Sunday, May 27, 2018

"Ask the Pastor" Sunday "Sermon"

Sermon 5/27/18

Ask the Pastor

About Theology: 

I have heard it said that we are not to worry, as God has everything in control. I also heard that to worry about anything is a sin against God. However, being a parent...I just can't help but worry about how my children are doing sometimes. When they hurt, I hurt. Is worrying a sin?

Matthew 6:25-27: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
I think this is the main passage where we hear in the Bible that we shouldn’t worry. I don’t think Jesus talks about worry as a sin per se, and I don’t think the passage is so straightforward as it might seem (as is the case with most passages!) Jesus is tying his words about worry back to his opening comments in this passage today about having more than one master. We can tell this because of how this section about not worrying starts. In our New Revised Standard Version bibles, we just get “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” But the original Greek is even more specific. It says, “Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So the whole section reads: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other; or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So, in context, what does this passage mean for us, that because of not being able to serve two masters, Jesus tells us not to worry?
            When Jesus talks about worry, the word used is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. That is what Jesus finds problematic: when we give anything other than God what should be God’s place in our lives. Now, I think we still do this pretty frequently: give over God’s place to other things in our lives – and we definitely should always be careful. But what you say in your question: “When they hurt, I hurt,” sounds more like compassion than like giving concern for your children the place of God in your life. And compassion is something Jesus demonstrates all the time. He wants us to cultivate that feeling in fact, and extend it to all people, so that we are unsettled in our spirits whenever we see others hurting, and are moved to respond in loving action. 

How do we sit patiently for God to show us what he has in store for us? (I am not a patient person, so this is difficult)

Oh boy – this is a tough one! I am not always very patient. And God’s sense of time is clearly so different than ours. You’ve heard me talk before about kairos and chronos. Chronos is the Greek word for regular time, but kairos is the word that means “just the right time,” or “in the fullness of time” or “God’s right time for action” we might say. When God acts in our lives and in the world, it is always in kairos time – at just the right time. I have seen what happens in my life when I try to force my timing onto God’s plans. I always planned, for example, to do my doctoral work at Drew, where I went for my seminary work, after I had been in ministry for five years. I would go back to school and get my PhD. It was my plan. I did not really consult God about this, to be honest. I just kept doing whatever I could, taking the opportunities I could to make this happen. It finally took a trusted advisor of mine at Drew asking me some hard questions about what I wanted to study to realize that going back to school wasn’t the right thing for me at that time. Later, years later, I went back to get my Doctor of Ministry – a different degree than I had planned at a different time at a different school, and it was so right then. I only hope that I can learn from past experiences to strengthen my patience by remembering that I can trust in God. I don’t think that means we have to be passive – sometimes when we are being patient, we can also be doing things that make our hearts and lives more ready for where God will lead us. And sometimes, I think impatience can be holy too! I think, for example, about the work of Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. Perhaps Dr. King was patient with God, but he was not patient with injustice, and he was not patient with white people who kept suggesting that he was trying to rush making changes. And I think that his call for us to be more impatient with injustice was a prophetic call. 

God's Sovereignty - I think folks would benefit from hearing something about this concept.  I have observed that those with deep faith when faced with life circumstances that are very difficult (parents of a child with cancer, losing a spouse at a young age, etc.) find comfort and acknowledge God's sovereignty. So, what is it? How does one come to claim it? What difference does it make?

This is a complicated question! Sovereignty, when we use it in everyday speech means “supreme power or authority” or “the authority of a state to govern itself or another state.” When we apply this term to God, we mean most basically that God is the supreme ruler, the supreme authority. To that basic premise, I think most Christians agree, but beyond that, there are some wildly different feelings about God’s Sovereignty. The crux of the dispute is about whether God, as supreme ruler, is controlling everything that happens in our world or not. Is everything determined? Is there a fixed outcome? Or do things happen that God is not controlling. We touched on these issues earlier this year in our “Why” series when we were asking about why suffering happens, and we were talking about the gift we believe we have of free will – God gives us the gift to make choices, even when they are choices that are not what God hopes for us, and even when those choices end up hurting ourselves or others.
In our Wesleyan tradition, we believe in the Sovereignty of God insofar as we’re talking about the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We believe that goodness triumphs, that love wins, that God’s redemption of the world cannot be stopped. But day to day, our Methodist heritage points us toward careful consideration of how we talk about the causes of the suffering we experience. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, deals with this by speaking about God as a loving parent. In his sermon “On Family Religion,” Wesley writes, “It is [God] that makes the grass green and the flowers grow; that makes the trees green, and the fruit to come upon them!  Think what [God] can do!  [God] can do whatever [God] pleases. [God] can strike me or you dead in a moment.  But [God] loves you; [God] loves to do you good.  [God] loves to make you happy. Should you not then love [God]!” So, is God sovereign? Yes, but we give thanks that God who could do anything chooses to love us, and choose to let us choose in return. 

About the Bible: 
What does scripture say about women leading/pastoring a church. I get asked this by some fellow Christians that believe only men should pastor a church.

        First, asking “should women be pastors?” requires us to think about how we interpret the Bible. We have to ask two initial questions to interpret passages that speak to women in ministry: what does the author of a text mean? Where they speaking about a specific situation or giving general advice? That’s part 1. So when Paul says things like that women should “keep silent” in churches, is he reacting to a particular situation he was encountering? He was writing a letter to the Corinthians and telling them a lot about how to be a better faith community, correcting a lot practices that weren’t building up the body of Christ. Was there some specific incident of women speaking up that had caused division? We can’t know for certain. We don’t have all the information. But we wonder. Notice – Paul doesn’t say there that women just shouldn’t be pastors, preachers. He says they shouldn’t speak in worship services. Even traditions that don’t support women as pastors usually incorporate women into worship leadership. If we’re basing no women as pastors on these verses in Paul, how can we let women be heard in worship at all? 
Part 2 is asking if something is contextual and bound by the cultural limits of the day, or if it is meant to be an eternal truth. For example, elsewhere Paul says that women shouldn’t have their heads uncovered, or wear gold, or wear braids. We’ve (in most traditions) decided that these were cultural instructions, rather than God’s eternal word on something. We wear braids, and gold, and have uncovered heads, and think nothing of it. How do we decide what is cultural and what is timeless? It’s not easy! We do it carefully, with study, with discernment, with prayer, with wisdom from people of faith, etc. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, said that we have to look to the whole scope and tenor of the Bible to interpret individual verses. So when an individual verse is hard to understand, we look to the main message of the whole Bible to figure it out.
         So what does the whole Bible tell us about women? That men and women are made in the image of God. That in Christ there is no longer male or female – Paul says that too. We ask: Are women preachers in the Bible? Well, who was the very first to announce the gospel, the good news that Jesus was not in the tomb but alive, the news that is the cornerstone of our faith? Well, of course, it was the women! The first messengers of the good news. Paul frequently refers to women who are leaders in his community in the early church. The Bible names several women as prophets. We see Deborah leading the whole military as a judge in Israel. Clearly, women have authority and can lead in a variety of roles, even if it was not common. 
         Women have been serving as full elders in The United Methodist Church for more than sixty years now, and as preachers for long before that. I think another way we answer this is by “looking to the fruit.” Under the leadership of clergywomen, is the gospel being preached? Are people meeting Jesus Christ? Are they becoming disciples? Are they growing in faith? I’d like to answer that with a resounding yes! 

Annetje talks about covenants in the Bible, ending with this: The Davidic Covenant is the one I am really confused with. I am not going to be belabor the details. I know that it an unconditional divine promise with King David to establish and maintain the Davidic dynasty on the throne of Israel. At what point was the covenant with David made? Why was the covenant made with David?

There are many covenants in the Bible, from Genesis, through the time of Jesus. A covenant in the Bible is an agreement – with legal overtones – between two parties, and primarily between God and God’s people. In the covenants of the Bible, God says to an individual or group: if you promise to do this ________, I will do this _________. The this of our part is almost always that we promise to follow God and God’s commands and God only. In return, God promises different things. To Abraham, for example, God promises that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars. God is always faithful to covenants made, but humans don’t have a very good track record. The biblical record shows that we often break our covenants. God responds to our covenant breaking in anger, frustration, and sadness, but God always wants to try again.  
God’s covenant with David comes shortly after David solidifies his kingship. David has his house, and now David is about to build a temple for God, a house for God, since to this point, the law, the tablets of God’s commands for the people, which represent God’s presence and are stored in the ark of the covenant, to this point they’ve been kept in a tent. David wants something more permanent. But God isn’t interested in that. God has always been on the move, God says, and is doing just fine without a house, thank you very much. 
God continues, promising to David to give the Israelites a time of rest, and promising that David’s line will be established forever. Why does God do this? Well, this is hard to answer! It’s hard to know why God would make this promise in the first place. Frankly, David is not more holy than any other figure in the Bible. He makes a lot of mistakes, and he can be spiteful, and he acts in selfish ways that hurt others more than once. But the Bible does show that David seeks to be faithful to God’s commands. He listens to God, and worships God, and serves God. So that might be part of the why. Of course, it is not always descendants of David who end up ruling Israel. But instead, as Christians we understand that God is faithful to the covenant through Jesus, who the gospel-writers take great pains to show us is a descendant of David. The reign of Jesus is eternal, not bound by any earthly limited-time kingship. Again, why does God do this? As usual, the answer seems to be grounded in God’s love for us. For our good, of course, God sends Jesus and gives us a ruler of heaven and earth who will never fail.   

In the New Testament Jesus promises everlasting life, but don't see this in the OT - is this a promise in the OT too?

*I answered this question without specific notes. 


About Ministry: 
What is your least favorite task of being a pastor?

        There’s not a lot that I truly dislike that’s part of my work as a pastor. Maybe spending long hours at meetings where we feel like we aren’t getting anything “done” and where we leave frustrated – I imagine you all don’t like those either! 
         I also am, at heart, a conflict-avoider. I’ve worked really hard to be better at managing and confronting conflict when it is necessary for a healthy church. But I really hate it when people are in conflict, especially when people are hurting each other and being hurt by each other. I don’t like it when something that I have to do or say or some decision I have to make as pastor will cause hurt and pain. So, I try not to avoid conflict, but I also try to find ways to manage conflict that can be nurturing. 

My question is do you personally share in the joys and hurts of your church members? How has your experience and education as a pastor factored into this? Do you need to distance yourself at times to renew your pastoral strengths and skills? 

Yes, absolutely, I share deeply in your joys and hurts. It is one of the most sacred parts of being a pastor that I get invited into peoples’ lives in such a deep way. People share their highest highs and lowest lows with me, and it is the absolute most holy part of being a pastor. But it is also true that to lead as pastors when people are in crisis, we have to also be able to set the emotions aside in some ways, in order to be able to comfort, lead, share wisdom, help with discernment. I know that nurses and doctors and counselors go through this kind of struggle too. There is a difference, I think, between practicing compassion, the deep-gutted responsiveness to the lives of others that Jesus calls us to, and making the experiences of others into my own. The time I spent in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education, CPE, where I interned as a chaplain at a hospital, was key in helping me do this. 
So, yes, self-care is so essential! Jesus models this, finding time to pray, or be with his closest disciples. I give thanks that you all are so supportive of my vacation time, my renewal time, my days off, my time going to continuing education events or spent with colleagues. These times renew my spirit and give me strength to share in all that you experience. 

1. When did you know that Jesus spoke to you to ensure your Faith was strong enough to make Him a true part of your life? 2. - Test of Faith? What obstacles did you overcome that strengthened your Faith? 3. - With all the hypocrisy in the world, now and throughout life, what did you do to ensure His word was meant to be shared... through you? 4. - How do we as disciples or followers of the Christian Faith ensure that our honest life fulfills our duties as members of the United Methodist Church? 5. - What is your favorite bible verse?

         I would say I still don’t know if my faith is “strong enough.” I relate to the man in the scriptures who says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” When Jesus talks about faith in the Bible, he says that even with a little faith, faith like the size of mustard seed, that even that little bit of faith is enough to do amazing things. 
         But when I think about faith and my role as pastor, I think about two things: When I was exploring my call to ministry, people would sometimes give this advice – “If there’s anything else you can possibly do, do that.” What they meant by this, I think, was that you should only follow a call to ministry if it is something that is calling to your whole heart, life, and being. If it is sort of a toss-up say between being a pastor and being a teacher – become a teacher. I think they meant this to indicate the seriousness of the work of ministry, but also to help me figure out my call. I think, in some ways, for me, being a pastor was the only way I could continue to explore my faith and grow in my faith. I couldn’t imagine a life where I was doing anything else but spending my whole heart and life trying to figure out everything I could about God and Jesus and the meaning of life, to be grandiose but totally honest. 
         When I was in seminary, at the end of my first year, I had what I would call the closest I’ve ever come to having a crisis of faith. This is a pretty cliché time of seminary to have a faith crisis – I hate being cliché, but apparently I was not immune. In seminary, professors challenge you on pretty much everything you hold to be true about God and God’s work in the world, which is so necessary if you’re going to be a pastor, I think, that testing of your faith, the deepening and broadening of it. One of my professors in seminary casually mentioned – not even in class, but at a dinner with some students – that he didn’t believe in heaven, at least not in traditional terms. He was not the first person I’d heard say this, but for some reason, I was just knocked off my feet by his words, devastated, really, because despite considering myself a person who reflected deeply on scripture and challenged myself, I had just never really wrestled with my own thoughts about heaven. What did I believe about eternity and why? Eventually, wrestling with this question, my faith became stronger because I finally had to reckon with the fact that there were things that I didn’t and couldn’t know about God and God’s ways. What I can rely on is God’s goodness, and my faith that whatever God has in store for us is good. So I can wonder, always, but I don’t have to worry. I’m a work in progress on that though. 
         Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, said that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. The church and world will always be full of hypocrites. But the best place for us, hypocrites and sinners, is in the church. As Jesus says, those who aren’t sick have no need of a doctor, and those of us who are perfect – who believe we are perfect – can have trouble finding room in our life for Jesus. So yes, church is a great place to come to be surrounded by saints and sinners all at once. We come, I hope, because we know we need God. And we come so that we can be accountable – to God and to one another. We don’t practice our faith alone, but always in community. It is never just us and God, but us and God and neighbor. 
         My favorite verse is John 10:10. This became my favorite verse one summer in high school. I felt like I “discovered” it. I thought it was just so fantastic that Jesus wants us to have a full life, an abundant life. We can get awfully focused on the thou-shall-nots of the Bible, and less on what we are called to do, and the joy that Jesus wants us to experience.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: Our Strangely Warmed Hearts by Bishop Karen P. Oliveto

I was excited to receive a copy of Bishop Karen Oliveto's new book, Our Strangely Warmed Hearts: Coming Out Into God's Call for review. Without reading the back cover, I was expecting a book that told her story of ministry. Instead, this book is half a history lesson - of the gay liberation movement, and The United Methodist Church and homosexuality - and half a collection of stories of many others who are LGBTQ United Methodists. 

Some of the history Bishop Oliveto shared was familiar to me, but some things were totally new to me, like the "Council on Religion and the Homosexual," which, using denominational funds from The Methodist Church in the 1960s, worked together with "homophile organizations and church leaders" and developed goals and purposes that were so forward thinking. (25-26) Oliveto quotes founder and former executive director of the Reconciling Congregation Program Mark Bowman: "We have some sense of history. We know that when the church has excluded people on moral grounds, eventually God has opened the church doors again." (33) May it be so! "Eventually" can be such a long wait though! Section 1 wraps up with a brief page on the (then anticipated) work of the Commission on a Way Forward, and a short mention of the author herself: "On July 15, 2016, the Western Jurisdiction elected Karen Oliveto, the author of this book, to the episcopacy by a vote of 88-0." (64) Coming after a long section of the painful, harmful history of The UMC in excluding LGBTQ persons consistently, systematically, increasingly, the sentence is a bright spot of hope. 

The real star of this book is the second section, the narrative stories, first person stories from LGBTQ voices. What amazes me, knocks me off my feet, is that there is story after story of God's grace, of the (sometimes literally) life-saving work of Jesus at work in these folks' stories through The United Methodist Church in spite of all the ways we have done warm to these lives through that same institution. How incredible, and what a sign of the power of God to persist and find a way through all the barriers we erect! I am so humbled by these stories. And so moved by the stories of spaces and places of welcome even in the midst of a church whose official polity says "not compatible." These stories are miraculous, truly. 

Some standouts: "My queer identity calls me to connect the dots because breaking the  chains of oppression for one group of people is inextricably linked with the liberation of all." (Israel Alvaran, 96)

"I looked around at this stadium full of beautiful people that I have shared in ministry with, who affirmed me, and I knew that with one sentence most of them would have a completely different attitude toward me." (Rose, 124)

"I cannot fight all battles, but God is not calling me to; God is calling me to follow, to love, and to serve so that the church can make justice happen, and feast together at the banquet God prepares for our weary souls. Thanks be to God." (Rose, 125)

And from Bishop Oliveto's final wrap up: "This [exclusion of LGBTQ persons] comes at a high price ... the body of Christ is fractured. And lives are literally lost ... The saddest pastoral call I have ever received was from a gay man who asked me to 'unbaptize' him, because he had heard the stance of The UMC regarding LGBTQ people and felt he was no longer worthy of God's love and claim on his life." (127) 

I definitely recommend you give this book a read. 


Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, Year B, "Confirmation," Acts 2:1-21

Sermon 5/20/18
Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost: Confirmation


Last Sunday, it was a joy to have our District Superintendent Rev. Mike Weeden here with us in worship. He helped us wrap up our series “Strengthen Your Core,” by talking about the last of our five areas of focus, based on the membership vows of The United Methodist Church. We’d talked already about prayers, presence, gifts, and service, and he shared with us about what it means to be a witness. How do we tell the world our story? How do we share our faith in meaningful ways? How do we convey to others how God has impacted our lives through our relationship with Jesus Christ? How will we be witnesses?  
As I’ve reflected on his questions, I have been thinking back to my years taking piano lessons throughout junior high and high school. I had a few different teachers over the years, and until I started with my final teacher, I never had to perform in any sort of recital. In fact, I never really had to play for other people at all, except informally, for members of my family. This suited me just fine, because I was petrified of playing piano in front of others. I practiced a lot, but I wasn’t very confident. When I was nervous, my hands would shake, and when my hands shook, it made it quite difficult to actually hit the right notes. But when I started with a new teacher in high school, she was much more demanding all around. She was demanding about my consistent practicing, and she was insistent that I play a solo for NYSSMA – that’s where students in NY go to get graded on a musical performance and some musical skills – and that I perform for a local recital and scholarship competition. I was petrified. But my teacher was such a gifted musician, and though she was strict she was kind, and I admired her skills as a pianist so much. I wanted to be able to play like she played. And so, with fear and trembling, I agreed to everything she wanted me to sign up to do. Perhaps you are expecting that here is where I will share with you my triumph, but alas: I ended my first piece at the scholarship competition on a wrong note, my hands were shaking so badly! But I survived. And having conquered that most terrifying event, I went on to be able to play in other settings in a more relaxed way. I never attained the skill of my teacher, but I did become able to share my playing with others. And music has so much power when we share it, doesn’t it? I’m so thankful for my teacher pushing me to move beyond my comfort zone, even though I struggled still. We practice, practice, practice, always! But eventually, we have to wonder: What are we practicing for? Will we ever put our practicing to use? 
In just over a month, I will celebrate 15 years of ministry, as I hit the anniversary of my very first day when I officially became “Pastor Beth.” I still remember stepping into St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Oneida on my very first day. The day before, I hadn’t been a pastor, not yet. Now, I had gone through a lot of training to get where I was. I had been to college, and years of seminary. I had spent time working as a chaplain, and time interning at churches. I had done preaching and visiting, and was cultivating my skills. I was well-equipped, I thought, to be a pastor. But that day, July 1st, 2003, I was suddenly “Pastor Beth.” I was a bit petrified, frankly. I felt a little bit in over my head. And to be clear: I still had a lot to learn. I look back with such love in my heart for the people of St. Paul’s, because they were so nurturing and supportive as I figured out what it meant for real to be a pastor, and when I made mistakes, they loved me anyway. But even as I continued to learn – and still continue to learn – if I just stayed in school, and kept training, and kept practicing at being a pastor until I felt 100% ready for all that ministry would bring my way: Well, I’d still be a student, and not a pastor at all. 
What are we practicing for? What are we training for? When do we put all of our learning and growing to use? When we ask these questions in context of faith, I think the day of Pentecost is a day of answers and action. Remember, last week Mike shared with us a text from Acts 1. The resurrected Jesus was speaking to the disciples for the last time in person, in the flesh, before returning to heaven. The disciples had been just that – disciples, which means students – for three years, traveling with Jesus and learning from him, and practicing, occasionally, on their own, healing and preaching and sharing the news about God’s reign on earth. But now, Jesus told them that he was returning to God and they would be the witnesses to God’s work in the world. They would be the messengers of Jesus. They would be the ones doing what Jesus had been doing, strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism, that led him into the wilderness, and that filled him up as he preached for the first time: this same Spirit was now about to fill the disciples so that they could be in ministry to all the world. 
And that’s exactly what we see happen on Pentecost, in our reading from Acts. The disciples are gathered together, ready to celebrate Pentecost, a festival celebrating both harvest, and the giving of the Torah, the law, to the people of Israel. It’s a festival that takes place 50 days after the Passover. So not only are the disciples gathered, but many others are in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival too. And suddenly, we read, a sound comes from the heavens, the sound of a mighty rushing wind, and it fills the house where the disciples are. Something like flames, like tongues of fire, seems to rest on each of them, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, somehow, gives them words to speak in many languages so that the people gathered from so many places will understand what they’re saying. People are rightly astonished by what they hear from the disciples, and some even wonder if they’re drunk. But Peter, ready to be a witness, just as Jesus has called him to be, stands and addresses the crowd. Using the words of the prophet Joel, Peter insists that what the crowds are seeing is a fulfillment of what Joel’s wrote about: God’s Spirit is poured on all flesh, sons and daughters prophesy, young and old along share visions and dreams, and even the boundaries and limits created by humans, like the institution of slavery, cannot bind up the Spirit – slaves will be Spirit-filled too, will be prophets too. And everyone who calls on God’s name will be saved. 
Peter, who seemed sometimes to be a hopeless disciple, one moment saying something brilliant that made it seem like he knew who Jesus was, and the next moment causing Jesus to say to him, “Get behind me, Satan”; Peter, who was brave enough to step out on to the water with Jesus, and afraid enough to quickly sink; Peter, who Jesus said would be the rock of the church, but who also denied even knowing Jesus – Peter is not just practicing at following Jesus anymore. He’s standing up. He’s sharing his faith. He’s boldly claiming the work of Jesus as his own. Filled with God’s Spirit to strengthen him, encourage him, inspire him, he’s making God’s story his story, and sharing it in a way of his own. The other disciples begin to do likewise. And suddenly, even though Jesus is no longer there in the flesh, the message of Jesus begins to get carried to the world. 
What about you? How will you make this story your story? How will you make God’s story, the story of Jesus, Jesus’ work in the world, into something that has meaning for you?  How will you share your story so that others might make Jesus’ story their own too? We’re celebrating something else here today too. The Service of Confirmation is a spiritual milestone that has been celebrated in conjunction with Pentecost over the years because of the new baptisms that take place just after our text for today in Acts. It’s a day of making a commitment to follow Jesus. But I think it is especially appropriate because both Pentecost and Confirmation are stories about taking what has been taught to you by someone else, and making it your own. At Pentecost, the disciples finally took everything Jesus had taught them, all the encouragement he’d given them, and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, stepped out in front of the crowds to make a bold statement of faith, putting it all on the line. Finally, they had to stop standing behind Jesus, relying on him to answer their questions and tell them what to do, and start acting as his messengers in the world.
            Confirmation is a similar occasion. Ayse, Peyton, Shea, and Taylor, who will stand before you today, were instilled with the values of faith and the church. Their parents and other teachers and family members and guides in their life have led them and shaped their faith, guiding them to learn about God’s grace and walking with Jesus. But Confirmation is a celebration that these young women are choosing to confirm for their own what they have been taught already. From here on out, they can continue to be guided and helped by their elders, of course: but we’re saying together, them, and us, that their faith journey is their responsibility. They stop standing behind adults to answer for them, and start acting as disciples in their own right, even leaders and messengers of God in this congregation, in our world.              
They’ve been through a lot of lesson this year, our confirmands. They certainly don’t know everything about this congregation, or Christianity, or Methodism. Although, until they forget it, they might know a little more than some of you do! But the point is, if we waited to give them all the rights and responsibilities of membership and leadership in the church until they knew everything and were totally ready and prepared – well, then, I’d bet we’d never celebrate confirmation again. They won’t stop learning just because they’re confirmed. But they lay claim now to having their voice in all that we do here, because they’re laying claim to their own faith.
            What happened on Pentecost is both hard to explain and easy to understand. The disciples, even though they weren’t really ready, became the church. Since Jesus had returned to God, they became the body of Christ in the world. They weren’t ready. They needed to know more. They still didn’t have all the answers. It isn’t long before they get in fights with each other and stray from what Jesus might have done. But they take the plunge. They take the leap of faith. They can do it, because once they feel the Spirit moving, they know that Jesus is really always with them. They aren’t alone. When they step out on faith, God is with them.
            What will you do? God is with you. The Spirit is yours, just as Jesus promised. So whatever it is you are waiting for to be ready to start following God, really – remind yourself that we’re never ready for everything we’ll face. But we can be ready to put our trust in God, who has never failed us yet. Let’s tell the story. God’s story. The story of Jesus. Our story. We’re not just practicing. We’re living it. Amen. 


Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sermon, "Strengthen Your Core: Gifts," Luke 20:45-21:4


Sermon 5/6/18
Luke 20:45-21:4


Strengthen Your Core: Gifts


            I want to thank you all again for the thoughtful celebration/beautiful basket of gifts you gave me last week for my birthday. I shared some pictures on my facebook page, and I have to tell you, my clergy colleagues are occasionally a little jealous at how well you treat me, and the love that you consistently demonstrate and shower me with. There’s a book called The Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman that many pastors use as part of pre-marital counseling with couples planning to be married, and in the book, Chapman suggests that we have five main ways of expressing and receiving love from one another: acts of service, quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, and giving gifts. One of my pastor friends commented on the images I posted from last Sunday: “Their love language must be giving gifts.” I said this works out well for me, because my love language is receiving them! Truly, I am blessed by your generous nature, shown to me and to others all the time.
             Today we’re talking about strengthening our core through giving. Giving isn’t just something we do at birthdays or holidays because we feel obligated or it is expected. Giving is a spiritual discipline, a practice we engage in to show our love, our commitment, our devotion, our gratitude. In the life of faith, we celebrate the gifts that God gives to us, including our very lives, and we seek to give back to God, and to give to neighbor, in thanksgiving for the God of abundance who blesses us so relentlessly. When we talk about how we give to God, we’re talking about how we give of our time, how we give of our money, and how we give of our talents – the gifts we have, the skills we have, the abilities that God gives us that we can use in God’s service. How do we strengthen our core through our giving? Is there more to it than just trying to give more of all these things.   
            We turn together to our text from Luke’s gospel. Sometimes we can’t get the full meaning of a passage of scripture without reading what comes before or comes after. It is always a good idea to see what takes places around the text we’re studying, because reading the scripture in content deepens our understanding. Take a couple weeks ago, when we read the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Yes, we can read the text on its own, and learn from it. But Jesus’ compassion for the crowds is all the more moving when you realize that Jesus was looking for some solitude because he was grieving the death, the execution of his cousin John. The context adds important information.
            Part of today’s reading is probably very familiar to us. It’s a story known as “The Widow’s Mite.” Jesus is teaching in the Temple, when he looks up and sees people putting their gifts, their offerings in the treasury. He sees many rich people contributing, and then he sees a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. He remarks to those around them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” His words seem to be a commendation, an affirmation of the generosity of this widow, who gives so much of herself to her faith through her offering in the Temple. And indeed, his words match up with what we know about giving. Although individual exceptions abound of course, on the whole, those in the bottom 20% of income earners in the US give more than double, in terms of percent of income, than do those in the top 20% of income earners.[1] There are many theories about why this is including isolation: we tend to live near people who share our level of wealth, thus the richest are somewhat isolated from the poorest – and empathy – those who are poor know what it is like, and so give more readily to others when they can. In Jesus’ brief commentary about the widow offering her two copper coins, many have read just such reflections into his words. The text makes for a great stewardship message, urging all of us to give all that we can, like the widow.  
            There’s nothing wrong with that message per se. It’s just that it is a bit out of context, ignoring what comes before and after this text. Our passage from Luke comes during what we know as the events of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by crowds who laud him like a king. He’s been teaching in the temple, and his teachings during these few days before his arrest and crucifixion are some of his most blunt and critical of the practices of the religious leadership today. And the buildup to the “Widow’s Mite” part of our text is a perfect example. Jesus, “in the hearing of all the people” Luke tells us, tells his disciples to beware of the scribes, that is the scholarly interpreters of the law who hung out around the temple, telling people how to apply the scriptures to their lives. Jesus says that they are interested most in the respect and status they have. They say long prayers just to look religious, he says. And, they “devour widows’ houses,” he says. For this, they will receive condemnation. The text doesn’t tell us exactly what he means by this phrase – “They devour widows’ houses” – but the gist is clear enough. The property and possessions and money that belongs to widows – one of the most vulnerable classes of people in Jesus’ world, one of the groups of people most frequently listed as needing and deserving special protections in the scriptures – the livelihood of the widows is somehow being eaten up, used up, by the religious leaders. Immediately after this, Jesus watches a widow put “all she [has] to live on” in the temple treasury. Suddenly, Jesus’ words take on a different tone. Perhaps rather than offering simple praise for her actions, Jesus is expressing a lament – she’s just given everything she’s got to a place that is sucking up the resources of poor widows! And then just after his words about the widow, Luke tells us that people are speaking about the temple, how beautiful the stones are, and how it is adorned with gifts dedicated to God, and Jesus responds by telling them that the stones of the temple will all be thrown down someday. Oof. In context, this sweet story is something more, a warning, it seems. 
            So, ok, great! We’re off the hook, right? Jesus doesn’t actually want us to give so much of our time, talent, and treasure to God – is that it? Well, that doesn’t sound quite right either, does it? What I think Jesus is calling us to do is to figure out if what we’re giving our all to is giving us life, or devouring our house, devouring our spirit. What are you giving to – time, money, talents, energy – that is really just devouring what you give? Devouring you? What are you giving heart and soul to which results not in you being strengthened in the core of your spirit, but in you being depleted, so that all that you had to live with is used up? When I hear Jesus’ words, I think of so many contemporary predatory practices that suck up the limited resources of the poor. I think of the way hours and hours of our time gets used up staring at screens of one kind or another. I think of the money we spend on disposable things, piling up mountains of trash, or the money we spend on things that hurt us, feeding one kind of addiction or another. The image of devouring widows houses is so vivid, and I think we can all think about ways that we’ve been giving our all to something that is just eating us up, body, mind, spirit.
            God wants something different for us. Make no mistake – I believe that God does want our all. God wants our everything. God absolutely wants our two copper coins. I believe God wants for everything that we do to be a way that we are offering a gift to God. But when we give our all to God, when we give our lives to God, instead of being devoured, our giving gives to us. Our giving to God gives life, and life in abundance to us. In our Bible Study, we’ve been reading excerpts from the book of Genesis, and focusing on God’s covenants with us. And we’ve seen that again and again, God keeps promises to us. God is faithful, even when we are not. God is trustworthy. When we give our all to God: our time, our talent, our treasure, our lives, heart and soul, we’re give knowing that God creates with what we give rather than destroys. God builds. God grows. Think of the metaphors Jesus shares with us in the gospels of what happens with what is given to God: It’s like fives loaves and two fish that feed a crowd of thousands. It’s like a mustard seed that grows into a tree that can hold all the birds of the air. It’s like a small measure of yeast that makes enough bread for a crowd. We can give our all to God in confidence, because God gives God’s all to us. We are worth God’s all, and God is worth our all.  
            And so, in this community of faith, we make this vow: “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our gifts.” I promise that we are striving as a church to serve Jesus, to live up to God’s promises, and to be a place that can help you offer your whole heart, your all, to God. Let’s take our two copper coins, our all, and confidently, put it into the hands of God. Amen.




[1] https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865625341/Do-the-poor-give-more-than-the-rich.html