Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon, "At the Table with Jesus: At Simon's House," Luke 7:36-50

Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 7:36-50

At the Table with Jesus: At Simon’s House

At our Lenten Study this week, we spent some time thinking about whether or not we had ever been in debt, and had our debt forgiven, or whether or not we’d ever had someone in debt to us, and then forgiven their debt. We talked about parents and children - children are often in debt to their parents, aren’t they? Sometimes this happens in specific ways - a parent steps in to help with bills or help with a surprise expense. But often, parents give a little here, a little there in so many uncounted ways. Thankfully, most parents aren’t keeping track - they are constantly forgiving these debts, constantly making what would be debts into gifts instead. They act out of love, not counting what is owed. I shared with the group that that is not always the case - as I was sorting through my late Aunt Joyce’s papers, I came across a legal contract between her and her parents. She borrowed money from them for a down payment on her home, and my Great Uncle Lloyd was known for being - well, I’ll keep it nice and say “careful” with his money. He wasn’t about to lend money without a contract, terms, even to his only child. But I’d say his approach wasn’t typical. Parents are endlessly forgiving debts large and small for their children, not even really counting them as debts in the first place, as they act out of love.
We also talked a bit about the costs, the debt of higher education, both in the broader sense of getting more than we pay for through our education, and in the specific sense - tuition and room and board and student loans. Anyone still paying on student loans in here? I can still remember my first year in undergrad all of us taking out student loans had to come to a meeting where we would sign our promissory notes. And the folks leading this time - they were so serious. The message I left that meeting with was: “You are making a promise, and if you default on your debt, we will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will make you pay, or we will throw you in jail.” At 18, and about to take out several thousands of dollars in loans so I could go to college, the weight of that debt felt enormous.
I had good scholarships that covered most of my undergrad tuition. But I still found myself in the last weeks before I was to graduate with a remaining bill of about $1500. It might as well have been $15,000 for the ability I had to pay it, me or my family. There was no extra money. And if I couldn’t pay, I wouldn’t graduate. And if I didn’t get my diploma, I couldn’t start seminary a few months later. I was overwrought. Thankfully, my academic advisor was also the university chaplain. I shared with him my dilemma, and shortly thereafter he told me simply that my bill was no longer an issue. My balance was paid in full. I could graduate. When I look back on it now, I’m not sure that in my relief I expressed my gratitude as fully as I meant to - but the weight that had been lifted off of me was enormous. Have you ever had a significant debt forgiven? Have you ever been able to offer the gift of forgiving someone’s debt to you? How did that feel?
We’re continuing our journey through the Gospel of Luke today, as we focus in on the meals Jesus shares with people, who he eats with, and what he does when he comes to the table with folks. This week, Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While folks are at the table, a woman appears at the house. Houses weren’t private in the way ours are today, so this in itself is not unusual. The woman is known as a sinner. We don’t know more specifically what that means, what sins she’s committed, but as I mentioned last week, someone with this label was someone thought of having a blatant disregard for God’s law. So, this woman, a sinner, appears at the dinner, and situates herself near Jesus. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and weeping, she bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet, and anoints them with the ointment - a more costly item than oil, which would have been regularly used as part of folks’ hygiene rituals. Her actions are intimate. It would often be slaves or folks of low station who were responsible for such tasks, or something you would do for yourself. She’s making herself extremely vulnerable. She must know what people think of her.
Indeed, when Simon sees the woman anointing Jesus, he says to himself that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have known about this woman and her reputation. In response, Jesus tells a short parable. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Seemingly reluctant, Simon answers, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.” Jesus tells him he’s judged rightly. Jesus points out that this woman, a known sinner, has demonstrated much more hospitality - a highly cherished value in their society - than Simon, the actual host did. Simon didn’t even provide water for Jesus’s dusty feet, didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss, and didn’t anoint his head with oil. But the woman offered Jesus ointment, tears, and kisses to his feet. Jesus concludes that her many sins have been forgiven, and feeling the assurance of that deep in her heart, she responds with great love. But, Jesus concludes, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That seems like such a weird statement for Jesus to make, when we take it apart. Jesus seems to be saying that if we live a life that is as blameless as possible, we have less capacity to love than those who have racked up a great many sins? Can that be what Jesus means? And if that’s the case, why would we bother to try to be good? If we can love better if we’re sinning so much that we need lots of forgiveness, why are we working so hard to avoid breaking God’s law?
As usual, though, our questions for God reveal things about the thoughts of our hearts that need attention. It seems like we think that if we could, we’d rather disobey God’s law. Like we’re only trying to follow God’s plans and walk in Jesus’s footsteps because of the rewards we thought we might get out of it, not because we actually believe that living in the way of Jesus brings us life abundant, a deeper contentment than we could ever get by living without regard for others. And if that’s the only reason why we’re “following the rules,” whatever that means to us, then our hearts aren’t actually so pure as we’d like to think! And also, our questions assume that we don’t have a lifetime of racking up debts, that we don’t have a lifetime of ways that we’ve sinned against God and neighbor, that we haven’t hurt others, let people down, ignored people in need, been selfish, caused pain. I hope, of course, that we’ve tried hard to minimize the hurt we cause, that we are trying earnestly to follow Jesus in all that we do. But, like we talked about last Sunday, if our trying hard to follow God leads us to feel superior to others, like we’re not in need of a savior, or at least not as in need as the one we call a sinner, we’re missing the mark. The debt that we “owe,” if God were keeping track, is pretty big! We like to think we’re doing so great, compared to others. But it’s like we’re bragging about only owing $1 million dollars to someone else’s $2 million. If we’re counting sins, we aren’t debt-free. I think of the prayer of confession that is a part of our full communion liturgy in our hymnals. Would you read it with me? : “Merciful God, We confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I’ve been reading a book called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales. Maybe Gouverneur isn’t exactly the suburbs, but I resonate with a lot of what Hales says anyway. She says that when we buy into the myth of self-sufficiency - this idea that we don’t need anyone, that we can do it all ourselves, we become people who are unable to receive. We can’t truly receive from God and we can’t receive from one another. She writes, “We’ll take our house, our talent, and our well-paying job with a side of Jesus - provided he works within our schedule. But our inner lives are stunted ...  We repay every offer of help and every cup of sugar borrowed. When we grasp tightly onto our own self-sufficiency, we turn our backs on the rich, generous, openhanded life [of God]. We cannot be generous people until we first learn to be joyful receivers.” She continues, “We must receive God’s kingdom … with open hands, with tears in our eyes, and a desire not to earn the Giver’s favor, but as a response to all we’ve been given.” (119-121) “A life of generosity is the natural overflow of a repentant and grateful heart. As our lives are increasingly shaped by generosity … We give things away. We value people. We sacrifice for others. We look to meet needs. We bring others along. This is how we live with open hearts.” (123)
We aren’t debt free, not in the spiritual sense. God has given us immeasurably more than we could ever pay back. But thankfully, mercifully, God is not a parent who has written a legally binding contract with us so that God can make sure we pay God back for every sin we’ve committed, for every debt we’ve incurred, for every infraction we’ve accrued. Thankfully, God is constantly transforming debts we owe into gifts God has given. God forgives us. Forgives everything. Cancels everything we owe. And Jesus embodies that forgiveness in the world, and calls us to live in the same way with each other - seeking reconciliation. When I think about it like this, and I feel the weight and the strength and the constancy of God’s love, this woman who is a “sinner” - her actions no longer seem so strange to me. Of course she wants to lay at Jesus’ feet and anoint them with kisses and tears of love. How can she feel anything but overwhelmed in the presence of this one who embodies God’s grace in a tangible form, who is the forgiveness she experiences personified, who has turned her debt owed into a gift given? Of course she wants to do anything she can to show Jesus how thankful she is for the gift of forgiveness that God has given her.
Don’t we want to do the same? Hasn’t God transformed your debt owed into a gift given? After the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy, we share in this assurance - will you join in these responsive words? “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen.”  

We are not ones to whom little has been forgiven. We are ones to whom everything has been forgiven. So let us respond with great love. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon, "At the Table with Jesus: Levi and the Tax Collectors," Luke 5:27-39

Sermon 3/6/19
Luke 5:27-39

At the Table with Jesus: Levi and the Tax Collectors
(artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary)

There’s a genre of movies that are all about life in high school, and although the plotlines might differ, there are often some common elements. One of them: cafeteria scenes, with an emphasis on the angst of who sits where. In many of the movies, great pains are taken to show that students sit with other students who are like them, usually grouped by some broad stereotypes, and that there’s not much social mobility - no moving between tables - until, of course, the hero or heroine of the movie somehow shakes things up. So “nerdy” types sit with each other, and the popular kids, football players and cheerleaders, all sit together, and the band kids sit at another table, and so on. I don’t know what your high school experience was like, but even though the movie-versions of the cafeteria take things to extremes, it wasn’t that far off. I certainly remember that almost everyone sat at the same tables every day. There were very few people who moved from place to place. What kind of table did you sit at in high school? Did you have a regular group? Did you move from place to place?
We don’t exactly lose our penchant for habit when we get older. Those rhythms we learn in our school days stick with us, and when it comes to mealtimes, we’re mostly creatures of habit. We tend to sit in the same places and eat with the same people. Not all of us, of course, and not all of the time. But most of us, most of the time. And even when we do eat in different places with different people, we’re often still sitting down to the table with people who share a lot in common with us. Economic class, for example. There are not very many situations where the poor and the rich are dining at the same table.
Jesus’s eating habits in the gospels, then, are striking for the way they step outside of our norms. Apparently nothing much has changed in 2000 years, because the religious leaders in Jesus’ day just couldn’t get over how many customs Jesus was always breaking when he sat down to eat with folks. What Jesus says at meals and who he eats with, and what others say about his choice of meal companions, and about what he teaches at the table - that’s our focus this Lent. Each week, we’ll look at another story from the gospel of Luke, and see what we can learn about Jesus and his habits at the table.
Today we start with a scene from Luke 5. We’re still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry here. Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert happen in the two chapters before this one, and after the time of fasting in the wilderness to prepare for all that was before him, Jesus begins in Chapter 5 calling some disciples to follow him, to be part of his ministry. First he calls Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and then he calls Levi, a tax collector. We have no idea what makes Jesus choose Levi, or any of the disciples, really. Jesus had just finished healing someone, and then he goes out and sees Levi sitting at a tax booth. He says to Levi, “Follow me.” And Levi does - he leaves everything, and follows Jesus.
And then Levi throws a banquet for Jesus at his house. In Jesus’s day, it was common to have “symposiums” - a banquet matched with a time of community learning. And so it isn’t surprising that the meal includes both eating and teaching. But what seems to be surprising, at least for some, is the guest list. Levi, naturally, has invited a large crowd of tax collectors. He’s been a tax collector until just a few verses ago. His friends are tax collectors. And he invites them to hear Jesus. But there are also some scribes and Pharisees - interpreters of the law of Moses - in attendance too. How they all end up at one gathering, I’m not sure. But the religious leaders don’t think the tax collectors should be there. They complain to Jesus’s newly named disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinner?” And Jesus answers in his way, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
In the midst of tax season, we chuckle. Who likes tax collectors? Just ask our own Dede Scozzafava about the kinds of jokes she hears as a Tax Commissioner in New York State. But the role of tax collectors in the gospels is a bit different, and the reaction to them is thus more intense. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They were collaborating with the enemy. They were Jewish people who were collecting taxes for Rome, the hated oppressive government, able to take some financial gain for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. They had to collect a certain amount for Rome, but they could collect anything beyond that they wanted and pocket it for themselves. So - they were seen as working for the enemy, getting rich, making extra money by hurting poor neighbors with whom they shared faith and ethnicity. They were really disliked. They were considered ritually unclean. Their practices went against interpretations of Jewish law. Traitors to the faith, the people of God. Who even compares in our society today? Who is someone we feel is akin to a traitor to our nation.? A cheat, a swindler, a traitor?  
It is a person like this - a traitor - that Jesus sees in our text for today. He sees Levi - clearly a tax collector - he’s sitting at a tax booth, no mistaking his profession - and what does Jesus do? He says, “Follow me.” And then he goes to dinner not just at Levi’s home, but with a bunch of other tax collectors too. And sinners - a term used in the gospel to describe folks who showed “blatant disregard for God's law.” Jesus sits at the table and shares a meal with these folks. When was the last time you shared a meal with a group of people almost everyone thought of as an enemy of the people?
When the religious leaders criticize Jesus, Jesus responds that it only makes sense for him to spend time with the folks that need him most. A doctor attends to the sick. And Jesus calls those to repent who are going in the wrong direction - sinners. If you are so well, so righteous that you don’t need anything from Jesus, then his focus will not be on you. I wonder - when we think about it like this, are we bold enough to include ourselves among the righteous - those who can claim we are set right in all our relationships with God and one another? Or might we be in need of a physician? Might we need Jesus to call us to repentance?  
Jesus’s call to repentance, to turn our lives around and head toward God instead of chasing after whatever else we’ve been following - his call to us doesn’t come in the form of judgment, though. If Jesus spends time at the meal telling the sinners and tax collectors to change their ways, to give up their professions, to behave, we don’t hear it. In the text we have, he never once says, “Don’t do that anymore.” He never once says, “What you are doing is wrong.” What Jesus does with these folks is sit down and get to know them. He  sees them. That’s what it says about Jesus calling Levi - “Jess went out and saw Levi.” He invites Levi to follow him. He shares a meal with Levi and friends. He builds a relationship with them. Whose words and actions do you think leads to folks drawing closer to God? Jesus, or the Pharisees?
Jesus knows what he says and how he lives and how he calls us to do likewise is a challenge - to the scribes and Pharisees, and to us too. He compares himself to new fabric that we try to sew onto old clothing, or new wine, that we want to pour into old wineskins. That doesn’t work so well. Instead, Jesus calls us to be made completely new in him - new clothing, new wineskins, new lives, redeemed by God’s love and grace.
Jesus comes calling sinners to follow him. Friends - that’s you and me. Some of us don’t realize we are the sick, in need of a doctor, because we have decided we’re “righteous,” at least more righteous than those other people over there. We’re not tax collectors, after all. We’re not traitors. We’re not enemies of the people. Compared to them, we’re pretty righteous, right? But if we’re not sinners, Jesus can’t help us. Jesus can’t get close to us, because we’re not really inviting Jesus to our table. But people who know they need healing? Jesus wants to pull up a seat at our tables.
When we’ve committed our lives to discipleship, to following in the ways of Jesus, we need to model ourselves after Jesus. Who does our society count as traitors, enemies, sinners? How are we building relationships with the very people who have never been invited to the cool-kids-table at the cafeteria? With the very people we barely even want in the same cafeteria as us? We have a bad habit of trying to “fix” people, happily pointing out all the faults we find in them. We’d prefer to fix them rather than be with them. But people aren’t dumb - they know whether we’re looking at them as a project or as a person. They know whether or not we see them. Jesus transformed lives by loving and caring and compassion, not by judging and chastising. Usually, he saves his chastising for the religious leaders. If we want to be at the table with Jesus, we better be sure to remember that he’s set a lot of seats, and invited a lot of friends to join him already. If we want to be in the company of Jesus, we better start taking a good look at the company he keeps.
Jesus sees you, friends. He’s asking you to follow. He’s got a seat waiting for you - new garments to wear, a new wineskin from which to offer you life everlasting. And got some people for you to meet, who like us, are longing for healing. Won’t you come take a seat?

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, Year C, "Transfiguration," Luke 9:28-36

Sermon 3/3/19
Luke 9:28-36


It isn’t often that The United Methodist Church makes front page news in the national mainstream media. But this week, almost every major news organization was running stories about The United Methodist Church in the aftermath of the Special Session of General Conference. From the New York Times: United Methodists Tighten Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy - NYTimes, ‘We Are Not Going Anywhere’: Progressive Methodists Vow to Fight Ban on Gay Clergy, and Why a Vote on Gay Clergy and Same-Sex Marriage Could Split the United Methodist Church. From the Washington Post: United Methodist Church tightens ban on gay marriage, LGBTQ clergy. From NPR: United Methodists Face Fractured Future. We’re in the news, but I don’t think the headlines are the kind we want. I don’t think, certainly, that folks thinking about exploring their faith, trying out a relationship with a church, are going to be particularly drawn to The United Methodist Church by those headlines, which reflect a denomination in pain and turmoil. I experienced a taste of this even closer to home this past week. Some of you know we hosted an event at church this past week - the New York State Council of Churches came to lead a conversation on Budget Principles for New York State. As people of faith, what would a “just” state budget look like? We invited members of the press to attend, and it was my responsibility to contact folks from the Watertown Daily Times. In my email correspondence, my contact person immediately shifted the conversation to ask about what had happened at General Conference. He said, in essence, that he couldn’t imagine that the news would be helpful in building up church attendance. And indeed, I had folks in our community contacting me this week to ask - what does this mean for gay and lesbian people I know? Are they welcome at our church? I know, friends, we have a variety of points of view in our congregation, and folks supported different plans coming to General Conference. But I also know that we strive to be a congregation that welcomes all people. In fact, we write that on our bulletin covers every week. All people are welcome here. We are not always perfect at embodying those words, but I think we can agree that that is our intention, our aim, what we strive for. Still, though: What do we do with the painful experiences of this week? How do we respond to the hurt and harm folks are experiencing? How do we respond when we’re in the news, but the news doesn’t sound so good?
Two summers ago now, I preached a series here on women in the bible - do you remember that? One of the Sundays we looked at a story from the book of Judges, the story of the Judge Deborah, and the story of a woman named Jael. When faced with a conquering army, Deborah oversaw the battle, and Jael, finding herself with the main enemy of Israel in her tent, drove a tent peg through his skull while he was sleeping. The Bible is full of fascinating stories, isn’t it? As I was preparing my sermon that week, I was sharing with friends that although I felt like folks would learn from my sermon, learn a Bible story they didn’t know, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about the story. What should we learn about our own lives from Deborah and Jael? And one of my friends responded with a question: “What’s the good news in the text?” That simple question helped me so much - in that sermon, and since then. We can talk about Bible stories until we’re blue in the face. But if we don’t have any good news to share, we don’t have anything meaningful to share at all. We’re a people of the good news. The word “gospel” means good news. Jesus is the embodiment of good news. That God loves us, offers us grace without condition is good news. That we don’t have to wait until we die to live in God’s kin-dom, but instead can be part of bringing God’s reign to earth right now is good news. We’re people of good news. And so when we read the Bible, we read looking for good news. So that’s what I’m asking today, even as I am grieving the heartbreak in a denomination I love: Where’s the good news?
Today is a - well, a weird Sunday in the liturgical calendar, the calendar that sets the rhythm of our church year. It’s the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. And today, we celebrate a Sunday called Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experiences – and I think that’s what’s key for us to finding good news today.
The text opens with “eight days later.” Eight days after what? The previous chapter tells us it is eight days after Peter answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” with “The Messiah of God” to Jesus, and then Jesus proceeds to tell them that he will suffer, be killed, and raised, and that anyone who wants to follow him should be prepared to take up a cross too. So eight days after this, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. There he is transfigured, changed in some way, face shining like the sun, and seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of Judaism. Together, Jesus, Elijah and Moses talk about what Jesus is trying to accomplish in Jerusalem. What exactly does it mean to be transfigured? The text is vague, but here’s what we can figure out. Transfigured is like but not exactly the same as transformed. To transform means “to make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.” In other words, there’s a change, but the change can be positive or negative. But transfigured is transformation with a direction. It means “to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.” (Source: google) Writes Vanessa Chan, “While a transformation simply signifies a drastic change, a transfiguration gives it direction – towards greatness, grandeur, majesty. And in a sense,” she asks, “isn’t this what we’re ultimately all aspiring towards? It occurred to me one day that these successes I’m aiming towards are really just the surface to a deeper desire: holiness. The more we can be like Christ to those around us and in the things we do, the closer we can grow in our relationship with Him. I want to be the best version of me, and God knows what that is better than anyone else.”
Meanwhile, as Jesus is transfigured and joined by Elijah and Moses, Peter, James, and John are witnessing these events unfold. Peter, Luke tells us, doesn’t really know what he’s saying, which cracks me up, that the gospel-writer paints Peter in this act-first think-second sort of way. He just barrels ahead. So, not knowing what he’s about exactly, Peter still offers to build dwellings so that they can all just stay there on the mountain. But God speaks from the overshadowing cloud that frightens the disciples: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!” The words from God echo those spoken at Jesus’ baptism. And then Jesus is back to “normal,” and alone again with the three disciples, and they head back down the mountain, not telling anyone what they’ve experienced - at least not right away.
From texts like this one, we can easily see why we might talk about having “mountaintop experiences.” We generally use this phrase to describe a particular time when we feel close to God, where we can hear God’s voice more clearly, and where we can see the world from God’s perspective, more clearly. Mountaintop faith experiences are intense, spiritual times where it seems so much easier to see God and to understand what God wants us to do. It’s how I used to feel spending a week at summer camp when I was little – I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to go back when it was over. It seemed pretty hard to capture that mountaintop experience when in the real world. I found myself thinking like Peter - couldn’t we just stay on the mountain? If God’s voice is so clear on the mountain, shouldn’t we try to be there all the time?
I’m reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Silver Chair, we meet Jill, who almost immediately makes a series of mistakes. Beyond mistakes, actually. She does some things that are hurtful. But nonetheless, she finds herself in the magical land of Narnia on a high, high mountain, and face to face with Aslan, the Great Lion, who is the Christ-figure in the series. Aslan overwhelms her. She barely knows how to be or act around him. But she wants to be there, with him, on the mountain. But instead, Aslan sends her down to the land, with a mission, actions she has to take to undo some of the harm she has caused. Aslan gives her careful instructions to follows, and Signs she will encounter to help her carry out her mission. As she is traveling, floating down off the mountain into the world, Aslan speaks these words to her. "I give you a warning," he says, "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters."
If the air is so clear on the mountain, if we can hear and understand God so easily on the mountain, if it is on the mountain that we see Christ transfigured, elevated in glory, shouldn’t we - couldn’t we please just stay there? After all, when it is just me and God - when it is just me and Jesus, when I’m just in God’s holy presence, when I’m immersed in prayer or scripture or meditation, when I’m just “all in” to my time with God, it all seems so clear. When other people get involved, back down on the ground, it all gets so muddled and messy. Isn’t it best to stay where everything is clear?
To these heartfelt questions, God says: Nope! As cool as it is for Peter and James and John to be on that mountain with Jesus, and as awesome as their vision is of a transfigured Christ, the truth is that our move toward “greatness,” the way we transform into something that is more beautiful and more elevated is not by hanging out on the mountain, but rather immersing ourselves in life in the valleys. Jesus may have appeared in his glory on the mountain, but his ministry was among the people. His holiness came not from separating himself from others, choosing a select few to witness his holiness, but rather it came from his ministry of loving people, healing people, eating with them, listening to them, and submitting himself to being beaten, tried, and crucified rather than giving in to anything that deterred him from God’s mission for him. There is no resurrection glory without taking up the cross. Jesus’s majesty comes not from being above - literally or figuratively - the mess of the world, but from being right in it, right where the pain and hurt and suffering are.
And so it is for us. We cannot withdraw from the world. We can’t abandon God’s hurting people. We can’t stick our heads in sand, or shroud ourselves, or protect ourselves and still experience transfiguration. Jesus calls us to draw strength from the clear voice of God on the mountaintop, and to live and serve in the valleys. When we’ve heard God’s voice clearly on the mountaintop, we can learn to be translators for a world that is confused and longing to hear a voice of love amidst the cacophony of hatred and judgment and violence. We have to be the clearest pictures of Christ for the world that we can be. And so the good news is this: It is in the messiness of the world that Christ’s glory is revealed most fully, and it is exactly in the mess of the world that we find our calling. Maybe the headlines are right: We are a fractured church, a fractured world, a fractured people leading fractured lives. Thankfully, Jesus heals. Thankfully, Jesus calls us onto the mountaintop, shares his power, his life, his being with us, and sets us into the world to be healers too. God’s voice is clear on the mountaintop. And the work God calls us to is clear in the valleys. Let’s share the good news. Amen.  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: Which Way?" Acts 15:1-31

Sermon 2/24/19
Acts 15:1-31

A Way Forward: Which Way?*

This morning, as we gather for worship, delegates from the United Methodist Church around the world are gathered in St. Louis for the Special Session of General Conference. The Conference officially began yesterday, with delegates and bishops and visitors coming together for a day of prayer. Today, the legislative session will begin. They will do their work from today through Tuesday, the 26th. The Special Session is meeting to hear the report of a body that the last General Conference, General Conference 2016 created: The Commission on a Way Forward. Delegates who gathered in 2016 expressed to the Council of Bishops their desire to find some way to move forward as a denomination in light of our enduring disagreements over same-sex relationships and church practices. And the Council of Bishops, in turn, created the Commission to present possible plans for action to this specially called General Conference.
Here’s what the Commission on a Way Forward has had as part of their vision statement as they’ve worked together over the last few years: “The Commission will design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.
Their vision really captures my attention - their hope has been to guide us in a way forward that allows for both “as much contextual differentiation as possible” and “as much unity as possible.” That’s a pretty tall order! Contextual differentiation is another mouthful - we seem to be pretty fond of those in The United Methodist Church. But what it means is that we want to allow people to adapt the way of being church as much as possible so that it makes sense in our own setting. Think about the two United Methodist Churches we have just in our community. I’m the pastor of both North Gouverneur and First UMC. We’re both United Methodist congregations, and we both function under the same guidelines, but we don’t do things the same way. It wouldn’t make sense! We don’t have lots of committee meetings in North Gouverneur when we, a small group, can take care of most of our business on a Sunday morning before or after worship, meeting when we need to. At First UMC, we have to pay for some services that at North Gouverneur we accomplish through volunteers, because of the different scale, different size we’re talking about. We often sing the same songs in worship, but sometimes we sing different music that better suits each congregation. Our order of worship is similar each week, but adapted to reflect each setting. That’s “contextual differentiation.” So the Commission on a Way Forward set as part of its vision the idea that maybe there is a “way of being” related to same-sex relationships and church practices that is contextual. Maybe it doesn’t make sense for there to be only one way of doing things that works for congregations that are big and small, diverse and homogeneous, in countries all around the globe.
At the same time, the Commission has worked with a vision of “as much unity as possible.” Unity doesn’t mean sameness. It means that we’re not whole unless we’re together. It means that we have a shared purpose, values, and vision. For example, at both First UMC and North Gouverneur, and in United Methodist Churches around the world, we share the same mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Commission on a Way Forward has worked, then, to craft a plan that has space both for contextual differences, and the unity of the whole church. A tall order!
As a result of their work over the past few years, three primary proposals came out of their work. I want to share with you very simplified details of each plan. One plan is called the Connectional Conferences plan. In this plan, the denomination would separate into three groupings, based on our theological point of view. We’d be either part of a “progressive,” “traditional,” or “unity” conference, that shared some resources, but were mostly independent of each other. This plan requires a lot of amendments to the Constitution of the church, and hasn’t gained a lot of traction.
The Traditionalist plan keeps the current language of the Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s book of rules and order, which prohibits same-sex marriages in the church and performed by United Methodist Clergy, and which prohibits openly gay and lesbian clergy from serving as pastors. The Traditionalist plan focuses on increasing accountability to these rules and increasing the penalties for violating them. It also provides a pathway for those who feel they are unable to comply with the rules to form a separate network of churches outside of, but loosely connected to The United Methodist Church.
Finally, the One Church Plan would allow individual pastors to decide whether or not they would officiate at same-sex weddings, individual congregations to decide whether or not they would host same-sex weddings at their churches, and individual clergy sessions of an annual conference to decide whether or not they will recommend the ordination of gay and lesbian persons as pastors.
After studying these three plans, the Commission on a Way Forward presented them to the Council of Bishops and the Council of Bishops voted to present all three plans to the General Conference, with their noted preference that we adopt the One Church Plan. Now, during these next few days, delegates will have an opportunity to perfect and vote on these plans. There are two additional plans, presented by other groups: The Simple Plan would remove all language from the Discipline that restricts same-sex relationships and related church practices, and another plan calls for the dissolution of the denomination - deciding that we have no path forward that is together as one body. It is also a real possibility that delegates will not be able to agree on any of these plans. If that is the case, delegates will meet again on the regular schedule in 2020, and probably consider similar legislation all over again. Whew. Are you all still with me? I know it is a lot to take in!
So, where is God in all of this? How are we carrying out the work of Jesus in the midst of this? How is the Spirit moving among us? Is there some good news to share? Thankfully, there’s always good news from God, and to find it, we turn to the scriptures. Today, we find ourselves in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, the collection of stories about the first leaders in the church that was birthed after a resurrected Jesus returned to God’s home, and the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to give them the courage to spread God’s message to everyone. But as we talked about last week, the new church quickly realized that they had some things to work out. They didn’t have a common understanding of how to proceed given that some Gentiles - folks who weren’t a part of the Jewish faith - were hearing about Jesus and wanting to follow him too. And so the church leaders, like Peter and James and Paul, had to ask some hard questions: When should the gospel be adapted to these new settings they were preaching in? What was essential to the faith to maintain? Which traditions and practices should be enforced and which were merely contextual? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
We see this question come up repeatedly in the book of Acts. Peter, in Acts 10, has a vision of the God calling him to eat foods normally considered unclean by Jewish law, and then he is brought to the home of a Gentile centurion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he baptizes the entire household… even though it was forbidden for a Jew to share at the table with Gentiles. In Acts 11, Barnabas goes to minister to the Gentiles who have become Jesus-followers, and Paul joins him, and many are converted. In Acts 14, Gentiles are converted in Iconium and Lystra, but tension grows between Jews who follow Christ and those who do not. Some who reject the message of Jesus stir up conflict between new Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. And “to complicate matters, other missionaries began to visit some of these places and the messages being shared about which practices must be followed as a part of the faith were different.” One particular question seems to emerge after all these incidents that sort of encapsulates the whole tension: Do new followers of Jesus have to be circumcised in order to be part of the new Christian community? Circumcision was, since the time of Abraham, an important marker of identity. It was part of the cohesiveness of the Jewish identity, a way people marked their devotion to God. And now suddenly, some people were arguing that it wasn’t necessary. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus was circumcised like other Jewish men. He never said you shouldn’t be circumcised. But some followers of Jesus are interpreting his teachings and the freedom they’ve experienced through God’s grace in Christ and concluding it isn’t necessary for new followers of Jesus.
The new church, the Jesus movement, finds itself needing to make a decision. “Someone had to make an official decision about this so that the conflict among communities might cease. Local churches in these far flung places were confused about what was required and what wasn’t and it was hurting their ability to convert new followers to the way of Jesus. And so the apostles and elders of the faith gathered together in Jerusalem in the year 48 to consider this question. They heard testimony from people like Paul and Barnabas, and disciples like Peter and James made pleas. And together, the Jerusalem Council made a decision for the whole church.”
So, testimony is given by a variety of people. James, the brother of Jesus, is one of the primary leaders of the young church, and he seems to hold a great deal of responsibility in his hands. After hearing what everyone has said, he reflects on some of the writings of the prophets that speak about Gentiles responding to the word and work of God, and he concludes, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” But, he says, they should be encouraged to follow certain provisions - not circumcision, but things like abstaining from meat that has been sacrificed in rituals of religions outside of Judaism.” The group chooses several leaders to be sent out to the surrounding areas to share the results of the Council. Remember, no facebook live streaming, so people were waiting to hear the news. And we read that when the gathered congregation in a Gentile region heard the news, that space was being made for them in the church without them converting to Judaism, they rejoiced.
The folks who attended the Jerusalem Council didn’t leave all sharing the same opinion about how to do things. Instead, they left agreeing that they could make space for each other to be in ministry in some very different ways, and yet still be part of the same one body of Christ together. This was not the end of disputes over ministry to Gentiles. Paul was fighting for the legitimization of his ministry to the Gentiles and getting pushback right up to the very end of his life. But it was a turning point certainly, the allowed the gospel among the Gentiles to thrive.
In our study group’s book Holy Contradictions, one of the essay we read was by Rob Fuquay, a pastor in Indianapolis. He wrote an essay called “Multiply or Divide?” In it, he poses several questions: “What if we just show grace to one another and assume we all want to see people brought to Christ, grow in their faith, and transform the world? … What if we approached our current divide in United Methodist not as a right or a wrong, but as an opportunity to expand our mission? What if we gave room for all sides … to coexist as one church and welcome the change to reach more people for Christ? What is this potential schism has arrived not to divide us but to help us multiply?” What if? What if we decide that we don’t want to trouble people who are longing to turn to God, but instead, we want to encourage them, build them up, help them grow in faith? What if we bless each other do to this in very different ways - ways we don’t always understand, or even agree with, but we bless because we are one in Christ? What if? Maybe God’s grace is multiplying our impact, not dividing us. After all, that’s just the upside-down kind of thing God is fond of doing!
Friends, like with the Jerusalem Council two thousand years ago, regardless of what is (or isn’t) decided at General Conference, we won’t be finished with these conversations. Because everything about our life with God and living out our faith is always up for conversation. The early church found a way to move forward  and still do God’s work together. Can we?
Yesterday, I was watching snippets of the day of prayer at General Conference. As folks came back from lunch, some people started singing, and eventually many joined in. They were singing words from a song called “I Need You to Survive,” written by Brooklyn pastor and gospel musician Hezekiah Walker:  I need you, you need me. We're all a part of God's body. Stand with me, agree with me. We're all a part of God's body. It is [God’s] will, that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive. You are important to me, I need you to survive. I pray for you, You pray for me. I love you, I need you to survive. I won't harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” These words are my prayer today. My touchstone. My offering to you. Friends, you are important to me. I pray for you. Pray for me. Pray for each other. I love you. Let us love each other. We need each other - we need each other to survive. Amen.

* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are so noted. Her series can be found at: