Friday, May 29, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: Anna Carter Florence

One of my favorite preachers/lecturers at the Festival of Homiletics was Anna Carter Florence, who has been at the Festival before, but who I missed last time I attended. She was really excellent, inspiring, and encouraging.

Notes: Preaching in a Recession: Rick Warren, Charlemagne, Survivor-man & you" - I found this session particularly thought-provoking, because I recently have been struggling with the knowledge that one of my colleagues has been 'borrowing' a great deal from other sources in theological reflections. I've struggled to understand this, and her lecture really helped me think about the spiritual implications, and the spiritual consequences we put on ourselves when, as she put it, we cease to "strive." Following are my mostly unedited notes -

Plagiarism – Rick Warren makes his sermons available online. Should we use them? Issues. Emperor Charlemagne’s project was to get everyone preaching the same at the same time, so he could control what was being said.

Most efficient way to educate was to make people go to church every week and hear the “right” sermons. Ordered a common lectionary to be used, with a “Homiliary” of sermons to be used. People had to go to church, pastors had to use the texts and sermons. “Carolingian Renaissance” was notable for its “renewal of preaching,” says history books. Centralized control of pulpit is not renaissance, but its death.

You have to cross the line, to use someone else’s work to really know where your line is, to feel it, using a chunk of someone else’s text.

Challenges that have crept up with internet – not just plagiarism, but trading access for interpretive freedom. Internet can’t mediate wisdom, love. We have to sort through volume to find value.

Preaching another’s sermons is bowing down to emperor, and not to JC. To create well-behaving citizens of the empire. Trying to convince you, the tempter, that you can’t do it yourself. “If you were a real preacher . . . you would have the numbers, not have a leaky roof, people would like you . . . real preachers have growing churches, multiple campuses, etc.” Preaching someone else’s sermons is an act of surrender to the emperor, the tempter, giving up our right/responsibility to interpret scripture. An act of resistance, a fresh act of interpretation. Not because you are so great at it, but because God is great, and grace is real.

Survivor-man. (Les Stroud) Survive in extreme cultures for a week.
This is not the antidote to empire. Does not require us to enter text with nothing. If we are just trying “to stay alive on camera,” then we need a new model. Don’t have to do it alone. Couldn’t talk/preach without going over ideas with one another (live/online.)

Striving. (Waldorf model of education – strive – teachers, and so students.) We can’t stop striving in our preaching, or our congregations will stop striving too.

Eyes of a preacher who has stopped striving, and stopped believing grace is real.

1 Samuel 17: David & Goliath

When you are striving, and someone offers you a suit of armor that does not fit, don’t wear it! Especially if emperor offers it. Go instead with friends to search for smooth stones that fit in your own slingshot! “I am a preacher, and a child of God.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: Desmond Tutu

We were blessed to have Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu preach on the opening night of the Festival of Homiletics. My notes don't really do his message justice, which was wonderful, but there was also just a spirit about him that was wonderful, a presence and a preciousness that is rare. Really great to hear him.

Psalm 85:-13, 2 Cor. 5:16-20

“Under this cassock, we’re all the same.”

Apartheid – asked for support/prayers, and you gave it.

Humor to poke fun at system in midst of oppression.

Joke about God and an oven for creation – over and under done cookies, creating black and white people.

Or: “This university is reserved for people with large noses only . . .” Or, “apply to minister of persons with small noses affairs.”

To say to people who are treated like rubbish – “You are a God-carrier, you stand-in for God.”

If we believed each one was a God-carrier, we would bow, as Buddhists do, “The God in me greets the God in you,” like genuflecting in the presence of the reserved host.

This one is a person of infinite worth – no exceptions!

Died with Christ, raised with Christ, ascended with Christ, given life to be what we already are.

Because God loves you. I am lovable because God loves me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Festival of Homiletics: Barbara Brown Taylor

Now that I'm at Annual Conference, I finally have time to write up my reflections from the Festival of Homiletics which I attended in Atlanta last week - it was fabulous.



First up: Barbara Brown Taylor, who lectured on Day 1, preached Day 2. Mostly unedited notes:

Lecture: Quoting: People in the South conceive of humanity in theological terms. Not Christ-centered, but “Christ-haunted.”

Quoting: “To live in the South is to be marinated in religion”

Quoting, “evil is less a problem to be solved than a mystery to be endured, especially when the evil is in you.”

The Bible, for Southerners, is not just a book for sinners, but a book for losers.

Not only proclaim what we read in the Bible, but how we read it.

The scriptures we turn to most often are usually the verses that describe our own situations the best. (As individuals, as groups.) Remembering there are many pages in the bible that do not have your fingerprints on them. Can’t really read the Bible until you can read your own life.

People give up on Bible, seeing it too fluid. “If two people hear it differently, one of them must be wrong” mentality.

“Prophets saw the apostles as institutional stuffed-shirts and apostles saw prophets as . . . democrats.”

“They read differently . . .”



Preaching:

Ezekiel 3:1-3, Revelation 10:8-11

“Eat This Book”

Literally drinking chalk that has been used to write words of scripture. (What country?)

Taking the word of God inside us must be good for us somehow.

“Edible bible”

Learning letters by honey on slates, licking slate.

Mixing up Bible, Shakespeare, and Poor Richard’s Almanac

Absorbing the Bible.

You need to look before you eat, because you are what you eat.

Ezekiel: “Eat this scroll.”

404 vs. in Rev, 275 of which contain references and allusions to the Old Testament.

Wafers – “harder to believe it is bread than it is to believe the body of Christ.”

Abrupt endings. (This was my comment on the fact that everyone seemed to be concluding their sermons/lectures by just abruptly stopping and slipping out of the pulpit. This seemed a bit weird to me. I like to have a clear wrap-up/denouement of sorts, and say, "Amen," when I'm done preaching. How do you end your sermons?)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter

(Sermon 5/21/06, John 15:9-16, 1 John 5:1-6)

Commanded

This past week, I travelled to Atlanta for a conference called The Festival of Homiletics, which is a preaching conference. As unappealing as it mind sound to many lay-folks, about 1600 clergy gathered to hear several days of back-to-back sermons and lectures. It’s one of my favorite events to attend – the preaching is excellent, given by some of the best, most well-known preachers in the Church. One preacher who was new to me, Julie Pennington-Russell, preached a sermon called “Picking Us Out in a Crowd,” that focused on texts similar to the ones we read today, focusing on Jesus’ teachings about us loving God and loving neighbor. Pennington-Russell said that according to Jesus, love is how you “pick Christians out in a crowd.” The authenticating mark of who belongs to Jesus is love. She said that there are no substitutions for love of course, and yet, we try to make them all the time. She imagined three well-known scripture verses about love and substituted other words: The steadfast niceness of the Lord… For God so tolerated the world… Faith, hope, respect abide, these three… Obviously, she said, love is the only thing that works.

Today, again, our lessons from John in the gospel and the epistle are about love. The language these past few weeks in our texts is so repetitive that it is hard to miss the point. Three weeks ago both texts repeated the phrase “laying down his life” or “laying down our lives” several times, as John sought to show us what it means to put love into action. Last week, the word “abide” appeared eight times between the two passages, teaching us clearly about the intimate relationship we have with God, at home in God’s love. This week is no different. Between our two passages, either command, commanded, or commandments appears a total of eight times in our readings. What could the theme be this week? John, sharing Jesus’ teaching with us, wants to make sure we don’t miss the message. We are commanded. So what is it that we’re commanded to do? Let’s look more closely.

In the epistle lesson, we continue in the chapter following last week’s reading, where John concluded by saying that we can’t truly love God, who we can’t see, if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, who we can see. In this chapter, our author picks up with continuing to expand on these family images. He says Jesus is born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child – the child being both Jesus, and all people, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus. And, John argues, we know that we love God’s children if we love God, and we love God is we obey God’s commandments.

In the gospel lesson from John, we hear similar language. We again pick up immediately where we left off last week, when Jesus was describing himself as the vine and us as the branches. Jesus was telling us that we should abide in or be at home in him, and let him abide or be at home in us. Today, we listen as Jesus describes in more detail what this means. He explains how we go about getting this abiding love – “if you keep my commandments,” he says, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And Jesus is clear about what commandments he’s talking about: “This is my commandments, 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.” Jesus concludes, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

I think I’ve shared with you before about a book by Gary Chapman calledThe Five Languages of Love. Chapman talks about how problems in relationships happen because people have different understandings of what it means to show love. We all might be able to say “I love you.” But for some, love is only really communicated to another in certain ways. Chapman outlines such ways of showing love as quality time, acts of service, receiving of gifts, physical affection, and words of affirmation. He talks about how knowing someone’s “love language” can help you better show your love. We often tie love to other things – and Chapman urges us to believe that figuring out how we can best communicate love to others is essential for strong, lasting relationships.

Lucky for us, Jesus tells us straight out what his love language is – and it’s not one of the ones listed in Chapman’s book. Jesus is pretty specific. Jesus very plainly ties love and obedience to his commandments together. He tells us how he wants us to love him, and tells us how he loves us. He says, “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It sounds very much like Jesus is saying our relationship with him is contingent on our following his commandments. In other words, Jesus says we’ll get along great as long as we do what he says. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In any other situation, we’d call this setup a pretty unhealthy relationship. It doesn’t work this way! How can love work if one person is in control? Our independent natures bristle at the thought. You can’t make us love! You can’t command love, can you? But there it is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

Perhaps some perspective is in order. Jesus lived and taught in a day when being a faithful person meant following the laws of the Torah, the laws that had bound the community together from generation to generation. The people Jesus lived among also were people who lived in a very highly structured society, where masters and slaves and every status level in between lived according to rules and customs that governed behavior. Commandments? The teachers of the law counted over six hundred that faithful Jews were meant to follow. So Jesus comes along, as one more person who talks about commandments. But is he talking about the same old same old? Instead, Jesus’ idea of making rules is to require love. Commanded to love.

In the epistle lesson, John also ties love and commandments together, saying almost the same thing as Jesus said in the gospel. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” And John adds a tag, as if prepared in advance for our complaints, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” Today, we’re not so different from the Jews Jesus was teaching. We just think we are! We, too, live our lives surrounded by rules. We can live by laws and maybe grudgingly but usually dutifully obey household rules, school rules, rules at work, rules of order for the church, rules for society, national rules, rules for the international community. We manage to live under so much law – so many commandments. Really, to be commanded to love – indeed, how can we find this burdensome? If we obeyed this command, this one – to love – how many of those other rules would we need? And, what’s more, we’re being commanded by Jesus simply to do the very thing we most want to have.

Thinking again of the Languages of Love book, the real point of it is that no matter what way we want to receive love, we do want it – we want to be loved. Rev. Edward Markquart, a pastor whose sermons I love, writes this, “It’s about love, love, love. From the moment you are born until the moment you die; and every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves. The purpose of time, of every moment and every day and every year is that God is teaching us what it means to be truly loving people. That’s what it is all about. That is what it has always been about. God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place. We were created in the image of God; we are like God; and God is love.” (1)

So Jesus takes it a step further than John in his epistle. It is not just that obeying Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome. Jesus talks about something much more than that. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Complete joy. Have you ever experienced such a thing as complete joy? Think over your life experiences. Think about the times in your life when you have felt the most joy – the most sheer, unblemished, undiluted joy. I’m going to guess that these experiences of joy probably have something to do with experiences of love as well, that our experiences of joy are never just about us, but always have something to do with the relationships in our lives. Jesus speaks to us of commandments, not to burden us, but to free us, because he wants us to have this joy not just in fleeting moments, but in complete, as a regular part of our living. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So let’s be followers of the rules. And of all the rules we’re bound by, of all you can choose to follow, why not choose obedience to the one commandment that promises everything in exchange for your obedience. Let’s love, and be loved. Amen.

(1) http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_its_about_love_love_love.htm

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter

(Sermon 5/10/09, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8)

Love According to John: True Vine

I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a planner. I’ve generally had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in my life and when I wanted to do it by. I like having plans and schedules, and completing what I’ve set out to do. If you’re a college student, or the parent of a college student, and lamented to me about not knowing what you or your child will major in in school, searching for direction, trying to choose a course of study, I will tell you that tons of my friends in college changed their majors many times with no problems, and went on to have wonderful careers in fields they’d never imagined that they’d fall in love with. But I can’t really tell you that about myself, because, after a little initial confusion over what to study when I was thinking about college as a senior in high-school, by the time I actually enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan, I knew that I wanted to be a pastor, knew exactly what steps I need to take to achieve that task, and went about getting it done. I literally had a pamphlet hanging on my wall that listed the steps into ordained ministry that I kept posted all through college and seminary. I planned it, and made it happen. I haven’t been such a planner because I’m just so superior in my organization skills than everyone else. I’ve been a planner because it give me comfort to know what direction my life is headed, to have a specific goal and know exactly how I’ll get to it.

And yet, despite my careful planning, when I look over my life, some of the times that God has acted most clearly in my life have been times when my plans have been upset, when my decisions have been vetoed by God in favor of something I hadn’t been expecting, or wanting. I’ve told you before, for example, that I wasn’t expecting to move to New Jersey to this church when Bishop Devadhar called and asked me to come here. Truthfully, I was planning on coming to New Jersey eventually – I wanted to go back to school and pursue a doctoral degree. But I had a different timeline in mind, and I planned to simply take an appointment to school, not pastor a church, while in New Jersey. But my plans and God’s plans were apparently not the same, and I found myself here, serving among you. And once I was here, I adjusted my plans, started to make new plans to accommodate my new situation. And now, quite outside of what I had planned given my new situation, I find myself heading back to Central New York. Once here, I planned on staying in New Jersey for a while, and planned on returning to Drew for more schooling at some point. And while certainly my return to my home conference is driven in large part by my desire to be near my family, I must tell you that I’ve also had a sense of trying to force my plan, to make my new plan be God’s plan for me. And I can tell you that forcing our plans onto, over, through, or around God’s hopes for us and calls on our life is pretty much never a good idea – it never works out for us like we think it will. And so I’m making new plans for myself yet again, but I’m learning, or trying to learn, that things will be more deeply rewarding for me if I keep myself open to truly following God, instead of following the map I sometimes too carefully craft for my own life.

Hold that thought for a bit, as we take a look at our scripture lessons for today. From our gospel lesson, we find another one of Jesus’ “I am” statements. Throughout John, Jesus spoke about his identity in everyday images that his contemporaries could have related too, instead of describing himself in the sometimes-distant theological language. Two weeks ago, for example, we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, an image that meant a lot to the agricultural community where Jesus lived. Today, Jesus presents us with another image that ties into the land and the people that were close to him. “I am the true vine,” Jesus declares. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” God is the vinegrower. Jesus talks about how the branches – us – can’t have live if they are separated from the vine – himself. And as branches, we’re meant to be the bearers of much fruit – fruit that we’re able to grow because we abide in him as he abides in us. We literally take our life from the vine, and through the vine, we can become fruit-bearing disciples.

From the epistle lesson, John picks up the theme of abiding in one another, God and God’s children. John focuses his passage on God’s nature – God is love. We love because God is love and we’re born of this loving God. If we don’t love, we don’t know God. The best love we can know is in God’s loving us, and because we know this love, we ought to love one another. When we do this, even though we can’t see God, John says, we get something better – God lives in us, and God’s love dwells within us. So God is love, John says, in case we missed it, and abiding in love we abide in God because God is – that’s right – love. Not just any love – perfect love – love that is so perfect that there is no fear in this love. And we love because God loves us first. And we can’t love God if we don’t really love our brothers and sisters, John says logically, because we can’t even see God, and we can see our brothers and sisters. How could we more easily love that which we can’t even see? So, if we claim to love God, we know how to show it: in loving others.

You’ll notice that in both passages today, the word “abide” appears repeatedly – six times in the epistle, eight in the gospel. The repetition helps signal us of the importance of the concept. The word ‘abide’ here is from the Greek word meno^, which means literally, “to stay or to remain at home.” So when Jesus and John speak of “abiding,” we can think of them as speaking about ‘remaining at home.’ If we go back through the passages and substitute this phrase where we see the word ‘abide,’ we get a clearer picture of what these passages are about. In First John we would read, “God is love, and those who remain at home in love remain at home in God, and God remains at home in them.” In the gospel, we would hear Jesus saying, “Remain at home in me as I remain at home in you . . . those who remain at home in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

Another repeated word in our epistle lesson is this weighty word “perfect,” and this week I just kept coming back to it. Every ordinand in The United Methodist Church is asked the so-called historic questions that have been passed down since Wesley’s days: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The expected answer to both questions is “yes.” John Wesley was known – and ridiculed – in his day for his belief in the doctrine of Christian Perfection. His peers thought what many of us would think on hearing the phrase – how can we be perfect, or even bother trying to be perfect? But John Wesley insisted they didn’t understand true, scriptural perfection. Answering a hypothetical question about perfection, Wesley wrote, “But whom then do you mean by 'one that is perfect?' We mean one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' [one] 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart' . . . To declare this a little more particularly: . . . one who 'walketh in the light as [God] is in the light.” (1)

Wesley’s words about walking in the light as God is in the light are right in tune with our text from 1 John. John writes here that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is perfected in us . . . Love has been perfected among us . . . there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . . whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” For Wesley, for John, being made perfect is a process we go through as we learn to let God’s love – God’s very essence – completely take over our lives, so that as God is love, we too are love, made bold by God’s love, casting out fear and being filled with God’s perfect love. The more we love, the more we become like Jesus, the more we are filled with God, and the more we are, in the best sense of the words, being made perfect. “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” With God’s help, yes.

If we turn back now to our gospel lesson from John, we can read these images of the vine and branches and pruning and good fruit in light of this understanding of perfection. Jesus tells us that we are the branches, and that the branches can’t bear fruit unless they abide in the vine, Jesus himself, and in turn, the vine abides in the branches, and unless the branches are pruned by God, who is the vinegrower. When I hear Jesus talking about being pruned to bear good fruit, abiding in him as he abides in us, I see it as another way of saying that we’re being perfected in love, as John says, as Wesley says. Pruning, as you might know if you are familiar with gardening or landscaping, is a way of removing certain branches and leaves from a plant to make the plant stronger and healthier overall. Sometimes branches that are removed from a plant are diseased or weak, but other times, branches that seem healthy enough have to be removed because the pruning will make for a better, more fruitful plant or tree over the long run. Pruning, then, is a way of perfecting a plant, you might say.

What does that mean for us? How do we get pruned? For me, the most important thing for us to remember here is to remind ourselves who does the pruning, who does the perfecting, in our texts. We’re made perfect by God’s abiding love. We’re pruned by God the vinegrower. We are the branches, and branches don’t prune themselves, or prune other branches. God does that. So often, we look at our neighbors, and feel like we know what branches we’d cut in their gardens, so to speak. We know what decisions they should make, and are ready to call them out for the bad fruit we see. But we’re not the vinegrower, not the gardener of their souls. And what’s more, we’re not meant to do the pruning in our own lives either! And that’s harder control for us to give up. As branches, with God living right within us, abiding in us, we’re meant to be open enough to God’s perfecting love that we can trust God with tending to our lives, pruning where things need to change and be redirected, guiding us on a path which will help us bear good fruit, even if we can’t see the way yet.

John says that we have hope of being made perfect, hope of living a life free of fear. We can be perfect! – if we’re willing to be perfected, pruned. As I look at my own tendencies in planning out my whole life, I’ve found that the best things seem to come my way when rather than doing the planning, the leading, the scheduling, instead, I do the following – that’s discipleship after all – when rather than filling my life up with my own plans, I try to remain open enough to be filled up with God instead. If “abiding” means “being at home in,” I have to have enough room in my soul for God to find a place to dwell within me. If I’m already full of my own stuff, already unwilling to let any pruning happen, where will God make a home in my life?

So how do we start? How do we begin to get back into the right place – to let ourselves be branches instead of trying to all be the true vine, or the vinegrower? How do we move towards this perfection that casts out fear? That part is easy. John reminds us that God is love, and that to know God, you must know love. The more we love, the more we know God, who is love, and the more we love, the more we imitate Christ who is love. John leads us in the direction that Jesus was always leading us – through loving one another – those we see around us – is the only way we can really love God – who we don’t see ‘face to face.’ The more we love, the more room we make in our lives for something other than our own wants and desires, the more we make room for God, the more we understand what being made perfect in love is all about.

So, I ask you the questions that are asked of all who seek ordination in The United Methodist Church, because they’re really more questions about discipleship than questions about being a pastor: “Are you going on to perfection?” and “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” I hope your answer is yes.

Amen.

(1) http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/Wesley/perfection.stm

Friday, May 15, 2009

Revgals Friday Five: Friends


I decided to play the Friday Five this week - Jan writes: As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "The way to have a friend is to be a friend."

So today let's write about the different kinds of friends we have, like childhood friends, lost friends, tennis friends, work friends, and the list goes on. List 5 different types of friends you have had in your life and what they were/are like.


***
1. Long lost friends - I've written before about the struggle I have with what I'd call "long lost friends," those relationships you have in life that were once so important, but for whatever reason, have disappeared. It's less common, now, to completely lose touch, I guess, or lose awareness of what someone else is up to, thanks to thinks like facebook (see #2), which I truly treasure, even as these mediums drive others crazy. I love that something like facebook at least lets me answer the "what ever happened to..." question, even if we don't remain in contact. Who are my lost friends? My elementary school "boyfriend" who gave me a stuffed chesire cat for my birthday (which I still have,) and then moved to Florida. The Norwegian boy who came to the US for a year with his family and was in my third grade class - Oystein Pritz. Are you out there? Countless camp friends - they should really have their own category - those friendships you make for a week that are so intense, but you mostly never talk to again: Star Berry, Kerri Sessions, Jen Lee, Sarah Kerley, Casie Salmon, Becky Parker..., the Italian exchange student who stayed with us for a month when I was in 9th grade, Michaela Tafuni. The really intriguing Jacob DeSoto from Junior High. Where are you people?

2. High-school Friends - I've only maintained unbroken contact with a very few friends from high-school, but thanks to the wonders of facebook, I've now reconnected with many more old friends. Some, a handful, I'm surprised I ever lost contact with, since we were pretty close in high-school. (I'm talking about you, Candice Torres!) Others, I was never really friends with in high-school to begin with, as far as I remember, but unlike others who hate getting requests from these folks, I enjoy it. To me, it says, "Hey, we're thirty now, high-school was a long time ago, we're adults, and we can make the connections we wouldn't make then." I can accept that, and appreciate that. There's also a couple of people that I've liked becoming friends with because they just grew up into such different people than I expected. One person, in particular, has just been such a kind, sweet person to me, and I never would have guessed that would happen a dozen years ago.

3. College friends - My roommate my freshman year of college and I really did not get along our first semester. But we got over it, became very close, and have been good friends ever since. We still visit each other whenever we can. I have a handful of very close friends from college that I keep in touch with outside of facebook-type exchanges. The longevity of these friendships, the strength of them, above and beyond both high-school and seminary (unexpected) friendships has often surprised me. In seminary, for example, a basic common purpose, and ending up generally all working in the same field, makes it seem more likely to stay in touch. But in actuality, it's my Museum-Studies-friend and my lives-on-a-reservation-in-Arizona friend who I stay in better touch with.

4. Seminary friends - I loved Drew. I love my seminary friends. I had a hard time settling in at Drew my first year. I graduated from college a year early, and I missed the friends I would have been graduating with a lot. I kept to myself a lot my first year. But eventually, I became friends with a really wonderful group of people. We don't always keep in great touch, especially since I spent the first 4 years of my ministry farther away than most of the rest of them. But I love the chances I do have to see them, and I'm proud of all the neat things they're doing in their respective ministries, including one who leads speical multimedia worship, a campus ministry chaplain, an associate general secretary at a UM agency, one who's incorporates a fitness program into a spiritual disipline for her congregation, some working on doctoral degrees now, a pastor taking leave to spend 4 months in Nigeria, friends working in social services, serving in Idaho, Arkansas, etc.

5. Colleagues - Over the last six years, I've realized that one of my favorite things about being United Methodist is the connectional system and the unique collegiality that afford me as a UM Clergy person. I know not all UM pastors feel this way, I'm sure, but I know many do just treasure times where we get together. I really enjoy attending annual conference, district days, even mundane meetings, because of the people I get to be around. Lately, I'm enjoying a newly started young clergy group connecting under-40 clergy in my soon-to-be-new conference. I enjoyed my probationary covenant group, and the district clergy women's group I used to meet with monthly, and some of my dearest friends in the world are also my colleagues, deepening our relationships.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with Sweet Honey in the Rock

Tonight I went to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at NJPAC with special guests Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was fabulous. One of the best things I've seen in a long time. I love watching dance - ever since I started going to see The Nutcracker when I was little, I've loved dance, and when I saw JCSuperstar at NJPAC last month, and saw the ads for Alvin Ailey, a company I've wanted to see, and saw that they were combining with Sweet Honey in the Rock, already a group I love, I knew I had to go.

The evening started with a film about Alvin Ailey and the company, which is celebrating its 50th year. Then the first dance was "Go in Grace," a story of a family - parents, son, and daughter, through the years. This was the piece accompanied by Sweet Honey in the Rock. I loved how the music, the singers, intertwined with the dancing and dancers. The singers mirrored choreography from the dancers, moved artistically on stage, and weren't simply the background music. They were in integral part of the piece, part of the performance. Striking orange and yellow costumes for the dancers.

The second piece was "Suite Otis," from 1971, with several Otis Redding songs, choreographed by George Faison, choreographer of The Wiz. This was a fun piece, with several sections, great music, and the audience was clapping, cheering, even just at the song selections. It made me want to come home and get myself some Otis Redding mp3s, which I will probably do after I finish this post!

Finally, "Revelations," from 1960, which, according to the program, "has been seen by more people around the world than any other work of dance." Rightly so - it was fantastic. It has three sections, "Pilgrim of Sorrow," "Take me to the Water," and "Move, Members, Move," with ten songs, traditional spirituals. The videos below are both from Revelations. Stand outs were "Fix Me, Jesus," "Wade in the Water," "I Wanna Be Ready," and "Sinner Man." Matthew Rushing and Amos J. Machanic, Jr. were standout dancers here (and in their earlier roles.)

For an extra treat, the "Prelude" music in the theatre lobby before the show was Sweet Plantain, a fabulous string quartet. They have really unique music, a great sound.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter

(Sermon 5/3/09, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18)

Love Letters from John: The Good Shepherd

When I first started preaching here and there when I was in college, I would take a look at the texts from the lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings for the Christian year, and try to find the common thread between the texts, try to find a way to make them go together. Each week there are four suggested scriptures – An Old Testament reading, or a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. But eventually, as I gained more experience in preaching, I realized that it was certainly easier, and often more effective and meaningful, to focus in on a single text. After all, there is certainly enough in most individual passages to make an entire sermon or two. But occasionally, still, the texts for the day go so perfectly together that I feel like we’re missing out if we don’t look at how the texts play off of one another, how they complement each other and point to one another, deepening the message that we can take with us.

Today is such a day. First, the Psalm schedule for today is the 23rd Psalm, the most beloved. We don’t regularly use the Psalm reading in our worship, so let’s join in reading or reciting it together: (recite on screen.) The 23rd Psalm is a comforting psalm – we are protected, safe, loved. From the psalm, we move to our gospel lesson, picking up our theme of God as Shepherd, as we hear Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus talks about the special connection the Shepherd has with the sheep. Unlike a hired hand, Jesus argues, who won’t risk his life for the flock when push comes to shove, the Good Shepherd risks all to protect what is his. He speaks of knowing the sheep, and the sheep knowing him, recognizing the voice of the one who loves them. How far will this Good Shepherd go? Jesus tells us he will lay down his life for his sheep. In our epistle lesson, John picks up the theme of laying down. Only this time, this John is talking about us laying down our lives for one another. He writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

From these powerful scriptures, intertwined, some clear messages emerge. Jesus promises that he is our shepherd, looking out for us at all costs. And in First John we are called to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Simple. We can all agree to that, right? We all know that love is not just about words, right? You can’t act anyway you want toward someone, and just add an “I love you,” to things, and expect the person to be convinced of your feelings. Love requires action.

But our scripture texts want to push us farther. Love requires action, agreed. But what kind of action? What kind of action does the kind of love John describes require of us? As always, our best place to start is with Jesus. We know what love in action means for him: “I am the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep,” Jesus says. He continues to repeat this three more times in this passage: “I lay down my life for my sheep. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life,’ and “I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down.” How does Jesus put his love for us, his flock, into action? He lays down his life for us. We can’t miss that fact. Love, for Jesus, requires the sacrificial action of giving up his life. We’re not so far out from Holy Week that we don’t remember what love in action looks like for Jesus.

But what about for us? What kind of action is required of us? For John the epistle-writer, the logical answer is clear. He begins today’s passage, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” That seems to me pretty simple and straight-forward. And frightening. Really? Us too? We’re supposed to love by giving up our lives? Just the thought makes us want to shut down and write off this text as “asking too much” or “not meant to be taken literally.” But I think it’s worth our digging deeper. What would it really mean for us to love, in action, by giving up our lives?

I’ve twice had the opportunity to hear Rev. Eric Law speak, most recently at a District Day of Learning here in the Palisades District. He talked to us about what he called the “Cycle of Gospel Living.” He proposed that the entry point into the cycle of gospel living for the powerless, for the oppressed, is through focusing on the empty tomb of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus. But, he said, the entry for the powerful in the cycle is in the act of giving up power and choosing the cross, focusing on Jesus’ giving up of his life on the cross. We talked about how difficult it is for the powerful to give up power. And isn’t this true? All of us have different kinds of power, and I have yet to find many who want to give up the power they have, including myself. We’d theoretically like others to have power, but not if we have to give our power up for them to get it. Do we feel the same way about love? Do we in theory like the idea of everyone being loved by their neighbors, but suddenly feel differently if we have to give away our love, our life, to make it happen?

Too often, we know all the right words about love, but have no actions to support our claims. We know who God wants us to love. We’re supposed to love God and love our neighbors. And we know who are neighbor is – we listened to those stories from Jesus too – everyone is our neighbor! But how are we loving God? How are we loving all those neighbors? All that ‘everyone’? Words aren’t enough. As John says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister an in need and yet refuses help?” It is one thing to say that we love our brothers and sisters and therefore treat them kindly and help them when they are in need. But it is quite another thing to ask the question from the other direction: based on the actions I take, and the deeds I do, and the things I share, who do my actions say that I love? Looking at it this way, what does my life and my work tell others about who I love? Very often, the only person our actions suggest we love is our own selves, or maybe our immediate family. We care about protecting ourselves and a small group of people and making sure our needs are met. Beyond that, if our actions do show how we love others, which others do our actions speak to? Who do your actions say that you love?

Jesus tries to teach us a different way of living and loving. “I lay down my life,” he repeats, but continues on to say, ‘in order to take it up again . . . I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.” His teaching is so opposite from what we’re used to. We are used to holding onto things so tightly. It is so hard for us to let go. But our lives will be most full, most full of love, when we are most willing to give love away. We empty ourselves to be filled. We give to receive. We lay down to take up. We set down power to gain power. We lay down our lives, in order to take them up. How will you love? How have you been loved? “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech”, not in sentiments we don’t really mean, not in holding on to all that is ours, not in fear of what we have to lose. Let us love in truth and action. Let us love as we have first been loved.

Amen.