Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mine

Some of you know that I just returned from spending a week in Cape Cod with my family. One of the best parts of the trip for me was spending time with my 2 year-old nephew, Sam. I have to say that being an aunt is one of the greatest joys in my life. Sam is so precious, so wonderful. One night, my mom and I took Sam out to dinner so that my brother and sister-in-law could go out for dinner on their own. My mom and I took Sam out for dinner too – but after running around and playing and go-go-going in his new vacation home, a tuckered out Sam fell asleep before we even got to the restaurant. While we waited for our table, and for the first 10 or 15 minutes before our food arrived, I held a perfect sleeping Sam on my lap, and enjoyed all the smiles from staff and patrons admiring Sam’s sweet face. As I was holding him, I was just really overwhelmed with how much I adore Sam, and I was just thinking: “Sam is mine.” Mine. Not as in ownership, obviously, but as in connection. Deep, unbreakable bond. Relationship based on unconditional love.

Sam is not the only person I feel this way about, although he’s pretty darn special. I tend to feel this way about my parishioners too – I remember sitting at an elementary school graduation for some children in my first appointment, and watching as my church girls received award after award, and I was sitting there thinking, “they’re mine.” As the Conference Youth Coordinator for the North Central New York Annual Conference, I look at the young people I work with, and watch them leading worship, and speaking about God at work in their lives, and I think: “Mine.” Just this week I visited one of our church camps, Casowasco, and saw several “former youth” of mine who are now on staff at camp, becoming objects of inspiration to a whole set of young people on their own, and I just felt so happy seeing them in action, in ministry, and I thought, “They’re still mine.” As you may also know, our annual conference will soon be merged together with three other annual conferences in New York State. This June, just before I started at First United Church, I spent a week a training camp for youth from all four conferences. And after a week together, I left feeling like the number of youth who I count as “mine” had just quadrupled. I once baptized a woman a few days before she died from ALS, a most horrific disease. I didn’t know her very well at all – she was a friend of a friend of the congregation. But as I sat with her and said those words: “I baptize you,” I was thinking, “and so now you are mine.”


Mine. As I was thinking about that amazing bond that we can feel with others, imperfect though we are, I thought I was starting to understand, or at least get a better hint at how God feels about us. I think of my love for my nephew Sam, which is certainly one of the most powerful feelings I’ve experienced, and I can only imagine a bit of how much my brother and sister-in-law feel about Sam, their child, who they created, and who is, in every way, made from them, part of them, even while he is unique and all his own. How much, then, must God love us! I think of the chorus of one of my favorite songs from The Faith We Sing, called, “You are Mine,” by David Haas. “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine.” God must look at us, and think, “Mine!” My beloved children. Created in my image. So unique. So wonderful. So precious. Mine. God must just treasure us.


Sometimes, we lose sight of that. We can’t see ourselves as God sees us, and/or can’t see one another as God sees. But if you can remember the love that swells inside you when you look into the eyes of your child, or grandchild, or niece or nephew, or godchild, or student, or friend – I hope you can catch a glimpse, a hint, of how beloved you are, knowing that you belong to God.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, "Kings"

(Sermon 7/26/09, 2 Samuel 11:1-15, John 6:1-21)


Kings

As we begin our ministry together, my goal is, over the next several weeks, to preach on some key themes, some foundational pieces that I feel are important for you and for me to think about as we start out. What’s at the core of what we do? Why are we in ministry together? What does God want from us? We’ve already talked about Welcome, and what that means, although it is surely a theme we will return to in the Fall. Last week we talked about how we sometimes try to create God in our image, rather than letting God create us, plant us, build us up. Later this summer we’ll be talking about repentance, discernment, and setting priorities, and I’ll talk about the goals that I’ve set for my first year in ministry with you. This week, we’re looking at another key theme: leadership. What makes a good leader in the church? Who is our leader? Of course, we know from Children’s Time last Sunday that God is our leader, that we’re followers of Jesus. But what can we learn about leadership from the way Jesus leads?

To look at the issue of leadership, we have two scripture lessons today about Kings – a human king, in the most famous and beloved Old Testament King, David, and a king of another kind altogether – Jesus. Our lesson from 2 Samuel describes a scene with King David that reads like a gossipy news story: “It happened late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch,” we read. He sees from his roof, a typical place to relax in an ancient Hebrew home, a woman bathing, and he sees that she is very beautiful. Here is where the story could have stopped. David could have let things alone, and put the woman out of his mind. He was a married man. But he was also a man with a great deal of power, and few who would question his actions. David didn’t leave things alone. Instead, he sends someone to inquire about the woman, and hears a report back: She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Again, David could leave things alone – he’s married – and she is married. But instead, he sends for her, and sleeps with her, and soon after, she tells David she is pregnant.

The story just seems to get worse: instead of now owning up to his wrongdoing, David tries for an elaborate cover-up. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is a soldier, in the midst of war. David calls for him, and encourages him to go home and be with his wife – so that Bathsheba could let Uriah believe that he was the father of her child. Uriah will not, however, when so many others are at war, enjoy the comforts of home. When this plan fails, David makes the most chilling decision of all – he has the commander of the forces send Uriah to the front line, to the worst region of fighting, and directs the forces to then back off from Uriah, leaving him alone and vulnerable, so that he will be killed. That’s where our text stops today, but I can tell you that Uriah is killed in war as David plans, and that David then takes Bathsheba as his own wife. This is a portrait of a king – the most beloved king of Israel. True, it is one horrific set of events for an otherwise devoted servant of God. But it is a warning, a reminder, of what can happen when someone has power, and authority, given by God, and takes them and uses them instead for their own gains, their own purposes, exploiting others in the process.

And then we have a completely different story, a complete change of scene, as we read the passage of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and healing in a large crowd of people who’ve been following Jesus and the disciples around the countryside. And rather then sending them on long treks back home, Jesus wants the disciples to provide them food. When the disciples seem clueless, Jesus gathers 5 loaves and 2 fish from a small boy, blesses it, and hands it out. Everyone finds they have enough to eat. But whatever miracle took place here isn’t our focus this time around – today I want us to focus on how the crowds responded to Jesus and the meal they ate. He fed them, and the people suddenly started calling Jesus a prophet. “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” they say. And we read that they want to make Jesus their king, on the spot, but he flees the scene: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

The crowds want to make Jesus king, this man who can provide for their physical needs – heal them and feed them. And it is hard to blame them. First-century Jews were living in an occupied land. The Romans controlled their homeland, put limits on their religious practices, taxed them, and controlled their government. The Jewish people wanted independence. They wanted the Romans out. And for many of them, they were ready to do whatever it took to make this happen – they wanted revolution. A political revolution. An uprising, where Rome was removed from power, and holy rule was restored. A return to a King like David. And in Jesus, they see someone who has power and authority. And so they want to make him king.

Do we understand this – this compulsion the people had to make Jesus king? Can we relate to the feelings of those in the crowds who were ready to use any means necessary to get Rome out of power, out of their sacred and holy lands, out of control of their lives? Can we put ourselves in a first century mindset for a minute? Jesus keeps preaching about the kingdom of God being at hand. That’s the good news Jesus is always talking about. And here he is, healing people from disease and sickness, providing food for hungry people, and teaching with a wisdom and authority that not even the religious leaders of the day seem to have. Wouldn’t you want Jesus to be the king? And really, what would have been so wrong with that? After all, the golden days of Israel, the good old days that everyone would have talked about were days when a good king ruled over mighty Israel – the days of King David. And isn’t Jesus even from the House of David? Who better to be made king? Finally, things can be restored, the holiness that once was can be regained, things can be right for God’s people again. If you start to think about it this way, doesn’t it make sense for Jesus to be made king? If God wants God’s kingdom on earth, isn’t Jesus-as-king a good way to make it so?

Understanding the first century mindset is the first step to learning from our texts. The next is to ask ourselves if we’re really so different today. Maybe we don’t think we’d want Jesus to be our king. But I wonder if things have really changed so much. Aren’t we in fact in desperate need to fix our mess? To overhaul the crises we are currently facing as a nation? If we could find a leader who could end wars, bolster the economy, give us jobs, bail out companies, save our homes, shore up our Social Security, provide health care at low cost, fix the environment, give food to the hungry, educate the children, and keep us the nations of nations, wouldn’t we elect that person? In fact, isn’t that what we expect, in some way, our president to do? And don’t we think about the good old days? I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about former presidencies, and the way things used to be. And we certainly have those conversations in the church – not just this church, but the Church with a capital C – don’t we? About the golden era, when the pews were full? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could just fix things? Make it right? And what would we do, what would be willing to do, to make such a thing possible? If we thought we had a person who could make things right, what wouldn’t we do to get that person into the position of power? Maybe we’re not in first century Jerusalem. But maybe we can understand exactly why the people would want Jesus to be king.

So maybe the better question is this: why didn’t Jesus want to be king? Why didn’t Jesus want to be the next King David? Why didn’t Jesus ask God to command legions of angels for him? Why didn’t Jesus mobilize those huge, waiting crowds, to get rid of Rome? If Jesus is the Savior, why didn’t God put him in place to fix the mess we’ve been making of things? Wouldn’t that have been simpler than trying to get this whole kingdom of God thing to spread by word of mouth through faulty disciples who deny and betray Jesus at every turn? Why leave so much up to us? How is Jesus saving us, exactly, if things are still so bad, and if we still have no one in charge who can make it better?

Well, we may not have Kings today, not in the way people in biblical times experienced them. But we certainly have people in charge – authority figures that we have to deal with and recognize and reckon with, don’t we? Who has authority over you? Your employer has authority over you. The Bishop of the North Central New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has authority over me, to appoint me as pastor where he would like. The Book of Discipline, the United Methodist book of order and church polity, has authority and power over me. This congregation has authority over me, even as I exercise authority in the congregation – our relationship is reciprocal. The government has authority over aspects of our lives. The IRS has power over us. Police officers have authority over us. Elected community officials exercise authority. The military has authority and power to exercise. But where does this power come from? What is the source of this authority? How do these people get this power?

In almost all these cases, we give authority to others to have over us, either directly or indirectly. We elect our government officials. We elect most of our church leaders. My authority as a pastor comes hopefully with God’s blessings, but was given to me at my ordination after gaining approval from a staff-parish relations committee, a district committee on ordained ministry, a conference board of ordained ministry, and an executive session of the clergy at annual conference. Even the IRS gets its authority over us indirectly from us. And whenever we have authority like this, power over others like this, that power is subject to becoming corrupt. We see corruption in the government at time in all levels. We’re reading today about the corruption of power in King David, who was one of the best Kings the Bible has to offer us. And the church is certainly and unfortunately not immune to abuse of power either. What’s the famous quote? “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

How, then, does God have power? How can Jesus have power and not have this power become corrupt? At last, we come to the crux, the key, the core. In the cross, in Jesus’ crucifixion, in his willingness to submit to death, in his commitment to God’s will that caused him to not resist but instead to give his own life, we see authority that is not given by us. We see power that is not lorded over us. Because, as usual, God turns things upside down from what we expect. God’s power, Jesus’ authority – this authority comes not from strength, but from weakness. This power that Jesus has comes not from exalting over others, but from being humbled before others. By emptying himself, Jesus became full, and by submitting to God’s will and the power others sought to have over him, Jesus was filled with true authority. So Jesus is King – not as the people wanted, but as the truest leader leads – by bringing himself low, where he is most needed, not by raising himself up over us, beyond our reach.

When we talk about leadership in the church, the community, the world, we’re looking for leaders who lead like Jesus led. And that means that we’re looking for leaders who are ready to be servants of all. We’re looking for those emptying out their own plans and ambitions so that they can fill up on God’s plans. We’re looking for those want to be filled with God’s power, not possess power of their own. We’re looking for those who are at the end of the line, making sure no one is left behind or lost, rather than those who are first and up front. That’s how Jesus led, and we still call him king.

Amen.

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, "God in a Box"

(Sermon 7/19/09, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a)

God in a Box

I told you last week that in the midst of this transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to say, “welcome.” Another thing that has been on my mind these days is the idea of “home.” Since I left for Ohio Wesleyan University a dozen years ago to begin college, I haven’t really had a lot of input over the place I called home. I lived in dorms through college, where I had a choice of roommates and a preference form for which dorm, but there were many limitations on where I lived. I lived in campus housing all through seminary. And in my first two pastoral appointments, I lived in parsonages. Lovely parsonages, for sure, but they were homes that were chosen for me, not by me. And of course, before I left for college, I was always living in my family home. When I was appointed here, and realized I would be receiving a housing allowance that would allow me to choose where to live for the first time in my life, I was excited and anxious and overwhelmed all at once. I found it hard to wade through all the possibilities and figure out exactly what I wanted, but exciting to choose a neighborhood and location, a kind of place to live, to visit apartments and make the ultimate decision for myself. It’s so nice to find a place to call home, and to settle in, unpack, and have a place really start to feel like it is home where you belong.

And yet, this week as my brother Tim packed up his car and drove to Portland, Oregon, I’ve also been thinking about people who live life in transition all the time, never really settling, always on the go. Tim drove to Portland with not much of a plan, I’ll admit, other than staying with some friends and looking for a job. My brother Todd, who is an actor, once had a six month job that toured from city to city, and required Todd to pack a bag and live out of hotels. He was very happy when that particular job was over, but he just has a career of short-term situations ahead of him as a stage actor, where it is unusual to have a show last more than sixth months to a year. He has a home base, but more often than not, he’s on the road. I’m not sure I could do it. I like to travel, but I like to be home – in my own space, and in my own community, and near my family, which is one of main things that drove me to leave New Jersey and come back to Central New York. I wanted to be home.

I’ve been thinking about these things – being at home, and being on the road – as I read the scripture lessons for this week. Last Sunday, we read about one of Jesus’ brief stops at home. But more often than not, Jesus was always travelling, always in motion, always going somewhere. He even commented once about the “Son of Man [having] no place to lay his head.” Jesus never really stayed in one place. He certainly didn’t seem to have a house of his own – just parents and siblings he visited from time to time. In our text today, Jesus is simply seeking a quiet place to rest with his disciples for a few hours, because so many people were moving in and out of Jesus’ sphere that he and the disciples had no time even to eat. But as they cross the lake for some peace and quiet, the crowds follow them and are waiting when Jesus steps off the boat. Now most of us, looking for a bit of rest, would see the crowds and be bowed down with fatigue. But Jesus looks at them and has compassion for them. This phrase, Jesus looking at the crowds with compassion, is repeated in the gospels, and it means that Jesus’ insides are literally turned over with feeling for the people – it’s a gut thing, he’s moved to the core when he sees their need. He sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd, and so he begins to teach them. Afterwards, they again cross the water in the boat, and again, people recognize him, meet him, and ask for healing. “Wherever he went,” we read, people seek healing from Jesus, and all who touched him found themselves made whole. But for Jesus himself, there is little time for rest and relaxation. No comforts of home. Jesus in ministry means Jesus always on the move.

Our lesson from 2 Samuel also deals with being at home verses being on the move, but this time, we’re talking about whether God is at home or on the move. Our passage opens with a newly-installed King David in Jerusalem speaking with his spiritual guide, the prophet Nathan. David is living in the palace in Jerusalem, and comments, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” The ark carried the Ten Commandments, and symbolized God dwelling in the midst of the Israelites. David wonders if it looks good for him to be living in a cushy royal estate while God, essentially, lives in a tent. Nathan encourages him to pursue building a home for God – a temple. But then God speaks to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell my servant David: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt . . . Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel . . . saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” In other words, God wants to know why David suddenly thinks God needs a house. God isn’t asking for a house. That’s all David’s idea. God continues speaking through Nathan, turning the tables: “I have been with you wherever you went . . . I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” We don’t need to build a place for God – we need to have God build a place for us – plant us.

I really resonated with King David’s desire to build a house for God. I think his intentions were good – he didn’t want to have for himself what he didn’t offer to God first – but how quickly David’s plan would – and did go wrong. David never built a temple for God, but his son Solomon did, and it seems like even with the best intentions, we are forever trying to build walls around God. In the scripture text, we may be talking about literal walls, but I don’t think our struggle is so much with our church buildings today. While we tend to love and take pride in our church buildings, with all the love and sweat and labor that usually goes into them from the congregation, we generally agree, don’t we, that we haven’t built a place that God has to stay inside of. While we feel God’s presence here, we feel it because God is always everywhere, and because we quiet ourselves enough while we are here to actually take notice of God who is always present. But I’m thinking about the metaphorical walls we are always putting up around God, while we kid ourselves into thinking we’re just creating a nice place for God to stay.

See, I think, despite our best intentions, we tend to try to put God in a box in our lives, while convincing ourselves that we’re just making a nice home for God. It’s been a struggle for me, I can tell you. I’ve always been a person of faith – I never went through a time where I was truly questioning God and my Christian worldview. While my other friends in high-school and college were exploring whether their parents’ faith was truly their own faith, I was already preparing to go into the ministry. And I’ve always been a person who’s liked having the answers. I like knowing the right answers to questions. So imagine my surprise when, in my first year of seminary at Drew, if found myself having a real struggle. See, I’d gotten in a place where I felt like I knew the answers about God. I was going to be a pastor, after all! I could tell you who God was, about how God worked, what God wanted us to be doing. And then all of a sudden, I was confronted, in a theology class, with a whole lot of questions I couldn’t answer. And I was overwhelmed with the realization that I just wouldn’t be able to have all those answers. That I couldn’t pin down God like I wanted, and be sure that I just knew everything about God. Maybe it sounds a bit presumptuous of me anyway, but I have to tell you, to be able to tell myself that God is Mystery and that there are some things I just can’t know – it took a long time for me to get to that place in my spirituality. That’s the box I was trying to put God into. What’s your box for God look like?

Some of us put God in a box because there are areas of our lives where we don’t want God to interfere. We want to be disciples, sort-of, to follow Jesus, but we don’t want to have to change certain things about the way we’re living. We like what our job is, our how our family is, or the lifestyle we have, or the place we live, or the things we own, or the way we spend our time and our money just how it is. We don’t want God to get too involved in certain aspects of our lives and tell us we need to change. And so we tell ourselves that we’re just settling God into a lovely corner of our hearts. But really, we’re just sweet-talking God right into a box. But I warn you, God won’t be held there. Some of us build walls around God when we build walls between ourselves and other people. When we decide that we know who God loves and doesn’t love, or who God accepts and doesn’t accept, or how God judges and measures a person other than our selves, we’re really just trying to box God in, and decide for God how God can be in relationship with other people. It is we, God’s children, who seem to struggle with getting along, with putting up walls between us and our neighbors based on race, sex, nationality, religion, lifestyle – whatever we can think of, really! But God, creator of each one of us, doesn’t have such a hard time with unconditional love as we do.

And sometimes, we find ourselves attempting to box God in when we’re talking about our congregation. One of the biggest struggles churches have is when the pastor and members lose sight of the main thing, and that always results in putting walls around God. When we talk about finances, the main thing, of course, is providing resources to make disciples. When we talk about worship, how we do it and who does it, the main thing is praising God. Whenever we find ourselves struggling with decisions and direction at the church – which we will, of course, as a part of working together as the body of Christ – as long as we remember what we’re about, and who is in charge (that’s God, by the way), we’ll do well. But if we realize we haven’t left a place for God at the table in discussions, or we’re thinking more about which of us gets to make a decision rather than listening for God’s voice, then we’ll get ourselves into trouble, because God won’t stay in a box, and we cannot thrive when we try to put God there.

At the heart of it, we must remember that it is we who are created in God’s image, not God who we create in our own image. And so, as God declared to David, it is God who will be building us a house, planting us, right in the heart of God – if we’re willing to have God lead us. When we’re not, if we can’t led God be God, the results will be as chaotic as children’s time, which may be fun for a while, but will never bring us the abundant life Jesus promises us. But if we just led God be God, while we are God’s precious children – we can’t even imagine the places that God will lead us. No walls, no boxes.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What We Believe

Henry Neufeld has a great post at his blog: "Do We Live What We Believe?"

He's been editing a book called The Jesus Paradigm, and has been reflecting on a statement in the book - "The key to church renewal is very simple: every follower of Jesus is to live what is believed."

Neufeld then reflects on this statement, writing, "What I do question is how God can be especially present at so many worship services with so little impact. People go back again and again to experience the presence of God and then leave and go on living in the same way.

Either we are not experiencing the presence of God as much as we say we are, or that presence is having much less impact on us than it should.

I’m afraid it may come back to belief. We need to practice what we believe. That’s true. But is there another dirty secret in many of our churches–that we don’t actually believe the stuff we claim. I’m not talking here about doctrinal statements or theological propositions. I’m talking about belief that there is a God and that he does have expectations, that he might get involved in our lives in some way...

So let me ask one question, of myself as well as of my readers:

Do we really believe what we say we believe?"

His post made me think of a Tracy Chapman song that I love, "Change." She sings, "If everything you think you know made your life unbearable, would you change?" I love this line, my favorite line, because it is such a challenge. Don't we find our lives unbearable, sometimes, when we hold up what we believe next to how we're living? Would we change? Well, not very often, right? As Neufeld points out, the gap between what we believe and how we live is immense.

I was also thinking about this theme during Lent this year, when I preached about Pontius Pilate. Biblical accounts and literary portrayals of Pilate ever since tend to be somewhat sympathetic to Pilate - a man who knew in his heart what Jesus was, but felt his hands were tied. But to me, if we believe that Pilate believed Jesus was someone special, what we know is that what Pilate believed didn't really matter to him more than his status, his position, his life the-way-it-was. He would literally see another person crucified, who he suspected was innocent, rather than risk his position.

But Pilate isn't really any different than us - or than me, at least. I believe, or claim to believe, some pretty specific things about Jesus and how I am called to live because of how Jesus lived. But do I change? And if I don't, why is it? Because I don't believe it, really? Because what I believe doesn't matter enough to me? Because I believe other things more deeply?

Good food for thought...

Hat tip: John Meunier.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, "Welcome"

(Sermon 7/12/09, Mark 6:1-13)

Welcome

What does it mean to welcome someone? What do we mean when we say welcome, “you’re welcome”? It’s a word we use often, hopefully. My two year old nephew already knows how to say “you’re welcome,” although he occasionally confuses it in place with “thank you.” He has a sense that it’s a word he’s meant to use when he’s giving something, or that is said to him when he gets something, but I wonder what he really thinks it means. Do we know what it means to talk about welcome?

“You’re welcome.” I had to look up a little history of the phrase. After all, in many other languages, when someone says “Thank you,” the response is not exactly “you’re welcome” but something more like “it’s nothing, don’t think of it.” “You’re welcome” is a relatively unique phrase. I discovered that something like “You’re welcome” has been used for hundreds of years, with Shakespeare using something close in his plays, but as a standard response, only dates back to about 1907. But the word welcome on its own is from two words of Old English origin – willa – which means will or choice, and Cuma – which means guest. Welcome literally means then “one whose coming or arrival is in accord with another’s will.” (1) In other words, welcome means something like, “I’m glad you are here, because I think we want to go the same path together.”

Welcome. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, as you might imagine, in these last couple of weeks. I’ve certainly experienced many ways of welcome here already: I’ve had emails from people sharing that they’re excited for my beginning in ministry with you, I’ve had kind words and offers of lunches from clergy colleagues in the area, I’ve had an interim pastor willing to share and encourage me in the transition, I’ve had help preparing and arranging my office, and meetings to get to know people. I’ve had people showing me around the church, helping me to find the things and the information I need to get started. I’ve felt an eagerness from you to begin a new phase in the ministry of this congregation, an eagerness to begin our journey together, and it has certainly been a welcoming feeling to know that people are so ready to have me here. Welcome. “I’m glad you are here, because I think we want to go the same path together.”

We find this theme of welcoming in our gospel text for today, in our gospel lesson from Mark. Technically, this scripture was in the lectionary, the schedule of scriptures, for last Sunday, but when Rev. Johnson chose a different text, I decided to use this one for our first service together, because although it may not seem like it at first, I think it is a great text for getting started in ministry together. It’s a tricky text – Jesus’ teachings are always challenging to us. But in his words, as always, are life, abundant life, for us.

Our text begins with Jesus returning to his hometown after having been away for the beginning of his preaching and teaching ministry. He’s already been out healing and changing lives and going through the towns and villages. He’s called his disciples, who have followed him home. He’s already got a bit of a buzz about him, an excitement about his name, curiosity about what he’s doing. And on the Sabbath, he comes to the synagogue, the gathering place for studying God’s word, and he begins to teach. And the people are astounded, and begin to chatter about this Jesus they’re seeing in this role of power and authority. After all, they remember him as a child! They’ve known his parents – Joseph the carpenter, Mary, his mother, and his brothers and sisters. They saw him grow up – from a little child, as an awkward teen, as a young man. And now he’s teaching them? We read that “they took offense at him.” The word here is actually the Greek word skandalon, which sounds like our own English word ‘scandal’. It meant a trap or snare or a stumbling block. They heard Jesus preaching and teaching and since they couldn’t accept this message from one they knew as a boy, Jesus was like a stumbling block to them, to their way of life. He tripped them up. And so Jesus notes that prophets are never welcome in their own home town, and he heals some, but mostly is amazed at the unbelief he finds, and our passage continues.

Jesus leaves his hometown again, and now prepares to send out the twelve disciples into the area villages to teach about the good news that God’s kingdom has come near. He gives them authority over unclean spirits. He tells them to take nothing for their journey. He tells them if they don’t find themselves welcome somewhere, to simply shake of the dust from their sandals, and move on. And so equipped with Jesus’ words, but little else, the disciples go out, and call people to repent – a word we’ll talk more about later this summer.

So what does this passage mean for us? Well, even though Central New York is home to me, I don’t think we connect into the hometown part of this passage – after all, none of you ever knew me in my kindergarten days. And I don’t think this passage means that if I don’t feel welcome enough, you should expect to see me packing my office back up and shaking the dirt off my shoes. I think this passage says more than that if we take a look at the passage again. As Jesus sends out the disciples, we can take note of what he does to learn how we are called to live.

First, Jesus sends them out two by two. He sends them out in pairs, not alone. With such a small group of disciples in this first missionary journey, he could no doubt have reached more people with his message about God’s kingdom if he’d sent the disciples separately, with servants, with other recruits. But Jesus sends them in teams. They must work together. As we begin our journey together, we also must go together rather than each our own way, pastor and laity, or this committee and that, this group and that. We’re meant to go together, the same way, the same direction, with the same purpose. Remember, that’s at the heart of the meaning of welcome: people going together who have the same will, the same pleasure. For this congregation, you’ve already spent time figuring out your purpose in crafting your mission statement: "Growing together in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and sharing this with others.” Now, our task is to make sure that when we’re involved in different programs and projects, we can see how, at the center, they’re working to live out our mission of growing in and sharing this knowledge and love of God through Christ. We have a common purpose, and so we go together in our work, listening to each other, supporting one another, and encouraging each other to be servants of the living God.

Jesus sends the disciples with authority. That’s another powerful word that we’ll need to look at more closely down the road. Jesus gives the disciples authority. He gives them power to do things – we read that they, imitating Jesus’ own actions – bring healing and wholeness to many people they encounter. We, too, have different kinds of authority to be in ministry. When I was ordained as an a clergywoman, then-Bishop Violet Fisher laid her hands on me and said, “Take thou authority.” I was given the authority to celebrate communion and baptism, to care for the order of the church and to serve and lead in pastoral ministry. When you are baptized or confirmed, you are given authority as members of the body of Christ to use the gifts God has blessed you with. We minister with authority that we must learn to use as Jesus used his authority, with humility and confidence. We, like the disciples, must seek to imitate the Christ we serve, living as he lived, with an authority that seeks to serve the neighbor rather than rule over.

Jesus also sends the disciples empty-handed: He tells them not to take anything for their journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic. Imagine leaving for a long trip without packing a suitcase, making detailed plans of what to do and where to stay and how to get there, and making sure you had enough money and resources to make the trip! We’d consider it quite foolish to do such a thing. But this is how Jesus sends the disciples out into ministry, and it is certainly intentional. Jesus puts them in a position where they cannot rely on themselves and their own means. They must work with, interact with, depend on others in order to survive, in order to sleep, eat, and live through their mission work. We tend, particularly living in America, to prize our independence and privacy. We like doing things on our own, and not having to ask for help. But Jesus sets up a situation where the disciples must ask for help. They must trust God, they must be in relationship with those they serve in order for this whole plan to work, and they must be willing to risk setting out on this journey without having all the answers.

These same things are key for our ministry together as well. We must learn to rely on God, and God’s direction, rather than our own plans and desires. We’re disciples of Jesus Christ, and so we seek after where God leads us, not where we’d like to go ourselves. And we must be in relationship – really learn to trust and know each other – pastor and congregation, member to member, and member to those we seek to serve. And we must be ready to take some risks, even when we don’t have the answers and can’t see clearly how things will work out. If you and I are always comfortable and sure about how things are going to go as we vision and dream and hope for our future, then we probably are following our own plans, and not God’s. We have to be ready to be risk-takers, trusting that God who sends us out in love will give us a purpose worth serving.

In the end, when Jesus tells the disciples that if a place will not welcome them, to shake the dust of their feet and move along, he’s not telling them to make people either get with their program or forgot about them. Jesus, who was filled with such deep compassion every time he saw the crowds, certainly never behaved that way himself. What I think he’s saying is that the work he’s sending the disciples out to do is so important, so critical, that they can’t get bogged down when people are not ready to go the same way – they have good news to share, they have God’s love and grace to tell about, they have a message that’s waiting to get out. And so they need to keep at it, keeping working at it, keep following Jesus. And when they find those who are ready to go the same way – that is, God’s way – that’s a welcome indeed.

So friends, I’m glad to be here, to be welcomed here, because I think we’re ready to go the same path: God’s way – together. Welcome.

Amen.

(1) http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=welcome

Saturday, July 04, 2009

from Dan Dick: "Cranky Christians"

It's been forever since I've blogged - in the meantime I've moved from Franklin Lakes, NJ to Fayetteville, NY, to serve a church in East Syracuse, NY. I will hopefully write about my transition soon! But meanwhile, here's another great Dan Dick post, called "Cranky Christians."

Excerpt:

How the worship bulletin is designed, where the baptismal font is placed, who gets to choose the hymns — these are only important issues to those who have no real understanding of the gospel. Those who reduce our faith to such insignificant issues are those who have no real desire to be the body of Christ — laity or clergy. How to make a difference in the world, how to save a person’s self respect and dignity, making sure a person has a safe place to sleep or a warm meal — these are the things our faith tells us God is interested in...

The reason this came to mind is a short email I received last week that asked me the question, “Why are you so dedicated to helping people who don’t live good lives, when there are so many good Christians that need comfort and care?” I don’t know how to answer this questions. Those who are Christian have got it all. The people who need us are the whole reason we exist! I can’t waste time dealing with coddled malcontents. My ministry is to the lost, the damaged, the sick, and the oppressed. I thought that was what it was all about…

Cranky Christians? I’m trying to love. The world? I wish I loved it better. My goal? To make those who know Jesus care more about those who don’t.