Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral," Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon 2/10/19
Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral*

Some of us have been gathering each week to read and reflect together on a book called, Holy Contradictions: What’s Next for the People Called United Methodists (editor: Brian K. Milford.) The book is a collection of seventeen essays, all written in response to this question: “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” As part of our time together, we started by going over some guidelines for having holy conversations. After all, we see “unholy” conversations at work in the world all the time. We live in a world right now where we feel like we can’t talk to each other. We assume things like “if you believe this, then you must also believe that,” and that means you must be such and such kind of person, and I can’t possibly be friends with that kind of person.
Can we talk about things differently in the church? In a world where we’ve started to disengage and close ourselves off when we disagree with someone, or alternately when we shame and degrade anyone who doesn’t share our point of view, is it possible to do things differently? I think we can. And so in our study group, we’ve set some guidelines for holy conversation. We’ll try to listen, and not always jump to speaking, and to listen carefully to what others say, and not misrepresent their views. A good way to check this is to say, “I heard you saying” and then try to rephrase your conversation partner’s point of view. And then if they say that you didn’t quite hear them right, listen while they rephrase it. Make sure you understand, even if you don’t agree. We’re trying to use “I” statements when we share. Instead of saying, “You said this” or “They think that,” we’re trying to see, “I believe, I feel, I think.” We’re owning what we say. And we’re remembering to speak with love and kindness about people, and to remember that we’re talking about “people” and not “issues.” When we talk about “issues,” we can sometimes speak in careless ways. When we remember that when we’re talking about same-gender relationships we’re talking about people who are beloved to God and us, we remember to speak with care and love.  Hopefully, the church is a place where we can talk about things that are hard, things that make us uncomfortable, things where we know we might disagree with the folks sitting near us in the pews, and talk differently than folks elsewhere might talk.
In this sermon series, we’ll be thinking together about The United Methodist Church and same-sex relationships and the future of the denomination, but it is really about more than that. It’s about how we understand God, how we read scripture, how we figure out what God is saying to us, and how we live as beloved community when the way we do those things - understand God, read scripture, and hear what God is saying - differs significantly. We’re talking about this now because at the end of this month, delegates from The United Methodist Church around the world will gather in St. Louis for a special session of General Conference. General Conference usually happens every four years, and it is where we make decisions as a denomination about what we believe and how we structure our church. But this month is a special session of the General Conference, meeting for the soul purpose of figuring out if there is a way forward for us in light of the fact that we have, across the denomination, some significantly different understandings of scripture, and how we interpret it, and what conclusions our interpretations bring us to in relation to same-sex relationships, inclusion in the church, marriage, and ordination.
We have to be able to talk about hard things sometimes. In a way, we are endeavoring to answer for the congregation the same question as the book from our study group poses. “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” This sermon series isn’t about trying to convince you of a particular point of view, or telling you the “right” answers. Instead, we’re going to be focusing on better understanding how we interpret scriptures, and how we relate to each other, and love each other when we don’t see eye to eye. I do want to be clear, as we talk, about some things that I think are “givens,” things you can count on for sure. I love you, and God loves you. God loves you no matter what your “side” is, and no matter whether your side is “right” or “wrong.” God loves you if you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and God loves you if you are heterosexual. God loves you if you can’t wait to talk about these things for the next few weeks, or if you wish we never had to talk about things that make us uncomfortable! And, importantly, the church - this church, and the church universal - the church belongs to God, and God will continue to have a task for us, for the world, will continue to call us to make disciples and be disciples of Jesus regardless of what is decided at General Conference.
So, where do we start, as we seek to understand our own hearts and minds, each other, and above all, what it is God is leading us to know and do? One of our tasks as disciples, according to our Book of Discipline, the book of order and rules for structuring our denomination, is to ask: “What can I say that is faithful to scripture as it has been passed down through tradition, and that makes sense in light of human experience and reason?” (paraphrase of Book of Discipline, 81, by Dawson) In our Wesleyan heritage, that is, following the teachings of the founder of the Methodist movement led by John Wesley, we United Methodists say that we turn to four sources to help us articulate our faith - a quadrilateral. Wesley never used the word quadrilateral, but students of Wesley’s over the generations have turned to this model as a way to help us remember and think about the sources of our theology. We believe that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (Book of Discipline, 82) Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.
Along with Wesley, and with other Christians, we believe that scripture is our primary source for understanding. In other words, we start with the Bible. That’s our first place, the first place we look to understand what God is saying to us about how to be followers of Jesus in the world. So, studying the scripture is really important. But how do we figure out what the scriptures are saying? People have wrestled with this ever since there were scriptures to read, or even since there were sacred stories to listen to. How do we know how to understand what we read in the Bible?
“First, scripture is interpreted by other scripture.” (Dawson, emphasis mine.) We learn that it isn’t helpful to take a single verse out of context. We’ve talked about how knowing what comes before and after a verse or passage helps us make sense of what we read. And knowing when and where stories take place helps us understand. We also understand better when we see how a passage fits in with the major themes of the whole Bible. In our gospel lesson today from Matthew, the lawyer, a Pharisee, who asks Jesus a question asks Jesus to “interpret and prioritize scripture” for them. (Dawson) The lawyer’s motives aren’t the best - the Pharisees want to call Jesus out and somehow prove him wrong. But the results are good, for that audience and through the millennia. Jesus gives us a rule of thumb to guide us as we interpret scripture. When we read texts that are confusing, we can ask, “How do these words help us to love God and love neighbor?” John Wesley, you’ve heard me mention, talked about looking at “the whole scope and tenor” of scripture when trying to figure out what verses mean. For him, a guiding principle was that “God is love,” and so when he read other passages that were difficult to understand, he would hold them up against that guide - “God is love.” Any interpretation of the scripture that contradicted that guiding principle he felt was off-base. We are theologians, interpreting the scripture we read, using guides like the rest of scripture, and the way Jesus teaches us to prioritize the greatest commandments and read everything else in light of these teachings - love of God, love of each other.  
Another source for our understanding scripture and God’s call to us is tradition. The Book of Discipline describes tradition like this: “Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between … Tradition is the history of that … environment of grace in and by which all Christians live.” (85) Tradition is a guide for us in that it “represents a consensus of faith” over time. (86) So, one way we figure out what God is saying to us is by looking at how followers of Jesus have interpreted the scripture over the years. We read in the Bible what the gospel writers and apostles had to say about scriptures from the Hebrew Bible. We can study what theologians in the early church from the 3rd and 4th century had to say about the scripture. We can read John Wesley’s notes on the entire Bible, and see his verse-by-verse comments from Genesis to Revelation. And we look to the tradition and wisdom of our own context too - what did we learn from grandparents and parents in the faith about God?
A third source is our own experience. When we read the scripture, we bring ourselves - we are one of our own sources for understanding scripture! We’re shaped by everything that’s happened in our lives. We’re shaped by where we live - whether in a small town or a big city or in the US or in South Africa. We’re shaped by our economic situation, by our genders, by our emotions, by our experience as children, or parents, or grandparents, by our occupations. Our experiences are why we “can read the same passage of scripture repeatedly over time and discover something new with each reading.” (Dawson) God can speak to us in new ways through our experiences, and help us understand the scripture. For example, John Wesley started supporting the licensing of women as preachers in part because of his experiences with strong women in his lives whose call by God he witnessed personally. His experience helped him read the scripture in a new way, and thus he shaped the direction of the church.
Finally, we interpret the scripture using the source of reason. We recognize that we can’t fully know God. God is beyond “the scope of human language and reason.” (Book of Discipline, 88.) But we also believe that God gave us sharp minds that we might carefully use reason to better understand God and the scriptures. We use reason to ask questions about faith and scripture. We use reason to organize our understandings. We use reason to test our findings. We use reason to making connections between scripture, tradition, and experience. We use our reason to help us bring science, philosophy, and nature to bear on our reading of sacred texts. The scriptures themselves prize sound reason. In Proverbs we read, “Turn your ear toward wisdom, and stretch your mind toward understanding. Call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding.” (Proverbs 2:2-3, Dawson)
The Book of Discipline, reflecting on these sources for understanding the scripture, concludes: “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel… while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom.” (89)
We have not yet been able to come to a consensus in our denomination when it comes to how we approach human sexuality and in particular same-sex relationships. We draw on the same sources of understanding, but some of us are drawn more to tradition, and some to experience. Our faithful reasoning leads us to different conclusions, both in the church at large, and here in this congregation. When we think about LGBT persons and the life of the church, I may have a different perspective than you, and you may think differently than those in your family, or in your study group, or in your pew. “We are all theologians after all, all tasked with using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to weigh what we believe to be faithful responses in the world today … My prayer … is that we would continue to lift up as our number one priority” the very things Jesus lifted up for us:  “the love of God and the love of one another – and that includes those who don’t agree with us. Our call as people of faith after all is to provide a welcome so vast and so radical that all might come to know and experience the saving grace of God lives.” (Dawson) Let us seek to be followers of Jesus, who, through our love of God and neighbor, are always inviting others to journey with us in grace. Amen.

* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Any direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are noted as such. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/19/a-way-forward-25-cent-words/

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon, "Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast," Acts 9:1-22

Sermon 2/3/19
Acts 9:1-22

Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast

Today, we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Disney and the Gospels with a look at a classic - Beauty and the Beast. Ok, so, Acts isn’t one of the Gospels, but we’re talking about the literal meaning of gospel here today - good news - so I figure it’s ok. I’ll admit: Beauty and the Beast isn’t one of my favorites. The animated version was released in the fall of 1991, when I had just started junior high, and I think in my head that meant that I was too old to really love cartoon movies. My childhood favorite was - is - The Little Mermaid, released just two years before when I apparently considered it still acceptable to enjoy a Disney film. But I still enjoy it - I took Sam to see it when it came back to theatres again some years ago. I really should have made Hannah Kingsley help me write my sermon today - she wrote her whole honors thesis for college on Beauty and the Beast, so if you’re a big fan, talk to Hannah ask to read her project.
The story of Beauty and the Beast begins with an enchantress disguised as a beggar seeking shelter from a selfish, cold prince, in exchange for the rose she offers him. He refuses, and when he does, she curses him and his servants. She turns him into a beast, and his servants into household objects, and says that unless he learns to love someone and earn their love in return before the last petal falls from the rose and he turns 21, he and his household will never return to their human forms.
Eventually, the Beast meets Belle when she exchanges herself for her father, who has been captured by the Beast. He starts out very angry at Belle when she tries to figure out what the enchanted rose is all about, but after he’s injured, and she helps nurse him back to health, he starts to develop feelings for her. As he tries to make Belle happy, and as she pushes him to do caring, thoughtful things that he’s shunned for so long, his heart begins to warm. Belle and the Beast share a romantic dance as we hear Mrs. Potts, the teapot, sing the song the choir shared today: “Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends Then somebody bends Unexpectedly. Just a little change, Small to say the least. Both a little scared, Neither one prepared. Beauty and the beast. Tale as old as time. Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange. Finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
At one point, Belle realizes using the Beast’s magic mirror that her father is stranded in the woods, trying to rescue her, and the Beast, who has fallen in love, lets her go to try to save him. Belle takes her father home. In the meantime, the townsfolk, scared of the Beast and riled up by the vain villain Gaston  make their way to his castle to attack him. The Beast doesn’t defend himself, too sad that Belle has gone until he sees that she, too, has returned to the castle to try to protect him. He fights off Gaston, but Gaston stabs him in the back. The Beast seems to die, and Belle, distraught confesses her love for him, just as the last petal is falling from the rose. But she’s in time. The curse is broken, the prince and his servants return to their human forms, and of course, they all live happily ever after.
I’ve been thinking about the Beast this week, and how he changes. It takes him a long time, doesn’t it? Even with the threat of a permanent curse hanging over his head, he makes it all the way to within a year of being permanently cursed without seeming to make any effort at learning to love or be loved in return. The fact that he has a whole household of people who are suffering because of his behavior doesn’t seem to impress him. But finally, when an opportunity to change falls into his lap, he reluctantly, even half-heartedly at first, takes it. “Just a little change, small to say the least … finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
What about you - have you changed? For the better? Have you had a time where you had to turn your life around? Where you’d gotten off track, but were able to bend, to learn, to grow - to change? Someone posed a question to me in a message this week. “Can people change?” Maybe you wonder that too - is it really possible for us to change? After all, we make commitments and resolutions and promises ourselves to do better in all sorts of areas of our lives, only to find ourselves falling into the same old patterns. Can we really change? For a while, when I was on Sabbatical, I was working regularly on surveys that paid a dollar or two to earn some extra money. And I often encountered some standard questions, some measures that are used in lots of psychological tests to provide a kind of baseline understanding of someone. And one set of these questions asks whether or not we believe people can change who they are, or whether we believe that people are immutable, incapable of really changing the core of who they are.
I’m not sure I always answered the questions the same way. Depends a bit on how I was feeling that day. But if I was thoughtful with my answer, I would always respond: Yes, yes we can change. Thank God, we can change. Because if we can’t change, I’m really not sure what life is all about, seriously. If I am bound in, locked in to never being able to break free from the ways I fail to be what I think God is calling me to be, if I am forever bound in sin, if I am forever bound to repeat the same mistakes and never truly learn anything, if I can never be impacted enough by the experiences I have and the people I meet and the love I experience, and above all, if God’s grace can’t change my heart - what is the point? Why try? That’s not to say that changing our hearts and lives isn’t hard. So hard. We know it is. But possible? I believe it. I rely on it.
One of the most dramatic stories of change from the scriptures comes from our text from Acts today. It’s the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul. When we first hear of Paul in the book of Acts, the book that describes the stories of what the followers of Jesus did to start what we know as the church after Jesus’s resurrection and return to God, we find Paul being called Saul. He’s a Pharisee - an expert in interpreting the laws of of Judaism, and we find that he means to enforce the laws at any cost. He’s been particularly pursuing folks who are followers of The Way, one of the first names for Jesus’ disciples. We see him in Acts standing as witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, who refused to renounce his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, even when it cost him his life. As Stephen was stoned to death, those who executed him threw their cloaks at Saul’s feet. This background makes Acts 9 all the more stunning.
Saul is on his way to Damascus to get permission that he might capture anyone he finds who is part of this Jesus movement and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. And as he travels, a light from heaven flashes, blinding him, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks “Who are you?” And the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus then tells Paul to get up, get to Damascus, and await instructions.
For three days, Saul can’t see anything. He doesn’t eat or drink. At the same time, a man named Ananias has a vision, telling him that Saul is having a vision of Anananis laying hands him to restore his sight. Ananias is skeptical. He knows the reputation Saul has, that he has been hurting the followers of Jesus. But Jesus says to Ananias: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles … I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias does as directed, and tells Saul he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he prays and lays hands on Saul. As he does this, something the text describes as “like scales” falls from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored. He gets up, gets baptized, and regains his strength, and immediately begins to preach a message of Jesus in the synagogues - that Jesus is the Messiah. And everyone is astonished.  
Why does God reach out to Paul in the way that he does on the road to Damascus? Jesus never, at least as the scriptures record, never speaks to anyone in this direct way again to start their journey of conversion, of changing a heart.. So why Paul? Certainly, God working in Paul to change his heart and then to use Paul to spread the message of Jesus is a powerful testament to the life and work and ministry of Jesus. Who better to use than a totally changed, totally transformed Paul? But I think we can envy Paul’s experience a little, when we think about trying to change our lives. It feels so easy for Paul in some ways. I mean, we could change our lives, turn around, go God’s way completely and wholeheartedly too if Jesus knocked us down on the road and spoke to us directly from heaven, right?
But here’s the thing. First, I think God is really going easy on when God helps us change our lives and hearts gradually, step by step. Most of us aren’t ready to completely give up control to God all at once, and God doesn’t require that of most of us all at once. God calls to us, nudges and lures us, is patient with us as we take one step forward and two back, loving us all along until we feel God’s love deep in our bones and let God’s love motivate the transformation of our hearts and lives. Paul’s own faith journey goes in fits and starts even with his dramatic beginning. He struggles with his faith, struggles with his ministry, struggles with discouragement and failure and setbacks too. But he knows that his new life is a promise from God he’s experienced because of Jesus at work in him, and because of that, he perseveres, and continues to let God shape him long past the road to Damascus.
Can we change? With God’s help, we can. Sometimes God’s help comes like a blinding light that causes the scales to fall from our eyes. Sometimes God’s help comes and helps us make the little changes, like the Beast did with Belle, slowly making room in his heart to give and receive love and kindness. Either way, any way, our job is to seek to live in a way that keeps us open to God’s transformational work in us, ready to participate with God’s power to change us, ready to nurture what God does in our lives, to tend to our tender, freshly changed lives.

Can we change? I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in fifth grade. And sometimes, when I feel discouraged, I’ll read through some of my entries from over the years. Sure, some things I struggle with I’ve been struggling with since my first entries. But I can also find in the pages my journey into ministry, my faith maturing over the years, my growing to understand who I am and who God has called me to be, the times that I’ve taken risks and had God see me through, or times that I’ve failed but been loved by God and community anyway, and been able to keep at it, keep working to grow into who God knows I can be. Friends, God is at work in you too, and I know that the hand of God on your life has changed you. We can’t help but be changed by God’s touch on our lives. Trusting that, the more we open our hearts to God, the more we’ll find the new life we seek. Amen.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sermon, "Disney and the Gospels: Frozen," Romans 5:1-8, John 15:1-17

Sermon 1/20/19
John 15:1-17

Disney and the Gospels: Frozen


Well, I’m pretty sure the storm is my fault. I decided to preach a sermon titled “Frozen,” and the weather very nicely complied! Sorry about that! How many of you have seen Disney’s Frozen? I suspect even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve heard some iteration of it’s most popular song, “Let It Go.” I took my nephew Sam to see the film when it came out in 2013, who was then about 6 years old. I think I was more interested in it than he was, but he went along with me anyway. And as Elsa, one of the two main characters, belted out “Let It Go,” I thought, “Wow - this is good! This is going to be a hit! Also, of course, it is an alto power ballad, and altos never get enough of the awesome songs, so I was a fan.
“Frozen” is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” When the film opens, Anna and Elsa, sisters, are little girls, princesses. Elsa, the older sister, has a magical ability - she can create and control snow and ice. Anna and Elsa are quite close, until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic. Anna is healed, but their parents become extremely protective, and Elsa becomes sheltered, not wanting to hurt Anna, who is too little to understand why Elsa is pushing her away. When the girls are teenagers, their parents die at sea during a storm. Eventually, the girls grow into young women, and Elsa is about to be crowned Queen of her land. Elsa is terrified that people will find out about her powers. Meanwhile, impetuous Anna is falling in love at first sight with a handsome prince. When Elsa finds out the Prince Hans has proposed to Anna, she loses control of her magic, scaring everyone.
Devastated, Elsa runs away, making herself a palace of ice to live in by herself. It is then that she sings the words we hear in “Let It Go”: “Don't let them in, don't let them see, Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know. Well, now they know. Let it go, let it go. Can't hold it back anymore. Let it go, let it go. Turn away and slam the door. I don't care what they're going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.” What Elsa doesn’t realize, though, in her isolation, is that her magic has engulfed her whole homeland in an eternal winter.
Anna sets out to find her sister, to get her to end the winter. She leaves Prince Hans in charge, and sets out to get Anna. She makes many friends along the way like Kristoff, and Olaf the snowman, and finally gets to her sister. Elsa doesn’t think she can undo her magic - she’s never had that kind of control over it. In fact, during their confrontation, Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s heart, a slow moving process that Anna can only stop if “an act of true love” reverses the spell. Kristoff races Anna back to her home so Hans can give her a true love kiss. But it turns out Hans has just been scheming to get control of the kingdom. Kristoff has genuinely fallen in love with Anna, and we’re led to think that perhaps he can be the one who saves her, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Elsa is captured by Hans’ people, but escapes, and Anna sees that Hans is about to kill Elsa. Anna jumps in front of her sister to save her, and she freezes solid. Elsa is devastated, but as she hugs her sister, Anna thaws out, because Anna performed an act of true love - she was willing to give her life in the stead of her sisters. Elsa realizes that she can use the power of love to control her magic. The sisters are reunited, and their homeland is saved.  
Frozen is another one of the newer Disney films that breaks out of the prince-rescues-princess mold, even poking fun at those tropes. It reminds us that acts of true love take many forms. The truest love in this story is the love between sisters, and especially in Anna’s willingness to put herself in harm’s way, to offer even her own life in order to save her sister. This is after her sister, hurting and angry, rejects years of Anna’s attempts to grow close to her again. It makes me wonder - who do we truly love? Who would we make sacrifices for? Are there some for whom we would even give our own lives if it was necessary?  
When we think about sacrifice and true love in light of our faith, from our perspective as followers of Jesus, of course our thoughts turn to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, when he was arrested, tried, and crucified. In some ways, when we think about the sacrifice Jesus makes, it seems rightly beyond what any of us can offer. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, recognizes that the way Jesus offers up his life is significantly different than the way most of us might be persuaded to be self-sacrificing. He writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In other words, Jesus offers his life as a demonstration of love for people who are … not so great … if you’re measuring by standards like how many good deeds someone has done or how carefully they uphold the laws or follow the commandments or how well they show love for God and neighbor. Jesus offers his life even for regular folks, and even for people that we might consider no good at all. That’s not how we, regular people, typically offer self-sacrificing behavior. We don’t usually go above and beyond for someone we consider no-good-at-all. We’d probably do it for our family, our dearest friends, even when they mess up. Sure. And maybe for someone we considered especially good, or especially innocent - we might be self-sacrificing for children who are so vulnerable, or for adults who evoke in us a sense of awe and admiration. For them, we might be able to give of ourselves sacrificially. But for someone who is no-good-at-all? Or even just a “regular” someone - how much of ourselves would we want to give? Paul says this is how we know how much God loves us: Even though we - yes, you and me - sometimes behave in ways that are no-good-at-all, Jesus is willing to give everything of himself, even his life - for us - yes, you and me. Indeed, that is an enormous gift, love immeasurable, and we do well to consider the magnitude of such an offering. We are humbled by Christ’s self-giving love for us.
But…I’m afraid, sometimes we are so bowled over by Christ’s self-giving love that we put it in a category that is “other” than what we can do, what we are called, in fact, to do, how we are called to live. In our reading from John’s gospel, we find Jesus talking to the disciples. He says to them, “‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He says that we are his friends because he chose us, and he makes known to us everything that he knows from God. We’re to bear fruit that will last. He gives us these commands so that we might love one another.
Jesus is calling us to act like he does. And to do that, we need to love one another. Not just the people we already like. Jesus makes it clear throughout his teaching that loving our neighbors is second only in importance to loving God, and that Jesus’ definition of neighbor includes not only generically everyone, and certainly not just those who are kind to us - neighbors include even our enemies. So, to act like Jesus, we have to love one another. Even our enemies we’re meant to hold like friends in our hearts, if we want to love others like Jesus loves us. And if we want to love others like Jesus loves us? Well, Jesus does that by giving his own life. Greater love has no one than this, Jesus says: to lay down your life for your friends. If we love our enemies like Jesus loves us, and our enemies are meant to be counted as friends, then we’re meant to live sacrificially even in relation to our enemies. The kind of love Christ demonstrates is costly love, love that involves real sacrifices, and he calls us to follow him, to imitate him, even in this. Oof. It is much easier, isn’t it, to think of the sacrifice of Jesus as something so other than what we can do, than what we are called to. It is so much easier to put it on a level far beyond what we can reach than to entertain the idea that we might need to put ourselves on the line for the sake of our enemies. But Jesus calls us to be as much like him as we can be, and so we have some hard work cut out for us.
Friends, I don’t know that we will have to lay down our life literally in order to answer God’s call, that we will have to be like Anna, letting our hearts be Frozen to save the ones we love. But I wonder, as I look at the world around us, as I look at our nation, struggling with itself, as I look at how entrenched we can become in our worldviews and positions - I wonder what would happen if we started working to make enemies into friends, and if we started loving in a way that was self-sacrificing, putting the needs of the other before ourselves, acts of true love. What if you didn’t have to be right the next time you got into an argument? What if you gave up some of your time to nurture a relationship with someone who usually frustrates you, so that you could really spend time listening to them, understanding them better, showing them the love that they probably desperately need? What if you gave of your resources, your money, to support someone getting back on their feet, even if they’d made choices that baffle you or anger you, because you follow a God who gives endless second chances? What if you risked your comfort, your sense of safety, so that you could stand up for someone who was being persecuted, so that you could reach out to someone who had put themselves in a dangerous situation? What if enemies became friends, and you love your friends without reserve, and you can show no greater love for them than of giving of your very self so that they see God’s love embodied in you? Look at what Anna’s love did for Elsa. It changed Elsa’s whole life, her whole sense of herself to have someone love her the way Anna did. Imagine how being loved by you might change someone’s life. After all, hasn’t your life been changed by love?
God proves, God demonstrates love for us in this: Jesus died, full of love for us, even though we are sometimes not so great. Who do you love? Friends? Neighbors? Enemies? How will you demonstrate your love?  
Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth by Jake Owensby

I received a copy of Jake Owensby's new book A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth to read and review. Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana, author of several books, and regular blogger. 

I wasn't sure what to expect going in - I've never read anything else Owensby has written, but the title and theme intrigued me. This is a short read, just over 100 pages. Chapters include themes like "Growing Beyond Our Past," "The Meaning of Suffering," "Mending Loss and Sorrow," and "Just Us." I think resurrection is sometimes a hard 'concept' for both seekers in spirituality and for long-time disciples to grasp. We want to believe in resurrection, but we have a hard time finding evidence of it in our own lives. Even perhaps believing in the resurrection of Jesus is easier than believing in our own resurrected lives, because we can keep Jesus' resurrection at a safe distance on the pages of scripture, but we can't help but notice that our own lives seem remarkable not full of new life. I think Owensby does a really remarkable job of bringing resurrection close to us, and helping us understand what resurrection looks like in the here and now. 

I really enjoyed this book. It was a balm for the soul. Some highlights: 

On repentance - "When we repent, we admit that the sorrows, the losses, the wounds, the betrayals, and the regrets of our past have made us into someone we don't want to be anymore." (7)

On suffering - "One way in which ... new life emerges is in our unguarded engagement with the suffering of others." (21)

On shame - For some people "life is a ceaseless striving to be something they aren't yet. To arrive. The problem is that they never really arrive so long as they believe that being lovable is something to strive for and achieve." (38)

On grace - In some views, "grace enters the universe as a repair kit," but for Owensby (in line with other theologians,) "when God decided to bring the world into being, Jesus was God's very first thought. That's because the creation is about love from its inception." (42) 

On sorrow - "I don't for one minute believe that the resurrection diminishes the importance of our mortal suffering. On the contrary, the resurrection saturates even the most sorrowful moments of our lives with significance. Following Jesus is all about learning to care with abandon." (57) 

On the Parable of the Foolish Virgins - "No one else can ... engage this Kingdom for you. I can't lend you my extra oil. I can't just tell you about it. You have to be there. The genuine encounter is always personal." (61) 

On reconciliation - "Nothing degrades our human dignity like our refusal to recognize it in each other." (74) 

On justice - "Would your life be worth living if you didn't do whatever it takes to pursue the dream of God's justice for all?" (92) 

On heaven and hell/Parable of the Talents - "A carefree life comes much closer to hell than to heaven ... The only path to blamelessness is to be uncaring. To care is to invest in what's going on around you, to take risks, to suffer loss, to be accountable, and to commit." (100-101)

Finally, "Life is not about being endlessly Carefree. It's about being unguardedly, relentlessly caring. At the end of the day, our tears will be wiped away. But the point is that we have shed tears ... Tears of love. We have not protected ourselves from Pain and sorrow and loss." (103)

There are brief sets of study guide questions at the end of each chapter for personal or group use. I definitely recommend giving this book a read!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord, Year C, "Disney and the Gospels: The Lion King," Luke 3:7-18, 21-22

Sermon 1/13/19
Luke 3:7-18, 21-22

Disney and the Gospels: The Circle of Life

“From the day we arrive on the planet And blinking, step into the sun. There's more to see than can ever be seen, More to do than can ever be done. There's far too much to take in here, More to find than can ever be found. But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round. It's the circle of life And it moves us all Through despair and hope, Through faith and love, Till we find our place, On the path unwinding In the circle. The circle of life.”
How many of you have seen the movie or the stage production of The Lion King? The stage version is really stunning, and if you get the chance to see it, you really should go. (It’s coming to Syracuse again this fall, maybe we’ll have to make a group trip.) “The Circle of Life” is the very first song in The Lion King, and these words open the whole story. As we hear them, we find lions Mufasa, who is the king of the animals, and Sarabi his wife presenting their child to all the animals - the baby lion Simba. We’re celebrating the baptism of Jesus today, and there are a lot of baptism-like symbols in this opening scene of The Lion King. Simba is born. He’s marked by the priest-figure of the community, Rafiki. He’s recognized and welcomed by the whole community as part of them. He’s too little to know the significance of this ritual himself, but that’s ok. Everyone is celebrating who he is, who is parents are, and what they think his role will one day be. It’s a beautiful, hopeful beginning, as Simba is initiated into the community and marked as a future leader.
But things don’t stay beautiful for long. When Simba is a child, a series of events, including the actions of an Uncle Scar who wishes he were the king in the place of his brother Mufasa, result in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile from the community. Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and he believes that his actions are completely unforgivable. He believes that his mother and the rest of his family, his friends, his community - there is no way they could possibly still love him or want him around if they knew that he was the reason Mufasa had died, even if it was an accident. And so despite the way his community welcomed him into their midst just because he was born, just because he existed, Simba spends most of his formative life away from all these people, trying to forget who he was supposed to be. It isn’t until years later when Simba is an adult that he finally discovers that he’s been wrong about a lot of things, and takes the chance to reconcile with his family and his community. Most of all, he learns to forgive himself, and learns that he has never been without the love of the people who matter most to him, despite the mistakes he’s made. The end of Lion King mirrors the beginning, only now instead of being the newborn, Simba is the father. He’s a parent, he’s the leader of his community, and he’s ready to have his child recognized and welcomed just as he had been so long ago.    
As I said, there are a lot of symbols in that opening scene of The Lion King that remind me of the themes of baptism - initiation into the community, who is gathered to watch, even the making a sign on the forehead, the claiming of an identity of who the baptized one is and will be. Today, it is Jesus’ baptism in particular that we remember, and in studying his baptism, we find the meaning of ours. Although all of the gospels include Jesus’ baptism, telling us it is important, none of them spend an awfully long time on the details. And that’s too bad, because over the millennia since then, people have had a lot of questions about Jesus being baptized. It seems easy to understand why we are baptized. John talks about baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and we know we need that - we need to turn away from all paths but God’s path, and be forgiven for our sins, our failures to live as God calls us to. But why would Jesus need to participate in the ritual of baptism?
Although Luke doesn’t give us many verses of detail about Jesus’ baptism, he does give us lots of context for it in our reading for today. John, who we know as John the baptizer, has appeared in the wilderness, and he’s been traveling all around the region telling folks they should be baptized as a sign of their repentance so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change direction from whatever way you’re going in your heart and mind and life that’s not God’s direction, and turn around so that you’re back on God’s way. Baptism - which (as my college Greek professor loved reminding me) literally means “to be dipped” in water - was a symbol, a ritual that folks participated in when they wanted to make a fresh start. It was a symbol of newness, new life, a clean slate, a new beginning. Such water rituals were practiced in many cultures, many religious traditions. But beginning with John, the meaning of baptism starts to shift and take on specific meanings.
John tells folks that they have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In other words, they have to show that they’ve repented with their actions. It isn’t enough to say that you’ve turned your life back to God’s path, if all the while you are still traveling just as fast down your own road as you ever were. You have to have fruit, the results of your claim of repentance. Hearing this, the crowds who have come to hear John preach wonder to him, “What then should we do?” They want to make sure they’re showing their work. I think of all the times you have to show your work in school, especially in subjects like math. It isn’t enough just to get the right answer. Teachers want to see that students actually know how to end up with the right answer, beyond a lucky guess or some convoluted method that ended up with the right result. Having to show my work was always frustrating to me - sometimes I just knew the answer but explaining how I knew was harder.
John, in response, gives them ways to demonstrate their repentance: If you have two coats, share one. If you have more food than you need, give the rest away. If you are a tax-collector, take only what you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t threaten folks and falsely accuse them from your position of power. What John suggests isn’t earth shattering, but it does require consistently making sure to put the needs of others first, to put love of neighbor into action, to match the desire for repentance with acts of repentance.
So, the context of Jesus’s baptism is this expectation, anticipation that something is happening. Something is changing. People are longing to turn their lives around. They’re ready to start new, to start fresh, to get a clean slate and a chance to try again to follow God. John has them so filled with hope people even start to think he might be the messiah, but John says he’s just the messenger. He baptizes with water, but someone is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. In John’s vision, the messiah will come with a winnowing-fork, ready to separate wheat and chaff, good fruit, and stuff that doesn’t measure up.
Instead, Jesus seems to slip into the picture without announcement or fanfare, without explanation. People were coming to be baptized, and Jesus came too. And after John dips him into the water, the heavens open up, and the Holy Spirit that John mentions comes not with fire, not now, but as a dove, and with it, God’s voices: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And with that, Luke moves on from the baptism to other things.
So why is Jesus baptized? I wonder if we get the order of things a little bit wrong, if John the baptizer gets the order a little bit wrong. In baptism, we celebrate that we are claimed by God. That’s what God says to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s beloved child, and that is confirmed at his baptism, even though it is already true. His baptism is the celebration, the demonstration of what is already so. Because sometimes we need reminding, don’t we? Certainly, this reminder gives Jesus strength for his work, and knowing, deeply knowing we belong to God and God loves us can change our whole lives. So I think either John misunderstands who Jesus is and how God works, or we misunderstand what John is saying if we conclude that we have to repent before God will claim us as belonging to God in baptism. We are already claimed by God. We already belong to God. God already loves us without measure, without condition. We repent, we turn back toward God and toward forgiveness when we’re ready to acknowledge, accept, receive, and be assured of what is already true. So when John tells us to “show our work” and bear fruit, we can’t earn God’s love - we already have that. Instead, our fruit is the result of God’s love, the result of the soil and water and sun that God’s love is in our lives. Because we’re claimed by God, we’re forgiven. Because we are beloved of God.
When we watch a story like The Lion King, we know, children know that Simba doesn’t need to run away after Mufasa dies. We find ourselves wishing that Simba had instead found his mother and told her everything. We find ourselves wishing the truth would be revealed. We know when everything comes to light, Simba will be welcomed home with rejoicing, not punished. Simba is the one punishing himself, but we know that he’s always loved. Of course, it would make a pretty short story if Simba didn’t have to learn those truths for himself. But even as we know these things when we watch the story of The Lion King unfold, I wonder if we know them in our own lives. Sometimes, we’re pretty sure we’ve screwed up in a way that means we are no longer welcome in our community or congregation. Sometimes, we’re sure we’ve messed up in a way that means we no longer belong to God. Sometimes, we believe that we’ve done something that can’t be forgiven. Sometimes, we’re positive that no matter how much fruit we try to produce, it will never be enough to bring about reconciliation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, that’s why we don’t “rebaptize” in The United Methodist Church: we don’t need to. We baptize once, our way of celebrating that we’re accepting God’s gift of grace, and then we spend the left of our lives renewing the vows of our baptism, remembering and reaffirming that we’ve been claimed as God’s beloved. Because we already belong to God, and God has already made promises to us, and God never wavers - never - in calling us beloved. And so we don’t ever need to redo something that for God has never stopped, never failed, never faltered. And as we learn that - that we are God’s beloved - as we trust that - that God is well-pleased to call us God’s own - that sure foundation is what transforms our lives. Resting in God’s love is what will allow us to bear the fruit of repentance, as we continually turn our lives to God, always finding a welcome there. Friends, you are God’s children. You are beloved. With you, God is well-pleased. Amen.