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In the old days, letters like this one came in the mail. They were often hand written on that lined notebook paper. What each had in common was that my initial impulse was to write two or three hundred pages on each question.
Now, they come via email. Praise The Lord they don’t come via twitter…140 characters? I couldn’t do it for even one of these questions. Still, sincere questions deserve sincere responses, so here’s the questions and responses. As they used to say on Dragnet, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
My family is looking for a new church home. The church we have recently left has very conservative views on several issues that we do not agree with. After some research it seems that the UCC could fall more in line with our core beliefs but I understand that each congregation has differing stance on some of these issues. Please let me know how your church feels about the following issues:
Gay Rights and God’s view of homosexuality. Do you feel that God can love a homosexual couple as they are or that He would feel their way of life is sinful and needs to change? What do you think would happen if a Gay couple came to your church?
The Bible. Do you feel we must take every part of the bible as the inerrant word of God or can it be viewed less literally?
What is your stance on God and Science. Can they work together or do you believe that faith requires you to deny science?
Women in Leadership. Do you feel that Women can be capable leaders in the church or do you belief this is against God’s plan?
Sorry, I know these are very weighty issues. You can respond in email or call me (XXX-XXX-XXXX) to discuss them. If you would prefer to meet in person instead, I would be open to that as well. I do not feel that a church needs to agree completely on every theological point but I do feel there needs to be an open mindedness and willingness to discuss issues without condemning.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Thanks for your interest in our Church. I am happy to speak to you personally, sometime, but felt that a fairly quick reply was in order.
First, let me say that I sometimes describe my perspective on faith this way: “I take the bible seriously, but believe every time we read it we are in ‘interpretation’ mode. I am theologically moderate; what I mean by that is that theology (how we understand God) begins with the ‘trying on’ of a particular theological tradition and as we grow in our faith we may (and ought to) change our perspective. Socially, I am a progressive and I half-jokingly say these perspectives go together: “just like they did for Jesus.”
Our Church is a mixture of perspectives. We are not diverse racially or culturally, but our faith views are diverse. I realize that we have some folks whose perspectives on these matters are quite conservative. Others seem to fall in the camp of what I refer to as ‘progressive.’ What you have below is my response, not a prescription from the congregation.
To your questions:
Gay Rights: The United Church of Christ as a denomination has been on the leading edge of this issue. It has caused no small amount of strife in our region, but personally I think our progressiveness is on the right side of this argument. This congregation (I’ve been here almost 4 years) seems to have a ‘don’t ask –don’t tell’ policy on this. We have members who are gay, whose children are gay, who participate regularly, and who are in positions of leadership. It saddened me that recently a UCC congregation in New Orleans was denied the opportunity to advertise because of this kind of progressive message. I was proud of the church, however. I do know of at least one person who doesn’t feel comfortable bringing their partner to church…but i feel that is slowly changing. I do know that the issue of sexual orientation is non-issue to my 20 something children; even while issues of promiscuity, and marriage fidelity are. On the issue of sin; if someone does believe it is a sin, I would refer them to Jesus’ words on the subject (which were…nothing). He did, however, say “let those without sin cast the first stone.” John 8:7. This issue is not unrelated to my next response.
The Bible is important, as we are a church from the ‘Reformed’ side of the UCC family. My own feeling is that if someone (which our adult bible study did a year ago) studies ‘how the bible came to be,’ the inerrancy stance cannot stand. This is not the same thing as saying that the bible is without authority. We believe it is “God’s Word.” The fact of the matter is that everyone interprets the bible and sections there in. For instance, I enjoy a cheeseburger as well as a shrimp cocktail…both of which are clearly forbidden by the ‘Holiness’ code in Leviticus. Interpretation of the biblical texts has been part and parcel of the lives of Christians since the beginning. It continues. In 1620, when our spiritual forebears prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Even those who want to cling to a ‘literal’ reading of the bible are hesitant to go down to the local jail, to deliver Jesus’ promise to “set the captives free.”
Science: I spent the first six years of my working life as an engineer. My own feeling is that, for instance, the Bible and a Science Textbook are not seeking the same truth. Put another way, I find no inconsistency with Science’s observation and claims about our physical world, and at the same time, Faith’s description of the Ultimate forces at work in it. To put it bluntly, when people ask me about affirming the ‘creation story,’ I generally ask them “which one, Genesis 1 or Genesis 2?” I do, however, accept that God is the Creator.
Women: The United Church of Christ was one of the first denominations to ordain a woman (Antoinette Brown, 1851). At my previous call, early on, someone said to me “we are glad we got you, and not a woman.” From that point on, nearly every time I was away I made sure that the supply pastor was a woman. After my departure to come to Hain’s, they called a very talented woman as their new pastor. We have women who serve at every level of leadership in our congregation. Our current (and some past) President is a woman.
I hope that this brief response was helpful. I encourage you to visit our congregation on a Sunday Morning for worship. In June we move to one service at 9:30 am. If the ‘feel’ is right for you, let me know…I am happy to chat in person. On our door it says, “Everyone Is Welcome.” I pray that is true.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
May 26, 2013
“A Hard Road”
Today is Trinity Sunday. This should not be a surprise, as it is every year, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. It is also a demonstration that God is merciful and just; in that because we join our ecumenical partners today at 11 in the grove for our Memorial Day service, I do not have to try to explain the Holy Trinity to a mob of children during the ‘children’s sermon.’ All sorts of heresy and blasphemy is uttered when pastor’s like me try to distill down the idea of the Trinity to a simple object lesson. Fortunately, I only need to remind you what this observance is all about.
Before the church moves into that long, not-so-ordinary time of hearing about the mission of the church and the ministry of Jesus, weeks of Green Paraments, we tip our hat to this theological construct that is as old as the church itself.
Sometimes theology comes from the intellectual activity of some very smart people who have time to wonder about things, and argue…in the best greek sense of that term…about their thesis. In the case of the Trinity, it did not happen that way. It seems that very early in the life of the church, when they were still not sure that the government was going to tolerate their existence; early on when they were gathering in peoples houses, sitting around the table and breaking the bread and drinking the cup together; early on someone listened to their worship and accused them of straying from the faith. Someone said, “It sounds to me like you no longer worship the single God of the Universe, the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob.” You sound like you worship three Gods: The Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
The answer came swiftly, from those around the table. See the idea of the Trinity did not come from an ivory tower, then given to the church, saying, ‘ok, now do something with this.’ No, the idea of the trinity came from Worship. It came from what the church was already doing at the earliest days of its existence when the people gathered to praise God.
Then, and now, everything hangs on the pattern of love-in-communion that exists among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity names the truth of both God’s vulnerability and God’s power–or, rather, that God’s vulnerability is–through the suffering death of the Son–God’s power. And, as Nicholas Lash has said, the Trinity names “the mystery that constitutes, transforms, and heals the world.” Trinity permeates the church’s life and witness. When we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we name the Trinity as the church’s “determining reality” In the Eucharist, the gathered community “incarnates and realizes its communion within the very life and communion of the Trinity” In the Athanasian Creed, The justice, generosity, and equality we seek to embody in our life together all have their source in the Trinity, in which “none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal and co-equal”
Now do you get it? No? That’s not surprising. Don’t beat up on yourself.
The Trinity is a concept that very bright and faithful people have tried to explain (in great detail) for a millennia. What makes me think that I can adequately do this for you? Yet, as I prepared for today, I opened my bible to the Roman’s text, read this morning, and written by the Apostle Paul, and I had an idea.
I do not know the challenges that the Apostle Paul faced. His imprisonment in Phillipi and his thrashing before it are things I know nothing about. But I, for one, believe that suffering is relative. A colleague once told me about an urgent pastoral call. He was in his office late one Friday afternoon, preparing for Sunday worship when a frantic call came in. The woman, obviously distraught, said, “Pastor, it’s an emergency, can you come right over?” So he jumped in his car, fought the ‘Durham triangle’ traffic across town. The woman greeted the pastor at the door, box of tissues in hand. They sat down and the pastor asked just what was going on? She proceeded to tell him that on Thursday night their hot water heater failed, “Pastor, do you have any idea how awful it is to go without hot water for 24 hours?”
I do not wish to trivialize whatever someone else has deemed at a tragedy. But I am not sure that the resources of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity can come to bear, constructively, on this situation.
Still, long ago I promised myself that I would never tell anyone, “I know what you are going through.” The fact of the matter is that I do not know what you are going through, but I do know what I’ve been through. And I know that it is in the mysterious completeness of God we describe as the Trinity that there are resources for us.
So when I read what the Apostle tells the Romans,
“3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,”
I felt that he was speaking to me.
And there was a part of me that wanted to simply tell each of you that which Paul proclaims. Unfortunately, I know how cheap that may sound on ears cauliflowered by the pounding some of you have taken. But listen to how Eugene Peterson translates these verses in “The Message:”
3 …We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, 4 and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. 5 In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!
We know that God, who created all that is and who loves each one of us, this same God has already marked each one of us for salvation by Jesus Christ through our baptism, this same God strengthens us for life by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This we affirm, this we believe.
Still, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans unless it means something on the difficult days. The miracle of the trinity is not found in understanding the mysterious way that God was revealed to the disciples long ago. It is about this same mysterious revelation in our lives, in the life of the church that says “ For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So it is my deepest desire that you will come to know, if you don’t already, this tippy-toe-stance where we perch in the midst of our own hardship in alert expectancy of what God will do next.
The fullness of God is beyond our comprehension. Our speech may be halting and tentative as we talk about the Trinity. But God is much more than a doctrine and much more than a mystery. In His great love affair with us, God decided that the best way He could build a relationship with us was with three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit; Parent, Savior, and Presence. And the more we understand that we are all children of God, God’s beloved, the better we can relate to one another, and the better we can relate to God.
And, we relate better to one another.
And, we relate better to one another .
And, we relate better to one another .
…Because with God it’s all about relationship – relationship with us – God who is one, God who is three, God who is all. The God who we stand in awe of as we look upon our world, the Son with whom we walk in our struggles, failures, and joys, and the Holy Spirit with whom we remember all that is good and wonderful in God.
It is good to rehearse this in your mind when the road is rough.
May 19 2013
“This is It”
A friend and I were talking over the weekend. I told him we had big doings here this weekend. Pentecost, confirmation, “each one bring one Sunday.” My friend asked, “what do you hope these folks get out of church?” He is a pretty smart guy, a keen observer of organizations, particularly churches. He’s also a ‘wisenheimer’.
At first, I was a little put off by his comment. After all, it is the bane of our American existence that we always ask ‘what do I get’ more quickly than ‘what can I give.’ But the longer I thought about this question, the more sense it made to me.
The appropriateness of the question, “What do they get out of it,” hinges on what it is we seek. After all, no one enters into any commitment without some expectation of the outcome of that commitment. The rightness, if you will, of that expected outcome is what we must discern if we are to engage in valuable activity.
In the text from Luke’s Acts this morning, we have what I believe is the most important account of Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Here we have the Apostle’s (and I suppose the other 108 people who were ‘followers’ of Jesus) gathered together. There was some question in town about what had gotten into these people. They were ‘energized,’ on ‘fire’ even. They were speaking in strange tongues, but not so strange that others could not understand. It is hard to determine exactly why these folks began following Jesus three years ago. There were a few who joined this group because he told them to. There were others who joined this group because they were attracted by his message. There were others, still, who joined because of the miraculous deeds this rabbi accomplished amongst them. Mixed motives. But now, they are all ‘getting something out of it.’
What are they getting? We might immediately say, “The presence of the Holy Spirit,” and that would be correct. People join groups for immediate gratification. Some people join a group because the group provides an opportunity to yield power in a way they cannot be powerful in their own lives. I don’t know. You remember that even the disciples were jockeying for position in those final days before the Crucifixion, saying, “let me sit on your right hand when you come into your kingdom.” But the outcome in this group is not one of seats of power or authority. The gift is what someone described as a ‘mystical’ presence that empowers and guides these believers to do the will of God.
Confirmation students join the church for a mixture of motives. That’s a nice way of saying, “Mom and Dad made ‘em come.” But what do we hope they get? If we were to pay close attention to the words in the liturgy, we would hear a subtle hope expressed: It is the hope that we would all receive the presence of Christ, to be joined with him through his church. We expect that he, and he alone, will shape their lives, our lives.
What Peter tries to explain is that this is the very thing they have ‘gotten out of this;’ God’s promise is now realized in a way far beyond the expectations of even the most faithful disciples. He says something like this:
While we were praying and meditating, it seemed like flames of fire darted from the air and fell on all of us. We couldn’t stay in that room. We had to come down. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I remembered the words of a prophet named Joel. He quoted God by saying, “In the last days I will give my Spirit freely to all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. At that time I will give my Spirit, even to my servants, both men and women. And they will prophesy.”
Well, this is it! It is what God promised. A new age has come upon us. God is doing a new thing with us. It must be the power that Jesus promised. We can’t control it. It is controlling us. This is it. New life for the church! New life for people within the church!
What are we hoping we get? The same as 2000 years ago. We pray that a miracle will occur and that God will create people who are on fire for Jesus Christ, who have energy to do God’s work in the world, whose lives demonstrate a radical openness to others, hope and grace, justice and peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
New life through the Spirit of God! This is it! This is the message of Pentecost!
THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
April 28, 2013
“Us and Them”
For congregations to continue to grow, spiritually, all new forms of togetherness ultimately must be in service of a more enriched individuality, and not the other way around. (A paraphrase of Edwin Friedman “A Failure of Nerve,” p. 169.)
All are welcome, we mean it! (A phrase seen on a church flyer).
John Wimber, a musician, a charismatic pastor, and one of the founders of the Vineyard Church movement; “insisted that Christian bodies (read, church) must take the position that everyone who wants to come thereby belongs just because of the wanting and without regard to how he or she may behave or claim to believe.” (Tickle, Phyllis Emergence Christianity, Baker Books, 2012, p. 81)
Luke records for us today an account that some of us are quite familiar with. The situation is not unlike a time when a certain event occurred in what was usually an orderly third grade classroom. I do not recall the precipitating circumstances but what I do remember is that in a moment of failed judgement, Mrs. Falahee told the class to read quietly for a moment while she left the room. What the principal saw was only the very tail end of longer episode in the classroom. Because I was caught in a, lets say compromising position, arm cocked with an eraser in hand, he looked at me and said: “You, come with me.” I was summoned to the principal’s office. No one is comfortable with a summons like that.
In the presence of Mr. Willbanks I did not make excuses for my wind-up to throw that eraser. Up until that point I had not done anything. So I simply explained to him what happened. Our teacher was not gone from the room for 5 minutes and bedlam ensued. Throwing chalk and erasers. Jumping around, running, pulling the girls pig-tails, I don’t remember what all. I did not name names, but explained what happened and when. I still got the paddle. Substitutionary Atonement is what the theologians call it.
If you listened carefully to the reading from Acts this morning you noticed some of this going on. See, the first followers of Jesus were still part of the synagogue, in Jerusalem, and like all faiths defined themselves by certain practices. They are called the ‘circumcision’ group.
Peter, one of the group, has been out of town. Word has gotten back to church that while Peter was away he was engaged in some bad behavior. It is a scene out of any Hollywood parody of the business woman on the road who lets her hair down, maybe has a few drinks, the next thing you know she’s dancing on the table. As long as word doesn’t get back home she’s fine. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. You know what happened. Somebody saw what was going on there, recognized Peter, and the word got back to Jerusalem.
It seems while Peter was on his road trip he had dinner with some acquaintances. Not the same folks he’d be dining with back in Jerusalem, they say he was with folks he should not have been with and eating food he should not eat. These are not lapses in judgement or that somehow he misunderstood the menu. He understood he was sent there.
Still, the church leaders want to know what the heck was going on. He was summoned to explain his actions.
Peter does not defend himself. He doesn’t make excuses. He turns to his interrogators and says, ‘let me tell you what happened.’ He tells them that he received the invitation, recognized that he should not participate, that he has never…not up to now anyway…varied from the straight way. Then he tells them something surprising, God speaks to Peter, saying, “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Peter is not saying, ‘yeah I know it’s wrong but everybody else is doing it.’ He isn’t saying that. He also is not saying that he didn’t know better. He did know better. Peter is not saying that they tricked him. There was no charade by the other to be someone they are not. The food was not disguised in such a way that he didn’t recognize it. No, from the very beginning of this event Peter knew that travel down this path would lead to this uncomfortable summons.
What Peter tells the leadership is essentially this: I know what the rules are as well as you do, but God tells me that those rules we have used to make judgements about others don’t amount to a hill of beans. It was as if Peter heard God say, those people are as much my people as you are, so stop making distinctions I don’t make.
Peter has learned that God shows no partiality. As the sign says on our door, “All are welcome.”
At first, those with nice and neat barriers and boundaries were silenced when they heard that people who did not ‘fit’ the expectations for God’s people had received the Holy Spirit. That’s what the text says, they were quiet.
St. Luke does not describe what was going on in that silence. We all know that silence does not necessarily mean consent. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if some folks questioned the authenticity of this alleged ‘falling of the Holy Spirit.” It is much easier to maintain your own strict guidelines for salvation if you insist that those who don’t follow them didn’t really experience The Holy Spirit in their midst. That can and is done.
There may have been some who said, ‘well, good for them!’ Which is another way of saying that whatever it is they experienced it certainly wasn’t the real thing like we get over here. There may have even been a few who would be willing to receive these outsiders, technically, under the umbrella of the church, just so long as they stay over there in Joppa and don’t try any of that new stuff here in Jerusalem.
There may not have been anything said. that doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t talked about. The Holy Righteous Church of the Parking Lot is a recognizable feature of the church landscape. I bet that even in Jerusalem groups of self-appointed guardians of the faith who gathered in the meeting after the meeting to protect the church from the invasion of, well, openness and good ideas.
This may be well and good if followers of Jesus were expected to be divided by particularities of custom, of behavior. But we are not. We are to be one; one in the Spirit, one in The Lord. No isolationist practices.
As if to explain how this might be possible, in John’s gospel, chapter 13, Jesus gets as direct and prescriptive as we will ever hear him. As he approaches Jerusalem in his final days, he tells them: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Thus the challenge for the church is laid down in plain and simple terms. If you want to be a part of this community, if you want to claim a place in among those who call themselves Christian, you must love. I suppose that it goes without saying that you love God. Then there is this second part that cannot be separated from the first, it is that you love your neighbor as yourself.
I think that we can agree that to love God is an essential requirement to being a religious person, a faithful person. For the most part, religious people further define themselves by doing some things and, perhaps not doing other things. Some times we say, ‘this is what we do.’ At other times we say, ‘I never did it that way before.’ Every faith does this and if they try and tell you they don’t they are either lying or they don’t believe in much.
Are there things that each of us do that displeases God? Sure. But I cannot help but notice that what was certain is now, changed; for the better, for everyone, for the better.
On this day in Joppa the church is not defined by what it believes, or what it does, but by loving those who have been somehow drawn to her doors. And the church is defined by going out into the world and sharing the Love of God without prejudice. The simple truth is that the church is for everyone, insiders, outsiders, everyone. It isn’t hard to believe this. What is hard is to do it.
The controversy about opening the church was settled only temporarily in this passage. The issue was raised again and again in Acts, and it continues to be raised to this day.
But there is a real church that is living and growing and breathing. The Spirit is present and the people are alive. Shall we be silent? We can be a part of that church, or in silence we can be part of the group that thinks it is the church, that is more preoccupied with meetings and minutes and rules than the action of the Spirit and message of salvation for all? Are our doors open wide enough? As the Spirit moves, let’s open them, and to tell our community and the world that we are church for everyone.
How exciting is that! The Spirit of of God is working is places we can barely imagine! And we can be a part of that too! Through sharing God’s gracious love we are going to be the most welcoming congregation around! How can we not praise God?
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March 31, 2013
Today is Easter. I suppose you do not need to be reminded of this fact. The church is entering into 50 days of joy. It begins with 40 days until the Ascension where we celebrate Christ’s presence within the church until the Ascension; then ten more days until Pentecost. It is a ‘high ol’ time’ in the life of the church.
So we have pulled out all the stops. Dr. Hagness has assembled a fine group of musicians to strengthen what was already a fine morning of music. She has been rehearsing, I suppose the feeling will return to her arms sometime about Thursday. The choirs, don’t forget the choirs; they have been rehearsing too. I am thankful that we have so many folks who help lead us in worship. Pastor Johnson has been busy, feverishly attending to all our sick and shut-in that they might have the Eucharist in this season of Lent.
I haven’t really been working very hard, not as hard as the rest. Preaching on Easter Sunday has a rather short list of themes.
From time to time I have had confirmation students and others wonder what they are supposed to do during the sermon. What happens when we get to a day like today when the pastor has to use a bunch of filler to get the whole 15 minutes in. I gave them this suggestion, so as to not waste their time. You might benefit from it.
Everybody whose last name ends in A through F, I want you to think about this: Jesus rose from the dead. That’s your thought. Now take this idea and let it bump up against the happen chance occurrence that somebody came here this morning by accident. This person was simply in town visiting some relatives and when everybody else got up and got in the car they tagged along. The whole idea that someone died – this person also said in advance this would happen, as a sign of sorts – and after three days was alive. This was not one of those Hollywood stories where the lens goes all fuzzy and the story takes some imaginary turn. This person is breakfast on the beach alive and present with those who knew him best. I am asking you to take this thought, Jesus rose from the dead, and consider what it might lead this person to think. Make a list of possibilities.
If your name begins with the letter G through M, here is your thought. Jesus rose from the dead. For this group, I’d like you to consider how this thought might have some effect on those who are here today, not so many days from another day at the graveside. Someone who was near and dear to them has died. Think about how this idea insists that death is not the final word on anything. There was sadness, there always is, but this idea also carries with it another idea, where death might never be the worse thing that could happen to anybody. This is your idea.
Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” inspires me to hear the this idea as an invitation to “practice resurrection.” We practice resurrection when we are open to God’s call to seek life on the other side of death, hope on the other side of despair, and peace on the other side of fear.
Then there are some people who are like The disciples here in the text this morning. So N through S, Think of this idea, Jesus rose from the dead; Peter knew this, saw him like everybody else, and the text says he went home. Let this idea rub up against this reality. For Peter and the rest, this idea eventually meant that being his disciples was not a spectator sport. They went out and served others, widened the circle, shared the good news, and in some cases they had to tell others, but mostly they showed them. You could come and hear this idea, Jesus rose from the dead, alleluia, and all that stuff and get the idea that this was just one more fact to put in the memory bank and then go home. This is what I want you to think about. N through S. Jesus rose from the dead.
Now, for those of you who are T through Z, think about this idea, Jesus rose from the dead. In one of the readings, you might notice that this idea, Jesus rose from the dead, is for everyone. Think about this for a bit. If, during the sermon you begin to find that your mind wanders, focus on this idea that applies to everyone. It is tempting to privatize this idea, to restrict it to people whose faith dots the same ‘I’ and crosses the same ‘t’ as yours does. Let this universal application stretch the idea, Jesus rose from the dead; not just for the eleven and the women who had been hanging around, but for the whole world. Anybody left out? No. Very inclusive, the effect of this idea, Jesus rose from the dead. Think about this idea, in this way, it is for the whole world. No exceptions. The good, the bad, everyone.
These are you assignments, and if you will carry them out I will feel much better about the sermon on this one idea, Jesus rose from the dead. It is something we think about regularly. You do have to consider it. It’s out there, it isn’t new. Its in the public domain. So if somewhere between breaking the bread and the receiving the cup you need something to do, take up that one idea, Jesus rose from the dead.
This idea often lies there unconsidered among everything else that goes on in worship. today it’s all I got. So I hope you will pick it up, turn this idea over in your mind. Think about this, just one thing.
(The structure of this sermon is stolen from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, “Witnessing to the Resurrection”)
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A rare event, my wife and I went out to breakfast this morning.
She noticed that I have descended into my Triduum funk.
This condition is an annual affair, even though I do my best to strike it from my calendar. I suspect that the reason for it is other events that dominate my calendar.
The liturgical calendar demands that I immerse myself in the journey from Bethany to Jerusalem to Golgotha. I wish that there was a way to keep one foot planted in present realities, pleasantries of my choosing, and just dip a toe into the Triduum tide. Apparently I cannot manage this dialectic.
What is strange is that it isn’t as if I don’t know the entirety of the story. Our bible study group has been reading Luke. Miraculously, the series ended yesterday, Maundy Thursday, with our reading and contemplation of chapter 24. Two weeks ago, the group wondered if we should cancel our meeting this week, what with it being Holy Week and all. I said, “no, the timing is perfect. I am happy to meet if you are willing.”
I suspect that my consternation is due to my observation that most folks do not travel the whole route. It could be this avoidance is because it is just to hard a route to take. Another reason is that this part of the story tells us something about ourselves we’d rather not face. We, after all, are sensible, progressive, modern folk.
I hope that I am not bitter. Who can blame those who would rather not make the entire trek. We could all be spared what is by any estimation a few days that chronicle the worst human traits; betrayal, violence, greed, self-righteousness. The large crowd of Palm Sunday will not be repeated until the following Sunday, despite the best efforts of musicians, liturgists, and preachers.
I guess that, as clique as it sounds, I wonder if the fullness of the good news can be received if the fullness of the bad news is not paused over, considered, and taken up as part of our own story.
“One little problem with our attempts to be thoughtful, prudent, reflective, and careful people: we are also the ones who on a Friday – just rationally following the best of western jurisprudence – tortured to death the Son of God.” (“The Best of William H. Willimon: Acting Up In Jesus’ Name”)
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April 21, 2011
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
1 Corinthians 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,
11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
/51b/ … and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” /52/ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” /53/ So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. /54/ Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; /55/ for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. /56/ Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. /57/ Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. /58/ This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
This text, from Paul’s hand to the Corinthian Church, is perhaps the earliest account of our practice of the Eucharist. John’s Gospel does not describe this scene, one we are so familiar with. It is recorded in Luke, in Mark, and in Matthew, but here in John’s upper room, there is no breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup. To find it in John’s Gospel you must look early on, in chapter 5 and 6. This shouldn’t be a surprise, really. John’s Gospel was written nearly 50 years after the Corinthian correspondence, and nearly 30 years after Luke. John has had time to think about the significance of this person Jesus, his place as the Christ, and so from the very beginning he is interpreting (as opposed to writing an ‘orderly account’) of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John’s gospel is full of metaphor and imagery that moves our imagination. That’s why (in John’s gospel, at least) Jesus offers himself to us as the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven. Since the 16th century, people have often debated the meaning of the images offered in John 6. Should we interpret the manna from heaven to be his Word, or rather the Eucharist? This is a false alternative, as shown to us by the earliest Christian traditions. An ancient tradition dating back to the early Church Fathers says that we feed on Christ from two tables, the table of the word, symbolized by the ambo, a raised reading desk similar to what we call the lecturn; and the table of the Eucharist, which is the altar. We recognize these two tables today when we ordain ministers to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Recreating this scene is an essential part of worship. So we shouldn’t be surprised when, Sometimes, brides and grooms desire the Eucharist during the wedding liturgy. I am willing, but when we do I insist that the entire congregation participates. Why? Because first and foremost the Lord’s supper is an affirmation of Christian community. It is a declaration that we are a people bound under a new agreement with the living Lord, an agreement which sets us apart as an eternal community – a people bound in love to one another and to the Lord.1
Before church governments were devised, before creeds were formalized, before the first word of the New Testament was written, the Lord’s Supper was firmly fixed at the heart of Christian faith and life.2 As the church grew, and responsibility for being the ‘mediator’ of this grace, concerns about who receives this sacrament grew. Earlier this week I was part of a conversation with other preacher types about an element of the Eucharist liturgy called the “Invitation to the Lord’s Table.” This part of the liturgy was an effort to ensure that no one would receive the sacrament who was not ‘rightly’ prepared. So we used to have preparatory services, some churches gave out tokens at the preparatory service and only those with those tokens received the sacrament the next day, or the next week, whenever it was held. This is called “fencing the table.”
The liturgy has changed over the centuries, I believe for the better, in that we now celebrate what is called an ‘open’ table; any baptized Christian who desires to know grace of God and the love of their neighbor can participate. The open table intends to accomplish what the sacrament itself seeks: that we all may be one. That is why from the earliest times the left over elements would be taken out to those of the fellowship who were unable to attend. Gathered, or scattered, we are one family in Christ, one community of the Spirit. We get this idea from the intimacy expressed in the upper room as Jesus shared this Passover feast with his disciples.
What do we believe about this rite, this ritual, this sacrament? If we carefully walk through the liturgy, you will notice that we understand: The Eucharist as Thanksgiving to the Father. This too is not a recent development. Whether short, or long, the Eucharistic prayer begins with thanks to God. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. So as we prepare in prayer, you will hear me remember God’s graciousness to God’s people going all the way back to the creation.
Next, you will notice that we understand: The Eucharist as Anamnesis or Memorial of Christ. For some churches, that is what it is, a memorial. The bread is the bread, the wine is the wine, and it is the act of remembering Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and so our salvation, that is important. In this we reenact Jesus’ promise, and Paul’s consolation: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
I want you to know that this is not a mere memorial. We understand the Eucharist as the “Real Presence” of Christ. As such, we understand The Eucharist as Invocation of the Spirit.3 The Holy Spirit is called upon to draw us together, to nourish us with Christ’s body, and to unite us with the faithful in all times and places. Some churches believe that the elements actually become the body and blood of Christ. We believe that Christ’s presence is real, and that what Jesus declared in the upper room is true, but in a unique way: He is present in and through and around these elements as we receive them.
This mystical presence, as it is called, means that we treat these elements with great reverence. Most congregations do not throw out the leftovers, but offer the bread to the birds and the wine to the ground. Some people would put some of the leftovers, symbolically, on the graves of their loved ones. In other traditions the celebrant would consume the leftovers so as to not treat the body and blood of Christ as refuse.
That is also why, when at the rail we hold out our hands to receive the bread, this precious body of our Lord. We might be tempted to grab for it, but instead it is something we graciously receive from the one who presides. As we receive it, we hear the words, ‘the Body of Christ,’ and so we respond, ‘Amen,’ which means so be it, may it be so for me. The same is true for the cup, we hear the words, ‘the blood of Christ…’ and graciously, by dipping, or drinking, we exclaim, ‘Amen,’ may it be so for me.
By recognizing the Eucharist as a sacrament (one of two we recognize), we believe that something quite remarkable takes place at this table. Here we come to know the real presence of Christ, and receive all Christ’s benefits. What I think we mean by this is that we are made one with Christ, and made one, we are made right through our faith as we are so joined, and we are strengthened for our Christian life of service to him.
I want you to remember we never come to this rail, to this table, alone. Even if the sacrament is brought to a lonely bedside, there is a very special sense in which we are surrounded by generations. This evening we are surrounded by our Jewish brothers and sisters who call Abraham, “Father” — and by Peter, James and John who called Jesus, “Lord.” — and wonderfully, by our mothers and father and grandfathers and grandmothers who came to this church and remembered the Lord and received Holy Communion — and passed it all on to us. What a rich heritage we have as we gather tonight with the whole Communion of Saints! On this night so long ago, something very powerful happened. Jesus took the Passover meal and instituted something that would bind his followers together for all time and eternity. He broke bread and said, “This is my body for you.” Then he took wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood for you.”
On this night, we celebrate the institution of what we call the Eucharist. It is almost two thousand years ago that Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate the Passover just before he was arrested, tried and executed.
Who can possibly be totally ready to receive this gift? There is no possible way that the disciples could have understood the incredible implications of this. The age old Passover became the Holy Communion of God’s new children — every person of every tongue and every color and every tribe on this planet — who would come to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. Thankfully, the benefits we receive are not dependent upon our understanding, but upon our faith.
It was the last night of Jesus’ life and the disciples would never forget the memories of those events. The foot washing. The wine. The bread. The words: “This is my body. This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Do this is remembrance of me.” We gather to know this same Jesus, to be strengthened for our own faith by this gift, we gather to again be united to Him and one another by His presence. We are here, receiving this spiritual food, to increase our love of God and one another. This is the blessing of this sacrament.
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Holy Wednesday 2013
21After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus, 24so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. 31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once
A young American woman, Laura has come to Mexico City in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in order to work for the revolutionary cause, in support of a socialist regime. She is a schoolteacher and also acts as a go-between for the local revolutionary leader, Braggioni, and his adherents. Braggioni has a personal interest in the lovely but cold young woman and he pays her nightly visits, hoping to seduce her. As the story opens, Braggioni is in Laura’s room, singing to her. It is the end of the day and Laura is tired, but she receives Braggioni’s attention politely, not wishing to offend the powerful man. ‘Where are you taking me, she asked in wonder but without fear. To death, and it is a long way off, and we must hurry, said Eugenio. No, said Laura, not unless you take my hand. Then eat these flowers, poor prisoner, said Eugenio in a voice of pity, take and eat: and from the Judas tree he stripped the warm bleeding flowers, and held them to her lips.’ (Katherine Porter, “Flowering Judas,” Flowering Judas and other Short Stories, 1930)
WILL YOU BETRAY ME, TOO?
Delilah betrays Sampson to the philistines. David betrays Uriah to hide his sin. Absolom betrayed his father David to take over the Kingdom. Court officials betrayed Daniel because of his devotion to God.
Think Shakespear; King Lear, poor old King Lear. Or, Macbeth. That’s a good story about Betrayal. Why, even Disney loves Betrayal; Scar, Mufasa, Simba, the Lion King. Betrayal is not new or rare. it is, unfortunately, part of the human condition.
It’s not the actions of your adversaries that break your heart. For that it takes someone you really love, someone for whom you have let down your defenses. Betrayal is the work of someone upon whom you have counted. Betrayal is the work of the person for whom you have gone to the mat. Betrayal always bears the face of someone you trusted and someone for whom you would have done almost anything.
Betrayal is immensely selfish, but it is also brutally aggressive. One of the first things any of us learns about someone we love is how to cause that person hurt. The betrayer selfishly tells her or himself that the betrayal is somehow deserved because of a perceived slight by that person. In fact, the betrayer simply thinks about what he or she wants. In short, betrayal is the opposite of God’s love – which is selfless service.
I have begun tonight talking about human relationships, intimate, committed relationships, because it is the most comparable analogy to the relationship between God and His people. In the Old Testament, God is the husband of faithless Israel. In the New Testament, Christ is the bridegroom of His faithless Church. God gives Himself in love to His beloved, and the beloved responds with half-hearted commitment or outright betrayal. The problem for the beloved is selfishness. Betrayal is the opposite of God’s love – which is selfless service.
In a sense, it is always easy in Holy Week for us to talk about Judas’ betrayal. It is easy to see Satan at work in Judas’ life. In fact, it is easy for us to recognize the weaknesses of all of Jesus’ friends – failing to understand, falling asleep in Gethsemane, denying that one knows Jesus, and hiding away in terror as He is dying and then dead. But, of course, we know that Judas stands in a class by himself precisely because he sells out Jesus and then seals his betrayal with a final kiss.
Peter will be rehabilitated to become the leader of the twelve. Thomas will be rehabilitated with just one glimpse of the risen Jesus’ wounds. James and John will be rehabilitated to give themselves in humble service, and so on. But Judas will commit suicide unable to live with the truth about himself when his selfishness undeniably shows itself in the face of the crucified and dead Jesus. A friend of mine says, “Judas was the only one who never understood that he could receive forgiveness.”
A number of years ago comedian George Carlin used to do this routine about having grown up Roman Catholic and going to confession. He would laugh about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about looking at someone with lust as being already the sin of adultery. Carlin’s punch line would be that you could save yourself the bus fare by staying home since you had already committed adultery in your heart. Of course, Carlin’s routine was ridiculing both the notion of self-control and the notion of fidelity. ~ both of which are qualities disciples of Christ value.
In a way, Carlin’s humor is another way of saying: why not go ahead and be Judas? What does it matter anyway? Some may even note that with the proper contrition you’ll be forgiven anyway. Cutting to the chase: “Everybody is doing it anyway, Mom.”
In this Preparatory Service we not only to confess our sins before God and the whole company of heaven, but also throw ourselves upon God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The rest of the story is the story of our rehabilitation with Peter, Thomas, James, John, and the others. Holy Week is not an encouragement to embrace the Judas in me and to love the Judas in me. How can I ever be content to remain in opposition to God’s selfless love? How can I ever be content to embrace betrayal as a way of life?
Not understanding grace prohibited Judas from denying himself, taking up his cross, and following Jesus. For disciples, even as imperfect as we are, it is what comes next. It is what every person who, because all of us are betrayers of one form or another, will learn again daily. The way of Christ is the way of selfless love, fidelity, and self-control, about which the Lord Jesus has so much more to show and to tell us tomorrow.
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WHO IS THIS?
Palm Sunday 2013
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
Today is Palm Sunday. By all accounts it was a festive day. People got excited and they still do. Some wave palm fronds and others poke them into their sister’s ear. There is joy in this day, but even Palm Sunday isn’t a time of unambiguous joy.
A colleague told me a story, an account of one of those pastoral conversations that haunt you. A guy called him up one day, asking to meet with him as soon as possible. “Sure,” my friend said. The guy came and he was obviously distraught. It seems he was coming home in the wee hours of the morning after a night out with the guys. He parked the car in the garage, and was walking into the house when Jesus appeared to him. He described this appearance in great detail. The man’s story made it clear, to my friend at least, that this guy was not psychotic but did indeed have an experience of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
The man went on to say that he had never told anyone about this. His wife didn’t even know.
My friend told him that this experience must have been quite moving; transformative even. “That’s the problem,” he said, “see, if Jesus is actually who the bible and our church says he is, well, I am in trouble.” “What are you talking about,” my friend asked?
“If Jesus is, well, if its all true, then I have to change.”
What are you talking about, the pastor asked. You are a good guy, come to church, take care of your family, love your wife? What’s the problem?
I don’t know if others have ever had to wrestle with this kind of experience. I do know that we occasionally drag out some Saint from a prior generation as an example of discipleship. Heck, last Sunday I told the children the story of St. Patrick. Not everyone is expected to do what saint Patrick did. Pack a little suitcase and take the train right back into the territory that abused, just to preach the gospel. Not everyone has to do that. Discipleship is specific; everyone has their own call, their own vocation. Is it really that big a deal?
I was thinking about this. The account of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem made me think about this. I suppose the disciples struggled, what with his ability to be able to tell them pretty precisely where and how to get the transportation for the day. That would be unsettling. It could shift priorities, things like that.
But, as I thought about this I remembered that even with everything they had seen and heard, they were uncertain, cautious maybe. They knew who Jesus was and they didn’t know who he was.
And, the people along the road, they thought they knew who he was. As he rode up the Roman Road leading into the city, the crowd went wild! Throwing jackets down on the ground. Nobody said, ‘wait a minute, that jacket is suede, I paid $500 for that jacket. It’ll need to be dry-cleaned. You know, a suede jacket is never the same after that. I’ll just sling it over my arm, wave it in the air so I look like I am into in on this whole parade. No, they threw their jackets on the ground and the burrow walked right over them!
I also remember reading somewhere that there were those who were waving branches in the air, just like they do when the warrior kings approach the city. It isn’t a truce flag, unless you recognize this for what it is; it is a symbol, a symbol of honor and allegiance. Wave green branches as a sign of victory and triumph to the conquering hero! Surrender your alliance with whatever or whoever else is ruling your life!
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
The old song was ringing in their ears, and out it came. The same thing the angels said at his birth.
People are funny, really. I expect there were some people there who were not only there, but were just as jazzed up as everyone else. They went home. There neighbor was out mowing the grass, saw them.
“Hey Jon, what’s up?”
“Where ya been?”
“I was down at the Golden Gate, at a parade.”
“Really? For what.
“Some teacher, they say he’s helped a lot of people. Good preacher too, or that’s what they say.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know, I was just there for the parade.”
Who can blame him? He has a lawn to mow.
It’s just that the more I think about this the more I think that it doesn’t really matter how we encounter this Jesus, we have a decision to make. Even though what we need to know can only be known by Faith, what we have we got second hand, we still have to decide. The easy part of the question is “who is this.” We have plenty of testimony about that. This is the easy question. The hard part of the question is the ‘so what’ part of the question.
The so what part is discipleship, ‘faith formation’ we say. What it is really is actually acting on all those things we say every time we affirm our own baptisms.
I can hardly ask all these, “do you promise” questions. “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist the power of evil…” It is a lot to commit to on a Sunday morning when the Sun is shining and friends and family are gathered.
Do you remember the guy who came to see my friend? Who Jesus actually was, and is, isn’t the problem. See, right here at this baptismal font, we all answered the question. It is what comes later, when who he is sinks in, that’s the rub. And I am pretty sure that this same Jesus isn’t interested in me using my pastoral prerogative to let any of us off the hook. Our baptism gives us an identity too, and it isn’t all gravy. Baptism gives us a vocation. There are things to do and be. Just in case Jesus ever appears to me in my driveway, I had better not relieve any of us of this responsibility.
I recently came across this article on reading, and the importance of it, for Pastors. You can read the whole thing here:
It begins with a short lament of sorts, but one I resonate with completely. Here it is:
The Rev. Mr. Ingham was a studious New England minister sorely beset with demands upon his schedule. He at tended so many public gatherings that he found himself unable to devote due time to sermons and pastoral work, let alone systematic reading. In desperation he hired a double an ignorant, irascible Irishman who resembled him closely in form and feature. This double he sent in his stead to all the inconsequential and time-consuming meetings he had heretofore felt it advisable to attend.
For a short while all went well. Ingham now had time to prepare his sermons carefully, enjoy his pastoral calls, and even resume his scholarly studies. But alas, one day the Irishman’s fiery temper got the better of him. He resorted to most unclerical language, forcing Ingham to leave town promptly and in disgrace.
Edward Everett Hale’s satirical tale of more than a century ago, “My Double, and How He Undid Me,” illustrates how the image of the pastor has changed. Once the most scholarly and best-read members of the community, nowadays pastors are so burdened with administrative and promotional work that they have little time for intensive reading. Their labor is chiefly with people and programs rather than with books and periodicals. As John Stott reflected: “Many are essentially administrators, whose symbols of ministry are the office rather than the study, and the telephone rather than the Bible.” (John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 124)
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