Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael," Judges 4:4-5:3

Sermon 7/16/17
Judges 4:4-5:3

Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael

Today we’re turning our attention to the book of Judges as we continue to explore the stories of some of the women of the Bible. This book represents the story of Israel between the time in which the Israelites moved into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and the time when Israel began to be ruled by earthly kings, as other nations were. In the interim period, somewhere around the 12th or 11th century BC, they were ruled by judges. They served two functions: the first was like the role of judges today. These leaders settled legal disputes for the Israelites. But the biblical judges also served as military leaders. They were commanders-in-chief of Israel’s army.
The Book of Judges provides us with glimpses of the leadership of these judges and into the hearts of the Israelites. According to the author, the people and their leaders seem to go through these repeated cycles where they are “do[ing] evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over, the people seem to make the same mistakes, seem to turn away from their faithful God, seem to do the very things that they know have always resulted in pain and heartbreak in the past. If you know any stories from the book of Judges, it might be the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was one of the judges of Israel. But I’m guessing that the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael is new or unfamiliar to many of you.
Deborah, the fourth of the twelve judges in this time period, follows one of these time periods of wandering away from God. The opening verses of chapter 4 tell us that the Israelites were doing what was evil in God’s eyes, and their actions resulted in their being sold into the hand of King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army is a man named Sisera, who commands a fierce army of nine-hundred chariots of iron. For twenty years, King Jabin oppresses the Israelites. We don’t know exactly what this oppression looks like, but it’s a long enough time to be feeling pretty desperate and downtrodden. Twenty years of cruelty.
Into this setting, Deborah rises as judge of Israel. She is called a prophet, a title not given to the other judges, and a title only given to a handful of women in the scriptures – a little study project for you to track down other women prophets in the scripture! A prophet hears God’s voice and speaks God’s message to the people. When our scene opens, Deborah summons Barak, a military commander, and tells him: God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel to fight against Sisera and his army, and God will give them into your hand. Barak responds saying to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” It’s unclear why he responds this way. You could think of his words as flattering – he wants Deborah’s wisdom and leadership there with him in the battle. Or you can think of him as skeptical, doubting Deborah’s words, or God’s words, or fearful, unwilling to step up and lead on his own. Deborah agrees to go with him, but perhaps because of his reluctance to just lead as God had called him to, she tells him that the glory of the journey, the victory will not fall to Barak, but to a woman.
As the battle unfolds, Deborah sends Barak out saying, “The Lord is indeed going out before you.” Sisera’s chariot are thrown into a panic – later in Judges we find that storm has caused all the chariot wheels to get stuck in mud, rendering them useless. And the army of King Jabin is being steadily conquered. When Sisera, the commander, sees this, he runs away. He flees and seeks safety in the tent of Jael, the wife of a man named Heber. Heber is part of a clan of people called Kenites, and they are allies with both King Jabin and Israel. Sisera expects welcome, and indeed, Jael tells him, “Have no fear.” She covers him with a rug, and gives the thirsty man a drink of milk. He asks her to guard the entrance of the tent and to turn away anyone who approaches. And then he fall asleep. And Jael takes a tent-peg and hammer and drives the tent-peg through his skull, killing him as he sleeps. Barak shows up at her tent, only to find his foe already defeated – by the woman Jael.
After the battle, Deborah and Barak raise their voices in a song Deborah composes, saying, “Hear, give your ear, I will sing to the Lord, I will make a melody to God.” The song that they sing is thought to be some of the oldest material in the entire Bible, and recounts in dramatic fashion all the events that have unfolded, naming Deborah a Mother of Israel.
So, what do we make of this intense, crazy story? Weeks ago, I was seeking advice from colleagues about what hymns might be suitable to go along with this scripture text. And of my colleagues responded saying that it depended on what the “good news” was that I planned to share from this passage. That was such a helpful focusing question because my first response was to think, “Wait, where is the good news in this story?” I’ve wanted to share with you some of the stories of women in the Bible, since their stories are often overlooked. But is there any good news in this vividly gory story?
Perhaps the good news is in the victory: the Israelites were freed from their oppression through Deborah’s leadership, Barak’s military action, and Jael’s, well, decisive actions. After these events, Israel experiences a peace under Deborah’s judgeship that lasts for forty years, a meaningful duration of time in the scriptures. Is that enough good news for this story? One of the struggles I often hear folks express when reading through the Hebrew Bible, the stories in the Old Testament is about the level of violence that takes place that gets attached to God’s name. I’m glad people are so uncomfortable with it. I’m glad we don’t read story after story of war and violence and wonder if that could really be God’s plan. It would be worse if we didn’t raise such ethical questions. They are contemporary questions after all: Is there such a thing as just war? Does God choose “sides” in a war? Is God with one side and not the other? We can think of the religious crusades of history, of action and inaction during World War II, of turmoil over our role in Vietnam to more contemporary questions: What is the right response to genocide, like in Rwanda in the 90s? How do we respond to war and destruction in Syria? Rev. Alex Joyner writes that there’s a monster in the story of Deborah and Jael. It’s not Jael, not Sisera, but the monster of violence. He says, “But there's still that monster, isn't there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There's still that monster. The monster of violence can never have the last word -- not on a hill called Calvary and not here." (1) Can we give thanks for freedom from oppression, even while we lament the violent means that brought about this new peace for Israel? I think, at least, it is good news when we faithfully wrestle with texts like this, because we’re paying attention, we’re searching, and seeking God’s wisdom and clarity, and realizing how contemporary this ancient story is, how God’s word is a living word.
Perhaps we find some good news in the fact that this story is yet another testament to the fact that God surprises us, uses unexpected people, works in unexpected, mysterious ways. There are very few one-dimensional “hero” figures in the scriptures, even if we thoughtfully like to gloss over the less savory parts of the stories of biblical figures. At our animate faith study this spring, we talked about a phrase reformer Martin Luther used – “simultaneously sinners and saints.” Sometimes we think of God’s followers in the Bible as a bunch of saints. And they are that, but they’re sinners too, struggling and sometimes failing to do what God desires. Deborah, in her victory song, gloats, taunting Sisera’s mother, saying she’ll watch for her son who is never coming home. Jael – she helped deliver Israel – but she had to take some questionable actions to do it, certainly disregarding concepts of hospitality and sanctuary. I’m thankful for these women, these complex women, who aren’t painted as perfect by any stretch. But God doesn’t look for perfect. God perfects us as we learn to love and serve God over our lifetime. And so God can use people as complicated as Deborah and Barak and Jael, and draw good out of the messes we make, when our motives and actions are less than God desires for us.

And we find good news in this: God is faithful, offering us redemption again and again, offering us paths to freedom even when our captivity was a result of our own destructive choices, present with us even when we doubt God’s plan, surprising us even when we sure we’ve got it all figure out, giving us grace even, perhaps especially when it is undeserved. Deborah and Jael and Barak are part of a compellingly strange story, but it is one story of many in this long cycle of judges, and one story of many in our long story of turning away from God who never turns away from us, and one story of many where we fail to see God’s constancy through victory and failure. Thank God for unsettling stories, and God’s consistent grace within and throughout them. Amen. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Sermon, "Women of the Bible: Sarah and Hagar," Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:9-20

Sermon 7/2/17
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:9-20

Women of the Bible: Sarah & Hagar

            Time is such a funny thing. It rules our lives in so many ways. We’re governed by time, appointments to get to, schedules to be kept, not enough time to do what we want, time wasted. Time that seems to drag too slowly for us, and time that rushes by. Today is my one-year anniversary of being the pastor here, and people sometimes ask me, “Does it seem like a long time?” In some ways, I can hardly believe it has been a year already. I can vividly remember my first day as pastor here last year, which was the last day of Vacation Bible School that year. It was really hot – as was most of the summer. And I got a flat tire that day. I can tell you what I was wearing, and I can remember some of the people I met at VBS, and I remember struggling to learn all the new names and faces I was encountering. It seems like just a moment ago. But it also seems like a long time, too. I don’t feel like your “new” pastor. I feel like we’ve been in ministry together for a long time, like we’ve been working together on this following Jesus thing for a long time now.
In my first religion class in undergrad, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action.
            Can you think of a promise someone made you that took a really long time to come to fruition? Or plans that you made that were in the far-distant future, and you had to wait, and wait, and wait for the day to arrive when your plans would become reality? Today, as we start our summer series of looking at some of the stories of the women of the Bible, we encounter Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham started out as Sarai and Abram, but God gave them new names, a sign of the covenant God was making with them. When Abram was seventy-five years old, and Sarai was in her mid-sixties, God spoke to Abram, told him to leave his home and travel to a new land that God would point out, and there promised Abram that God would bless him, make of him and his descendants a great nation. Today, we read about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah when Sarah learns that she will give birth to a son. By the time Sarah delivers her child, Isaac, Abraham is one hundred, and she is ninety-one years old. Twenty-five years pass between God making a promise to them and when the promise is fulfilled. Twenty-five years for it to be “God’s right time.”
            Today’s first text opens with God appearing to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, where Abraham’s tent is. This is a holy place – it is at this place where Abraham earlier built an altar when God renewed the covenant with Abraham and Sarah and gave them their new names. God appears in the form of three men, messengers of God. And Abraham, seeing them, immediately makes arrangements for their welcome. He has their feet washed, invites them to rest, brings them water, and has Sarah make them cakes from choice flour. Often, in fact, this passage is cited as a text that leads us to think about hospitality and how we welcome strangers into our midst. But today, I’m more interested in the message these men bring.     
            “Where is Sarah?” they ask. “Sarah is in the tent,” Abraham answers. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Sarah and Abraham had been told by God that Abraham would be blessed with descendants more numerous than the stars. After more than ten years of waiting on God’s promise, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She told Abraham to have a child by Sarah’s slave, a young woman named Hagar, so that at least Abraham’s line would continue, even if not through Sarah. This is the best way Sarah can figure out how to make God’s promise come true. And indeed, Hagar has a son by Abraham named Ishmael. We’ll come back to that in a bit. Then, another decade and a half pass until we reach today’s scene. “In due season,” one of the men says, “Sarah will have a son.” Sarah is listening from the tent, and she laughs when she hears this news. She’s not laughing happy, joyful laughter. She’s laughing her disbelief, her skepticism, her disappointment. She is ninety years old. She is in menopause. She has already secured a son for Abraham. She has waited two and half decades on God’s promises. “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” she wonders. She thinks that God, in the form of these three visitors, has lost it.
            God says to Abraham, “Why did she laugh?” Why did she express doubt? “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? This is going to happen.” Suddenly, Sarah wants to deny laughing, fearful of God’s response, and in my favorite line, God responds, “Oh yes, you did laugh!” It’s like two children arguing: “Nuh-uh.” “Yuh-huh.” Beyond today’s passage, we find that indeed, God “deals with Sarah” as said, and God does for Sarah what has been promised, at God’s right time, twenty-five years later. Sarah’s son is named Isaac, which comes from the word “to laugh,” for, Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me, and everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter, once the laughter of bitter doubt and disappointment, has been transformed into joyous laughter at last.
            Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Throughout the scriptures, we hear similar sentiments. With God, all things are possible. Nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe it? Sarah tried to fulfill God’s promises by her own actions, in her own way, in her own time, and the results were not so good, which we’ll hear more about. Have you ever found yourself trying to force God’s plan into your own plan? Into your own sense of timing?
I remember while I was on sabbatical a few years ago, I was trying to make some decisions about my next steps in ministry. I was trying to listen to God’s voice, but I was impatient. Every year, pastors and churches have to fill out paperwork expressing their hopes about ministry appointments in the coming year. When I asked friends to pray for me, to pray for clarity for me, I would ask them, “Please tell God to give me an answer by November 1st. That’s when my paperwork is due!” Last year, when I was appointed to come here to Gouverneur, it was most definitely not my timing. I wasn’t ready to move. I wasn’t looking to move. And I can’t say that Gouverneur was one of the places I had imagined myself serving as pastor. And yet, here I have found blessing upon blessing, because it seems that this has been God’s plan for us. Is anything too wonderful for God? Of course not. We can say it with our lips. But frustrated by God’s strange sense of timing, by God’s strange sense of humor, by God’s dreams that seem impossible, we end up getting in the way of the truly wonderful that God wants to reveal to us at God’s just-right time. God is faithful, and God’s promises to us are always, always fulfilled. Let that knowledge fill our hearts with the laughter of deep joy.


            There is another woman in the story of God’s promises to make Abraham into a father of nations. As I mentioned, when Sarah was not conceiving a child, she decided to take things into her own hands. She gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar gave birth to a son named Ishmael. This isn’t a part of the story that often gets a lot of attention, because it is all pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it? Hagar is a slave, and she has no choice in what is happening to her, no option to give or withhold her consent.
            What is unusual, a blessing in its own way, is that we get to hear some of Hagar’s story, even though she is a woman, even though she is a slave woman. We’ve been talking about God’s special care for the most vulnerable, and Hagar qualifies on more than one account. Some chapters before we encounter Hagar in Chapter 21, when Hagar became pregnant, the text tells us that Hagar “looked with contempt on Sarah.” We don’t know exactly why this is, whether she feels proud that she has been able to conceive, whether she’s hopeful that bearing Abraham’s child will mean her freedom, whether she’s angry that she has to be a parent on terms that were not her own. But because of Hagar’s contempt, Sarah, with Abraham’s blessing, begins to treat Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away. One of God’s messengers finds her in the wilderness, and tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah, promising her, just as she has promised Abraham and Sarah, that her offspring will be numerous, her descendants numbering more than a multitude. The messenger tells her to name her child Ishmael, which means, “God hears.” Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah, and her child is born, and for a while, everything seems ok.
            Until Isaac, Sarah’s son is born. Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and something seems to snap. She tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. “The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is reluctant, but God says essentially that in both Isaac and Ishmael God’s promises will be fulfilled. So, with some food and water, Hagar is sent away, and again, she finds herself in the wilderness, this time with her son. God’s messenger finds her again, when she is at her most desperate, believing that she is going to have to watch her child starve to death. “Do not be afraid,” the messenger says, “God has heard the voice of the boy. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.” God opens her eyes to see a well of water, a sign of life and hope. We read that Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, becoming an expert with the bow, and God is with him. Yes, God fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, but God had promises for Hagar too, and was as faithful to those promises as the ones that drive the “main” story of the scripture.
            Uncle Bill has told me that when he and my Aunt Shari were expecting my cousin Ben, their second oldest child, Uncle Bill was filled with anxiety, sure that he would never be able to love Ben as much as he loved his firstborn Bekah. But, with my grandfather reassuring him, Uncle Bill discovered that his love would grow, would stretch, would multiply, rather than be divided among his children.
            Even though Sarah had just experienced the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, her deepest joy, come true, it somehow still wasn’t enough. She let herself be ruled by fear. It was as though she were afraid that someone else having joy meant there would be less joy less for Sarah, that God’s promises being fulfilled in Hagar would mean that promises to Sarah would somehow be lost or ruined. Even though I believe we know better, somehow, when it comes to God, God’s gifts for us, God’s promises to us, God’s love and grace in our lives, we end up afraid that blessings for someone else leaves less for us, as if God’s love needs to be divided among us, portioned out. Sarah has gotten all that she could barely even hope to receive, and somehow, she lets her blessings, her promises received seem like a meager portion. God, though, is faithful, the God of Isaac and Ishmael, the God of Sarah and Hagar.
            When have you been Sarah, trying to make God’s promises fit your own plans? When have you been Hagar, needing a reminder that God will see you, hear you, be faithful to you, even when you feel hopeless, lost in the wilderness? When have you been like Sarah to a Hagar, worried that God has less left for you, because of the blessings another receives? Nothing is too wonderful for our God to bring about, in God’s right time, in God’s right way, in fulfillment of God’s faithful promises to us. Let us open our hearts and lives to the wondrous ways that God wants to work in all of us. Amen. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: Seeking Justice," Micah 6:1-8

Sermon 6/25/17
Micah 6:1-8

From Charity to Justice: Seeking Justice

            Imagine that you were walking alongside a river one day, and you saw someone in the water, clearly in distress, struggling, and needing help. What would you do? Well, of course, I imagine that you would jump into the water and help the person out, or at least call on someone else to help. Of course, that’s what you would do. But what if, as you were helping the first person out of the water, more people appeared, coming down the river, all appearing to be in distress? What would you do? At first, you might think to quickly gather a group of people – together, with a team, maybe you could start to get all of the people out of water and to safety. But I think, eventually, if this problem persisted, you would choose to send at least one person to travel along the river, looking for the source of the problem. Why is it that so many people are in the water, struggling for their lives? Was there an accident upstream? Did a boat sink? Did a bridge collapse? Has there been some disaster? Is someone or some group trying to harm these people, throwing them into the water? Once these questions can be answered, you can begin to think about a plan of action. You still need, of course, to get the people out of the water who are in distress, with their lives in immediate danger. But in the long run, more people will be saved if you figure out how they’re ending up in the water to begin with.
            I told you when we started this series two weeks ago that the focus of my doctoral work was studying how to help congregations move from a charity-based focus in their outreach work to a broader justice-grounded focus. This river scenario I just shared is one of the ways I help folks start to think about the differences between charity and justice. There is certainly a place for, a need for charitable action. We see this particularly in times of crisis, perhaps as a response to a natural disaster or a tragic event. Charitable actions focus on the immediate response, meeting immediate needs. It can be very individually-focused, as in “we need to help this person who has fallen into the water.” Charitable action focuses on fixing what we might call the results of oppression and injustice. If we’re thinking about poverty and hunger, charitable actions would focus on feeding a person who is hungry, providing material needs or cash assistance for a person struggling with poverty.
            But there are some problems with charitable actions when they move from being the initial response in a time of crisis to being the primary response of people of faith to injustice over time. First, charitable action doesn’t address the causes of injustice, since it aims simply to alleviate the results. Charitable action can feed hungry people, but without asking why people are hungry, and working to address and change the causes of hunger, there will be no end to hunger. Our charitable actions are optional actions, based on generosity and desire. We can give or we can choose not to give. Charitable actions are often come with huge power differentials between the person who gives and the person who receives. Remember, we talked about justice and righteousness being grounded in right relationships between God and one another. If our only relationship with some people is through acts of charity, where we are always giving and the other is always receiving, there is no chance for mutual relationship. The work of justice focuses on ministry with people instead of ministry for people. The work of justice is long-term work, and focuses on changing whole systems and structures. And finally, the work of justice is what God requires. It isn’t optional, something that God calls us to do if we feel like it, if we have enough extra to share, if we’re feeling generous. Throughout the scriptures, the work of justice is work that God builds into the very laws that form the covenant between God and God’s people. The poor and vulnerable are protected by law, and failure to act with justice towards those whom God protects is a failure of justice, a violation of law, a sign of brokenness in the covenant. God takes it seriously when we fail to work for justice.
            Part of how we get “off track” with charity is because the concept of charity has changed over time. In the scriptures, the word that can loosely translate into something like our word charity means “to give alms,” to give money to those in need. It appears in two or three places in the Bible, describing a practice of giving to the poor that was considered generous, but was also part of the law, an expectation for faithful Jews. As our PowerPoint title slide says, charity gives. We need charitable actions, we need to respond to the immediate crises of people in pain, people suffering. We can do good and needed charitable work. But, it’s a word that doesn’t really communicate what we want it to, and it perhaps doesn’t encourage us toward the mutual, set right relationships in the way we want it to, and it doesn’t change things beyond the immediate for the people who so need to experience the freedom and good news and release we read about in Isaiah last week. We are called to something more. Last week, when we shared in our Companion Litany to our Social Creed, we used the phrase “God celebrates when justice and mercy embrace.” Considering acts of mercy serves us better than acts of charity. The concept of mercy is grounded in our biblical witness, and speaks of God’s loving action towards us. To be merciful is to have compassion for others. You might remember me sharing with you last summer that the word compassion, often used to describe the way Jesus looks at us, means literally to have your stomach twisted in knots with concern for others. What if we acted with mercy and justice in the face of the world’s brokenness, and our need to build right relationships with God and one another?
            We find both mercy and justice in our scripture text this morning. Today we turn our attention to the book of Micah. Micah is another of the prophets, and he writes around the same time as does the prophet Isaiah, and you can find a lot of similar themes in their work. When we pick up our reading in chapter 6, Micah is reporting that God is declaring to the hills and mountains that God has a controversy, a case to bring against Israel. Basically, God is accusing Israel of failing to uphold the covenant between God and God’s people. God has promised to be the God of Israel, and the people were in turn meant to be faithful to God and God’s law, but they’ve failed to uphold their end of the promise. God, though, is ever-faithful. Still, God is demanding an accounting, and when God brings the case against Israel, God starts by reminding the Israelites of all that God has done for them, of all the ways that God has been a guide, their leader, their strength. “Remember how I brought you out of Egypt and slavery?” God reminds. “Remember how I gave you leaders in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” “Remember how I saved you from the enemies that wanted to keep you from reaching the promised land?”
            Micah then speaks on behalf of the Israelites, imagining their response to God’s claim against them. He imagines that the Israelites will offer anything – burnt-offerings, and offerings of livestock – extravagant riches – a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, even their firstborn children – in order to be justified, to be set in right relationship with God again. The pictures Micah paints are of extreme hyperbole, suggesting we’d promise anything to be on good terms with God again.
            But, Micah says God has already told us what is good, and what is required. We already know what God wants – we just don’t seem to want to do it. What does God require? That we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [our] God.” God doesn’t want our extravagant gifts when they don’t come with our heart and soul attached. God wants our hearts, our compassion, our commitment to justice for all of God’s people, and our humble discipleship, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Both less costly than all of our treasures, and more costly, because God wants everything, heart and soul and whole lives as an offering.
            What God wants, as always, is for us to make God’s ways our ways, for us to make God’s values our values. That happens when we seek righteousness – right relationships with God and one another. And God reminds us that God has always treated us with justice and mercy. Remember, remember, remember how I have loved you, how I have treated you, how I have worked for fullness of life for you. And let your remembering spur you to work for the same for others. Remember – you already know what I require – justice, mercy, and humble discipleship.
            So, how will we do this work here, in this congregation and in this community? What can we do here that will help us make God’s values our values, set us right with God and neighbor? How will we love mercy here, and seek justice here? I think we can work to build on the things that we already care about as a community. Our church serves many families each fall with our We’ve Got Your Back to School program. There’s a vital ministry that can lead us to ask justice-seeking questions. How can our faith communities better support our schools, our children, and our educators? How can we be advocates, working to get the resources our schoolchildren need? How can we be in relationship with families with schoolchildren who feel overburdened and stretched thin? How can we support teachers and administrators and staff who can have such a profound impact on young lives? We have a thriving Friday Lunch program that brings meals to countless people in our community – so many people touched by this program. What do we know about what resources are available to the elderly in our community? How do we build meaningful relationships with folks that are often neglected and overlooked by a society that values eternal youth? We’re beginning to think and plan and dream about how we support people and families who are walking the road of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Already, we’ve been talking about being advocates for mental health resources, educating ourselves and our community, encouraging hospitality and breaking down stereotypes. There is no one right way to seek justice, grounded in mercy. There are so many ways to answer God’s call. What stirs your spirit? What way is God calling you? Where does your compassion meet God’s vision of justice and wholeness for the world?
            God wants nothing more and nothing less than our hearts and souls. And God tells us just how we can make such an offering. Not with jewels and riches and without what God really wants. Requires in fact. God has told us what is good. Let us do justice. Let us love mercy and kindness. And let us walk, walk this journey as disciples, walk humbly in the company of God. Amen.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: United Methodists and the Work of Justice," Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Sermon 6/18/17
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

From Charity to Justice: United Methodists and the Work of Justice

            Last Sunday, we learned about the words righteousness and justice, words sown all throughout the scriptures. We listened to words from the prophet Isaiah, as we heard about God’s desire for us to work for justice, to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. We learned about rectifying justice, the work of “giving people their due, whether protection, or punishment, or care,” (1) and we learned about God’s vision for what we call primary justice, righteousness, when all people are set in right relationship with God and one another. Our right relationship with God and one another is God’s vision of wholeness for the world, and the work of justice to which we are called is to act in ways and work for change that will bring us closer to that vision. Next week, we’ll spend more time thinking about how we do the work of justice, and what that might look like in our lives, in the life of our congregation and community. How do we begin? How do we build on what we have? But today, we’re going to spend a bit more time grounding ourselves, taking a good look at our call to justice, and our particular place as people called United Methodists in the work of justice.
            John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was a priest in the Church of England active in the 1700s. He didn’t set out to form a new denomination. Rather, he was interested in the renewal of the church. He believed that we were called to a more active faith and discipleship than he saw in the church around him. And for Wesley, this deep and active faith must be expressed in the context of community. You can’t be a disciple on your own. You can’t be faithful by yourself. Only in the context of loving and serving one another can you serve God. Wesley wrote, “[Solitary religion is] directly opposite to … the gospel of Christ … ‘Holy solitaries’ [that is being holy on our own] is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” (2) In other words, we can’t truly draw closer to God unless we are also drawing closer to one another.
            John Wesley was deeply disturbed by the extreme poverty and gap between rich and poor he saw around him in England, especially knowing that he lived in a country of abundance. He wrote, “Why are thousands of people starving, perishing for want, in every part of the nation? … Such is the case at this day of multitudes of people, in a land flowing, as it were, with milk and honey! Abounding with all the necessaries, the conveniences, the superfluities of life!” (3) Wesley was known for doing his part to practice what he preached. Wesley gave away as much of his income as he could, keeping his budget fixed and giving away the rest no matter how much he earned; indeed, Wesley was known to say “if I leave behind me ten pounds [when I die] … you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” (4) In my own experience, I’ve let my “expenses” and “necessities” grow right along with my income, and I marvel at Wesley’s faithful discipline.
Still, he went beyond charity to working for systemic change, working for justice, in both teaching and practice. For example, Wesley opposed the use of liquor, but although he had moral concerns about alcohol, his primary concern was for the economic injustice involved in the sale of liquor. Half of the wheat produced in Britain was going to the distilling industry which made wheat expensive and in turn made bread expensive and beyond the means of the very poor. High prices for meat were caused by gentlemen farmers finding it more profitable to breed horses for export to France and to meet the increasing demand for horse carriages than in producing food for local use.  Pork, poultry and eggs were so expensive because owners of large estates were earning more from cash crops than from leasing land to small local farmers. (5) Wesley called on the government to intercede in these economic situations that resulted in injustice and oppression of the poor. He called for the creation of employment opportunities, tax increases, and debt cancelation. He argued with those who called the poor “idle” and lazy, calling their claims “wickedly, devilishly false.” (6)  Wesley also became a fierce critic of slavery, writing, “There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy … Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.” (7)
Wesley’s commitment to justice carried into the denomination that formed from his movement. In 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church developed a Social Creed. In this statement of faith, Methodists called for equality across economic classes, for the rights of workers to organize and seek better working conditions, for the abolition of child labor, for the suppression of the “sweating system,” what we would call “sweat shops” today, for a fair work week, and for a just living wage. Some of those justice issues seem very contemporary, but United Methodists have been working for these causes for more than a hundred years now! The Companion Litany we shared today was adopted in 2008 to accompany our currently Social Creed.
Last week we heard about the mission of The United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.” We work to fulfill this mission in part through the work of justice. And to help us in this work, we have a document called the Social Principles, and a resource called The Book of Resolutions that helps us figure out how we might work for justice when it comes to the environment, the political world, our global community, economics, and more. I’d love to share more about it with you if you’re interested. In the User’s Guide to The Book of Resolutions are these words:
Our church's public witness is first and foremost to be judged by God by whether it supports justice, love, and mercy, particularly for the poor and powerless ... Most importantly, The United Methodist Church believes God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out of a faith perspective, not just respond to all the other “mind-makers-up” that exist in our society.

“We care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex.” I love that statement, and I hope it is a true one: we care enough about all of God’s children to stand for justice, even when it is hard, even when it is confusing, even when it gets complicated. To me, that’s what it means to be a United Methodist working for justice, a disciple of Jesus seeking righteousness. 
            When we shared in our Companion Litany today, the words were based on Isaiah 61, our scripture reading today. Like last week’s text, this passage come from the third part of the book of Isaiah, representing a hopeful time for Israel, a time when the Israelites had returned home, and were thinking about the future that God wanted for them. Isaiah writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” God’s people will be oaks of righteousness. “I love justice,” says God, “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” Just like new life springs up in the garden, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up in our midst. These hopeful words are words of life and promise, a vision of God’s reign and realm fulfilled. This is the very scripture text that Jesus reads after he has started his preaching and teaching ministry. It’s kind of like the text for his first sermon. When he finishes reading it, he says to the people gathered: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s a kind of mission statement, one that Jesus claims as his own, one that describes his purpose in the world: good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for those who are captive, God’s favor, comfort and joy from God who loves justice and righteousness. Let’s be people who risk interpreting God’s love for God’s brokenhearted people. Let’s be people who are ready to stand up for justice, proclaiming freedom and release, good news instead that breaks systems of oppression. Together, we can work through the complexities, the details – when and how and in what ways we will live out the work of justice. But we know why: God loves justice. And we love God. So we seek to make God’s ways our ways. The spirit of God is on us too, even today. Let’s get to work, announcing the good news. Amen.             

(1) Tim Keller,
(2) John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739.
(3) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Volume 11, edited by Thomas Jackson, 53-59. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1872, 53-54.
(4) John Wesley, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, in Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964,) 422.
(5) Johnston McMaster, “Wesley on Social Holiness,” The Methodist Church in Britain, January, 2002,, accessed March 18, 2014.
(6) Ibid.
(7) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” IV.2, 1774, in Global Ministries,, accessed March 19, 2014.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon, "From Charity to Justice: What Is Justice?" Isaiah 58:1-12

Sermon 6/11/17
Isaiah 58:1-12

From Charity to Justice: What Is Justice?

            Last week, we gathered in the evening to hear from some of our church family who had been involved in mission and outreach trips over the past several months. Don and Glenda shared about their trip to Cambodia on a medical mission. We looked at pictures from the group that traveled for an overnight to Syracuse to serve lunches to people on the street, and we heard from Marthalyn Sweet, who went on a trip with some other young adults in our Conference to visit the General Board of Church and Society and learn about poverty issues.
The General Board of Church and Society holds a special place in my heart. It is one of our denominations General Agencies, and this one focuses on public policy advocacy and education. It is located in Washington, DC, right on Capitol Hill. When I was starting seminary, I was elected to serve on the board of directors for Church and Society. I didn’t really know much about what the agency did before I was elected, to be honest, and I quickly learned a lot as part of my role on the board. The work of Church and Society is to educate, advocate, and help implement our Social Principles, our denomination’s statement of beliefs about a number of social issues. I’ll be talking a little bit more about that next week. But at the core of this work of Church and Society is a general aim: to help people of faith connect mercy with justice. During my time with Church and Society, I grew passionate about working for a more just world.
I struggled, though, once I became a pastor, with how to help my congregations be part of working for justice. I found that many congregations’ outreach work was mostly focused on mercy ministries, charitable giving projects like gathering supplies to send to people in need, collecting food for the local pantry, raising funds to respond to a natural disaster. Being merciful is certainly a biblical call and a desirable, compassionate quality. But I wanted us to think about questions of justice too: why are people hungry and poor, and what can we do to change the system, addresses the causes of poverty, instead of just addressing the results? Eventually, this very question turned into the driving question of my doctoral work and the follow up research I completed: How can a congregation shift its focus from doing charity to working for justice? This is the question we’ll be thinking about together in worship for the next few weeks.
I believe that the work of justice is actually part of our very mission as followers of Jesus Christ. Our mission is our purpose, our reason for existing. As United Methodists, our purpose is actually laid out in the Book of Discipline, which is our rule book, our organizational guide. In the Discipline, we find this statement of purpose: “The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world. The fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world is the vision Scripture holds before us.” The statement continues to say that our mission is carried out by “send[ing] persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel.” Phew! Our mission is to be and make disciples, to change the world, to share the good news, and to love God and neighbor believing that when we do so, we’ll experience the reign of God, God’s kin-dom, right here, right now, on earth as in heaven! That probably sounds like a big mission – and it is! But I hope it also sounds like a mission that is worth our heart and soul.
So how does the work of justice fit in to this mission we have? Our scripture focus today from Isaiah is from the third part of the book, which biblical scholars think was written after the Israelites returned home from exile. The Israelites had been through a long, tumultuous period of war and upheaval that resulted in many being forced to live in exile in Babylon, but finally, they’re allowed to come home. The last chapters of Isaiah reflect this period of homecoming. Despite the blessings of coming home, God is still calling the people to accountability.
            Our passage opens with God commanding Isaiah to announce the sin of the house of Jacob, the Israelites. God says that the Israelites have been behaving as if they practiced righteousness and followed God’s ordinances, God’s commands. They’ve been calling on God, saying, “God, we are fasting and humbling ourselves – don’t you see how good and holy we’re being?” But, God says, “you serve your own interest … and oppress all your workers.” You quarrel and fight. Fasting and acting holy, putting on sackcloth and ashes and acting devout on the Sabbath is not going to make me hear your voice.
            Instead, says God, “Is this not that fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” When we devote ourselves to God in that way, fasting from injustice and oppression, then says God, then our light will shine, we experience healing, God will be with us, God will hear us when we cry for help and answer “Here I am.” When we “remove the yoke” of oppression we place on others and start serving the hungry and afflicted, then our light will conquer the darkness. Then Israel, broken and brought low for so long, will be rebuilt. We will be “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets.” I love those images – they seem so timely to me. In a world that is so broken, imagine if we lived out our call to be repairers of the breach, repairers of the brokenness of the world!
            But what exactly does Isaiah mean when he talks about justice and righteousness? Pastor and Old Testament scholar Tim Keller writes, “The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, [in] its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably … Mishpat … is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.” Throughout the scriptures, we find certain groups of people being lifted up again and again as needing particular care, and being a particular focus of God’s loving attention: widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.” These groups have sometimes been called together “the quartet of the vulnerable,” which we’ve talked about before. These groups of people – widows, orphans, immigrants, and poor people, would have had very little power in ancient times, and have been incredibly susceptible to mistreatment by others. These people would have been one catastrophe, one famine, one war, one crisis away from death most of the time. And again and again, the law, the writings of the prophets, and the words of God in the scriptures call for justice, for mishpat, for these groups of people. These are the “oppressed” of whom God speaks in our reading from Isaiah – the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the poor. Are these still the most vulnerable groups in our society today? I suspect that with some adjustments, we’d find that this quartet still represents some of the most at-risk people in our communities. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible,” Keller writes, “is evaluated by how it treats [the quartet of the vulnerable.]” If that’s the case, how are we doing as a society? How just are we as a people? A nation? A community? A congregation?
A second word in the Bible is often translated as righteousness, which might have even less personal meaning for us than the word justice. After all, we’re most likely to use the phrase “self-righteous,” by which we mean that someone is pretty boastful about themselves, patting themselves on the back. We don’t mean it as a compliment. So what does it mean to be righteous? The Hebrew word is tzadeqah, meaning justice or righteousness. Mishpat, which we’ve talked about already, is sometimes called “rectifying justice.” That means it is justice that works to right wrongs. But tzadeqah, righteousness, is actually primary justice. Righteousness is when we are in right relationship with God and one another. In fact, if we were all righteous, if we all were living in right relationship with God and one another, we wouldn’t need rectifying justice, because everything would be right already. Primary justice, righteousness, tzadeqah, when we are in right relationship with God and one another is God’s hope and vision for the world. And, it is part of what we talk about as the very purpose of The United Methodist Church. Remember, we said that the mission of the church was to making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world as our way of “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world,” loving God and neighbor. That’s a vision of righteousness, of primary justice realized in the world. The work of justice and carrying out our very purpose as disciples of Jesus are inseparable. To fulfill our purpose, we must be seek justice and righteousness.
So how do we do it? How will we seek after justice and righteousness? How will we be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street? I hope that we, as a congregation, and in our own lives, can think very concretely about those questions. They aren’t rhetorical; they are calls to action! What will we do? I believe that our work begins by imagining how we might restore right relationships with God and neighbor. Here’s the thing though: to be in a right relationship with someone you have to have a relationship with them to begin with. Too often, I think that I make it too easy for myself to feel “right” in my relationships by overlooking some people altogether. I spend so much of my time with people who are already part of this community of faith, or people who are in my family, or are also pastors, people who are in my same socio-economic class, people who already share my values. How hard is it to be in right relationship with people just like me? One of our tasks it to challenge ourselves to build relationships – real relationships, where we really know, care about, and share in the lives of all of our neighbors.

So, we work on building our relationships. And we also look out for those places where we need to rectify harm, repair the breach, restore the streets. I’m sure most of us could point out places where our community is hurting. But what will we do about it? What will we do that moves beyond acts of mercy to the work of justice? Since moving to Gouverneur, I’ve talked to so many families who are struggling with the impact of drug and alcohol addiction on their lives. This week, a few of us will meet for an initial conversation about what we can do, how we can be a small part of repairing the breach. If that’s a ministry in which you’re interested, please let me know. But there may be something else that God has put in your heart, something else crying out for justice. I want to hear about that too. I think we together, we can learn to do the holy, worshipful work of justice. Of all the ways we could honor God, God asks us for justice and righteousness. Friends, as we take up this work, may our light break forth like the dawn, as God goes before us and behind us, reminding us: Here I Am. Amen.      

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Year A, "Feet on the Ground," Acts 2:1-12

Sermon 6/4/17
Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost Sunday: Feet on the Ground

Just about 50 days ago, we celebrated the resurrection together, as we gathered on Easter Sunday, and shared together the gospel story. We heard about the women coming to the tomb and finding it empty, and we heard the repeated words from throughout the next, from messengers, from Jesus: Do not be afraid. Last week we left the apostles looking up at the sky, as we celebrated Ascension Sunday, and talked about hearing God’s messengers tell and disciples-becoming-apostles to tear their gazes from heaven, leaving them instead to get to work on earth. They’d been promised the gift of the Holy Spirit – a gift that literally means Holy Breath, a gift that Jesus describes as Comforter and Advocate, literally one called to your side. The Holy Spirit isn’t something new, isn’t something that just shows up in the New Testament, on Pentecost. But certainly, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in a different way than we hear elsewhere in the scriptures, and he encourages the twelve to trust that they will have strength and help from God, God’s Spirit dwelling within them, working within and through them in a way that seems new.
So the disciples-becoming-apostles, students-becoming-“sent ones” are waiting for this Holy Spirit to fill them up in some way that’s going to be more tangible than anything they’ve heard about before, and that’s going to help them do the work of Jesus in the world. What do they do while they’re waiting? According to the passage of scripture between last week’s text and today’s, the apostles return to Jerusalem and devote themselves to constant prayer, along with some women, and Jesus’ mother and brothers. Between the apostles, women, Jesus’s family, and others who have been following Jesus all along, they’ve got about 120 people gathered, praying and waiting for the Spirit. I forget that there were so many. From this group, the disciples also use this time to name a twelfth disciple, to replace Judas Iscariot. It would be easy for them to sit and do nothing until the Holy Spirit showed up as promised. But, perhaps inspired to action by the messengers at the Ascension, they wait actively instead of passively, praying and preparing to carrying out God’s plans. 
If our message from Easter was Do Not Fear, and our message from Ascension Sunday was to tear our eyes from the sky, our message for Pentecost is to get moving, get our feet on the ground, get ready to take action. We can take on the work of Jesus and carry it out into the world. Pentecost is a festival that is part of Judaism. The disciples in our text today are gathered together to celebrate Pentecost as they wait for the gift of the Spirit. Pentecost as also known as Shavuot or The Feast of Weeks. The festival celebrates the “first fruits” of the harvest and the giving of the Torah, the books we know as the first five books of our Bible. The disciples were gathered together during this traditional celebration, as are many other faithful Jews who have come to observe the holy days. While they are gathered, suddenly, a sound like the rush of a violent wind comes and fills the gathering place and the apostles are filled with the promised Holy Spirit. And they begin to speak the gospel message to all who are gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the apostles. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical. But Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds saying: we are speaking as the prophets spoke. Visions and power from, God will come to all people – young and old, men and women, slaves and free. He quotes the prophet Joel, saying, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” After Peter is done preaching, Acts tells us that thousands respond to the message he shares about Jesus. And from this point on, now equipped with the Spirit Jesus promised, the apostles are out, everywhere they can get to, telling people about Jesus and carrying out his work.
            How can we think about the Holy Spirit in meaningful ways? When I was in junior high, I accidentally pinned my leg under our minivan. Some of you might have heard me tell this long story before, and doesn’t make me look very brilliant, but suffice it to say, I was laying on the ground outside a small market in Rome in the parking lot, with my leg pinned underneath our Dodge Caravan. My mother was in the store, and when my friend, who was with me, conveyed to her what happened, and my mother came out and saw me under the van, she didn’t look for help. What she did was push the van off me. Now, maybe she could have done this on a normal day, but I suspect that the level of adrenaline coursing through her body in an emergency situation made it suddenly easy for her to get me, her child, out of such a dangerous situation.
            I think the Holy Spirit is a little like that – like adrenaline that enables you to do something you couldn’t imagine doing under normal circumstances. Only, we have this Holy Spirit with us always. Did you ever sing the Sunday School song, Give Me Oil for My Lamp? Give Me Oil for My Lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, Give me oil for my lamp, I pray! Hallelujah! Give me oil for my lamp, keep it burning, burning, burning, keep it burning til the break of day! The song continues in more verses, and some of my favorites were: Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord, and Give me gas for my Ford, keep me truckin’ for the Lord. All the verses suggest that there is something we need, something God can give us, that can inspire us, move us, help us to act with faith and boldness. That’s what the Holy Spirit can do with us – give us boldness to speak and act in the name of Jesus.
            Friends, sometimes we need to be actively waiting for God’s direction, praying and preparing as we trust in God’s promises. And sometimes, we’ve got to realize that the promise is fulfilled, the Spirit is ours, a fire has been lit, and we need to be burning, shining forth with the light of Christ in the world. I spent the last several days at Annual Conference, our annual business meeting of the Upper New York Conference. Our study leader during the conference was Rev. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological School of Youth, Church, and Culture. She was fantastic. I kind of wish I could just play a video of her whole study for you as my sermon today – she was so inspiring. Dr. Dean shared with us the story of Maggie, a woman whose life was upheaved by ethnic genocide in Burundi, but who has lived a life of love and light nonetheless, transforming her community, providing love and support for thousands of orphaned children. Maggie said, “Every day I improvise new life because love makes us inventors.” Dr. Dean asked us: Who has God given us to love as our own? And how is God calling us to be inventors? How can our church surprise young people with hope this year? There’s something about that description – that we are called to be inventors, carrying hope, new life, and new direction because of the love we have for one another that says “Holy Spirit” to me. 
            The gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift for us, a promise kept not just to those first apostles, but for us too. It’s a gift we claim at our baptism, that we renew as we receive new members even today, that we call to fill our hearts every time we celebrate Holy Communion together. It’s the gift that turned a group of disciples into a church, a community, the body of Christ in the world. And it’s the gift that can turn us into dreamers, visionaries, inventors for the sake of hope and love. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Amen.  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, "Head in the Clouds," Acts 1:1-11

Sermon 5/28/17
Acts 1:1-11

Finding Easter: Looking Up

            If you read the May newsletter, you might know that today we’re going to talk a bit more about what the difference is between a disciple and an apostle, and that we’re also going to be celebrating this weird thing called Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday isn’t exactly one of our highest holy days. It probably isn’t anyone’s favorite day in the liturgical calendar. There aren’t a lot of well-known Ascension hymns. We don’t have special Ascension decorations, and no one exchanges Ascension-day presents. Many years, if I have been in the middle of a sermon series on Ascension Sunday, I’ve not even bothered to focus on the Ascension during worship. It’s easy to skip right past.
            But it’s an important part of our liturgical season. Right now, we’re still in the midst of the feast of Easter, the great fifty days of Easter. Although many of us could talk a lot about the last days of Jesus’ life - the Last Supper, the foot washing, the trial and crucifixion, and I hope most of us could describe the events of Easter day - Jesus’ resurrection, I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about the sort of ambiguous time after Easter. Maybe we know about Pentecost - which we’ll celebrate next Sunday - when God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, that violent rushing wind that rests on them like tongues of fire and sets them speaking in many languages. But I don’t think we give much thought to the time Jesus spends with the disciples after the resurrection, and perhaps even less to how that particular time draws to a close. The Ascension is the celebration of the day Jesus leaves earth, after the resurrection, returning to God’s realm, leaving the disciples behind to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This happens forty days after the resurrection, and in worship we celebrate it on the closest Sunday to that count.
I think another part of our holding the Ascension of Jesus at arm’s length in our hearts and minds come from the fact that the scriptures depict Jesus literally rising up into the air, into the clouds, to return to God. This makes sense for a first century audience, for whom the realm of God would have been literally up. The heavens were where God dwelt, in the sky, above the earth, hovering over all creation. But most of us don’t tend to think of heaven as a physical place that you could get to if you got in, say, a space shuttle. We know about the planet and the universe and the stars, at least enough to know that God isn’t just floating around on the other side of the clouds. So this image of Jesus ascending isn’t particularly compelling, I think. Or at least, it might be more confusing than compelling. Here it is, though, ready for us to study, interpret, and decide how it impacts us - or not. 
We find the story of Jesus’ ascension both at the end of the gospel of Luke and at the beginning of the book of Acts. Luke is the other of both of those works, and Acts is a sequel of sorts to Luke – the story of what happens to the disciples after Jesus is no longer physically with them. And even though the very same author tells us more or less the very same story in both Luke and Acts, the impact of the Ascension at the end of Jesus’s years of preaching and teaching the disciples is different than the Ascension as told at the beginning of the years of the apostles being sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to build the church of Jesus. Disciples, apostles. As I said in my newsletter article, disciple literally means “student.” We are students of Jesus Christ. We try to learn from him, follow in his ways, be as much like him as we can. We are definitely meant to be disciples! And we always have more we can learn, as we seek to mold ourselves more and more into Christ-like ways of being in the world. And yet, we are also called to be apostles, which means literally, “ones who are sent.” We are sent-ones. We don’t become disciples just for our own benefit, but so that we are equipped to serve those who are lost, on the fringes, desperate, and unaware or unconvinced of God’s abiding love for them. How will the good news be shared if we, disciples, never are “sent out”? If the gospels, then, are about our journey as disciples, students of Jesus, the book of Acts is about our call to be sent-ones, people sent out in the name and with the mission of Jesus.
Acts opens with the author addressing someone named Theophilus, saying, “In the first book, [which we know is the Gospel of Luke] Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.” We don’t know anything about Theophilus. The name means literally Lover of God, and so Theophilus might be a person who was interested in becoming a follower of Jesus, or really just a broad name addressing all who claim to love God. The author recounts that forty days pass after the resurrection, during which time Jesus continued to appear to disciples, teaching about the kingdom of God, and directing them to stay in Jerusalem until they received God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. On the fortieth day, they’ve gathered together with Jesus, and they ask him: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” Essentially, they are asking if Jesus is going to rid Israel of Roman occupation, return it to its glory, and rule over it as king. They have been asking him this throughout his entire ministry, and throughout his entire ministry, Jesus has been teaching them that that is exactly that kind of ruler and lord Jesus is not. The kingdom of God is not this rule of power and might that will come in and conquer the occupying Romans by violent force, and further, Jesus certainly isn’t interested in talking about dates and times that things will happen. And so I can only imagine that here, even now after the resurrection, even after another forty days of teaching about the kingdom, how very exasperated Jesus must be to have to tell them yet again that that is not what’s all about, or what he’s ever been all about. Still, Jesus moves on quickly, and reminds them one last time that the power they will be getting is the power of the Holy Spirit. What the disciples will be, Jesus says, are his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
While Jesus is saying this, we read, the disciples realize that he’s being lifted up, and taken out of their sight. They stand, a bit frozen, staring into the sky, gazing up towards heaven. But while they’re still looking up, two men in white robes suddenly appear, standing with them. They say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And that’s where this scene and our text for the day conclude.
There are some parallels here between this account of the Ascension and Luke’s account of the Resurrection. On Easter Sunday, Luke records that the women came to the tomb and found it empty. But as they were wondering over the empty tomb, two men in white appeared, even as the women were gazing at the emptiness, to ask: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen.” At Easter, the messengers of God help to direct the attention of the Jesus-followers away from wherever they gotten stuck at, and instead to redirect it to getting moving, getting the message out, getting the news announced - Jesus is on the move, not stuck in a tomb of death! Jesus is on the move, and the women have to get going to help tell the story. I think the same thing is happening a bit here at the Ascension. The disciples are gazing up at heaven, because the only thing they can focus on is that Jesus has left them. Yes, he’s resurrected. Yes, he’s conquered death. But in that moment, when he’s leaving earth, not going to be with them physically any longer, I can only imagine that they are overwhelmed with anxiety and fear and loneliness. And so they gaze up at the sky, hoping perhaps to catch one last glimpse. The messengers of God appear to pull their gazes from where they are stuck, on the sky, and pull them back into their present reality. Why are they gazing up at heaven? Jesus’ work on earth - at least in that way - is done. Now the work of the disciples is about to begin, and it’s time for them to get moving, get to it.
A good group of us have recently been participating in a study called animate Faith. During our first session, we talked about two fancy church words – kataphatic, and apophatic – two ways of thinking about God. Kataphatic means that we can find meaningful ways of talking about God, like through the images of God we find throughout the scripture – God as rock, God as a mother hen, God as a shepherd, God as love. Apophatic means that we can’t grasp the fullness of God with our words – God is beyond our description. We talked about finding a balance between these ways of understanding. And as we talked about the apophatic tradition, we talked about whether or not we are people who are comfortable with not knowing things. I can tell you that I have always liked to know the answers. When I got to seminary, and was suddenly confronted with reading and learning a lot about faith and following Jesus that was totally new to me, for a while I was overwhelmed to the point of inaction with all that I didn’t know. It was, frankly, a pretty new feeling for me – not knowing – and I did not like it. Eventually, though, I found not that I could simply study enough to be able to know everything I wanted to about God and my task of discipleship, but rather that I could grow in my faith even in the midst of all that I didn’t know, that perhaps coming to terms with how much more God was than I could comprehend was a sign of my maturing faith, rather than of my ignorance. God is so much bigger than any box I can make to keep God in. And even still, we’re called to trust in what we do know, and follow God, even when we don’t know where God is leading, what will happen when we risk it all, and let ourselves be sent out to do the work of Jesus in the world.  
This is the truly amazing message of the Ascension: Even with the disciples asking - let’s face it - last minute stupid questions, Jesus has entrusted into their very imperfect hands his whole work, the purpose of his whole life, his whole vision for the realization of God’s reign on earth, everything that he hopes and dreams for us to be: Jesus has handed it over and left it completely in the hands of the disciples. Essentially, the Ascension represents Jesus saying that he doesn’t have any tasks left that are only his to complete. Everything else that needs doing - it is for those who are left to do it. And certainly, as the messengers note, this can’t be done by gazing up into the sky, but instead, by getting started. 
We are the ones who are here, who are left, who remain to carry out the work of Jesus. He’s made us his body, his hands and feet in the world. To us, to you, to me, Jesus has entrusted the carrying out of all of his hopes for the world. I wonder if we always get the weight and significance of that - how much faith Jesus puts in us, to believe that we can carry out the work of God in the world. Are we doing it? Are we embodying the good news of God’s love and grace in the world? Are we the hands and feet, the body of Christ in the world? We are disciples, students, always. But sometimes, the lesson we need to learn is that we can’t keep waiting until we know everything before we’re willing to go where God wants to send us. If we waited until we felt ready, we’d still be standing with the disciples, gazing up at the clouds, waiting for more information. We’re called to be apostles, too, sent out, witnesses of the work of Jesus to the ends of the earth. So why stand gazing up at heaven? After all, the body of Christ is right here, in this very room in fact, ready to be sent out. Amen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sermon, "Of Sheep and Shepherds," John 10:1-10

Sermon 5/14/17
John 10:1-10

Of Sheep and Shepherds

Theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. You might be most familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first book in the series, but the whole series of seven stories is really wonderful. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. As a result of a complicated series of events, Aslan sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. The fruit will become a tree which will protect Narnia. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, which is surrounded by a wall, he sees the witch climbing over the walls to steal and eat the fruit of the tree Aslan has sent him to find. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. The witch could have too, but she chose to enter instead in the way of a thief. When Diggory enters the garden himself, he sees a sign at the entrance that reads, “Come in by the gold gates or not at all, Take of my fruit for others or forebear, for those who steal or those who climb my wall shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and because the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. In fact, the fruit she eats gives her unnaturally long life. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If her motives had been selfless instead of self-serving, if she had just gone in through the gate…
            Our gospel lesson today brings us another story about gates and who enters by the gate, and who chooses to climb over walls. Our text from John takes place after Jesus had healed the man born blind. We talked about this passage very briefly during Lent. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. But rather than being happy about this turn of events, the religious leaders call the man in for questioning, and want to find someone to blame, rather than someone to celebrate. The passage ends with Jesus saying that it is the religious leaders, not the man who was healed, who are truly blind.
            We move straight from those words from Jesus to this passage, John 10, where Jesus describes a sheepfold in some detail. At focus in this long metaphor is who is in charge of the sheep, who really has the best interest of the flock at heart. Jesus says, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” In contrast, the shepherd is known to the sheep, known to the gatekeeper. The shepherd knows the sheep, calls them by name, and the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd, and follow where the shepherd leads. Jesus says that the sheep won’t follow the voice of a stranger.
            We read that Jesus’s audience doesn’t get what he’s saying, and so he continues, describing himself as the gate for the sheep. Again, Jesus says, others who try to call to the sheep are thieves and bandits, but through Jesus, through his voice, there is salvation, pasture. Jesus lays out a clear contrast: The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s my favorite verse in the Bible: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The text continues on after the close of our passage, with Jesus mixing his metaphors a bit, describing himself as the Good Shepherd, one willing to lay down his life for the sheep in the flock, one who knows his sheep, and is known by the sheep, but the themes are similar. When he’s done speaking, we read that his audience was “divided” because of his words, and eventually, some try to stone Jesus before he makes an escape.
            One helpful book in my ministry has been a book by Tom Berling and Lovett Weems called Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. Your purpose, they argue, should answer the “so that” question. Anything you do in the life of the church or in your own individual life should have a corresponding so that purpose to it. Here’s what they mean: think of something you spend your time doing, and then think about why you do it. You might say, “I go running regularly so that I keep my heart healthy and strong.” Everything after the words so that is your purpose. Although other things might happen when you run, the so that is the fruit you are seeking after. And if your running isn’t helping to keep your heart healthy and strong, and that’s the main purpose of why you were running, you need to come up with another plan of action. Berlin and Weems want churches to be clear about their so that statements. They want us to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how what we’re doing helps to support our true purpose. In The United Methodist Church, for example, our official mission statement states that our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So we might be doing a lot of great things as a congregation, but if those things aren’t helping us to grow as disciples, and they aren’t helping others to become disciples, we might start to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
            Our gospel lesson today contains an implied so that statement. Jesus is pretty clear throughout the scriptures about what his purpose is, and we have a great example here: I came so that people might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus’s desire for us is to be full up of life, overflowing with life, experience wholeness, salvation, abundance. Jesus wants for us to experience deep joy, deep love, abundant life. Are we? I wonder, if a primary purpose and mission of Jesus is for us to experience abundant life, how is it that so many people, and in fact so many of us, seem empty, rather than full?
            I think back to the story of Diggory, the witch, and the garden. I wonder: why does anyone climb in over the walls, instead of coming in through the gate? And how is it that the sheep, who know the voice of the shepherd, end up in the arms of the thief, the bandit, instead of following the Good Shepherd? How do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life?
David Lose writes, “I think that as stark as that contrast seems [between the thief who comes to kill and Jesus who comes to give life], it gets really blurry really fast. Do you know what I mean? Take email as a rather small example: I still remember when email was hailed as a time-saver – “we won’t have to play phone-tag anymore!” And, indeed, email is incredibly convenient and helpful. But it also sucks more of my week than I want to admit even to myself. So is it giving life or taking it?
“Or consider work. I’ve been blessed to have been given several jobs over the course of my life that I absolutely love. Yet from time to time, I lose myself in my work and suddenly find myself so tired and haggard that it’s hard to remember what I was working at or why…and notice the toll it’s taken on those around me. So, life giving or life taking?
“Or our kids. There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” … Life giving or life taking?
“Money. So many great things money can do…for us, our families, congregations, neighbors, all those in need. But goodness how easy it is for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. Life giving or life taking?
“Church ... So many wonderful, incredibly wonderful things about our congregations and our life together in the church, and yet I’ve also seen congregations do awful things to each other and fall far short of being the body of Christ in the world … So…life giving or life taking?” (1) I ask again, how do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life? And how do we fix it?
            Repeatedly in the text, Jesus talks about how the sheep listen to his voice. Are we listening to Jesus’ voice? Amid the cacophony of other voices clamoring for our attention, how do we hear Jesus calling to us? “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” As I was reading over our text, my mind kept flashing back to a favorite movie from my childhood, Annie. In the movie, orphan Annie rescues a stray dog from a group of bullying boys, and gets ready to sneak it back to the orphanage with her. A dogcatcher from the pound wants to take Sandy in, but    gives Annie a chance to convince him that the dog should belong to her. He’ll let Annie take the dog if Annie can get Sandy to come when she calls. Annie and another passerby both try to call to the dog, but Sandy is smart enough to know the voice of the one who has protected him already, and he goes with Annie.
            How will we know Jesus’ voice? Thankfully, we already belong to Jesus, and Jesus knows our name. In the midst of many voices, listen for the voice of the one who really knows you. We can follow some of the advice I gave to the children today: we can study, learn about Jesus, learn about what he teaches us, so that it is even easier to hear what he has to say, because we know his teachings so well. We can be as smart as Sandy was with Annie: Sandy only knew Annie for a few minutes, but already Sandy knew to go with the one who was protecting him. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. A thief won’t do that. Notice who is willing to lay down their life for you, contrasted with all the voices who are looking, instead, to take life from you. Ask yourself: which voice is drawing me closer to God, and which voice is leading me farther away? Which voice is setting my heart on fire, and which voices are leaving me burned up and burned out? And whose voice is calling us to live our lives with purpose, rather than leaving us wondering why we’re bothering to do what we do?
            Friends, Jesus wants us – all of us – to experience abundant life. And thankfully, we just have to follow the voice of this good shepherd who knows us by name, who calls out for us, whose voice we know. “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Let’s follow that voice. Amen.