Monday, July 09, 2018

God's Politics

A couple of months ago I asked for suggestions for topics to preach on over the summer months.  I must admit that you gave me come very challenging and difficult ideas to try and tackle.  Fortunately for me, I am not preaching many Sundays this summer --- so I got to really pick and choose which ones I want to attempt.

Three topics really jumped out at me, and I felt that there were things that as follwers of Jesus we need to examine in how we best understand and live in relationship to them.

What I had planned to do this morning was look at how we deal with difficult people.  I know that this is an important topic because we all have people that we struggle with.  I had planned to follow that up with God's final judgment and what that means for us as Christians and how it should affect how we relate to the world.  I will get to both of those topics over the next few weeks.

But there was one other topic, that to be honest, I really didn't want to address, but one that I knew that I had too. 

On Wednesday (4th of July) as I was heading to the Monon Trail for my daily run, I was listening to NPR.  And as is their tradition of the 4th they were reading the US Constitution.  It was powerful --- and I knew that I had to address this topic.

The question was asked two different ways, from two very different points of view --- but I want to try to give us a third way of looking at it.
And the question is, how do we, as Christians respond, in this politically divisive environment that we find ourselves.

Before you make assumptions about what I am going to say --- let me frame this conversation this way: 
God is not blue or red. 
And I doubt that God really cares much about our political parties. 

God cares deeply about what we do --- or don't do --- but God is not about the United States political sphere.

One party or the other may want to do their best to claim God --- and God's righteousness --- but claiming God and reality are not the same.

I am a big Civil War buff.  My father's family lived just off the battlefield at Shiloh and Nancy's grandparents owned land that was fought over in the battle of Bentonville.

While I was at Duke, I came to realize that two of the best repositories for original Civil War era documents are at Duke University and Indiana University. 

I decided to go into the rare books library at Duke and read as many journals that were written by chaplains that I could get my hands on. 

I was curious about how they viewed their role in the war
How they understood the role of God (of providence) in the battles and the overall conflict

And what struck me was the similarities between the Chaplains of the North and the South.
          Both were convinced of the righteousness of their cause
          Both believed that God was on their side
          Both believed that God would vindicate them
          Both saw the OTHER as evil and vile

It was at this same time that I was serving two little churches in rural North Carolina.

There was nothing extraordinary about these two churches.
          One was in town --- the town had 235 residents
          The other was a couple of miles outside of town in the open country

Both churches were filled with wonderful and loving people
          They were there for me when Stewart got sick and died
                   They threw me a lifeline that I can never repay

I had a friend --- a fellow student at Duke --- who was a dynamic preacher --- and I invited him to come and preach at my two little churches.
          I will never forget his reaction
                   "Don't you know where you live?"
                             Yeah – I was living in Western North Carolina in 1985

I had never really thought about racism before --- and I have never seen the fear that I saw in his face before
          Needless to say --- he didn't come and preach

I really don't know how they would have responded
Unfortunately, I think I do ----
While they were loving people and some of the “best” Christians I have ever known, when I arrived and was being shown around I was told where "ni**er" town was and that I needed to avoid that area.

How could "good Christians" be so convinced that God had made European folk and people of color so differently?
          I still don't have an answer . . .

But what I came to realize, is that many of us confuse our relationship with God with justifying our insecurities, prejudices and misunderstandings. 
Or to rationalize our God to meet our political agenda.

Once again I want to state clearly --- Jesus is not Red --- nor is Jesus Blue!

That doesn't make us bad people

But why is it that we are so afraid to talk about our faith and politics?

Why is it so scary --- so frightening --- so hard, to talk about religion or politics?

Jim Wallis, in his provocative book (written in 2005): God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, writes:
Perhaps these topics are too important, too potentially divisive, or raise the issues of core values and ultimate concerns that make us uncomfortable.

I believe that this may be the most important challenge facing us today

This morning what I am going to attempt to do is set a few parameters, a few guidelines, so that as we begin to dig into some particular topics, we can do so, without getting weighed down by a lot of baggage.

Now I know that this is going to be hard.

Because as soon as some of you heard me begin to speak, you already have some assumptions in your head.

·         Some of you have checked out
·         some of you think you know what I am going to say
·         Some of you think that I have a political party agenda in mind

That leads me to the reiterate the first point I want to make:

          In other words, God is not a republican or a democrat.

I think that is pretty straight forward.

There are parts of each of our two parties that seem to have values that could be called God affirming and there are parts of each of our two parties that go against the very grain that God is calling us to become.

The second point I want to make is this:


That became very clear in polling that was done following the 2004 Presidential election and again in 2016.

When asked to choose what influenced their vote most, people choose, what we would call one moral value or another.

And that is the first great question that we must ask: Which values and whose values are we going to follow?

And today in America, we are a nation that is very divided over this question but I believe that there are core values in which we can find common ground regardless of whether we are Red or Blue.
          Core values that come from being a Disciple of Jesus

The third point that I want to make is:
Only people of faith can change the way the wind is blowing in America to help all people hear the prophetic call of the Bible.

You see, I am convinced that neither party gets it right.

For Republicans it's all about sex and life and protecting the perceived American Way
          Homosexuality/Gay marriage

The Democrats seem terrified of God, so they refuse to address the issue.

Both parties' visions are morally and politically incomplete and need to be addressed by people of faith --- and that is you and me.

We must build on the values that God teaches us and use our influence as disciples to change the world.

And that leads to a fourth point that I must make; and this one may be even harder that the other three.

What do I mean by that?

We have a personal relationship with God but we cannot keep that to ourselves. 
Our personal relationship should influence how we act and think and do in society.

And there are no better guides to help us than those found in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
I challenge you to pick a prophet and sit down and read it carefully and prayerfully.

We have to take back our faith.

Listen to Wallis:
The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion mostly wrong -- preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the weightier matters of justice.  The secular Left doesn't seem to get the meaning and promise of faith for politics at all -- mistakenly dismissing spirituality as irrelevant to social change. . . .

It is time to take back our faith.

Take back our faith from whom?  To be honest, the confusion comes from many sources.  From religious right-wingers who claim to know God's political views on every issue, and then ignore the subjects that God seems to care the most about.  From pedophile priests and cover-up bishops who destroy lives and shame the church.  From television preachers whose extravagant lifestyles and crass fund-raising tactics embarrass more Christians than they know.  From liberal secularists who want to banish faith from public life and deny spiritual values to the soul of politics.  And even from liberal theologians whose cultural conformity and creedal modernity serve to erode the foundations of historic biblical faith.  From New Age philosophers who want to make Jesus into a nonthreatening spiritual guru.  And from politicians who love to say how religious they are but utterly fail to apply the values of faith to their public leadership and political policies.


What made that hit home even more for me was a visit I once paid to an independent church a few years ago.

They must have used the word PROSPERITY at least 25 times

You were promised that if you followed their interpretation of the Gospel (which is of course the only correct way) then God would bless you. 
Otherwise . . . and they always kind of left that hanging.

I left that service and wanted to quit the ministry --- to quit Christianity --- if that is what it really is about.

But I refuse to give in to that perverted understanding of God and Jesus Christ.

God calls us together --- not so that we can follow the rules and be blessed, or to reflect the cultures values:
but so that we can build communities of faith whose purpose is to reshape lives and the world.

God calls us as a people of faith to not only talk about our faith --- but to actually live our faith.

In other words --- we are called to be Disciples for Jesus

To become the Disciples Jesus wants us to be, we cannot ignore the social ills of our times --- the social ills that were so near and dear to Jesus.

          Opportunity and access

I don't know about you, but it is pretty exciting to recognize that we are a part of a community that is going to change the world with God's love and justice.

I could go on all day, but that is not what you need to hear today.

But I do want to remind you of these four main points:


A week ago I went out and joined the protest that took place at the State House over the separation of families at our borders.

I think that we can all agree that babies and children should not be taken from their parents

What we can disagree over is how best to deal with the disparity and injustice that makes a mother or father flee their country and travel thousands of miles in search of something better.

I believe that Abraham Lincoln had it right when he suggested that: Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God's blessing and endorsement for our national policies and practices --- saying, in effect, that God is on our side.  Rather Lincoln said, we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God's side.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Come And Dance

John 16:12-15
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” 

It was 1986 and Janine Shepherd was training for the 1988 Winter Olympics that were to be held in Calgary Canada.  Janine --- even though she was from Australia --- had become a very good Cross Country Skier.  She really wasn't expected to medal, but many thought she might be the best Cross Country Skier ever to come out of Australia.

Here is how Janine described the day that changed her life:
As a cross-country skier and member of the Australian ski team headed towards the Winter Olympics, I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates. As we made our way up towards the spectacular Blue Mountains west of Sydney, it was the perfect autumn day. We'd been on our bikes for around five and a half hours when we got to the part of the ride that I loved, and that was the hills because I loved the hills. And I got up off the seat of my bike, and I started pumping my legs. And as I sucked in the cold mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs. And I looked up to see the sun shining in my face.

And then everything went black. I'd been hit by a speeding utility truck with only 10 minutes to go on the bike ride. 

She was rushed by helicopter to Sydney barely alive.  She had broken her back in six places, broke her neck, collarbone, arm, ribs and her skull was ripped open and exposed.  She had lost almost all of her blood.

As you can imagine, she wasn't expected to survive --- and as she tells her story she describes knowing she had the choice to return to her broken body or move on.  She chose to return.

While in the hospital she was told she would never walk again, and probably never have much function at all --- she was and would be a paraplegic.

The question that she was forced to wrestle with was --- WHO AM I?
          You see she was always Janine the Machine
                    An athlete
          But who was she now?

But then something happened.

One day in the hospital (she was in a ward with five other people --- all with spinal injuries) the therapist brought in a box of plastic straws and gave them to each of the patients and told them to connect them together --- then he took each person's chain of straws and connected them with the other patients and reminded them that they were all connected.

She began to look at life differently and saw the interconnectedness of it all

That is exactly what Richard Rohr has been trying to share with us as Matt and I have preached from his powerful book THE DIVINE DANCE

God invites you and me --- actually God invites everyone --- to join the trio of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and join in the dance of life.

The problem is, most of us have a vision --- or understanding of God --- that does not expect or even encourage us to participate in the Divine Dance.

This became very clear to me while Nancy and I were visiting some of the great Cathedrals of Spain these past two weeks.

I had forgotten, or maybe Rohr gave me new eyes to see, how the very structure of the Cathedral is designed to make a statement about God.

And what is this image or statement of God?

The buildings architecture clearly states that God is a static and imperial God --- a King who lives in isolation from what He (and I note it is always a strong male image) --- from what He has created.

God is aloof
Behind screens and bars
                    God is transcendent rather than immanent

I agree when Rohr argues that we need a paradigm shift.

We need to stop seeing God with this UP THERE mentality and begin to relate to God in a whole new way.

And for Rohr, that new way is through the Trinity

As Matt has shared with you --- this understanding is all about RELATIONSHIPS

Rohr writes:
Instead of God being the Eternal Threatener, we have God as the Ultimate Participant --- in everything --- both the good and the painful.

So let me try to illustrate these two views
          Instead of God watching life happen from afar and judging it
                   How about God being inherent in life itself?
                   How about God being the Life Force of everything?

          Instead of God being an Object like any other object
How about God being the Life Energy between each and every object (which we would usually call Love or Spirit?)

Instead of the small god which we seem stuck with --- a god preoccupied with exclusion, the Trinitarian revolution reveals God as with us in all of life --- instead of standing on the sidelines, always critiquing which things belong and which things don't.

This understanding of the Trinitarian God reveals that God is always involved --- instead of a god who only seems to show up when God wants to or is called down from on high.

What we have often tried to describe as the Trinity, Rohr wants to call this understanding of God as the "flow"
He does this because through the Trinity --- God is flowing through everything --- without exception.

Rohr writes:
The implications of this paradigm shift, this Trinitarian Revolution, are staggering: every vital impulse, every force toward the future, every creative momentum, every loving surge, every dash toward beauty, every running toward truth, every ecstasy before simple goodness, every leap of élan vital, as the French would say, every bit of ambition for humanity and the earth, for wholeness and holiness, is the eternally flowing life of the Trinitarian God.

What this means is that ALL of life --- and I mean ALL of life --- is sacred --- and not just for the Bible Believing Christian. 

This is how the world --- how creation --- works and ALL (Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic) are included in it.

So what keeps us from joining the DIVINE DANCE?

I certainly can't speak for you --- but as I have worked through this myself a number of things seem to hold me back.

More than anything else what holds me back from the Divine Dance is change.

In order to Dance I have to let go
          I must move from believing --- which is pretty safe
                   to experiencing all that God has for me

It is easy for one to "Believe" and yet not change their life
          I believe the right things --- thus I have salvation
                   But I don’t have to be changed --- transformed --- in order to believe

But to allow the flow to take me --- I must let go --- I must be transformed

And that is the second big challenge --- I want to be in charge
          But in the divine dance there is a mutuality
                   a vulnerability
          Which means, in some ways, no-one --- and everyone --- is in charge

We work together for the common good

Most of us confuse unity with uniformity
In the divine Dance, we are united in the flow of God, not in uniformity with one another

Rohr has put it this way
A partner in the divine dance is someone who agrees to stand in the mutual relationship that God is --- the relationship that God has already drawn us into gratuitously.

Carl McColman describes it this way:
We do not merely watch the dance, we dance the dance.  We join hands with Christ and the Spirit flows through us and between us and our feet move always in the loving embrace of the father.

The divine dance changes you ---
          it invites you in
          and never lets go

The divine dance is a way of seeing God in everything --- the good and the bad.

Rohr actually suggest that those who have gone through great difficulties in life have some advantages in SEEING or experiencing the dance.

Because the Dance is never about you --- it is always about being a part of the flow

And that takes me back to Janine Shepherd.

About six months after her life altering accident Janine saw a plane in the air
          And at that moment --- she decided to become a pilot

Remember, she is still in a body cast --- she has no use of her legs --- but she decides she wants to learn to fly.

I will let her tell the story:
Finally, this guy comes out and he goes, hi, I'm Andrew, and I'm going to take you flying. I go, great. So they get me out on the tarmac, and there was this red, white and blue airplane. It was beautiful. Andrew, the instructor, got in the front, started the airplane up. And he said, would you like to have a go at taxiing? That's when you use your feet to control the rudder pedals to control the airplane on the ground. I said, no (laughter). I can't use my legs. I said, but I can use my hands. And he said, OK. And as we took off down the runway and the wheels lifted up off the tarmac and we became airborne, I had the most incredible sense of freedom. And Andrew said to me, you see that mountain over there? And I said, yeah. And he said, well, you take the controls and you fly towards that mountain. And as I looked up, I realized that he was pointing towards the Blue Mountains, where the journey had begun. And I took the controls, and I was flying.

Janine later became a:
          Commercial pilot
          Stunt pilot
          First female Head of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority

All because she let go and went into the river of the flow instead of wallowing in pain, anger and pity.

There was one church in Spain that was different for me --- and I knew it was different the moment I walked in
but it took me some time reflecting on it and Rohr's Trinitarian revolution for me to really see or understand it

I am talking of La Sagrada Familia
          Antonio Gaudi's masterpiece

Construction on the church began in 1868
They hope to have it completed in 2026 --- the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death

What is special about this church is that it is an invitation to a new relationship with God.

While the other cathedrals filled you with feelings of God's transcendence, God’s majesty and God's separateness --- La Sagrada does the exact opposite
          It fills you with mystery
                   with creation
                   with connectedness
                   with invitation

Gaudi's masterpiece invites you into God's flow --- because Gaudi made you feel God's immanent presence (even amidst the construction)

Come join the Divine Dance!

Catherine LaCugna describes the Dance well when she says:
The very nature of God, therefore, is to seek out the deepest possible communion and friendship with every last creature on this earth.

Come join the Divine Dance!

The only thing that can keep you out of this divine dance is fear and doubt, or any self-hatred.

Come join the Divine Dance!

And in the dance you can experience God more fully as community and as friendship --- than you have ever imagined

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ready to Launch

Acts 1:1-11     (NRSV)
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Saturday, April 28 --- quite possibly the most significant theologian of our time passed away at the age of 81. 
          And one probably most of you have never heard of

James H. Cone had a huge impact on my life when I was given the opportunity to hear him and read his works while I was in seminary. 
Dr. Cone gave voice to the voiceless and is credited with the concept of Liberation Theology.

Most of us here today would not feel very comfortable with what Dr Cone said. 

His obituary published by Union Seminary stated:
Cone “upended the theological establishment with his vigorous articulation of God’s radical identification with black people in the United States”

James Wallis in his commentary on Cone’s death wrote:
The oppression of the poor, and black people in particular, was at the heart of James Cone’s work, and, as he wrote so prophetically and brilliantly, the love of the oppressed and divine passion for justice is at the heart of God

Cone grew up in the era of lynchings in the segregated town of Bearden, Ark., which at the time had a population of about 400 blacks and 800 whites, and he often feared for his father’s safety.

“I had heard too much about white people killing black people … when my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be,” Cone once recalled.

This was the 50’s --- in Arkansas, so maybe not a big surprise.

We have a problem in our country
In too many places, in too many people’s attitudes, being “Black” is a crime --- or at least a reason to be suspicious.

We need to learn to not only LISTEN to each other, but to really SEE each other
I encourage you to join us next Sunday afternoon for the ongoing community dialog at St Paul’s Episcopal Church on race and reconciliation
Hopefully --- we will learn to SEE each other

On May 4th, following a prayerful process to discern a way forward the United Methodist Council of Bishops, released the following statement.

Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:

·         All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
·         The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan.
·         An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.

Rationale:  In order to invite the church to go deeper into the journey the Council and Commission have been on, the Council will make all the information considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges there is support for each of the three plans within the Council.  The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans.  The majority of the Council recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church.

The question that they are wrestling with is: should people who have different sexual identities be included in the life of the church?

Of course, when I frame the question that way most of us would say SURE.

But the real question confronting us is: should people with different sexual orientations be allowed in leadership within the United Methodist Church?
          That is a very different question.

What does it mean to be welcomed --- to be included --- to be valued --- in the life of the church?

It made me reflect on an interesting experience I had.
While visiting someone prior to surgery they thanked me for coming and said that they weren’t sure that I would come and pray them since they were not members

                   If an active attender doesn’t feel fully included . . .

Matt and I are working on how we can address these issues as a congregation, knowing that we are all over the spectrum on how comfortable we are with these issues.

But also realizing that this issue will be thrust upon us come February

I would be dishonest if I said I knew or even felt comfortable with how we might deal with these issues.  We are praying and trying to discern the spirits movement --- I hope you will do the same.

That is not all that happened a week ago on Friday.  At all the Annual Conferences this past year we were asked to vote on 5 amendments to our constitution.

In order to change the constitution, each amendment requires at least a 2/3 majority at our quadrennial general conference (which happed in 2016).  Then they must also receive at least 67% of the total votes taken at annual conferences around the world.

Friday, it was announced that three of the amendments passed --- the two amendments that failed to pass dealt with gender equality issues.

Quoting the Council of Bishops:
“While we are not completely clear concerning the motivation that caused them to miss the two-thirds required majority by slim margins, we want to be clear that we are unequivocal in our commitment to the equality of women and their full inclusion in our church”.

The bishops added they were recommitting themselves as individuals and as a full council to lead “the church toward the goal which Christ has given us to fully include both men and women in the life and ministry of Christ’s church.”

One of the amendments asserted that men and women are equal in God’s eyes and committed the church to ending discrimination against women and girls. The vote for this amendment was 66.5 percent — 31,304 yes and 15,753 no.

The other would have added gender, ability, age and marital status to the list of characteristics that do not bar people from membership in the church. The vote for this amendment was 61.3 percent — 29,049 yes and 18,317 no.

In other words, we as United Methodists voted NO

And as I stand before you on this Ascension Sunday --- I am heartbroken.

Sad, that as a nation we fail to understand that our attitudes that often lead toward discrimination (often without us even realizing it)

Sad, that almost 70 years after James Cone would worry each night whether his father would come home safe --- that many mothers still worry the same thing this very day. 
          Not just in the south --- In Mississippi or Alabama
                   but right here in Indianapolis

Sad that we as a denomination don’t remember the words of Paul in Galatians (3:28)
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

As we wait for Pentecost --- the giving of the spirit and the empowering of the church and the people --- what is our message for today?

Today --- on Ascension Sunday --- as we honor our mothers and encourage our seniors to take flight --- what is our dream for them?

I dream that they will be the ones to bring to pass the powerful challenge of scripture:
·         that we are to love God and love others
·         that we are realize we are all one in God.

I dream that they will be the ones to live out the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.


I have a dream that one day down in Alabama — with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.


I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope.

This is MY dream

I dream we listen to the passionate cry of our young people who seek to change in our society --- and we help them make it happen!

These young people that we honor today CAN change the world --- I pray that they do --- and that we let them

I want to close with some powerful and disturbing words I came across from Barbara Brown Taylor.

A couple of years ago, as a congregation Anne had you studying one of her books. 
She writes:
The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.

I want to close with a prayer that a friend wrote that I have modified slightly:
"As we celebrate on this day the ascension of Jesus --- mother’s day and our graduating seniors we recognize the importance of community. While there are different meanings by varied experience for us with the word “mother,” we recognize the sacred community the women of the church have built for us throughout the generations from the very first women who followed Jesus and organized his earthly ministry. We grieve with United Methodist women throughout the connection who have not been affirmed in leadership or identity by our own votes. May God forgive us for missing this opportunity to move forward and may the women in our midst never lose sight of Christ who affirms them, even when their tribe fails to do so. For our community and for our families, and for those who will lead us into your dream O Lord, we do pray.  Amen.
(prayer is adapted by one written by Matthew Stultz)

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Holy Ground

Exodus 3:1-6a   (NRSV)
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Have you ever asked yourself --- what makes a place HOLY?

A number of years ago Nancy and I went out to visit my parents in Arizona over Spring Break.

It is a trip that I will never forget --- mainly because I had shaved off my moustache right before the trip --- as my offering to St. Baldrick's day. 
          I didn't raise nearly enough money for the sacrifice I made
But what most don’t realize that it was the first (and only time in our 32 years of marriage) that Nancy had ever seen me sans moustache

But the real reason that I will always remember the trip --- is because I sunburned my lip the day we went to visit the Grand Canyon

While we were there on our visit, I was encouraged to read a Tony Hillerman novel

What struck me was how Hillerman pointed out that the Navajo people consider their land to be sacred.

He repeatedly makes the point that unless you understand the Holy Ground of the Navajo people --- you cannot understand them.

In modern times, many people consider that Sedona, Arizona is filled with Holy Ground.

If you ever visit there, and it is a beautiful and magnificent place, you find that there are many locations that have been identified as VORTEX's --- places where the separation between heaven and earth is very thin.
In other words --- HOLY PLACES

While there we went to visit a number of the vortexes.
          I must have missed the holy ground part . . .

I was told that the track out in Speedway was Holy Ground, but as I slogged my way around it on Saturday it didn't seem very holy to me.

In 1994, Nancy and I traveled to Israel for the first time.

Over the last 25 years I have made (I think) 12 trips to "The Holy Land"

My friend, Archeologist Charles Page, often commented, much like Hillerman, that unless one understands the land of the Bible --- they could never fully understand the Bible

The late Father Bargil Pixner went so far as calling the land of Israel “the 5th Gospel”

Father Bargil Pixner, in a conversation with Charles Page, said:
“You must see Jesus here.  If you do not see Jesus in the ruins of Capernaum, you should have studied physics.  We are involved in Biblical archeology.  Our job is to know him and to make him known.  Seeing him helps us to know him.  Knowing him leads us to love him.  Loving him will help us to serve him and to make a difference in the world.”

But what is it that makes a place holy?

As I traversed over Israel, I have visited many places that have been identified as Holy

Nazareth --- the town that Jesus grew up in

Capernaum --- if there was any place that we can identify with Jesus as an adult it is Capernaum --- the city boasts a synagogue that the foundation is from the time of Jesus, and a home that has been identified as the home of Peter's mother in law.

Cana --- Friday was our 32nd wedding anniversary --- and once when we were in Cana we renewed our wedding vows --- Cana is the location of the first miracle in Jesus’ ministry --- his coming out party when he turned water into wine at a wedding.

Sea of Galilee --- especially the locations of the Beatitudes and Jesus' resurrection stories

Bethlehem --- the traditional site of Jesus birth

JERUSALEM --- I love Jerusalem --- everywhere in the Old City to me is Holy Ground

Temple Mount --- site of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies (today the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock)

Teaching Steps --- steps that led up and into the Temple
          It is one of the few places where I can say with confidence --- "Jesus was HERE!"

Thomas Friedman in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem tells this story:
When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.

“I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,'” recalled Ben-Dov.
“These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.”

Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were.

“So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong.

“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.

“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The Western Wall --- For Jewish people it is the closest that they can get to the site of the original Temple and so has become VERY holy space to them

Upper Room --- traditional site of the last supper

St Peter in Gallicantu --- home of the High Priest Caiaphas --- tradition says that Jesus was imprisoned there

Calvary --- site of the crucifixion

Holy Sepulcher --- site of the resurrection

So let me ask you:  Is it because of what happened in the past that makes a place HOLY?

Our Scripture this morning tells about the ONLY place identified in the Bible as HOLY.

It is the familiar story of Moses encountering God.

What does the Bible say makes the place holy?

God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

It really isn't a location --- it is that God is present in that place.

I have come to see HOLY GROUND --- not as some ancient place --- even though I love ancient places and I often --- but not always --- experience them as Holy.

For me the best example of that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
For the most part it is not Holy to me

The reason it is not holy is because I often feel very distant from God there.
I have seen priests push and shove and yell at each other there --- In this place there seems to be NO peace

However, on the back side of the Tomb there is a little chapel that I find as a
Holy Place --- it is a Coptic Chapel.

For most Protestant --- if you were to ask them about the Holy Place remembering the resurrection of Jesus --- they would not point you to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Instead they would steer you toward ---- what is called the Garden Tomb
          It is beautiful
          It is peaceful
          It is what one expects then they are looking for the Tomb of Jesus

There is only one problem --- IT IS NOT HISTORICALLY ACCURATE
          Jesus WAS NOT buried there
          He did not rise from there
Yet for many it is a HOLY PLACE

Historically --- the Holy Sepulcher is much more likely --- it just doesn't feel like a holy place to me.


For me the answer is simple --- PEOPLE and/or RELATIONSHIPS

When I worked for TradeWinds services one of the big events that I was responsible for was the Annual Gala

I, of course, wanted the night to be a success.

Not only is it about raising money (although that is pretty important)

But in my mind there is an even bigger purpose --- and that is raising awareness

In the midst of the chaos of the event --- something changed ---- all of a sudden it became a Holy Place for me

Let me share quickly why:

·         We had a choir made up of TradeWinds participants, we named the choir our "Believe and Achieve Choir" and they sang two songs and danced to a third
·         We also honored a young boy with autism as our "Youth of the Year"
·         And we honored our adult "Participant of the Year"

As the Choir was singing ----
and to be honest they were "wonderfully terrible"
they were awesome
I realized that I was standing on Holy Ground

But, and this is the funny thing --- when I went back to that venue for other events --- it wasn’t a holy place for me.

You see: Holy Places really aren't places --- they are relationships

Meridian Street Church --- not the buildings --- but you --- are a Holy Place

And what I have come to understand is that Holy Places are not bound by time or space.

I realized this when I visit tombs --- what we call cemeteries.

The reason we are attracted and often go and visit cemeteries is because they are HOLY PLACES to us

Not for what took place there --- but for the relationship that they have come to symbolize

In other words --- all the world is a Holy Place --- when we open our eyes and celebrate the relationships that take place there
          The relationships with each other
          The relationships with the divine

M. Scott Peck writes about a concept that he admires that is part of the Roman Catholic tradition it is called the Sacrament of the Present Moment.
It suggests that every moment of our lives is sacred, and that we should make of each moment a sacrament. Were we to do this we would think of the entire world as diffused with holiness. Wherever we might be would be a holy place for us, and we would see the holy, even sainthood, in everyone we encounter.

Psalm 24:1 says:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it

If we truly believed that the earth belonged to God and is holy wouldn’t that cause us to take better care of it? 

Wouldn’t that cause us to do a better job of sharing its resources? 

Wouldn’t it make a difference in the way we observe and relate to nature --- and each other?   

Does it take a burning bush to make us realize we stand on holy ground?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks to me when she wrote:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven; and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes.  The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

May God give us eyes to see all the Holy Places that surround us.

Let me close with this prayer/poem that I found by Cheryl Lawrie who reminds us that while finding Holy places in extraordinary things is simple, finding God in the everyday takes courage:

Let us pray:

It takes little faith to see the sacred in the extraordinary.

To have faith the sacred is in the ordinary, though,
takes courage to believe the mundane can be enough;
  that grace can emerge
    even through the dull,
    the slightly disappointing,
    the not quite right,
    not quite as we intended,
    not really what we hoped;
    the clumsy,
    the awkward,
    and the imperfect.

Let your act of faith be
to let what you do be enough.

Let what you do be enough…

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Island of the Mad

I have been a fan of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books since I stumbled across O Jerusalem many, many years ago.  I love stories set in Israel/Palestine and Jerusalem is my favorite city in the world. 

In Island of the Mad, King once again takes you on an adventure that is worthy of the best mystery writers.  What I appreciate more than anything else is her constant sense of detail.  When we are taken inside Bedlam I could smell the place and hear the sounds that were going on.  And having never been to Venice, I felt like I have been and can’t wait to go.

The thing that surprised me the most is how well King did and bringing some of the issues that we are struggling with today with the wit and wisdom of 1925.  There are some lessons to be learned if we are willing to open our eyes and ears.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Meeting Jesus (Again) For the First Time

Matthew 4:18-22 
As he (Jesus) walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Last week Matt shared a bit about his experiences in Guatemala in 2013 and 2015. 
I know that he was disappointed that he was not able to go with our mission team on this last trip --- but I was thankful that I could go.

I want to thank Nancy --- and you --- Meridian Street Church --- for allowing me to have this amazing opportunity.

I have participated in dozens of mission trips through-out the years.
But some trips have really stuck out more than others
·         Appalachian Service Projects as a youth was one of the pivotal moments in my life --- and quite possibly one of the reasons that I am standing in front of you this morning
·         Jamaica, as I shared a few weeks ago, as a newly ordained pastor clarified my calling unlike anything I have ever done --- and gave me the strength to keep going
·         Taking a group of youth to Nashville Tennessee and sleeping in an old warehouse in the skid row district wondering how many rats I would encounter each evening.
·         Taking a group of youth to Oklahoma to work on an Indian Reservation, and visiting the Oklahoma City memorial shortly after that tragedy
·         Haiti prior to the devastating earthquakes --- shook me out of my comfort zone in ways that I still have not completely overcome
·         And of course Guatemala

Each of us has encountered Jesus in our lives.

For many of us, that first encounter with Jesus came when we were children.
          Certainly that is true for those of us who grew up in the church

But I don’t think that you can grow up in our society without having some encounter with Jesus.
          Even if it is not very clear or precise

For many of us, that image of Jesus that we claimed as children --- remains intact in many ways as we grow older

·         Sometimes it is held with deep conviction
o   Sometimes with just warm personal devotion  
o   And other times it is tied to rigid doctrinal positions

·         For some --- this image of Jesus that we developed during childhood can become a problem
o   Producing doubt
o   And sometimes leading to indifference --- or even a rejection of the religion (the Jesus) of their childhood
I have seen this in many of my childhood friends

It is as if there came a time in their lives when the childhood image of Jesus no longer made sense.
          Any unfortunately --- nothing was there to replace it

The result is too often a walking away from Jesus and the church

But I have come to believe (and even witness in my own life) that we need an opportunity to meet Jesus again --- almost like meeting Jesus again for the very first time.

The Jesus I follow today is very different from the image of Jesus that I had as a child.

It appears to me that there are two primary (or widespread) images of Jesus in our culture today --- maybe one of these is your image of Jesus

The first image --- what Marcus Borg calls “the popular image” sees Jesus as the divine savior.

This image seeks to answer three questions about Jesus
          Who was Jesus?
          What was his mission or purpose?
          What was his message?

The answer to those questions calls one into a state of believing.
          Who was Jesus?
          Divine son of God
          What was his mission or purpose?
                   To die for the sins of the world
          What was his message?
His message was about himself: his identity as the Son of God, the saving purpose of his death, and the absolute importance of believing in him.

Borg calls this a fideistic image of the Christian life --- one whose primary dynamic is faith --- understood as believing certain things about Jesus as true.

Belief should lead to a great deal more, but believing is the primary quality of this image of God.

The second image, which is only slightly less common, is the image of Jesus as teacher

This is a de-dogmatized view of Jesus

It is held by those who are not sure what to make of the doctrinal claims made about Jesus by the Christian tradition.

Once you set aside those doctrinal claims --- what remains is Jesus as a great teacher

The image that flows out of this understanding of Jesus consists of “being good” --- of seeking to live as Jesus said that we should

Borg calls this a moralistic image of the Christian life.

The problem with both of these images is that they are not only inaccurate but they are incomplete images of the Christian life.

The Jesus of the Gospels is ultimately not about BELIEVING or BEING GOOD.

The image of Jesus of the Gospels is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation.

The question is how do we enter into that kind of relationship with Jesus that will allow transformation to take place?
          Not simply a relationship where we know about Jesus
But a relationship in which we surrender our very selves to the grace that is Jesus

In our scripture this morning Jesus is inviting strangers to come and join him on this adventure.

In The Message, Jesus says it this way:
“Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.

I read that story with incredulity

If that was ME, what would I have done?
          Would I have followed Jesus?
          Would I have set down my life work?
                   Would I have surrendered all that I had and begun this new life?

The reality is, they had the CHOICE --- they didn’t have to follow --- but they chose to follow
          They could have simply walked away

Every day Jesus is offering you and I the opportunity to become followers --- the opportunity to meet Jesus in a brand new way
          But the truth is --- we can come to church
                   We can call ourselves Christian
                             But remain spectators

          We take in the sights and spectacles
                   We listen to beautiful music
                   Hear great sermons (especially when Matt is preaching)

          But we remain UNCHANGED
                   We don’t surrender all, drop what we are doing and follow Jesus

Every day --- Jesus is inviting us to not be simply a spectator --- but to participate

I just got back from Guatemala
          Today is the first day that I am starting to feel human again
                   They worked me hard
                             Moving and laying concrete block
                             Making cement and moving it bucket by bucket
                   We would be sleeping by 9pm because we were so exhausted
                             But it was a good exhaustion

          We knew we were doing something that was going to make other’s lives better

But in order to do that --- we (I) had to say YES

What I love about mission trips is that, at least for a time, you remember why you fell in love with Jesus in the first place.

Now I know we can’t all go to Guatemala

But we can fall in love with Jesus who (I promise) will give us other opportunities to be transformed

The only requirement is that we can no longer simply be a spectator.

          We must actively engage in ministry through:

I was reminded of a story that I first heard almost 35 years ago when I was a student at Duke.

Fred Craddock, the greatest preacher of his generation, and one that I have sought to model my preaching style on, came to Duke.  During a sermon he shared a powerful story about Albert Schweitzer --- the great explorer, doctor, and organist ---

He shared:
I think I was twenty years old when I first read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus.
I found his theology woefully lacking – more water than wine.
I marked it up, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds.

I read that he was going to be in Cleveland to play a concert of Bach, dedicating a new organ in a big church up there.
According to the article he would remain after the concert for conversation and refreshment.

I bought a Greyhound bus ticket – (Craddock was living in Knoxville, TN) – and went to Cleveland.

All the way there I worked on his book, laying out all my questions on sheets of paper.

I figured, if there was conversation following the concert, there would be room for question or two.
I went there; I heard the concert; I then rushed into the church fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with my questions.

After a while, Dr. Schweitzer came in
shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and seventy-five-years old.
He had played a marvelous concert.

You know he was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, scholar, lecturer, writer... everything.

He came in with a cup of tea and stood in front of the group.

And there I was, right in front, with my questions.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody, saying, “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me. I thank you for it. I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa, because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying. I have to go.’

Then he added, ‘We have a medical station at Lambarene. If there is 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?’

And what I remember most from that sermon that Fred Craddick preached at Duke was his response.

He said he looked down at his questions and realized how absolutely stupid they were.

And then he said:  I learned what it meant to be a Christian, and had hopes that I could be one someday.”
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Barbara Brown Taylor has written:
“Following Jesus means receiving our lives as gifts instead of guarding them as our own possessions. It means sharing the life we have been given instead of bottling it for our own consumption. It means giving up the notion that we can build dams to contain the bright streams of our lives and letting them go instead, letting them swell their banks and spill their wealth, running full and growing fuller.”

I invite you to meet Jesus again --- maybe for the first time.

You don’t have to Guatemala, but you have to follow and allow Jesus to use you and change you.

Let us pray:
Loving God, when I hear your call for my life, too often I respond that I am too busy, or I want to respond on my terms.  Help me to meet you again.  Help me to begin to build a relationship with you in which I surrender myself to your love --- one in which I allow you to change me.  I love you Jesus, teach me, I pray.  Amen.