brash, which often got him into trouble when he spoke and sometimes when he acted, as two weeks ago when he thought he could walk on water. We know his commendable side, as in today’s Gospel, but we also know his disappointing side, on display in next Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus calls his Satan and tells him to get behind him, and again later when he denied knowing Jesus. Did the Gospels portray Peter in this way as a caricature, or as an example to generations of future Christians like us – who like Peter, well, shall we say, we have our good days and bad days?

Today, on display, we see St. Peter the Good. During a break with his disciples, Jesus asks: “Who do people say that I am?” “Well, say the disciples, 40% say John the Baptist, 30% say Elijah, and another 20% say Jeremiah or one of the prophets, and 10% don’t care or know what day it is.”

Jesus wasn’t interested in popularity polls, here’s where he was going:  “And you – who do you say that I am?”

When I was in seminary I had a professor who – like most professors – would throw out a question and see who would answer. But this professor did more than that: as he talked he would walk, right up to you, right to your desk, point at you and say: “But you – David – what do you think?” At which point I – or whoever he was pointing at – would begin to sweat. This is what Jesus did to his disciples: “But you – what do you think – who do YOU say that I am?”

If Peter began to sweat, or whether he jumped around with his hand in the air, like a student who knows an answer, there is no mention of it. What he said was this: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Now it was Jesus’ turn to jump up and down, making an exclamation we’ve been puzzling about ever since:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

St. PeterI do not believe that Jesus gave Peter a big wad of keys, nor even one big key, as sometimes portrayed in renaissance paintings. Roman Catholic theology has taken Jesus’ words to mean that Peter was the rock, meaning that Peter is the foundation of the Church and the Church’s first Pope, which all others have succeeded, and that’s why the Roman Catholic Church is literally built of top of Peter.

Protestants – on the other hand – have contended that the rock upon which the Church would be built is not Peter, but Peter’s confession of Christ, the foundation of the Church. It is our confession of Jesus as the Christ which individually makes us Christian and collectively the Church; apart from that we would be another sect of Judaism.

Others go so far as to question whether Jesus ever intended to build a church at all, being the apocalyptic prophet that he was, expecting the imminent end of all things. I personally have always liked for the saying: “What Jesus intended was the Kingdom of  God; what he got was the church.” Most pastors would have settled for the church; but what we got instead was property management and conflict mediation.

While there have been times through history where the Church has been a Rock, in our time I compare it to another famous rock, Plymouth Rock. If you have ever been to Plymouth, and seen Plymouth Rock, you know it should really be called “Plymouth Stone.” These days, the church is like that: we may still have our edifices and institutions, from storefront churches to massive cathedrals to bureaucratic denominations, but – for the most part – many are more empty than full, definitely not as full as they used to be. So while itt remains to be seen what will happen to this massive, expensive, energy-consuming institution that is the church, we know that the bedrock – faith in Jesus the Christ – is still there. What will be built upon it, remains to be seen.

And what about that “gates of hell” thing; what does that mean? Is the Church of Christ a static institution – as we often picture it – with the host of hell beating against our door, like a scene out of Lord of the Rings? Or is the church not a static institution but a dynamic movement, never standing still but always moving forward into new frontiers, right up to the gates of hell?

A few years ago, Paul Nixon wrote a book called, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. In it, he asked: “Do you see your church as a FORTRESS or a frontier?” Some churches, he said, adapt a fortress mentality, and see themselves as the lonely faithful, with everybody out to get what’s theirs. So they change the locks, add more security lights, cover up the stained glass windows, put up a fence. What message do they give the community? I think you know: STAY OUT! And people gladly oblige.

On the other hand, says Nixon, churches can adapt a FRONTIER mentality, as Methodism did in its earliest (and best) times. Here we are out on the frontier, daringly reaching out. Such churches, says Nixon, will not look like a fortress, but will be well-cared-for and inviting, surrounded by flower gardens and fountains, benches and places for people to sit, with signs saying not “Trespassers Beware” but “Visitors Welcome.” Such churches, says Nixon, are constantly thinking about ways to get the community into the building, and conversely, to get the congregation out of the building into the community. For such churches, the gates of hell are no match. I believe that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But back to Jesus’ question: what about you, what would you say? “And you – who do you say that I am?

In truth, while Peter gave a good answer – the right answer – he didn’t understand what he was saying, as evident in what happens next, but also in Jesus telling them NOT to go out and tell everyone, for fear of misunderstanding. As we shall find out next week, they had more, much more, to learn about what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, and therefore what it meant to follow him.

Switzer

Albert Schweitzer

Isn’t this the way it is with us as well? Both our understanding and experience of who Jesus is, has evolved and changed over the years. It is different now than it was 20 years ago, different yet than when we were a young adult or youth or child in Sunday School, changed by our ongoing experience over time both with Scripture and with others. This is why following Jesus is never a one-time commitment, but a life-long journey. As theologian Albert Schweitzer put it, in his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus:

“To those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906, p. 40.) Amen.

Cradock

Fred Craddock

One of my favorite stories illustrating how our understanding changes has to do with Albert Schweitzer, as told by the late Fred Craddock, noted storyteller and preacher. Craddock was twenty years old when he read Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest for the Historical Jesus; the whole point of the book is the question of “who Jesus is.” But at 20 – like most of us at that age – Craddock said he found Schweitzer’s Christology woefully lacking – more water than wine. He marked in the book, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds.

One day, Craddock read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a church up there. According to the article, Schweitzer would remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.

So – seeing his opportunity – Craddock bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland. All the way there he worked on The Quest for the Historical Jesus, laying out his questions, putting them on a separate sheet of paper, making reference to the page numbers, preparing his questions: “You said . . .” Because he figured, if there was a conversation in the fellowship hall afterwards, there’d be room for a question or two.

So Craddock went there, heard the concert; rushed into fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions.

After a while, says Craddock, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, seventy-five years old. He had played a marvelous concert. He was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, biblical scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group, and – said Craddock – “There I was, close.”

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station in Lambarene. If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?”

Says Craddock, I looked down at my questions; they were so absolutely stupid. And I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” (Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Editors, pp. 125 – 126.)

 As Peter learned who Jesus was – sometimes the hard way – so we too are still learning, as well as what it means to follow him today. May God give us both wisdom and courage, as we seek to do so day by day.

Central United Methodist Church
Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 14: 21 – 28
August 20th, 2017

 

Caanite Woman

“Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canannite Woman asks for healing for her daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

– Matthew 14: 21 – 28, The New Revised Standard Version

“Can you teach an old dog new tricks?” Most of us know the meaning of that phrase; it means it is difficult to teach someone – especially those of us who are older – new beliefs, new attitudes, or new behavior. It’s one thing when our beliefs, attitudes, or behavior are good, but what about when they are bad; harmful to self, others, and society?

It was such beliefs, attitudes, and actions that we saw on display last week in Charlottesville, in the revived version of some of America’s ugliest qualities: neo-nazis, the Klan, and other versions of White Supremacy. And we wonder – as we have wondered since the beginning of America – through the Revolution and the Civil War and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement – can hearts and minds be changed? Everytime we think we are making progress – like after two terms of an African-American President – the old ugliness erupts, in a new and different way. Are such eruptions birth pangs or death throes; I vote for the latter.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? There are two schools of thought on this: one is no matter how hard we try, it is almost impossible to teach old dogs new tricks. Every time we think we have shamed these racist attitudes, they keep coming back, even among the young; there were a lot of millenials in that crowd last weekend. The old trick of blaming others for your misfortune dies hard.

However, if it is hard and maybe even impossible to teach old dogs new tricks, where does that leave us, sitting here in church on a Sunday morning? Is this a futile exercise we should have abandoned long ago, especially given the racist and judgmental attitudes of some Christians and some churches? Sometimes we wonder.

On the other hand, there is the opposing view that we can change, that by what happens here in church on a Sunday morning, we can make a difference. As former President Obama – quoting Nelson Mandela – tweeted this week, in the most liked tweet ever:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I am an example of this. I grew up in Western Kentucky in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, a time and a place permeated with racism. My high school was South Marshall High School, our school flag was the Confederate flag, our high school song was “Dixie.” On the court square in Murray, KY, the county seat of Calloway County, stands a Confederate monument of Robert E. Lee. The statue was erected – like most such statues were – not after the war, but in 1917, which would be like building a WW II monument today. It was built during the Jim Crow era, not as a memorial to the dead, as a statement to the living; of defiance, and intimidation, placing as they were in front of polling booths and courthouses and public buildings. They served as reminders that though the war was lost, the mentality remained.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know this; I absorbed it like the air I breathed and the food I ate. But through education and encounter with others – not to mention preaching these stories of Jesus for over 40 years – now I understand. I confess and repent and through my encounters with others – including you – I have been changed. So if you get tired of listening to this liberal progressive preacher every Sunday; let me tell you, I have come a long way, baby, and there’s no going back. I’ve seen the enemy, and it is us.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? It’s not just my story, in today’s Gospel; it’s Jesus’ story: even he learned something from a poor Canaanite woman. If even Jesus can learn something, what does that say for us?

As Jesus led his disciples through the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, where wise Israelites did not walk alone, they are on the alert, shaped by their attitudes against the Canaanites, their ancient idol-worshipping enemies, the original inhabitants of the land, much like the Palestinians in Israel or Native Americans in this country.

They are approached, and there is a cry, but it is not the curse they expect; it is a poor mother, begging for help for her daughter. Though invisible walls separate them, she cries out with the desperation of a parent: “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison:” It is a prayer that has rung through the centuries: chanted in cloisters, whispered in hospitals, screamed on battlefields. When we see the division in our country today, we pray: “Lord, have mercy.”

Jesus’ disciples were ready to send her away. At first, Jesus’ behavior is acquiesent; commentators say “Jesus is here caught with his compassion down.” At first, he is silent, ignoring her, refusing to acknowledge her. Then, he says, “I’ve got my hands full with the lost sheep of the house of Israel; sorry!” Finally, when she persists, he says food should not be given to the “dogs,” a Jewish epithet for people like her.

Has Jesus gone to the dogs? Could he be rude or even wrong? As human, he learned like we learn, which means partially, incrementally, through the ideas and attitudes and actions of those around him, some good and some bad, just as we did, wherever we grew up.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Perhaps – as a woman, like women still – she is used to rejection and rebuke. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And Jesus was surprised: “Oh, woman, your faith is something else. What you want is what you get!” Right then her daughter became well.”

Jesus – the respected teacher and healer, the Son of God, the Word made flesh – learns from an outsider. She becomes the spokeswoman from beyond the boundaries who stakes her claim on the mercy and generosity of God, teaching Jesus that the mercy and generosity of God are not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but for all people, a lesson the church would have to relearn after Jesus. By the end of the Gospel, when Jesus says: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations,” might it be because of what he had learned from this woman?

Indeed, this poor unnamed woman gave a lesson not only to him, but to us. Through engagement with the other, we learn that they are not dogs (or whatever name we call them) but people, who have feelings, needs, and children, who desire mercy and happiness like everyone else. Through encounters not with stereotypes but real people, we learn that we are more alike than different, that we are all the children of God. Whether to Pharisees or disciples, foreigners or outcasts, racists or victims, God is a merciful God. We may want to send people away, but God brings them near, even giving  them a seat at the Master’s Table.

In the end, I am left wondering how many stories are out there, of people we might continue to learn from, especially women, especially African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and even Filipino women, whose stories the “official” history books have omitted.

One of the most moving such stories that I have read in the last year was in the June Atlantic Magazine, by Filipino-American author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Alex Tizon. Sadly, Alex Tizon died prematurely just last March at the age of 51. But before he did, he built an exemplary career listening to people: forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never been asked for their stories. (Alex Tizon’s brother, the Rev. Al Tizon, is an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor, the executive minister of Serve Globally, the international ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and a professor at North Park Theological Seminary.)

His article in the June 2017 Atlantic Magazine, entitled, My Family’s Slave, tells the story of Eudocia Tomas PulidoMy Family's Slave, whom they called Lola. Lola was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes. She was 18 years old when his grandfather gave her to his mother as a gift. She did not know at the time that what began as an arrangement for a poor girl to receive food and shelter in exchange for taking care of children, would be for life.

When the family moved to the United States, they brought Lola with them. Alex says: “No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been.”

In more detail in the article, Alex describes the ups and downs of his family, and Lola’s life with them:

Her mother, Fermina, died in 1973; her father, Hilario, in 1979. Both times she wanted desperately to go home. Both times his parents said “Sorry; no money, no time.”

When Alex was 15, his father left them for good, abandoning the kids and his mother after 25 years of marriage. Lola became his mother’s main consolation.

In time, Alex’ mother developed cancer. The day before she died, a Catholic priest came to the house to perform last rites. Lola sat next to her mother’s bed, holding a cup with a straw, poised to raise it to his Mom’s mouth. The priest asked her whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes, said nothing. Then, without looking at Lola, she reached over and placed an open hand on her head. She didn’t say a word.

Just after her 83rd birthday, Alex paid her airfare to return to the Philippines. The unspoken purpose of the trip was to see whether the place she had spent so many years longing for could feel like home. “Everything was not the same,” she said. The old farms were gone. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers. It was nice to see them, but … everything was not the same. She’d still like to spend her last years here, she said, but she wasn’t ready yet. “You’re ready to go back to your garden,” I said. “Yes. Let’s go home.”

Lola made it to 86. Alex says, “I can still see her on the gurney. I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived. She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.” He took her ashes back to the Philippines, and buried them with her family. (Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave, The Atlantic, June, 2017. I highly recommend everyone read the full story here.)

Can old dogs learn new tricks? As even Jesus learned, by listening to the voices of others, especially those we ignore or oppress: “Yes, we can.”

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 13, 2017

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

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

Christ & Peter

Christ and Peter

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 6, 2017

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

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

Bread and Fish

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you think this would be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church of the Holy Apostles

Church of the Holy Apostles New York, NY

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 30, 2017

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

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

mustard seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 23, 2017

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

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

Wheat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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