Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Black lives matter, and to the extent they are devalued by racism all lives are diminished.

I stand with my African-American friends and colleagues in ministry in calling for an end to systematic racism and all racial disparities in policing, employment, health care, and every social justice issue.

The Biblical principles of justice expressed in the US Declaration of Independence apply fully to every person of every race without exception: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Platitudes ring hollow against the disproportionate brutality we are constantly witnessing.  We each must work to resist and eradicate the evil and injustice and oppression of racism in whatever forms it takes from our personal lives and from our institutions. We must intentionally live into our national vow in our Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all.”

African Americans are being dehumanized in our society to the point that inequity, brutality, discrimination and even public execution without trial has become acceptable in some circles and commonplace in some communities. God values each and every human life so much that God sent his only son to be our Savior.

Black lives matter, and we stand against racism.

Presented as a pastoral statement against racism for Briensburg United Methodist Church.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

JUSTICE: The Kingdom of Heaven

The promise of Heaven is not a license to exploit people on Earth, but an invitation to transform our systems and bring them into conformity with the heavenly vision.

"And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 10:7 KJV)

These are the words of Jesus Christ. We all are familiar with the various issues of justice, the different ways that people use to try to divide humanity into different groups and turn them against each other for their own purposes, and to keep them from uniting against oppression of any of them. 

But our inclusiveness statement for our church says, "We invite everyone to share fully in the worship services, life, ministry, and leadership of Briensburg United Methodist Church inclusive of age, race, nationality, gender, LGBTQ, theology, politics, and legal status."

Transcript of sermon Recorded for June 14, 2020 at Briensburg UMC

The Bible invites us to listen to what God has to say about justice throughout all the scriptures, as it's one of the main themes that flows throughout all of the Bible. The statement that Jesus made on the kingdom of heaven being at hand is just as radical now as it was when he first began to preach it. The kingdom of God being at hand, the kingdom of heaven being close to us and manifesting itself in the earth is the spiritual realm being a part of our daily lives and not just a side part, but a central, governing, directing, organizing, ordering part of our lives as individuals and as the faith community and extending into all the realms of society.

The promise of heaven in the next world can no longer be used as a license to exploit people in this world. That has been a problem down through the ages as people would oppress people and expect them to just take it with the promise that in the next world, it'll all work out. Everything will be rosy in the next world, but in this world, you should ... They want you to just accept whatever they deal out to you without complaining, and then just to use people and for their own profit and discard them as though they were without value in this world. But the governments of this earth are expected to mirror the kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught us to pray, 
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Salvation is often construed in manipulative terms and defined in ways that make it be something that people do or receive or respond to for someone else's profit, for someone else's goals and agenda. But the word that is translated salvation in the scripture is also translated healing in the scripture. 
"I am the Lord that healeth thee." 
Every place that Jesus went about preaching about salvation, he also healed the sick. It was a big part of what he did. And in this passage about where he sent the apostles out to preach the gospel, he gave them the authority and told them to heal the problems of the people.

And so there's not really a difference there. There's not salvation, and then just this little side thing to prove a point as some would say, as to demonstrate the power. But the real goal was salvation. It's all the same goal, to save people, to heal them, to preserve us to everlasting life. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus preached is fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, 

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulders: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this."

Jesus sends us, you and me and the others, to heal, to help and to liberate the victims of oppression and injustice. In our baptismal vow, in our United Methodist baptismal vow, we are asked, 
"Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" 
Our resistance is like a spring, a steel spring, not in every respect is like a spring, but in this respect that, when the spring is compressed, then it pushes back with an equal force to resist and recoil against the pressure.

And in that sense, our resistance is like a spring, that when we see injustice and oppression in whatever of these many forms it takes, whatever the issue is, whoever the particular group of people is that's being oppressed or that individual who's being oppressed, wherever we see this oppression and injustice and evil, and we absorb it and then we push back, we recoil and we push it away. We have many peaceful ways of doing that. We are a people of peace. We don't violently respond to evil and oppression. As followers of Jesus, we do it the way he did. You can look at all of his life and see how peacefully he did. Even in the garden of Gethsemane, telling Peter to put his sword away. That wasn't the way that he was going to battle. It's a spiritual warfare.

And so for us every prayer, every message, every contribution, every act of kindness and mercy pushes back, gently but forcefully and with a meaningful resistance. As the hands and feet of Christ, we continue his earthly ministry, which he declared and stated for us in Luke 4, when he quoted again, the prophet Isaiah, 
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
In this passage of scripture, Jesus was going around. He had made that declaration and he was getting resistance for it, but he was going around and healing everybody anyway. He was getting pushback for his mission that he declared of healing and ministry and healing the brokenhearted and all of this preaching of deliverance and all that he was standing for. But his response was compassion. He looked out across the people, and it says that when he saw that ... This is in the English Standard Version, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd."

We're like sheep, not in every respect, but in this respect, in the respect that we're like sheep in that like of being frightened and scattered by both religious and secular politicians acting like wolves to divide and conquer us. In the King James Version, it says they fainted. And here in the English Standard, it said there were harassed and helpless. The people that Jesus was looking out across and feeling compassion for were not unlike us in many ways. Consider the situation for them and how similar it is to our situation right today.

  • One way was that they, like many of us today are in our world during this pandemic, they were victims of dreaded diseases for which there was no cure or immunity. 
  • Another way, they were victims of racial injustice and institutional injustices that were instituted by the Roman government, and that were perpetuated, these injustices, by many in the religious community. 
  • Another way is they were victims of economic disparities, highlighted in the New Testament by the system of taxation personified in repentant participants like Matthew and Zacchaeus. 
Jesus' empathetic response to their unbelief and pushback against his ministry was to have compassion on them.

Unlike a lot of times when we have people that don't like what we're doing, the response sometimes is different than of Christ, but we're expected to respond as Christ responded to their pushback when he stood up for these people, when he stood up for healing and wholeness and for the liberation of those who were in prison and stood up for the oppressed. And he said that people would treat us in the same way they treated him. Of course, it hasn't been as bad for us yet for many anyway, as it was for him anywhere near, there's hardly any comparison at all.

People didn't like it when he stood up for justice, when he stood up for people, when he stood up for and stood against their oppressors. But yet his response was to have compassion on them and to teach them and to heal them. His response was to have compassion and to teach and to heal and to preach the gospel of the kingdom to them. Jesus told us to pray. Tells us to pray in a lot of different situations. But in this situation, he said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." That's in Matthew 9:37-38 in the English Standard Version.

It's not enough just to say, we're going to pray about it. We're expected to actually pray. Another part of that is that people know that a lot of times someone will say, they'll pray for you, or they'll think about it in lieu of actually doing something that's in their power to do. When we pray, part of our prayer is the work we do to accomplish it while we're praying for it. So part of our prayer is that God will show us what our part is in the answering of that prayer, not just to say we'll pray and then go off and not even give it another thought, or just to say a prayer, but not be paying attention to what God is instructing us in that prayer.

Remember that James said, 
"The heartfelt prayer of a righteous person availeth much." 
So the prayer itself helps. Somehow in ways that we can't know, God uses our prayers as a part of the work that He is doing, the work of creation and the work of sustaining and redeeming the world. We're a part of that in our prayers. God also uses our prayers as an opportunity to communicate with us and to share with us of the changes that we need to make in our personal lives. And also God uses that opportunity to help us understand what we need to do ourselves to shape and transform the world and to bring the kingdom of God to bear in the various situations that we are a part of, and that we have voice in, that we have a vote in, or that we have opportunity and influence.

So God uses prayer to shape us. And of course, there's a lot of teaching about prayer in the Bible. There's an invitation through Isaiah where God says, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord," to come and just spend some time with the Lord. And through that, our sins get clarified and washed away. And their guidance is opened up for us, and our relationship with God is built, and we are strengthened and given our guidance and direction.

Jesus also suggested that when we pray, we should go in a private area and really pour our hearts out to the Lord, where nobody else was around. We could just be free to talk however we wanted, and really good things worked out with God. Hear Him and speak to Him and share our thoughts together. So he says for us to go and pray, pray about these things. Not just say you'll pray about it, and not just say it to make other people feel good, but actually pray. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers. 

Now, the harvest is the people who are ready to make changes in their lives.

When he looked out across, there were all these people, they were like sheep without a shepherd, they were helpless. They were hurting and they needed someone to help pull them together and guide them, and to do the work of unity and love and of resistance to oppression and the work of justice. There were people there that were ready to make a change. That's the harvest. When we look out and we see people, we see the people of our world rising up, it's because they're ready. They're ready. They're ready to make changes in their lives and in the life of the community. And we see many of those changes already going on. Sometimes at a pace that's hard to even believe, because people are ready and the people that are ready are the harvest. The Bible speaks of them in this passage, that's who Jesus is talking about.

Look at all the people that are ready right now for change, ready for transformation and reshaping of our society and of our world, and of their own personal lives and attitudes. They're ready to be a part of something new, something better, a more just, and an equitable system. They're ready to do the work that is necessary to bring that about, the work of justice. And so we pray for those in the harvest, and we pray for those that God sends out to do this work, to organizing and the preparation on the study and the actual making of the rules, changing of the laws, changing of the system and procedures and the policies.

The laborers are those who work for reform and justice and the implementation of God's peace and justice throughout society. Those are the laborers that we probably are sent. Jesus sends us as laborers into the field. And in Matthew 10:1, this is the way it's said in the Message, "He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives." Power is authority, but we're not just the authority of being told we can do something or certified with a piece of paper, but the authority along with the capability, along with in our way of looking at it in the body of Christ authority with the spiritual gifts that are necessary to actually carry out while we're authorized to do. We have that.

The Holy Spirit working within us and among us provides us with the spiritual gifts that are necessary to carry out whatever it is God is calling us to do in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. With our authority comes the resources under the providence of God and the methods that are needed to exercise that authority. Our instructions are the same as he gave these apostles when he sent them out. The instructions are to stand against the demonic influences of injustice and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves, racism, discrimination, exploitation, and violence, just to get started with the list, all of these ways that people find to divide people and to oppress them and to crush them, to put their knee on their neck, all the ways that people discover new ways all the time too, but yet they're the same old things, the old wine in new skins in a way.

They're the old ways just finding new ways to put people in their place and then make people feel that they're second class citizens of this world. All those ways that there are, that's what these people were encountering there. People that were sick and had no hope of health care, people that were tormented by the demons, which we often like to think of as those spiritual entities beyond our understanding or someplace in the spirit realm, but just think about how much of that demonic torment is by people who enjoy causing trouble, starting up trouble or pitting people against each other for their own gain. Dividing people in order to further their own agenda, rather than standing up for what's right and for standing against oppression or being that spring that resists and recoils against discrimination and oppression and all these various other things in whatever forms they take.

We're sent to heal, and that healing includes body, mind, spirit, and soul, includes our relationships, includes the relationships of those around us. It includes all the struggles and difficulties that people go through, that's what salvation and healing is all about, is to make the world a better place for everybody and to make each person's life and situation better in some way. Most of us don't really have a lot of ways that we can do that, but we do have some. One of them is a sacramental way by prayer and laying on of hands and anointing with oil as described in the Bible and in the liturgies and history of the church.

This is like an outward invisible sign though, of what is happening and empowering how the spirit is empowering us with the grace and the gifts to heal in more practical day by day ways. We have the outward sign. We have the things that the laying on of hands for example, is an outward sign, but it's a sign of something inward and powerful and real that is happening, to bring the answer to the prayer is the wholeness and the healing of individuals, but also of communities and societies.

So we're called and sent to do whatever we can do. First of all, to prevent harm. First do no harm. The first way to heal is to not make it worse, "do no harm," to prevent the spread of diseases or prejudices or brokenness and heartache. And then to support those who are working to bring healing. Everyone involved in providing humanitarian relief services, we support them in our prayers and by contributions that we can make wherever we can make them, whatever is practical for us in our personal situation. And support everybody and all the service industries and on the mission fields and those in Christian vocations and other religious vocations that work to bring relief and wholeness and justice and peace and harmony. And to restore where there has been disasters and to stand against oppression.

All the ways that we can support each other in preventing the spread of anything that hurts other people and where we can support each other in the building up of doing good, and building people up and making life better for people. In our heritage, we have a saying that was attributed to John Wesley about doing good and being kind to everyone whose paths we cross. 
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.
Another way might be the way that Isaiah put again, 
"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." 
Jesus sent with authority to heal and cast out the demons, and we take that in the broadest sense of the authority that God has given us in its broadest definition of healing and casting out evil. He also sent them to preach and to liberate, tell them ... This is how it says in the Message, 
"Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons." 
The kingdom of heaven is among you and within you was one of the things that Jesus used to say. And through the scriptures and through our conversations, he still says it, the kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God is among you. The kingdom of God, as he says, here has come unto you.

What a radical statement, because the kingdom of God is a form of government, kingdom, government, reign of Christ. We say the reign of Christ in our lives. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is God's law governing us. There are many types of government where we usually associate first off the geographical boundaries of different countries of the world or different states, or even our counties or whatever cities and everything. But in geographical terms, we think of our government.

But within that is also the political realm, and oftentimes that crosses all these boundaries. So we have the political government and that changes back and forth regardless of what the boundaries are. It kind of goes with the politics of the day and who's leading, and who's in charge. In our country who got elected, in some countries who took over, but we think of that government like that, or groups like that that rule either by election or by force. But government also includes our social groups, the different organizations we belong to that they have bylaws and they have rules and they have procedures as to how things are done.

Our churches, our families, all of the different ways we associate with each other and make rules to govern our behavior and our work and whatever it is that we're doing, line out the scope of what that group is doing. In many cases, the rules aren't ever even written down, we just know what they are. Or we kind of learned through experience like in our families or with our friends and everything. Thinking about it, you have some rules that guide, you know what you can do and what you can't do, you know what's expected of you. That is a form of government.

The children of Israel when they left Egypt, before they went to the promised land, there was a 40 year period there where they received the Torah through Moses, and that became their organizing document, their constitution, their law. And for those people and for that society, they were a nation. They were considered a nation, but they didn't have any geographic property. They were on the move. They were wandering in the wilderness, according to our scriptures and tradition of the Judaic tradition that they had to be in a land, but they were slaves in that land.

And so they left and they had land that was promised to live in the future, but the generation that left Egypt and was promised this land in the future, they didn't make it to that land. They just saw that and moved around. And it was their succeeding generations that entered the promised land and occupied that physical, geographical territory. But the people who were wandering in the desert were still considered a nation and they still had a law. They still had these rules and that was their government. So, however, that we're organized, that is our governing principle. That's the way we operate. That's the way we're governed.

The kingdom of heaven is a spiritual government. Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." We don't have a military that rises up to protect it or replace another government or anything like that. This is a spiritual kingdom. The law of this government is love. This government has as its task to work to transform this world into a reflection of the very best that heaven has to offer. I love to think about heaven. It's my favorite thing to think about. My favorite songs of the faith are songs about heaven. Now, when we all get to heaven, what a day, a glorious day that will be, and on and on. I better not start in on that because when we think about heaven, our minds go to the sweet by and by, and what is offered in the future, like the promised land that was offered to the children of Israel as they wandered in the desert.

As we wander in this life, we are comforted by the hope of heaven in the future. We're often manipulated by that, by people like I brought up in the beginning by people saying, just put up with injustice in this world, not complaining about all the ways you can get ripped off and just go ahead and take it, and then just look forward to what you're going to have in heaven. We should look forward to what we're going to have in heaven. It's a beautiful thing to think about all the beauty, all the joy that is prepared for us, and all the very best of this earth and of our relationships and of our life, all brought to its fulfillment.

All of our friendships and kinship, all of our family and friends that have gone before us for generations before, how we'll be united with them, most of them, we have never met yet. Many people that we have, and that we've loved here in the earth and they've gone on to be with the Lord and now we're going on and soon we'll be with them. And those that follow us will eventually join us there too. And we have everlasting life and we have all of these things that God promises. I love in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where John saw the city and that represents so much of the beauty and glory of God, just in that small little picture there of the city of new Jerusalem.

He said that the tabernacle of God is with people and God Himself shall wipe away every tear from their eye. There shall be no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more sin, no more death. All of those things are themselves passed away. The Lord Himself would do this, he said. And then it has all that imagery that speaks to us so eloquently. All through the Bible, another one of the great threads of the Bible is the heaven and the perfection of love and fellowship and kinship and friendship and all that we seek for. It just makes us feel so good in our hearts when we think about the glory that awaits us in the life of the world to come.

"They sing the lamb in hymns above, and we in hymns below." (Charles Wesley)
 It's all so close. It's all part of this spiritual life that God brings us into. But it's not just over yonder. It's not just some day yonder. We are expected and called and invited and encouraged and sent to make everything that we can do here as reflective of everything we dream of there as absolutely possible each day. We are invited and sent to love today, as perfectly as we can in the same ways that we envision we will love in heaven. The justice that we certainly expect there to be in heaven, we're supposed to be working on that here as well. Maybe we can't get it all done today, or even each of any one of us in our lifetime, but together we can work on making it a little closer, a little better, a little more like heaven.

And so the radical thing about Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God is present, is at hand, is that expectation that whatever governments we're a part of here are supposed to be reformed to be like the expectation and the joy and the anticipation that we have of heaven in the world to come. That didn't sit well with people back then, and it doesn't sit well with people now. People often use the Bible and religion, not the way that Jesus described here in sending people out and not the way he described in the Sermon on the Mount. But they use them as an excuse and a license to manipulate and to oppress, which is completely antithetical to everything that the Bible is about and everything Jesus and his teachings are about.

The kingdom of God is present in our hearts and minds. We speak it into new degrees of existence in our own lives when we pray, as Jesus taught us, thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. And then the lectionary passage for this second Sunday after a Pentecost concludes with a verse that in the King James, it says, "Freely you have received, freely give." I like how Peterson translated that in the Message, "You have been treated generously, so live generously." Don't get sidetracked from your mission, the mission of Christ by greed or what James referred to as partiality toward those who have other agendas. Trust God for the resources. Don't let the cost of ministry hinder the work of the kingdom.

You've been treated generously, be generous. In the way that you minister freely, freely and generously pray and work for the up building of the kingdom of God in this life and in the life of the world to come. Generously and freely work for justice, and for the fair treatment of everybody everywhere, for equality, for good to be for everybody without any kind of limitations or without putting people in categories and then dividing them against each other. Freely work for unity and stand against evil and injustice and oppression and whatever forms they may take.

So go, we're always ... He's always saying, "Go." Go.
"And as you go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

In the all powerful name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Presenting Ourselves to the Lord

The child grew and became strong and was full of wisdom and God's blessings were upon him. (Luke 2:52 GNT)

We present Christ to the world, in the way we present ourselves -- not just books and rituals and beliefs about Christ, but the person. We invite everyone into a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on February 2, 2020.

The scene is the presentation of the Lord and the Holy family entered to the temple, but they weren't known as the Holy family back then. They were just a family, a poor family who came bringing the sacrifice, not of the wealthy family, but the one that was prescribed for poor families, 40 days after Christmas, today. For the ritual purification of the mother and the presentation of the child. And there were two particular characters in that story that were lifted up in the biblical account. There was Anna, the prophetess who spent all her time in the temple praying and worshiping God and praising God. And then there was Simeon who had been looking for this day to come when the Christ would be born, and somehow the spirit had impressed on him and revealed to him that he would live to see that day. And I like how the Bible says that the Spirit brought him to the temple just at that right time to meet Christ.

And he took him up in his arm and blessed him with a blessing that hundreds of millions really of Christian Jews to this day as part of their night prayers before they go to sleep. And along with remembering through the day and giving it an account of their soul for the day, examination of their conscience and a prayer that we would sleep peacefully. That we would sleep well and die peacefully. 
"Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word.  My eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared for the world"  (Luke 2:29-31; Nunc Dimmittis).
 In that ritual and all the people, they praised the Lord, they praised God for what was going on, they upheld the tradition that had been handed down to them. But there was an extra little significance there for some of the people that were present because the Holy family was offering Christ to the world and the world didn't know this yet. But it was still Christ and he was still being offered. And I love this part that he grew. From there on he grew, and wisdom and stature and the blessings of God were on him.

He didn't just step into his whole role. He was the Messiah already, but he hadn't lived into that role yet, he was just beginning. And it took him his whole life to live into the role of who he was and who had God made him and sent him to be for us. And likewise, it takes our whole life to live into the roles that we have. Where God has callings for us, God has opportunities for us, but it takes us our whole life to live that all out. And what's really a blessing is that we have all of eternity to keep living into it. However far away we've got so far, that's not the end, it's still at the beginning. Like we sing, 
When we've been there ten thousand years,Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise,Than when we first begun.   (Hymn, "Amazing Grace")
 Christ was offered to the world and grew into the role and grew into the relationship.

And the world, they grew into a relationship with him, and we have grown into a relationship with him. In sending the ministers to come to the newly formed United States to preach the gospel, and form the Methodist church, John Wesley had this great command that echoes down and reverberates through the centuries, "Offer them Christ." There are a lot of things that the people of God have to offer. Churches small and large have a lot of things that we offer people, do all kinds of things, hopefully to help people whenever we can. And we have different ways of encouraging each other and we participate in big projects and all of these are very important. But there are some things that as it says in one of our rituals, "The means of grace, the church alone supplieth:"
[The Church is of God,and will be preserved to the end of time,for the conduct of worshipand the due administration of God's Word and Sacraments,the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,the edification of believers,and the conversion of the world.All, of every age and station,stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies.
(UM Baptismal Covenant III)]
There are some that only the church can offer. Only the people of God can offer, only the Body of Christ can offer it to the world. And chief of all those is Christ himself.

The world can't offer Christ. We offer Christ to the world. Christ to the world we bring, the world to Christ we bring. That was the only thing the song says, 
Christ for the world we sing;
the world to Christ we bring.  (Samuel Wolcott, 1869;
That's our central focus. That's our central thing that we can do that no one else can do. If we didn't do it, which we are, but if we weren't, then who would? It comes from the salvation, that hope of salvation, the relationship with God in Christ comes through the body of Christ to the world. We serve the world in that way and everything else that we do is part of that. And that's why we offer him. We offer Christ and we offer Christ the way that Mary and Joseph offered Christ, the way that Simeon received him and held him up as somebody who's alive and living in and real. And not as just pages in a book. Our creeds that are recited or any of the rest of the things that we do.

When they came, they had all of that, the ritual, the tradition words and the scriptures, all of that. The hymns and all that they had in their service, but what they were offering, that wasn't what they were offering. That provided a context that pointed to what they were offering, that celebrated what they were offering. What they were offering was the person, this little baby, this human being, this person, they were offering Christ himself. And that's what we offer. And it can be cast in a lot of different songs and rituals and programs and times and places, but we're offering this personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ and then everything else about it celebrates that and points to it and informs us. And then as we say in our communion liturgy, 
"We offer ourselves in union with Christ's offering for us at Calvary." When we offer ourselves, we don't just offer a book about ourselves, our biography, just like when we offer Christ, we don't offer the book about Christ, the biography about Christ. We offer Christ himself.

When we offer ourselves, we present ourselves to be there, to be present in each other's lives and present in the life of the world. As individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as the faith community, we offer ourselves to be present in the world, caring and loving, and being who we are. Paul wrote it this way, 
So then, my friends, because of God's great mercy to us I appeal to you:
Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God,
dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.
This is the true worship that you should offer.
(Romans 12:1 GNT)
We're invited to offer Christ and with Christ we stand and offer ourselves. To be the hands and feet of Christ, to be the vessel through which Christ connects with the people around us. 

And we're invited to make that intentional by practicing presence. When Jesus was presented at the temple, it wasn't something far off in the future.

If we read it in the Bible, we think of it as that was a long time ago on a long, and long way away. But for the people who were there, it wasn't a long time ago or far away, it was right then and there and it was happening. They were seeing Jesus, they were seeing the event, they were sharing that, they were participating. It was all happening right there. And really that's what the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the conversations that we have, all the things we do, they're not supposed to take us away from where we are, they're supposed to bring us into the experience of the moment. In our ritual for communion in a few minutes we'll be [celebrating the presence of Jesus]. Not to take us back and out away from where we are, but to bring all of that into the present, not just to take us back to Cavalry, but to bring Cavalry to Briensburg. To bring the Upper Room to Briensburg this morning, to us who are here.

And to each of the places where this Sacrament is celebrated, to bring the focus and the reality of God's presence to right there where we are. And we might express that in all kinds of different ways. We might have all kinds of different ways of communicating that, but that's what we're bringing. We're bringing ourselves around the Table of the Lord. We have a lot of different ways of thinking about the mystery of the sacrament and what's going on. When we have our prayers and our ritual and when we pray, "Make this be for us, the body and blood of Christ," and when we repeat Jesus' words, "This is my body, this is my blood." All different people have different ideas about how to understand that and how they perceive it, how they feel it. 

I always think of Dr. Gordon Thompson. He taught at Candler School of Theology where I took the Ministerial Course of Study back in the 80s,and he taught... The sacraments was one of the courses that he taught. And something that he said comes to my mind every time when we have communion. He said that for us, it's not so much about the mystery on the table, but the mystery that's happening around the table

That's something to think about I think is for us that we don't try to argue and try to answer all the questions about the part that what's going on with the bread and the wine. We try to focus on what's going on in the hearts and minds of the people who gather around the table of the Lord and who share this sacrament together with faith and confidence. God is present with us and within us and that's the focus of it all. Of everything that we do. Back in the medieval days there was a monk in France and he was a dishwasher at the monastery and a cobbler. He wrote a lot. And then they wrote down a lot of what he said about practicing the presence of God, brother Lawrence.  ("Practice the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life," by Brother Lawrence.

And the emphasis that he had was that in whatever we do, wherever we are, whatever work we're doing, whatever relationships that we have intentionally practice noticing that God is present there with us. That's our presentation, isn't it? That's when we praise the Lord presenting God's self to us wherever we are in any activity, any moment in our lives. Intentionally practice that presence. And it brings us to our own presence, to being intentionally present to the people around us, to living out the present moment and being aware of what's going on within us and around us in that moment. 

I'm notorious for not being very observant. Right? Cheryl can fill you in on a lot of things about that. Sometimes it's a struggle. You want to just be thinking about other things and your mind drifts. Well, I shouldn't say "yours" in this case, I should say like it is, "mine."  My mind wanders and drifts and thinks about all these things and I love to think about a lot of different things. But sometimes I find that then I'm not quite in touch with what's going on right there in front of me, what's going on right around me, sometimes what's going on inside me, in our thoughts and feelings. And that kind of calls us back to Simeon's prayer again, and the churches use of it over the centuries to remind us at least every day, to take a moment to think about who we are, and where we've been today. What's been our day today. To be present in the company of the Lord, like Wesley Grace, "Be present at our table, Lord." 

And we pray that this morning that in all that we do and say we'll be present with each other. Really know who's here and what they're thinking and feeling and what they're saying. Hearing what they're saying and seeing their face. And when we join around the Table of the Lord, that we feel each other's presence and the presence of Christ within us and among us. That divine presence that we share becomes central to our reality. And then when we take it outside the door and share that with the world, and be present to the world and bring Christ's presence to the world, we present Jesus to the world. 

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

We'll Still Be One Body in Christ

We love our friends on both sides of our various religious and political differences.  Our unity is best expressed in our persistent love and cooperation more than in the singularity of our institutions. Whatever our organizational structures, we share a common mission to let the light of Christ shine through us, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to extend the healing power of God's love to everyone we meet. Our relationships are reshaped when we take our faith off the paper and put it into practice.

“Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.” (GNT) or as many of us are familiar from the King James Version, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19 KJV)

[Listen to the audio for this sermon]
Preached extemporaneously at Briensburg UMC on January 26, 2020.

Today is Ecumenical Sunday in the United Methodist church and other ecumenically minded denominations. And it culminates the week of prayer for Christian unity when so many denominations pray that somehow we can all be more unified as the body of Christ. We affirm our unity in the body, that all believers are members of the household of God and of the body of Christ. Even those that believe that they're the only ones and the rest of us are not. We still believe they are even if they don't believe we are. That all who place any faith at all in Christ are one body in Christ.

And one of the great heartbreaks I guess should tell you that many people have had over the centuries was the brokenness of institutions and inability of institutional Christianity to unite as one. That's with evermore growing denominations joining numbers of churches. And independent churches and various denominations. And part of that I think is where we might think of churches breaking up and starting new churches being like a divorce. And that's always pretty painful imagery. But if we think of it instead of family members starting a new family and still being connected by brothers and sisters or children or grandchildren and all having their own households within that household. I think that it's a little more comfortable and it might be a little more realistic for what has happened in the church. Because I don't see any way that all the denominations could all come together as one institution again. Certainly not in our lifetimes and hadn't been in several many generations of other lifetimes, too.

Bishop Sally Dyck of the North Illinois conference wrote a nice article about this the other day about thinking of Jacob and Esau and how they were one family, but they just couldn't get along at all until finally they separated and went their own ways. ["Road to Reconciliation" by Bishop Sally Dyck] And then they came back together and were able to rejoice that they were still one family, but they had their separate households and lived their separate lives the way that they thought was best.

Right now we celebrate this Christian unity at a time when there's been several proposals laid out for our denomination to vote on in May, for the delegates to vote on in May. And most of them are about some way of dividing the denomination up into at least two other denominations or dissolving it altogether and just starting something else all together. The one that has the most traction seems to be right now anyway or gaining the most support is the "Protocols for Separation" which would leave the United Methodist church just as we are. That would remove all the language that is non-inclusive especially for LGBTQ. That would all be removed from our discipline and we'd all be free of the things that we all stand for. Here would be the denominational position, it would be a completely inclusive denomination. [See "Comparison of GC2020 Proposals," UM News]

Well, a lot of people don't like that and of course as evidenced by the last general conference and then what this protocol for separation would do is that those churches and even conferences, if it was a whole conference, clergy persons, everybody that would like to leave them and form a new denomination then they would be permitted to do that and take their local church property with them and form a new denomination. And then of course we have a lot of denominational assets that we've accumulated over the years. And so those rather than breaking any of those add up, the denomination would provide financial assistance to the new denomination. The United Methodist church would provide the financial assistance to the new denomination in forming that. And that would be in lieu of trying to figure out how to divide up all of our institutions and organizations and all like that that we have.

So, we would still have UMCOR and the Board of Missions and the United Methodist Communications [all the General boards and agencies]. All that would remain there. And so that's the one that has really gotten a lot of traction because we would like to see The United Methodist Church move forward as an inclusive organization, instead of being non-inclusive or continuing to have this argument between people. Others would like to start over in a denomination that is not inclusive and we would help them do that would be pretty much the way that that goes.

And if we would look at that the way, you know as siblings who have two different ideas about how they want to live and so they move into form their own households, it's maybe a little less painful and more realistic view of what that would be like. And I like to think a lot of times of our church as the United Methodist tradition when John Wesley was an Anglican minister and he never did leave his denomination in forming the Methodist Church. He ordained ministers to begin the Methodist church in America. But he stayed a priest in the Church of England. So, that's more like being a parent denomination than spouses not getting along or something. It's more like one denomination sort of giving birth to another. And then we took on certain characteristics but then we took on our own as well. And before that, the Roman Catholic church and before that, the Universal church.

And yet through all of that, different people have had different ideas about how things should be done. And there have always been people forming new groups. Some countries used to try to force everybody to be a member of one church and that still didn't work because people would be dissidents to that and they would start their own groups anyway. And so to me it's more important that our unity be not in having the same organization and the same institution, but that we all have the same love and the same Lord. 
[There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:5-6).]
And a lot of times some of that gets lost in these other arguments and sometimes they can be recaptured by stepping back from each other a little bit and refocusing on the love of Christ for one another. Because we all, whatever the issues are in religion or in politics, we all have friends on both sides of the issue and we love them. And so many times in politics and religion today we think it's hard to express our love for one another when we're at odds with each other so much. So, if we can give each other a little space, I think that'd be good.

So, that's kind of the lens I've been looking at this passage of scripture through this week or so -- everything going on TV. We just sang our song about the story we have for the nations. ["We've a Story to Tell to the Nations," by H. Ernest Nichol, 1896].   It seems like how can we ever get that message across with all this going on in the church and in the politics and then the world around us and everything. How do we ever get that message? We've seen, I think throughout history of the church that we at our church don't have to get the message to everybody. We at our church get the message to the people that we come into contact with. We love our neighbor, we love our community, we love the people that are in our lives. And we demonstrate the love of Christ where we are. And then they in turn where they are and others in turn where they are. And so it kind of ripples around like that. And other groups are doing the same thing. And they're in all these different denominations.

Part of the reason why I made the title of this "We'll Still Be United in the Body of Christ" is that if our denomination does break into the two different denomination, if some leave and form another one, we'll probably both still be members of the World Methodist Council where there's about 128 [80] other denominations that have done that in the past couple of hundred years of Methodism. Many of them active right here in our community of churches that were Methodist and then for the various reasons started their own denomination. We'll still be a part of that, we'll still be a part of different other types of church councils and groups and associations. We will still be a part of the Body of Christ. We'll still be loving Christ and it's still in mission to the world and still trying to spread the scriptures and the message about Jesus.

And that's really what makes us one more than anything else that we do. There's the song 
We are one in the spirit,
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.
And they'll know we're Christians by our love,
By our love.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love.   (Peter Scholtes, © 1966)
So, in this passage of scripture, the Bible talks about the light of the world and as Jesus begins preaching and refers back to the prophecy that, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). And when Jesus came in then to the world and John describes him as the light of the world. And when we go back to the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, that's how creation began, "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis 1:3).  And there was the Psalmist who wrote, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." (Psalm 119:105). Then when Jesus began to preach the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, he delegated that, he assigned that, he actually transmitted that light through us to the world, when he said, "You are the light of the world." If we just think of Jesus as the light of the world, only then that kind of limits what he was trying to do. He was trying to pass that light on to each of us, so that everybody who comes into the light and believes in him becomes a part of that light.

In fact, when he was talking with Nicodemus early in his ministry, in John chapter three --Say that verse 3:16 with me real quick -- 
For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish,
but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Well then he went on to say, 
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:17)
And then he goes on to say that the only condemnation is that light has come into the world, and some people preferred to choose darkness over the light.

Christ is showing us that there isn't any condemnation in the light. The light is here. Step into the light and see what is true and what is right. And then you'll be the children of the light unless you choose not to. Unless you choose darkness. Unless you choose to turn a blind eye. Unless you choose to not see what's there. Then you will be free. You will be living in the light. So, that then it becomes the condemnation [the choice of darkness instead of light]. And he calls us to be not only people who step into the light, but that through us our [Christ-] light will shine. 
“You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. 16 In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
(Matthew 5:14-16 GNT).
So then like I said, I was kind of looking at that through the lens of ecumenism and of church unity and everything. And it's like what we need to always be doing is continue to stand for what we see is the right as we have done. If our message doesn't seem to be getting through, then say it again. If the light isn't shining bright enough turn it up a little bit. The dimmer switch might be turned down. Turn that up to the bright. Somehow intensify the light because when they see the light, then you know, like this guy that stayed up all night wondering where the sun went and finally it dawned on him. We just have to let the light shine brighter and trust what Jesus says. The light penetrates the darkness. The darkness can't put the light out. Darkness doesn't penetrate light. Light penetrates darkness. And so it just keeps spreading the brighter that our light shines.

And then we share this commission. We share the commission of letting our light shine regardless of what our beliefs are, let that light shine. We share the commission to go make disciples of all people. Circling back again, in the World Methodist Council, one of the most prominent and powerful institutions within the World Methodist Council is the Foundation for Evangelism. And it's been a powerful witness over the years of all the different denominations that have formed out of Methodism, coming together for Evangelism to reach out and tell them the good news of Christ and to preach the gospel and encourage the preaching of the gospel.
And even with the differences that we have, we come together to do what John Wesley said when he sent those first people over to it. He said, "Offer them Christ."  "Offer them Christ." And that's our real central job regardless of what we feel about other things is to offer them Christ. Everything else is important. It's important that we take our stands that we take and that when we see the light, we've stayed in the light and don't get drawn out of it by people that haven't seen the light yet. But then they think that they're doing the same thing. We just have to kind of work through those things. But in the meantime, we're called to make disciples. That's our great commission. To help people come into saving knowledge of Christ. And when they do, Christ will lead them where they need to go. And so we're united in that. We're united as disciple makers.

These people that just started out as his disciples, the people that he sent out were few in number, but look now throughout the world. We're spread all over the world and the gospel continues to reach out and people come to know Christ in very personal ways. I think this right here is where in this passage ends up that after calling his disciples and after referring back to the light of the world, prophecies and all, but then he starts healing people. And that's part of our commission as disciple makers, as followers of Christ, is to spread the healing power, the healing touch of Christ. 

And a lot of times, when we're really putting our faith into practice and we take it off the paper and just put it into the way we relate to each other, a lot of things changed on that. Our faith gets reshaped and our understanding of the words themselves get reshaped in it when it takes on actual life and actual people that we're connected with. And the people that we know and love, then that helps shape our understanding of what Christ was doing. And what he calls us to do is not just an institution or even a congregation, but as each as individuals and each as people who love one another in Christ. And healing is a big part of that.

Sacramentally we anoint people with oil and lay hands on them and pray for them to be healed. And that's a big part of the message of healing. But he also said if somebody is thirsty, give them a cup of water. Whoever gives somebody a cup of water will not lose their reward. And so it's in our three General Rules that have been passed down to us from the beginning of Methodism. First do no harm. And that is also the medical profession's number one rule. Whatever we do don't cause more trouble, don't make it worse. And a lot of times that seems like it would be common sense. But then a lot of times isn't our first reaction if somebody wants to start an argument is to throw something back at them? Well then doesn't that just make it worse? .Then they throw something and we do and then we're embroiled in arguments and everything? And it's causing more harm than good. It's like pouring gasoline on fire.And we can always say, "Well, we have a right to this." We do but then again, it's still going to cause more problems. So, what we're really trying to do if we're healing is to first not do anything that makes it worse. 

In the church lot of times what happens is that we start throwing Bible verses at each other. And then we start finding a Bible verse that backs up our side and they find one that backs up their side. And pretty soon then we're just accusing each other of not even believing in the Bible. And accusing each other of not loving God or even believing in God because if you really were a Christian you wouldn't do this or that. And sometimes it's gone to a lot of extremes over the years about if you were truly Christian you wouldn't do whatever. And it would be something like way out that doesn't have anything to do with it. I don't want to name one because somebody might say, "Well I was the one I was thinking that."

But you know, Jesus did say that the mark of our faith, of our being a true disciple of him, is that we love one another. And the more we can zero in on that, then the more we can maybe not do so much harm and finger pointing and accusing of other people. It's like I have friends on both sides of just about any issue you can come up with and I want to stay friends with them, but sometimes it's hard. I've been unfriended by some lifelong friends. Unfriended on Facebook over things that I took a position on it and stuff and it's like, well, you know what I mean? It's kind of funny in a way, but it's kind of painful in a way, too. There's not a reason when we love Christ and we love one another, there's not a reason to be able to work things out somehow. And even if it's creating different organizations, then that's what we need to do or whatever. But we need to love one another through it all.

And so not doing harm is one big way that we can administer healing to the whole world, by not contributing to the hurt. 

And then our second General Rule is to do good. And sometimes there's not a lot we can do. Sometimes there's might be only a little we can do. It might be that cold cup of water, it might be a wash rag on their head when they're sick. Or it might be just a smile or a handshake or a note or just any small little act of kindness that we can do might spur a little bit of healing. Any kind of encouragement and a good word. And in our relationship with other Christians that have beliefs and practices that are different than ours, we can be interested in what that is and why they have those beliefs in practice would be affirming of the ones that we then touch us. Especially the ones we have in common. But also of the ones that might be different. Something in a way that we wouldn't do it but if we can just have an understanding there and an affirmation of their faith in Christ, I think that goes along the way.

Sometimes it's only just a little bit. Sometimes it's only prayer. But yet prayer changes things. Prayer changes us and changes the world and sometimes it gives an opening. Sometimes we find in our prayers like it gives us an opening. We might pray for Lord open the door for this relationship, open the door for this next step that we need to take. And then out of that prayer we see at least maybe our next step. Something that we can do. So, that is an important part of our healing is that we take the next step. That we pray and that we look for opportunities to do something good.

And then the third of the General Rules is to stay in love with God. As an expression, use the means of grace. Attend to the ordinances of the church, all of that different ways of expressing that. Staying in love with God. Just keep going to church, keep loving one another, keep worshiping, keep reading the Bible, receive the sacraments, pray at home and have your Bible study. Go to Bible study and do the different things that strengthen your faith and give other people an opportunity to become a part of the faith community.

All of this. Just like us being here today and worshiping together. We're sharing the love of Christ among us and we're meditating on his word and we're singing the hymns. We're not shaking hands because we don't want to spread anything around right now, you know, but we'll start shaking hands again when everybody's not sick anymore. Then we'll go back to big hugs and everything. But we're creating community among us and it's an opportunity for other people to be a part of it if they would like to. It's an opportunity to share the word of God and the love of Christ among us and then take that out into the world.

And so that's what Christ calls us to and... Again, I'm looking at this passage through the eyes of the unity of the church. These are the things that unite us. These are the things that make us one in the Spirit. And that's what Christ calls us to. A unity that transcends any differences that we have and allows us the freedom to be who we are and to encourage each other around us to be our full selves, our best selves. And holds us together, keeps us moving forward in Christ. And so the invitation, I think for us today is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Keep firm in our beliefs, in the affirmations, the stands that we take and the direction that we're going. Remember that we are right where God wants us to be and to praise God for how that affects the world around us. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.