Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sermon, "A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral," Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon 2/10/19
Philippians 4:8-9, Matthew 22:34-40

A Way Forward: A Quadrilateral*

Some of us have been gathering each week to read and reflect together on a book called, Holy Contradictions: What’s Next for the People Called United Methodists (editor: Brian K. Milford.) The book is a collection of seventeen essays, all written in response to this question: “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” As part of our time together, we started by going over some guidelines for having holy conversations. After all, we see “unholy” conversations at work in the world all the time. We live in a world right now where we feel like we can’t talk to each other. We assume things like “if you believe this, then you must also believe that,” and that means you must be such and such kind of person, and I can’t possibly be friends with that kind of person.
Can we talk about things differently in the church? In a world where we’ve started to disengage and close ourselves off when we disagree with someone, or alternately when we shame and degrade anyone who doesn’t share our point of view, is it possible to do things differently? I think we can. And so in our study group, we’ve set some guidelines for holy conversation. We’ll try to listen, and not always jump to speaking, and to listen carefully to what others say, and not misrepresent their views. A good way to check this is to say, “I heard you saying” and then try to rephrase your conversation partner’s point of view. And then if they say that you didn’t quite hear them right, listen while they rephrase it. Make sure you understand, even if you don’t agree. We’re trying to use “I” statements when we share. Instead of saying, “You said this” or “They think that,” we’re trying to see, “I believe, I feel, I think.” We’re owning what we say. And we’re remembering to speak with love and kindness about people, and to remember that we’re talking about “people” and not “issues.” When we talk about “issues,” we can sometimes speak in careless ways. When we remember that when we’re talking about same-gender relationships we’re talking about people who are beloved to God and us, we remember to speak with care and love.  Hopefully, the church is a place where we can talk about things that are hard, things that make us uncomfortable, things where we know we might disagree with the folks sitting near us in the pews, and talk differently than folks elsewhere might talk.
In this sermon series, we’ll be thinking together about The United Methodist Church and same-sex relationships and the future of the denomination, but it is really about more than that. It’s about how we understand God, how we read scripture, how we figure out what God is saying to us, and how we live as beloved community when the way we do those things - understand God, read scripture, and hear what God is saying - differs significantly. We’re talking about this now because at the end of this month, delegates from The United Methodist Church around the world will gather in St. Louis for a special session of General Conference. General Conference usually happens every four years, and it is where we make decisions as a denomination about what we believe and how we structure our church. But this month is a special session of the General Conference, meeting for the soul purpose of figuring out if there is a way forward for us in light of the fact that we have, across the denomination, some significantly different understandings of scripture, and how we interpret it, and what conclusions our interpretations bring us to in relation to same-sex relationships, inclusion in the church, marriage, and ordination.
We have to be able to talk about hard things sometimes. In a way, we are endeavoring to answer for the congregation the same question as the book from our study group poses. “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” This sermon series isn’t about trying to convince you of a particular point of view, or telling you the “right” answers. Instead, we’re going to be focusing on better understanding how we interpret scriptures, and how we relate to each other, and love each other when we don’t see eye to eye. I do want to be clear, as we talk, about some things that I think are “givens,” things you can count on for sure. I love you, and God loves you. God loves you no matter what your “side” is, and no matter whether your side is “right” or “wrong.” God loves you if you are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, and God loves you if you are heterosexual. God loves you if you can’t wait to talk about these things for the next few weeks, or if you wish we never had to talk about things that make us uncomfortable! And, importantly, the church - this church, and the church universal - the church belongs to God, and God will continue to have a task for us, for the world, will continue to call us to make disciples and be disciples of Jesus regardless of what is decided at General Conference.
So, where do we start, as we seek to understand our own hearts and minds, each other, and above all, what it is God is leading us to know and do? One of our tasks as disciples, according to our Book of Discipline, the book of order and rules for structuring our denomination, is to ask: “What can I say that is faithful to scripture as it has been passed down through tradition, and that makes sense in light of human experience and reason?” (paraphrase of Book of Discipline, 81, by Dawson) In our Wesleyan heritage, that is, following the teachings of the founder of the Methodist movement led by John Wesley, we United Methodists say that we turn to four sources to help us articulate our faith - a quadrilateral. Wesley never used the word quadrilateral, but students of Wesley’s over the generations have turned to this model as a way to help us remember and think about the sources of our theology. We believe that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” (Book of Discipline, 82) Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.
Along with Wesley, and with other Christians, we believe that scripture is our primary source for understanding. In other words, we start with the Bible. That’s our first place, the first place we look to understand what God is saying to us about how to be followers of Jesus in the world. So, studying the scripture is really important. But how do we figure out what the scriptures are saying? People have wrestled with this ever since there were scriptures to read, or even since there were sacred stories to listen to. How do we know how to understand what we read in the Bible?
“First, scripture is interpreted by other scripture.” (Dawson, emphasis mine.) We learn that it isn’t helpful to take a single verse out of context. We’ve talked about how knowing what comes before and after a verse or passage helps us make sense of what we read. And knowing when and where stories take place helps us understand. We also understand better when we see how a passage fits in with the major themes of the whole Bible. In our gospel lesson today from Matthew, the lawyer, a Pharisee, who asks Jesus a question asks Jesus to “interpret and prioritize scripture” for them. (Dawson) The lawyer’s motives aren’t the best - the Pharisees want to call Jesus out and somehow prove him wrong. But the results are good, for that audience and through the millennia. Jesus gives us a rule of thumb to guide us as we interpret scripture. When we read texts that are confusing, we can ask, “How do these words help us to love God and love neighbor?” John Wesley, you’ve heard me mention, talked about looking at “the whole scope and tenor” of scripture when trying to figure out what verses mean. For him, a guiding principle was that “God is love,” and so when he read other passages that were difficult to understand, he would hold them up against that guide - “God is love.” Any interpretation of the scripture that contradicted that guiding principle he felt was off-base. We are theologians, interpreting the scripture we read, using guides like the rest of scripture, and the way Jesus teaches us to prioritize the greatest commandments and read everything else in light of these teachings - love of God, love of each other.  
Another source for our understanding scripture and God’s call to us is tradition. The Book of Discipline describes tradition like this: “Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between … Tradition is the history of that … environment of grace in and by which all Christians live.” (85) Tradition is a guide for us in that it “represents a consensus of faith” over time. (86) So, one way we figure out what God is saying to us is by looking at how followers of Jesus have interpreted the scripture over the years. We read in the Bible what the gospel writers and apostles had to say about scriptures from the Hebrew Bible. We can study what theologians in the early church from the 3rd and 4th century had to say about the scripture. We can read John Wesley’s notes on the entire Bible, and see his verse-by-verse comments from Genesis to Revelation. And we look to the tradition and wisdom of our own context too - what did we learn from grandparents and parents in the faith about God?
A third source is our own experience. When we read the scripture, we bring ourselves - we are one of our own sources for understanding scripture! We’re shaped by everything that’s happened in our lives. We’re shaped by where we live - whether in a small town or a big city or in the US or in South Africa. We’re shaped by our economic situation, by our genders, by our emotions, by our experience as children, or parents, or grandparents, by our occupations. Our experiences are why we “can read the same passage of scripture repeatedly over time and discover something new with each reading.” (Dawson) God can speak to us in new ways through our experiences, and help us understand the scripture. For example, John Wesley started supporting the licensing of women as preachers in part because of his experiences with strong women in his lives whose call by God he witnessed personally. His experience helped him read the scripture in a new way, and thus he shaped the direction of the church.
Finally, we interpret the scripture using the source of reason. We recognize that we can’t fully know God. God is beyond “the scope of human language and reason.” (Book of Discipline, 88.) But we also believe that God gave us sharp minds that we might carefully use reason to better understand God and the scriptures. We use reason to ask questions about faith and scripture. We use reason to organize our understandings. We use reason to test our findings. We use reason to making connections between scripture, tradition, and experience. We use our reason to help us bring science, philosophy, and nature to bear on our reading of sacred texts. The scriptures themselves prize sound reason. In Proverbs we read, “Turn your ear toward wisdom, and stretch your mind toward understanding. Call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding.” (Proverbs 2:2-3, Dawson)
The Book of Discipline, reflecting on these sources for understanding the scripture, concludes: “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel… while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom.” (89)
We have not yet been able to come to a consensus in our denomination when it comes to how we approach human sexuality and in particular same-sex relationships. We draw on the same sources of understanding, but some of us are drawn more to tradition, and some to experience. Our faithful reasoning leads us to different conclusions, both in the church at large, and here in this congregation. When we think about LGBT persons and the life of the church, I may have a different perspective than you, and you may think differently than those in your family, or in your study group, or in your pew. “We are all theologians after all, all tasked with using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to weigh what we believe to be faithful responses in the world today … My prayer … is that we would continue to lift up as our number one priority” the very things Jesus lifted up for us:  “the love of God and the love of one another – and that includes those who don’t agree with us. Our call as people of faith after all is to provide a welcome so vast and so radical that all might come to know and experience the saving grace of God lives.” (Dawson) Let us seek to be followers of Jesus, who, through our love of God and neighbor, are always inviting others to journey with us in grace. 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. Any direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are noted as such. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/19/a-way-forward-25-cent-words/

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon, "Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast," Acts 9:1-22

Sermon 2/3/19
Acts 9:1-22

Disney and the Gospels: Beauty and the Beast

Today, we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Disney and the Gospels with a look at a classic - Beauty and the Beast. Ok, so, Acts isn’t one of the Gospels, but we’re talking about the literal meaning of gospel here today - good news - so I figure it’s ok. I’ll admit: Beauty and the Beast isn’t one of my favorites. The animated version was released in the fall of 1991, when I had just started junior high, and I think in my head that meant that I was too old to really love cartoon movies. My childhood favorite was - is - The Little Mermaid, released just two years before when I apparently considered it still acceptable to enjoy a Disney film. But I still enjoy it - I took Sam to see it when it came back to theatres again some years ago. I really should have made Hannah Kingsley help me write my sermon today - she wrote her whole honors thesis for college on Beauty and the Beast, so if you’re a big fan, talk to Hannah ask to read her project.
The story of Beauty and the Beast begins with an enchantress disguised as a beggar seeking shelter from a selfish, cold prince, in exchange for the rose she offers him. He refuses, and when he does, she curses him and his servants. She turns him into a beast, and his servants into household objects, and says that unless he learns to love someone and earn their love in return before the last petal falls from the rose and he turns 21, he and his household will never return to their human forms.
Eventually, the Beast meets Belle when she exchanges herself for her father, who has been captured by the Beast. He starts out very angry at Belle when she tries to figure out what the enchanted rose is all about, but after he’s injured, and she helps nurse him back to health, he starts to develop feelings for her. As he tries to make Belle happy, and as she pushes him to do caring, thoughtful things that he’s shunned for so long, his heart begins to warm. Belle and the Beast share a romantic dance as we hear Mrs. Potts, the teapot, sing the song the choir shared today: “Tale as old as time. True as it can be. Barely even friends Then somebody bends Unexpectedly. Just a little change, Small to say the least. Both a little scared, Neither one prepared. Beauty and the beast. Tale as old as time. Tune as old as song. Bittersweet and strange. Finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
At one point, Belle realizes using the Beast’s magic mirror that her father is stranded in the woods, trying to rescue her, and the Beast, who has fallen in love, lets her go to try to save him. Belle takes her father home. In the meantime, the townsfolk, scared of the Beast and riled up by the vain villain Gaston  make their way to his castle to attack him. The Beast doesn’t defend himself, too sad that Belle has gone until he sees that she, too, has returned to the castle to try to protect him. He fights off Gaston, but Gaston stabs him in the back. The Beast seems to die, and Belle, distraught confesses her love for him, just as the last petal is falling from the rose. But she’s in time. The curse is broken, the prince and his servants return to their human forms, and of course, they all live happily ever after.
I’ve been thinking about the Beast this week, and how he changes. It takes him a long time, doesn’t it? Even with the threat of a permanent curse hanging over his head, he makes it all the way to within a year of being permanently cursed without seeming to make any effort at learning to love or be loved in return. The fact that he has a whole household of people who are suffering because of his behavior doesn’t seem to impress him. But finally, when an opportunity to change falls into his lap, he reluctantly, even half-heartedly at first, takes it. “Just a little change, small to say the least … finding you can change. Learning you were wrong.”
What about you - have you changed? For the better? Have you had a time where you had to turn your life around? Where you’d gotten off track, but were able to bend, to learn, to grow - to change? Someone posed a question to me in a message this week. “Can people change?” Maybe you wonder that too - is it really possible for us to change? After all, we make commitments and resolutions and promises ourselves to do better in all sorts of areas of our lives, only to find ourselves falling into the same old patterns. Can we really change? For a while, when I was on Sabbatical, I was working regularly on surveys that paid a dollar or two to earn some extra money. And I often encountered some standard questions, some measures that are used in lots of psychological tests to provide a kind of baseline understanding of someone. And one set of these questions asks whether or not we believe people can change who they are, or whether we believe that people are immutable, incapable of really changing the core of who they are.
I’m not sure I always answered the questions the same way. Depends a bit on how I was feeling that day. But if I was thoughtful with my answer, I would always respond: Yes, yes we can change. Thank God, we can change. Because if we can’t change, I’m really not sure what life is all about, seriously. If I am bound in, locked in to never being able to break free from the ways I fail to be what I think God is calling me to be, if I am forever bound in sin, if I am forever bound to repeat the same mistakes and never truly learn anything, if I can never be impacted enough by the experiences I have and the people I meet and the love I experience, and above all, if God’s grace can’t change my heart - what is the point? Why try? That’s not to say that changing our hearts and lives isn’t hard. So hard. We know it is. But possible? I believe it. I rely on it.
One of the most dramatic stories of change from the scriptures comes from our text from Acts today. It’s the story of the conversion of the apostle Paul. When we first hear of Paul in the book of Acts, the book that describes the stories of what the followers of Jesus did to start what we know as the church after Jesus’s resurrection and return to God, we find Paul being called Saul. He’s a Pharisee - an expert in interpreting the laws of of Judaism, and we find that he means to enforce the laws at any cost. He’s been particularly pursuing folks who are followers of The Way, one of the first names for Jesus’ disciples. We see him in Acts standing as witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, who refused to renounce his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, even when it cost him his life. As Stephen was stoned to death, those who executed him threw their cloaks at Saul’s feet. This background makes Acts 9 all the more stunning.
Saul is on his way to Damascus to get permission that he might capture anyone he finds who is part of this Jesus movement and bring them to Jerusalem to stand trial. And as he travels, a light from heaven flashes, blinding him, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks “Who are you?” And the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus then tells Paul to get up, get to Damascus, and await instructions.
For three days, Saul can’t see anything. He doesn’t eat or drink. At the same time, a man named Ananias has a vision, telling him that Saul is having a vision of Anananis laying hands him to restore his sight. Ananias is skeptical. He knows the reputation Saul has, that he has been hurting the followers of Jesus. But Jesus says to Ananias: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles … I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias does as directed, and tells Saul he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he prays and lays hands on Saul. As he does this, something the text describes as “like scales” falls from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored. He gets up, gets baptized, and regains his strength, and immediately begins to preach a message of Jesus in the synagogues - that Jesus is the Messiah. And everyone is astonished.  
Why does God reach out to Paul in the way that he does on the road to Damascus? Jesus never, at least as the scriptures record, never speaks to anyone in this direct way again to start their journey of conversion, of changing a heart.. So why Paul? Certainly, God working in Paul to change his heart and then to use Paul to spread the message of Jesus is a powerful testament to the life and work and ministry of Jesus. Who better to use than a totally changed, totally transformed Paul? But I think we can envy Paul’s experience a little, when we think about trying to change our lives. It feels so easy for Paul in some ways. I mean, we could change our lives, turn around, go God’s way completely and wholeheartedly too if Jesus knocked us down on the road and spoke to us directly from heaven, right?
But here’s the thing. First, I think God is really going easy on when God helps us change our lives and hearts gradually, step by step. Most of us aren’t ready to completely give up control to God all at once, and God doesn’t require that of most of us all at once. God calls to us, nudges and lures us, is patient with us as we take one step forward and two back, loving us all along until we feel God’s love deep in our bones and let God’s love motivate the transformation of our hearts and lives. Paul’s own faith journey goes in fits and starts even with his dramatic beginning. He struggles with his faith, struggles with his ministry, struggles with discouragement and failure and setbacks too. But he knows that his new life is a promise from God he’s experienced because of Jesus at work in him, and because of that, he perseveres, and continues to let God shape him long past the road to Damascus.
Can we change? With God’s help, we can. Sometimes God’s help comes like a blinding light that causes the scales to fall from our eyes. Sometimes God’s help comes and helps us make the little changes, like the Beast did with Belle, slowly making room in his heart to give and receive love and kindness. Either way, any way, our job is to seek to live in a way that keeps us open to God’s transformational work in us, ready to participate with God’s power to change us, ready to nurture what God does in our lives, to tend to our tender, freshly changed lives.

Can we change? I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in fifth grade. And sometimes, when I feel discouraged, I’ll read through some of my entries from over the years. Sure, some things I struggle with I’ve been struggling with since my first entries. But I can also find in the pages my journey into ministry, my faith maturing over the years, my growing to understand who I am and who God has called me to be, the times that I’ve taken risks and had God see me through, or times that I’ve failed but been loved by God and community anyway, and been able to keep at it, keep working to grow into who God knows I can be. Friends, God is at work in you too, and I know that the hand of God on your life has changed you. We can’t help but be changed by God’s touch on our lives. Trusting that, the more we open our hearts to God, the more we’ll find the new life we seek. Amen.