Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Mark 10:46-52

To See

October 25, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

I am Bartimaeus, in several ways, if only small ways.  I don’t mean to overdramatize my own situation—I haven’t been through anything like a sightless beggar in ancient Israel.  But I have been at risk of losing my vision, one eye at a time.   When Bartimaeus tells Jesus, "I want to see again," I get it.  I remember sitting nervously in the ophthalmologist’s office with my retina detached so badly that half the vision in one eye had gone black.  He said, "Don’t move your head, and go straight to the operating room.  I’m not sure I can fix it, but I’ll try."  And weeks later, I remember taking the bandage off and exclaiming, "I can see!  Thank you, Jesus, and Dr. Chorich!"

At the same time, it’s also important to note that we think differently about blindness today than they did in Jesus’ day.  Back then blindness rendered a person virtually unemployable, an object of pity and contempt.  Today, sight impaired folks can do, well, pretty much whatever they want to.  We now know that with a few accommodations, they are not disabled, but rather differently abled, with fuller, richer use of other senses. 

But there’s vision and there’s . . . vision.  And while Jesus is reported to have healed the physical sight of a handful people, in the gospels vision is always symbolic.  Jesus called some religious leaders "blind guides," even though their optic nerves worked just fine.  After he gave a hard teaching, Jesus was known to ask, "Do you have eyes and fail to see?"  And when Saul (who would later become the apostle Paul) met Jesus on the Damascus road, he was overcome by a great light.  Later something like scales fell from his eyes, and when he opened them again, he saw Jesus and the whole world in a new way.  In Mark’s gospel, this is the last healing Jesus does, the culmination of his ministry.  You can bet that Jesus, had more in mind than our eyeballs.  There’s vision and then there’s . . . vision.

One kind of vision that needs healed is our self-perception.  This can be about mundane things like someone making this gesture to let you know you have mustard on your face, or this one to let you know you’re talking too loud.  It’s helpful to have our self-perception corrected.  Other corrections can be a little more jarring.  I wonder if you’ve ever received any criticism.  I have.  It you’re anything like me, it might make you angry or embarrassed at first.  But later, if it’s valid criticism, it makes you think.  You realize that the way you think you’re coming across isn’t the way everyone else see it.  At its best, criticism gives us a chance for self-correction.

Years ago I talked to a man who said he used to drink a lot and do drugs.  He had a wife and children, but he didn’t always make it home at night; he seldom put groceries on the table.  Finally he got involved in a burglary to get drug money and ended up in jail.  And then, he said, "I just stopped drinking."

"How were you able to stop?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "I was sitting in jail, and suddenly I SAW my life—the running around, forgetting my family, how sick and unhappy I felt all the time.  And I SAW how some other people lived—peaceful, taking care of their kids, going to church.  And when I saw my life that way," he said, "I knew how I wanted to live, so I quit drinking, I started praying, and put my family back together again. 

And though not in quite that way, I’ve been that man, I am Bartimaeus.  So how good it is that Jesus sends people to tell us, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  Lord, have mercy, and heal our self-perception. 

Another kind of vision that needs healed is our ability to see God in our everyday lives.  This is a special kind of vision, a spiritual vision.  And of all the people in the story, Bartimaeus was best at this kind of vision.  He was the first one other than demons to call Jesus the "son of David."  How was it that the blind old beggar in the back row could see what nobody else could?  Well, again, seeing God is a special kind of vision.

Some people wondered where God was on 9-11; others clearly saw that God was in the firefighters rushing in to rescue the victims and in all who comforted the grieving.  Some people might wonder where God was on Calvary; Christians see that God was in Jesus, giving his life out of love for us all.  Prof. Marianne Sawicki has suggested that in order to get at the real Jesus, you have to do the right kind of seeing.  And so it is the task of Sunday school and devotions and youth group and preaching and Confirmation and Bible study—to help people "see the Lord."1

Maple Grove member Sue Fletcher is about to launch an art project (really it’s a spiritual practice, but it’s launching as an art project).  She’s inviting us to take photographs of where we see God in everyday life, and we will exhibit some of the pictures in our art hallway.  Now I’m sure that by the time Valerie Aveni gets done with our photographs they will look like art.  But the point is not the quality of our photography, but the quality of our vision.  Can you see God in a child at play?  in the wrinkled hands of the elderly?  in a simple act of kindness?  in someone standing up for justice?  In a world that’s overwhelmingly skeptical and rational, busy and unkind, I am Bartimaeus—I need my eyes healed so I can see God more clearly.  So how good it is that Jesus sends people to say, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord; we want to see you.

One more--what we need are eyes to see what really matters, to see what it is we truly long for.  Just before today’s story, two of the disciples, James and John, come and ask Jesus for a favor.  Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?"  It’s the exact same question Jesus asked Bartimaeus:  "What do you want me to do for you?"  We want to sit on big thrones, James and John reply, one on either side of you in heaven.  Jesus has just been teaching about suffering for others and laying down his life.  And they want adulation, glory.  And Jesus says, "No, that’s not even mine to give."  But when Bartimaeus asked to see again, Jesus said, "Sure, absolutely."  What’s the difference?  James and John couldn’t see what really mattered.  They couldn’t even see the deepest longing of their own hearts, which is simply to be with Jesus, not to be seen with Jesus.  But Bartimaeus, the blind man, saw clearly what matters most:  vision.

It’s surprisingly difficult to see what really matters.  I had a friend who was divorced and miserable, so he got married again.  Two years and he was divorced again.  "What happened?" I asked him.  He said, "It turns out that getting married again wasn’t what I wanted after all." 

When I was a kid I loved the Hardy Boys mystery books.  I decided to collect as many of them as possible.  And through birthday presents and Christmas gifts and saving my own money, I did get a lot of those books.  But once I had them, they weren’t nearly as interesting as I’d expected.  And pretty soon I wanted the shelf space for something else, so I put the Hardy Boys books in a box in the closet and forgot about them until I cleaned out the closet when I went to college.  It turns out that reading the books was what really mattered, not collecting them. 

I could go on and on with stories like that, and so could you.  It’s hard to see what really matters, hard to get in touch with the truest longings of our own hearts.  Years ago, I received one of those stories that float around the internet, so I can’t tell you if it really happened, but I do know it rings true.  Nancy was traveling with her husband and their toddler, Eric, on Christmas Day to visit family.  They stopped at a diner for lunch.  Eric was in a high chair when suddenly he squealed with glee and shouted, "Hi!"

Nancy looked around and saw the source of Eric’s merriment—a man wearing an old rag of a coat, dirty and greasy.  His hair was a mess, his whiskers matted and even from across the room she could sense the odor. 

"Hi there, big boy," the man was saying with delight.  "I see you!"  Nancy began to feel angry that this old geezer was being a nuisance with her son.  Their food came but the man kept talking to Eric.  "Do you know patty-cake?  Do you know peek-a-boo?  Look, he knows peek-a-boo!"  Nobody in the diner thought the man was cute.  He’d obviously been drinking.  She felt embarrassed; meanwhile her son sat there admiring the old man and his antics.

As they paid their bill and were making their escape, they had to walk right by where the man was by the door.  As she walked by holding Eric, Nancy turned away.  But as she did Eric wiggled out of her arms and propelled himself into the man’s outstretched arms.  Suddenly, she says, a very smelly old man and a very eager baby completed their courtship.  The toddler laid his head gently on the man’s ragged shoulder.  The man’s eyes filled with tears.  He rocked and cradled the baby for a moment and then handed Eric back, saying, "You take care of this baby, okay?"

Nancy writes, I had just witnessed Christ’s love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no barriers, made no judgments; a child who saw a dear soul and a mother who saw only an outward appearance.  I was a Christian," she says, "who was blind, holding a child who was not."

I am Bartimaeus—I need my eyes healed, so I can see myself clearly, so I can see God every day, and so I can keep my eyes on what really matters.  I wonder if you are Bartimaeus too?  Well, how good it is that Jesus sends people to tell us, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 

What we want is to see, clearly now.

 

1 Marianne Sawicki, Seeing the Lord: Resurrection and Early Christian Practices (Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 66, xii.

 

 

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

In the Body, Everybody Matters

October 18, 2015

At Maple Grove this Sunday, the culmination of the stewardship campaign when we bring our commitments of service and financial giving, is called Celebration Sunday, emphasizing the joy of the day.  One church I served calls it Loyalty Sunday, stressing our duty to God.  And that’s important, but maybe a little heavy.  Many churches call it Consecration Sunday, because we dedicate our gifts and intentions to God.  And that’s good, but how many people have any idea what ‘consecration’ means?  So I think Maple Grove did well to call this Celebration Sunday.  Who doesn’t love to celebrate?  And here shortly we’ll sing some good old hymns, we’ll ring the bell, and eat cake together—it will be a celebration.

But the name Celebration Sunday does beg one question:  what exactly are we celebrating?  Clearly not that every member has signed up for the perfect ministry team or that we’ve surpassed our financial goal—because we don’t know those things yet.  No, rather than celebrating outcomes—be they marvelous or concerning, we are celebrating today this church community where God’s love is at the heart of everything and everyone, and for that reason everybody matters. 

One way to celebrate is to share the responses you wrote on your Friendship Cards last Sunday.  Many more cards are on display in the art hallway.  And this week there were responses that showed up on multiple cards.  So let’s play Family Feud.  I’ve got the top five responses right here.  I asked you to fill in the blank:  At Maple Grove, every _________ matters.  Any guesses what’s in the top five?

Top 5 Responses

Tie for 4th: Act of Kindness, one added smiles and hugs, one had a scripture reference to Acts 3:6 (7 responses)

Tie for 4th: Day or Moment (7 responses)

Tie for 2nd. Soul (8 responses)

Tie for 2nd: Child (there were also cards that said "elder" and "old person" (8 responses)

#1: Person, or Human Being or Everyone (20 responses)

Others

  • Moment of thinking about how to live godly
  • Leaf on the tree
  • Trustees meeting
  • Greeting
  • Particle of light
  • Joy and sorrow
  • Laugh
  • Kitchen class (isn’t there only one?)
  • Refugee
  • Why
  • Pet
  • Dominic (mom adds:  and every child who is not named Dominic!)

We celebrate that with God’s love at the heart of everything and everyone, everybody and every response matters.

From 1 Corinthians 12, we celebrate that together we are the body of Christ.  I got a phone call one time from the seminary I graduated from.  Don’t you dread those calls?  They say they’ve just called to update their records and tell you about what’s going on at the school.  But you know why they’ve called.  After listening politely, I told him that, even though I had done so in the past, I didn’t plan to make a financial contribution that year.  I had orthodontia bills, the list of organizations I was supporting had grown longer and longer, I was getting nervous about saving for college.  And he said, "I understand.  But let me ask you--will you just contribute something, even one dollar?  The amount, he said, is not the only thing that matters.  It also matters that we are all in this together.  Whether our graduates are bishops or pastors or counselors or chaplains or teachers, we all have this in common—Candler School of Theology.  And whether we are wildly liberal or deeply conservative, we all have this in common—Candler School of Theology."

And I sent in a contribution--not because I wanted to be part of something, but because he’d reminded me that I already was part of something.  And if having the Candler School of Theology in common matters (and it does), just think how much it matters that we have in common our baptism and being a part of the body of Christ.

That’s how Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12.  "For just as the body is one and has many members," he says, "and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ."  Again later he sums it up, "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it."  Now in some ways, all this talk about the body gets a little comical.  If the whole body were just a great big eyeball, he says, how would you hear?  And if you were just a giant ear, how would you smell anything?  Then Paul gets almost risqué, referring to the "less honorable" members of our bodies that we keep covered up.  Can you say that in church?

So on the one hand, this is kind of a humorous, light-hearted way to get the Corinthians to understand that in the church, everybody matters.  But at the same time, it’s also a sort of cutting, challenging message.  Paul’s point is not only to lift up the lowly, but also to bring the proud down a notch or two.  The foot may look down on itself because it’s not a hand, or the ear may feel disrespected because it’s not an eye.  But Paul says, don’t worry about it--just be what you are.  We all need each other, and in the body, everybody matters.  But he also turns that around and says, "The eye can’t say to the hand, ‘Hey, we don’t need you," and the head can’t say to the feet, ‘You’re not as important as I am."  Because, again, we all need each other, and in the body, everybody matters.

Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians not because they were all getting along with each other so amazingly well, but precisely because they weren’t.  They were divided as Jews and Gentiles.  They were divided as wealthy and poor.  They were divided because some thought they were so spiritually advanced they didn’t need the others.  That’s why Paul wrote to them, "You are the body of Christ."  You see, some people think Paul was making a comparison here—you the church are like a body.  Other people think Paul was using a metaphor or image—you are, in a manner of speaking, the body of Christ.  But that’s not actually what Paul says.  I’m thinking he meant it literally—not you are like the body of Christ, but you are the body of Christ.  As Barbara Taylor puts it, "Whether you like it or not, whether you feel it or not, whether you like each other or not, you are the body of Christ and there is nothing you can do about it but act like it.1 

So on Celebration Sunday we don’t yet celebrate results and outcomes—ministry teams filled, budgets surpassed.  That will come, by God’s grace.  But today we celebrate this church community where God’s love is at the heart of everything and everyone and for that reason everybody matters.  Sometimes that’s easy to celebrate.  We are so glad that there are members and friends here who can sing and play instruments, who can bake and sew, who can paint walls and replace broken boards, who can pray for the grieving and visit those in the hospital, for all the glorious diversity of parts of the body.  That’s easy to celebrate.

Of course, sometimes it’s harder to celebrate our diversity.  The problem, as Barbara Taylor acknowledges, "begins when you put me in community with a bunch of other people who look, smell, think, talk and act differently from me.  One is perfectly cheerful but she can talk for thirty minutes straight without stopping to breathe, while another has been so beaten up by life that everything he says comes out as a [complaint].  One speaks so intimately of God that everyone around her feels like a spiritual slouch and another prays big hot air balloons on Sunday mornings and then goes home to knock his family around.  "Now you are the body of Christ," Paul says, "and individually members of it."

Gee, thanks!  Are we really supposed to celebrate that?  Actually, yes.  It means, thank God, that we don’t have to try to make ourselves into the body of Christ by our perfection or by our wonderful charm or our endless patience.  Like it or not, we already are the body of Christ—the long-talker and the complainer, the overly pious and the hypocrite--all we have to do is act like it.  And I think we can all celebrate that.

And that celebration works in one more way:  just as I have to learn to appreciate those parts of the body I find less attractive, I know full well that there are plenty of people who find me to an unattractive part of the body.  And I too, even in my bad days and weak moments, I am a part of the body of Christ.  Because in the body of Christ, everybody matters.

In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris, says that feels Jesus’ hand most in church or at the monastery she visits.  Just a look around the motley crew assembled in Jesus’ name, she says, myself among them, lets me know how unlikely it all is.  The whole lot of us, warts and all, just seems so improbable, so absurd, I figure that only Christ would be so foolish, or so powerful, as to have brought us all together. 

She describes one evening when she was the only guest at a convent and the sisters invited her to join them in statio, their formal procession into church.  It is a powerful reminder of community solidarity—you line up two by two, not with the person you choose, but with the one you’re assigned by the leader, or prioress.  The procession, Norris says, is an enactment of the diversity of the body—the peace-making nuns next to the trouble-makers, the sweet next to the sour, the joyful with the mournful, all one line, one body in Christ.

The prioress was my partner, Norris says.  "We bow first to the Christ who is at the altar," she whispered to me. "And then we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each other."  "I see," I said, and I did.3

I know that we’re not monks or sisters, nor most of us even Catholic, but we are the body of Christ.  So I wonder if you would be willing to bow right now to the Christ that is at the altar.  And I wonder if you would bow to the Christ in the people around you, each one of them, one by one.  We celebrate today that God is at the heart of everything and everyone and for that reason in the body, everybody matters.  Do you see?  I do.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 88

2 Taylor, 86.

3 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 162-63.

 

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

Every (Spiritual) Gift Matters

October 11, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

As you know, our stewardship campaign theme is:  At Maple Grove, EVERYBODY MATTERS.  And from 1 Corinthians, the specific message today is that Every Spiritual Gift Matters.  Every Spiritual Gift Matters—that is true in at least three ways:

  1. It is simply a factual statement at Maple Grove.
  2. It is a deep theological truth.
  3. It is a vision to live into.

First of all, that every spiritual gift matters is what the EMIM (Every Member in Ministry) model of ministry is all about.   With the exception of a few leadership committees, we don’t call and ask you if you’d like to be an usher or prepare meals for homeless neighbors or be in the bell choir or help people find parking places.  Every October at stewardship time, you have the opportunity to tell us what your spiritual gifts are, what brings you joy, how God is calling you to serve.  All our ministry teams are listed in the EMIM booklet and every check mark made on every commitment card is meticulously recorded and followed up on.  And if you don’t find in the booklet a way of serving that matches your spiritual gifts, just come talk to Cathy or me about starting a new ministry team so you can live out your calling.  At Maple Grove, every spiritual gift matters.  It’s a fact.

This past week I had the privilege of reading the Friendship Cards you filled out last Sunday.  I asked you, "What gifts do you have to share for the common good?"  In the past I’ve always tried to put similar cards together, to create groups or categories so I can see trends and tendencies.  But here’s what happened this time:  the responses were so different from each other that I couldn’t really create many categories.  There were a few small groupings.  Several people said they have the gift of being a good listener.  There are folks who have the gift of welcoming and of accepting all people.  But for the most part, it was hard to find more than two or three cards to put in the same pile! 

At first that kind of concerned me.  Where’s the unity here?  But then it occurred to me—the diversity of responses proves Paul’s point.  He says in 1 Corinthians:  "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone."  Variety, Paul calls it.  Well, he got that right!  Let me share with you, more or less randomly, some of your responses.  More cards are posted on the bulletin board in the art hallway.  What gifts do you have to share for the common good? 

  • I have been blessed to have some manual skills. Glad to contribute when able.
  • Praying for the church and its members and families
  • Generosity
  • Laughter and humor (yes, please!)
  • The gift of caring and compassion for others. 
  • One person is a specialized reading tutor
  • Project management and organization (yes, please!)
  • Art
  • Helping people!
  • Common sense, good reasoning skills
  • My voice—choir
  • Helping someone to sobriety.
  • Love (always yes to that one!)

And here are two of my favorite cards.  Make of them what you will.  What gifts do you have to share for the common good?

  • Our daughter!
  • My wife!

Paul says there are a variety of gifts and services and activities.  At Maple Grove, every spiritual gift matters.  So in the first place, that is a factual statement, and your Friendship Cards are the proof.

But it’s more than that.  Every Spiritual Gift Matters is also a deep theological truth.  Paul wasn’t trying to tell the Corinthians something about themselves, that they were different from each other; he was trying to tell them something about God:  that God made us different from each other, on purpose.  He’s making a point about what it means for usto be one in Christ.  In his classic commentary, C.K. Barrett puts it this way:  "Uniformity of experience and service is not to be expected; unity lies ultimately in the Spirit who gives, the Lord who is served, [and] the God who is at work."1  If everyone sang in the choir, who would work on the website?  And if everyone worked on the website, who would make sack lunches for the homeless?  But if everyone made lunches, who would listen and pray with the grieving?  And if everyone listened to the grieving, who would take a stand for justice?  Sometimes we say it dismissively, of someone we don’t appreciate—well, it takes all kinds.  But it really does take all kinds.  It’s not just a fact that every spiritual gift matters, it’s a theological truth, it’s the way God wants it to be. 

Now the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians is a little problematic for many of us.  Paul’s list includes nine specific things:

    • the utterance of wisdom
    • the utterance of knowledge
    • faith
    • healing
    • miracles
    • prophecy
    • the discernment of spirits
    • various kinds of tongues
    • and the interpretation of tongues.

If we were to make a list of the spiritual gifts most important to us at Maple Grove, it would probably be pretty different, right?  Some things on Paul’s list seem a little vague.  Other things, such as speaking in tongues, not all of us are fully comfortable with.  When it comes to speaking in tongues, let me say only this:  while it’s presence on this biblical list ought to make some of us have a more open mind about this so-called "Pentecostal" gift, Paul was actually trying to downplay its importance in the church by placing it last on this list.  But surely Paul didn’t mean this to be an exhaustive list of every possible gift of the Spirit, and in fact he has other lists of spiritual gifts in Romans and Ephesians that are different from this one.  His point is the variety of gifts.  We would surely want to add musical gifts, communication skills, electronic and technological skills, the arts of all kinds, and since we’re Methodists--preparing food. God wants us to have and to use a vast variety of gifts.

There were a few Friendship Cards that concern me.  One card said, "What gifts do you have to offer for the common good?"

    • None (ouch!)
    • I kind of struggle with this a bit . . . maybe a little money
    • Wrong day to ask!  (I understand that feeling) 

But these cards hurt my heart.  Now, these responses could mean one of two things.  These people could mean that they have spiritual gifts, just none they want to share.  But the common good is what spiritual gifts are for.  "To each," Paul writes, "is given the manifestation of the Spirit" not for our own use or for our families, but all gifts, he says are "for the common good."  Our gifts and talents and skills are not our own; they’re God’s.  And God’s Spirit entrusts them to us for the good of all of us.

So it’s sad when someone doesn’t want to share their spiritual gift.  But it’s even sadder when someone thinks they don’t have a spiritual gift.  For the theological truth, Paul says, is that God has given gifts to each--not to some people, and not to almost all, but to everybody.  And it is the task of ministry to help people identify and claim their spiritual gifts.  So when anyone struggles to answer the question, "What gifts do you have to share for the common good," it means that our ministry—my ministry—hasn’t yet been effective for that person, that more ministry is called for. 

Sometimes children and youth think, "I don’t have anything to offer yet."  Not true!  Kids already serve as ushers and greeters and acolytes.  Kids already invite other kids to TMI and take part in project Sunday school presentations.  And kids can do, well, almost anything.  Just ask or sign up.  Every spiritual gift matters.

Sometimes I hear from senior citizens, "I can’t do much any more.  You probably don’t need me."  Not true!  I know it must be difficult not to be able to do some things you used to do.  Spiritual gifts may have to change over time.  But can you write caring notes?  Can you sit by a door and say, "Welcome to Maple Grove?"  Can you make phone calls to check on people?  Can you pray?  Every spiritual gift matters.

Sometimes it’s a matter of low spiritual self-esteem.  People think, "Ah, I’m no good.  I don’t have anything to add."  Not true!  You may feel beat down in spirit.  But the Bible insists that God has given a manifestation of the Spirit to each.  So come see Cathy or me, join a small group, ask for a Stephen Minister--let your sisters and brothers help build you up so that you can see the gifts God has given you.  Every spiritual gift matters. 

So Every Spiritual Gift Matters is a factual statement.  It’s the way it is at Maple Grove.  And Every Spiritual Gift Matters is also a theological truth—it’s how God made us or life together.  But there’s one more thing about Every Spiritual Gift Matters:  it’s also a vision for us to live into.

One reason I say this is that I am painfully aware we don’t always get this right.  A few months ago I talked to someone who had joined Maple Grove but had decided to transfer to another church.  She joined a group here but never quite felt part of it.  She volunteered for one of our ministries, but didn’t feel appreciated.  I don’t know what happened, why the connections didn’t work.  But she felt like her gifts didn’t matter here.  And our vision is that Everybody Matters.

I talked one time to a long-time Maple Grove member who expressed disappointment that no one from the church came to her home while her husband was dying.  It could have just been a communication problem, but she felt like they didn’t matter.  And our vision is that Everybody Matters.

When we sent out the letters for Christmas in July, one person wrote back, "I only hear from the church when you’re asking for money."  Now of course that’s not really true.  They get the newsletter every month, and they get emails about the CROP Walk and Sunday school classes and special worship services.  But see, it wasn’t really about money.  That person felt like they didn’t matter to the church.  So I called them.  And I visited them.  And I visited again.  Why?  Because our vision is that Everybody Matters.

As the people of Israel dreamed of returning home from exile, they weren’t just dreaming of a geographical place.  They were dreaming of a life where they all mattered—mattered to God and mattered to one another.  Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah expressed their dreaming:  "And they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord."  Nor shall any be missing.

It is a fact at Maple Grove—Every Spiritual Gift Matters.  The variety of your Friendship Card responses is the proof of that.

And it is a deep theological truth—God has given to each a gift of the Spirit for the common good, no excuses and no exceptions.

And whenever we fall short, it becomes our vision and our commitment:  At Maple Grove, Everybody Matters.

1 C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 284.

 

Revelation 7:9-14

From All Tribes and Peoples and Languages

October 4, 2015   World Communion Sunday Maple Grove UMC

The multitude that gathers around God’s throne in heaven, Revelation says, is from all tribes and peoples and languages.  That’s quite the World Communion Sunday kind of scene!  Heavenly is a wonderfully multi-cultural place.  But increasingly that’s the kind of crowds we see here on earth as well.  It sounds like, oh, New York City.  Or like the United Methodist Church which, as we heard earlier has congregations in at least ten countries in Africa, several European nations, and the Philippines.  Or like Columbus, Ohio, for that matter.  I used to volunteer at Scottwood Elementary School on the East side, which has students whose families come from 28 different countries—that’s challenging but marvelous. 

The heavenly multitude is from all tribes and peoples and languages, a stirring display of inclusiveness.  And World Communion Sunday anticipates and celebrates that heavenly inclusiveness.  Of course, we have to confess that in our nations and in our churches and in our own hearts, this spirit of inclusion is often in tension with a spirit of exclusion.  This was true in the early church.  Jesus died for every sinner in the world—but Jewish believers had trouble accepting Gentile believers, and Gentile believers had trouble understanding Jewish believers.  Europe is struggling right now with how inclusive they will be of refugees from the war in Syria.  And I don’t have to tell you how our own country both generously includes and fearfully excludes immigrants.  Even churches are not exempt from this tension—over 50 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out that 11 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this nation."  Still true.

Christian faith and World Communion Sunday give us a new perspective on this tension between inclusion and exclusion.  "Reading the newspaper," Barbara Brown Taylor says, "I see a map of the world with symbols denoting war, earthquake, famine.  There are black lines separating this country from that, this people from that.  I note with some relief that the area in which I live is free of symbols.  I look once and think, "Thank God, I’m an American."  I look twice and think, "God help me, I’m an earthling."1  All of us are God’s people, no exceptions. 

In light of the heavenly multitude from all tribes and peoples and languages, this tension between inclusion and exclusion melts away.  We know that there’s no US part of heaven, no Korean corner in heaven, no section of heaven for Africans.  There’s just heaven, with forgiven sinners from all tribes and peoples and languages standing together before the throne of God.  And what is that prayer we say?  Our Father, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?

This scripture and World Communion Sunday also give us an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Christians around the world who have been, and still are being, persecuted for following Jesus Christ.  Revelation says that the ones gathered around God’s throne are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal, probably referring to the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Nero.  Blaming Christians for the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D., Nero crucified Christians, fed them to wild animals, set them on fire. 

Even today, the organization "Open Doors" says that every month 322 Christians are put to death for their faith, every month 214 churches or Christian properties are destroyed, and every month 772 violent acts are committed against Christians because of their faith.2  I know that some Christians in this country feel mistreated, but on World Communion Sunday let’s be grateful for the for our very real freedom of faith and let us stand in solidarity with these believers who are being truly persecuted.

A lot of people think that the Book of Revelation is mostly about the end of time, what will be some day in the future.  But that’s not quite it.  As one teacher puts it, "The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be.  [The triumph of God’s people] will be because it is the fundamental truth . . . of God."3   In the same way, people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages gathering around the throne of God is not just what will happen in heaven some day; it is the fundamental reality of life with God, even though we don’t yet fully live it out. 

At the "Circles of Grace" meeting this past Sunday evening, one of the leaders told about going to church during a trip to the Ukraine.  It was an Ukrainian Orthodox church and he couldn’t understand a word that was said--until they got to the part where the priest lifted up the bread and cup, and then, he said, I knew exactly what he was saying.  And suddenly it strikes us how all tribes and peoples and languages really are one in Christ—not some day in heaven, but right now, in the breaking of the bread.  May it be so on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 45.

2 http://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/, accessed 10/1/15.

3 Balmer H. Kelly, "Revelation 7:9-17," Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation (July 1986), 294.

 

James 5:13-18

PRAYER Is Powerful

September 27, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

Why are we having a worship service with prayer for healing?  Well, one out of every five verses in the gospels is part of a healing story.  The disciples continue Jesus’ ministry of healing in the book of Acts.  And James says that when people are sick or in need of forgiveness, call the church together to pray for them. 

Here’s what you can expect today. 

  • After the sermon you’ll be invited to move to a station where you can sit down and a couple of people will be ready to pray for you. 
  • They’ll ask you what you want prayer for today, in what aspect of life you long for healing. 
  • They’ll offer to anoint you with oil.  The disciples anointed the sick with oil.  In fact, the word "Christ" means "the anointed one."  We use oil sacramentally.  That is, an ordinary substance, oil, symbolizes and points to the real presence of God.
  • And if you’re comfortable with it, they will touch your shoulders while they pray.  This "laying on of hands" is mentioned at least sixteen times in the gospels.
  • And finally they will pray for you, personally and by name, by yourself or as a family or group. 

When we think about healing prayer, we tend to think of physical healing—for cancer, a fever, after surgery.  And our prayer teams today will gladly lift to God anyone’s longing for physical healing.  But the body is only one part of life.  We will also pray for your psychological healing, for spiritual healing, and for the healing of relationships. 

James emphasizes our need for forgiveness.  Recently there has been a lot of research about the connection between forgiveness and physical health.  Google "forgiveness and medicine" and you’ll find articles from Johns Hopkins and Harvard Medical School, among many others.  But beyond the medical, who doesn’t know that anguish of living with guilt?  God forgives—so let us pray for you to receive that forgiveness.  And most of us also know the misery of hanging on to resentment and grudges.  Let us pray for you to forgive and let go. 

  There are people who are uncomfortable with a service of healing prayer.  Some people prefer to keep this kind of prayer at home or in a hospital room.  But Jesus did his healing right out in the open, and James is clearly calling for the whole church to gather to pray for folks.  New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins suggests that "[o]ne of the most important effects of healing services that involve the whole community . . . is breaking the barriers of silence and isolation that illness often imposes on the sick and their families."Whatever feels wrong in your life, you are not alone.  Your church is with you in prayer.

Other people have watched too much TV and are afraid of making a spectacle or of exaggerated claims of healing.  But that’s not who we are.  You can, if you want, just sit quietly in your seat or you can move to a prayer station.  No one will shout, or smack you in the forehead, or draw attention to you in any way.  We’ll just pray for healing—that’s all. 

  And above all, people worry about praying for healing because in the back of their minds, they’re thinking:  "But what about all the people who aren’t healed?  What about my grandma?  I prayed for her to recover from that stroke, and she died anyway. 

Well, first of all, healing prayer is not magic.  As the great teacher of healing prayer, James Wagner, puts it, every physical healing is at best temporary, and for Christians death is not supposed to be the final word.2

In the last sermon he preached here, Bill Croy shared that in his understanding prayer does not cure ALS.  That’s not the way God works.  Instead of praying to be cured, Bill prayed for researchers to find a way to prevent ALS.  He prayed for God to be with him, for God’s comfort and peace in the midst of the disease.  Prayer, Bill concluded, "bends us toward God."  And whatever else may or may not happen, to be bent closer to God is always a form of healing.3

In her book, Jesus Freak, Sara Miles says:  prayer doesn’t cure TB or Down syndrome or schizophrenia.  "And so, when these things happen," she says, we ask:  "What good is prayer?  Why did God do this to me?  Why do I deserve cancer, when I’m a nonsmoking vegetarian and practice positive thinking?  Why, as the people in John’s Gospel ask Jesus, is this man born blind?  Is it his own fault, or his parents’ fault? 

"[But Jesus] shrugs off our desire to establish . . . cause and effect. . . He was born blind," Jesus said, "so you can see the works of God revealed in him."

"That’s the answer," Miles fears, "to all the questions of our lives.  Sickness, war, falling in love, going to the grocery store:  God’s works can be revealed in everything that happens.  But it’s up to us to pray—to keep our eyes open—if we’re to discover what that means. 

Prayer can’t [always] cure," she concludes.  But prayer can "heal, because healing comes embedded in relationship, and prayer is one of the deepest forms of relationship—with God and with other people.  And through relationship, there can be healing in the absence of cure."4

Now, I believe that somehow prayer can and does cure sometimes.  All the energy in the universe is connected—included God’s energy and the energy in our cells and synapses.  But even if you’re not quite sure what to make of healing prayer, you can still come today and receive compassion, and hope, and touch, and love.  And these too are healing gifts.

So let me not spend any more time talking about healing prayer.  Let’s do it—let’s pray for healing.  "Every Sunday," writes Craig Barnes, "people . . . make their way into churches . . . hoping to hear a word from God.  And the word they most want to hear is that change is still possible."  The world is full of other messages—work harder, drink this, protect yourself at all costs, worry about those who don’t look like you.5  Those messages will not help you or save you. The word you’ve come to hear is this:  Yes, with God change is still possible.  Your body can ache less.  Your heart can have peace.  Your past can feel less painful.  And you are forgiven and can forgive others.  Yes, change is still possible, in the name of Jesus Christ.  So come, receive today the gift of healing prayer.

1 Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press), 137.

2 James K. Wagner, Blessed to Be a Blessing: How to Have an Intentional Healing Ministry in Your Church (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1980), 72.

3 http://wcroy22.blogspot.com/search?q=prayer, accessed 9/24/15.

4 Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2010), 85.

5 M. Craig Barnes, "Revival without Tents," Faith Matters, The Christian Century (August 19, 2015), 35.

 

James 3:13 – 4:3

ENVY is Constant Wanting

September 20, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

Henderson the Rain King is a wild, comical, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Saul Bellow.  The main character Henderson is wealthy, healthy and blessed with family and talents.  Yet he feels restless and unfulfilled.  Here’s how he describes it:

"Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want!  It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger.  It only said one thing, I want, I want!

And I would ask, "What do you want?"

But this was all it would ever tell me.  It never said a thing expect I want, I want, I want.

At times [Henderson says,] I would treat it like an ailing child. . .  I would walk it, I would trot it.  I would sing to it or read to it.  No use. . .  I would chop wood, go out and drive a tractor, work in the barn among the pigs.  No, no!  Through fights and drunkenness and labor it went right on. . .  No purchase, no matter how expensive, would lessen it.  Then I would say, "Come, on tell me. . .  Do you want [an affair]?"  But this was no better a guess than the others.  The demand came louder, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!  . . .  This [he says,] is what made me behave as I did.1

Doesn’t that sound like what James is talking about today?  "For where there is envy and selfish ambition," James says, "there will also be disorder and wickedness."  He asks, "Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war within you?"  This constant wanting is the root problem in our hearts, and our churches, and our world. 

I will share with you today several things from a sermon by my teacher, Fred Craddock.  He points out that James describes three groups of people in his congregation.  First, there are those who want but cannot have and so they will do anything, even violence, to get it.  The second group of people is not that extreme, but they still covet.  They look around and see those who have things and they want those things, and it causes tension and division in the church.  Then there is a third group.  They’re quite spiritual, praying all the time.  But they’re always praying for God to give them this or to give them that—prayers of acquisition, hedonistic is the word James uses.  And these spiritual sorts are no better than the others, no different really.2 

As in Henderson, and as in the people in James’ church, there is within so many of us this constant wanting:  I want, I want, I want.  It’s hard to know exactly what would satisfy it.  And sometimes the more you feed it, the greater the wanting grows.  So we try to fill that hole with so many things—with adventures and experiences, with alcohol and with food, with needing to be right and pushing people around, or with looking for love in all the wrong places.  And still, there it is:  I want, I want, I want.

And what is true in our individual hearts, is also true for all of us together.  We Americans constitute 5% of the world's population but consume 24% of the world's energy. On average one American consumes as much energy as 2 Japanese citizens, 6 Mexicans, 31 Indians, and 370 Ethiopians.3  May I read James to you again in light of those statistics?  He says, "These conflicts and disputes, . . .  where do they come from?   Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do no have it; so you commit murder.  We want, we want, we want. 

Wendell Berry has put it this way:  "We cannot live as we do and be as we would like to be.  There is nothing more absurd," he says, "to give an example that is only apparently trivial, than the millions who wish to live in luxury and idleness and yet be slender and good-looking.  We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are all destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment."4  Our constant wanting is at odds with who we long and need to be.

The answer to envy and selfish ambition, James says, the antidote to our constant wanting, is, well, not wanting as much, a more sensible and disciplined kind of wanting.  Fred Craddock says that for James, "a", if not "the" primary function of religion is the exercise of restraint.5 

Now we all know that restraint can be overdone, or applied to the wrong things.  Craddock shares that in his home church, restraint was the cardinal virtue in all things.  I mean, he says, we didn’t have any laughter.  We didn’t have any applause.  The only scripture I recall was "Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the misery of your Lord."  One time little Fred went to church with a friend of another denomination.  When it came time for Holy Communion, the preacher said, "Let us now celebrate the Lord’s Supper."  He told his mother and she said, "Celebrate?  In church?  We won’t let you go there again!"  Sure, restraint can be carried too far. 

That said, it remains true that proper restraint is the answer to that voice that says, I want, I want, I want.  It is, for example, the task of parenting, and it is the task of Christian education to help kids know what to want and how much to want.  There are some things it’s just never helpful to want.  And there are some things we shouldn’t get, not necessarily because we can’t afford them, but because we don’t need them and our resources are better invested helping someone else. 

James’ word to those who want and cannot have is clear:  They are not to envy.  But Craddock wonders, what would James say to those who want and can have?  Sure, it’s expensive, they might say, but we can afford it.  No, James says, you can’t.  A whole long closet filled with clothes you almost never wear?  As long as there is anybody without clothes, Craddock says, you can’t afford it.  A $1.3 million trophy house in your old age?  When brothers and sisters are sleeping outside on benches?  You can’t afford it, James says, no matter how much you have.  There is a limit to what to want and how much to want.

So yes, of course, restraint can be pushed too far and applied to the wrong things.  But properly understood, restraint is necessary and even liberating.  Restraint provides healthy boundaries within which to live.  A football game played without boundaries would be chaos, meaningless.  A position of authority without limits on that authority would be dangerous.  There is a proper and helpful human wanting.  But boundless wanting—too many things, too much food, to be loved exceedingly, too much power—is chaotic, dangerous.

Now, just as with what James says about taming the tongue, his teaching about envy and selfish ambition could be seen as good, common-sense wisdom, helpful in a vague, secular way.  But what makes this specifically Christian teaching?  Why is it in the Bible?  New Testament professor Pheme Perkins points out that our envy and our coveting and our conflicts involve what she calls a "disordered relationship" with God.People who put their whole trust in God’s grace will not have that constant, I want, I want I want.  Now don’t get me wrong—of course they will still want adequate food and shelter, safety and friendship.  But even when they don’t have what they want, they will still be grounded and grateful.  Their hearts will say instead, I trust, I trust, I trust. 

I want, I want, I want, beats the anxious heart.  I trust, I trust, I trust, beats the peaceful heart.  Envy, jealousy and selfish ambition are at the heart of the conflicts in our hearts, in our churches, in our world.  And the answer is: trusting God.  I know it sounds simplistic, but it is true.  The antidote to our constant wanting is trusting God.  And the prayer puts it best is from St. Augustine in his Confessions over 1600 years ago.  Pray it after me:

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,

and our hearts are restless

until they find rest in thee.  Amen

 

1 Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King (New York: Penguin, 1996 edition), 24.

2 Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 271-72.

3 http://public.wsu.edu/~mreed/380American%20Consumption.htm, accessed 9/17/15.

4 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977, 3rd ed. 1996), 12.

5 Craddock, 268.

6 Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 120.

 

James 3:1-12

The TONGUE is a Fire

September 13, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

The tongue, James says, is a fire.  Don’t we know it!  Whole relationships . . . families . . . churches can be ruined by just a handful of words.  One year at annual conference seminary professor Tom Long shared with us about how fearful a thing it is to be called to be a preacher.  It’s for a reason, he told us, that James says that not many should become teachers or preachers.  The reason, Long says, is that James understands the potentially destructive power of speech.  And he told the story of how his beloved daughter, at the age of 29, asked him one day, "Dad, when we had a fight one time, do you remember what you said to me?"  He said, no, I didn’t remember.  But she did—for fifteen years she’d remembered that what he said was, "You’re nothing but trouble to me."  Of course, he hadn’t meant it.  And in time, of course she realized he hadn’t meant it.  But he’d said it.  And she remembered it.  The tongue is a fire in the family.

A friend told me that when her daughter was in fourth grade her teacher told her, "You’re just not good at math."  The truth is, the girl did fine at math.  But those six words spoken by one careless teacher crushed her spirit, and over the years no matter how much they encouraged her, she always believed she was not good at math.  The tongue is a fire at school and in life.

In this country when we think about speech, we tend to think about freedom of speech, and our constitutional right to say whatever we want.  And freedom of speech is central to democracy.  If the government, or anyone else, can tell us what to say or not to say, then we are not really free.  I’m all about that.

But the Bible focuses less on freedom of speech and more on the helpfulness of our speech.  In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul writes, "All things are permitted for me, but not all things are beneficial."  Yes, I have the right to make racist or sexist statements, but how could that be helpful to my country?  And yes, we have the right to publish cartoons offensive to other religions, but how is that beneficial to living together in peace?  There is a need to insist on freedom of speech.  But that is not the concern of James.  His concern is the kindness and helpfulness of our speech.

Here’s something else about how the tongue is a fire:  it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it.  I had an English professor who when he handed back students’ essays would pick one to critique in class.  He’d say that the student’s arguments was "stupid," that the writing was "infantile," that the essay showed "a complete and utter lack of understanding."  This in front of the whole class.  He prided himself on what he called "frank and undiluted" assessments.  But his assessments were not "frank and undiluted;" they were insulting and mean-spirited.  He knew a great deal about literature and could have taught us a lot, but his words were like poison. 

It seems like it’s a fad right now to offer "frank and undiluted" assessments of others.  It’s almost a mark of pride to be blunt and abrasive.  People justify this by saying, "Hey, somebody’s got to tell the truth."  But 1 Corinthians 13 begins:  "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And in Ephesians 4:15 Paul urges "speaking the truth in love."  Sure, sometimes a hard word needs to be spoken.  But if it is not spoken in love, it is not a Christian word.

One thing we have to deal with that James didn’t is online communication and social media.  If it is hurtful to berate someone to their face, it’s even more hurtful to do so on Facebook or Twitter, where everyone can see it and it lasts forever.  And we probably all know people who believe that the rules of polite conversation don’t  apply to email.  They dash off rude things in an email they’d never say face to face, or at least I hope they wouldn’t.  It’s called "flaming," and has burned a lot of people.  The truth is, we need to be even more careful to make sure emails and Tweets and Facebook posts are kind and loving, because they are so public, so permanent, and there’s no way for people to read the body language that goes with them.  If the tongue is a fire, the internet is an inferno.

Before we leave this subject, I want to think with you about why bridling the tongue is in the Bible.  I mean sure, it’s good common sense to be careful what you say, but why is being careful what you say a requirement of true Christian faith? 

  • Well, because to speak too harshly to another human being is actually an offense against God.  James says, "With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God."  And to "curse" someone didn’t simply mean to use what we call "curse words."  It meant any speech that was degrading, any use of words to deny someone’s value as a person.  So correct someone if necessary, tell the truth as you see it, but always respect and revere the image of God in the person you’re talking to.
  • Second, hurtful speech affects the unity of the body of Christ.  An intemperate word spoken in the church can be even more hurtful than the same word spoken elsewhere.  A lot of people realize this, of course, and one result is that it can be hard to talk about controversial issues in the church at all, because we don’t want to hurt a brother or sister in Christ, and we don’t want to be hurt.  But there has to be a way to talk about our differences without feeling threatened or speaking hurtfully. 

I want to offer you one model for this kind of hard but holy conversation.  Two weeks from today, September 27, at 7 pm, our bishop, Greg Palmer, is inviting United Methodists to gather in Grove City to talk about one of the issues that has been so divisive for our church—homosexuality.  We just don’t all agree about it.  So our bishop has a process of respectful, grace-filled conversation, called Circles of Grace.  Information about this Circles of Grace event is in your bulletin, and everyone is welcome.  By God’s grace we can all tell the truth as we know it, and speak that truth in love.  

  • Finally, one commentator on James wrote:  "The scary part about toxic talk is that it reveals the character of our inner identity."1  Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34).  Sometimes people try to excuse their harsh talk, saying, "My words get kind of rough, but my heart is in the right place."  But Jesus says that hurtful words come from a hurtful heart, and loving words come from a loving heart.  One way, then, to control the tongue is to let God soften your heart.

There’s a little song I want you to sing with me in closing.  It’s thought of as a children’s song, though it’s just as important for adults.  The last verse goes like this:

O be careful little mouth what you say,

O be careful little mouth what you say,

For the Father up above is looking down in love,

O be careful little mouth what you say.

I think that’s just right.  Not be careful what you say because God’s going to get you if you don’t.  That’s just threatening.  But be careful what you say, because we want all our words to glorify the Father who is looking down in love and we want all our words to share that love with others.  Let’s sing.

1 Daniel B. Clendinin, "’Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak’: Toxic Talk and the Virtue of Silence,

http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20120910JJ.shtml.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

FAITH Is How You Live

September 6, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

This whole month we’re turning to the epistle, or letter, of James, a collection of wonderful but challenging moral teachings.  We will listen for what James has to say about poverty and faith, about the tongue and how we speak to each other, about the nature of envy, and the power of prayer.  And each Sunday, even if you don’t appreciate everything James has to say, I suspect you will receive his words respectfully and reverently, as Holy Scripture.  But that has not always been the case.  James almost didn’t make it into the Bible.  Most of the writings that became the New Testament were settled on by 200 A.D. or so.  James didn’t show up on most lists until almost 200 years after that, and even then it was disputed.  In the 1500s Martin Luther again raised doubts about James.  He thought it was insufficiently Christian (Jesus is mentioned only twice in the whole epistle) and he thought it teaches salvation by works rather than by grace (he had a point there too).  But I’m glad that James is in the Bible.  And I’m pleased to share James with you this month.  I encourage you to read all of James for yourselves; it’s only five chapters long and highly rewarding.

Today’s reading from James, though, is a hard one, dealing as it does with money and our tendency to be partial to the well-to-do and to disregard the poor.  A little of that goes a long ways for someone like me, with a savings account and a 401k. 

But the Bible cares consistently and intensely about how God’s people treat the poor.  Leviticus 19 prohibits landowners from harvesting all their crops; they had to leave some for the poor and for immigrants.  In Isaiah 58 God says:  here is the worship I want—to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.  In Luke 14 Jesus says that when you invite people to dinner, don’t invite your relatives and those with the resources to invite you back; instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.  And in Matthew 25 Jesus says that at the last judgment everybody will be divided into two groups—those who cared for the hungry, sick and imprisoned, and those who did not.  The Bible cares consistently and intensely about how God’s people treat the poor.

So James asks: what does it mean to say you have faith, if you don’t give the poor what they need?  For James, whether or not we favor the rich over the poor and whether or not we care for the needy are tests of the genuineness of our faith.

When I was pastor at Maynard Avenue, two of the things that made life hard were (1) the number of homeless and mentally ill people who came to the church looking for help and (2) a neighbor across the street whose mission in life was code enforcement.  Any time we’d put up a sign to advertise an upcoming event, he’d find some way it violated city code and make us take it down.  He was a thorn in my side and I admit that I had unchristian feelings about him.

One evening I was teaching Bible study and several church members came in complaining about a smelly homeless guy on the steps who’d asked them for money.  They described the man to me, and I knew who they were talking about.  But I didn’t go out to help him right then; after all, I had to teach Bible study.  After Bible study I happened to go UDF and there was that man, eating a sandwich and savoring a cup of coffee.   And guess who had brought him to the air conditioned comfort of UDF and paid for his food?  Yep—Mr. Code Enforcement!  Who, then, was the Christian here?  The church members and their Bible-teaching pastor, or the busybody thorn in my side?  Whose faith passed the test?

So money is one way we show partiality for and against certain people; how we treat the poor is one way we make distinctions in the church.  But there are other ways.  When I was a boy, our pastor had a heart attack and had to take time off.  His daughter, Juanita, offered to fill in for him.  And so for several months she preached for us.  One of the most prominent families in the church, people who were always talking about God and love, suddenly stopped attending worship.  They never said why, but they started attending again when a man filled the pulpit.  Meantime a young man started attending our church.  He’d been in all kinds of trouble, went to jail for a while, but he said Juanita’s messages gave him guidance and hope.  Who, then, was the Christian?  The prominent church members, or the young man trying to get his life together?  Whose faith passed the test?

Sara Miles, in her book Jesus Freak, writes about how hard it’s been for her denomination, the Episcopal Church, to allow gay and lesbian people to have full rights in the church they were baptized into.  Some peopled wanted to condemn us to hell, she says; others didn’t care so long as you didn’t talk about it.  "But increasing numbers of gay Christians," Miles says, "refused to accept the religious authorities’ pronouncements.  We testified," she says, "that Jesus had already touched us . . . and told us to follow him.  And she quotes the apostle Paul:  "In his flesh," Paul writes in Ephesians, "Christ has broken down the dividing wall between us, that he might create in himself one new humanity through the cross.  How surprising," she writes, "that our divided churches could be healed by the cross."1   Who, then, was the Christian here?  The religious authorities, or Sara Miles, the Jesus freak?  Whose faith passed the test?

One time I tried to form a relationship with a small-time neighborhood gang-banger.  He was a natural-born leader; all the little kids wanted to be like him.  Unfortunately many of them were becoming like him.  I figured if I could get that one guy to follow Jesus, he would get every troubled kid for blocks around to follow Jesus too.  So I took him to lunch, I played basket-ball with him, I bought his girlfriend shoes.  Nothing happened.  Then one Sunday out of the blue he showed up at church.  After worship two moms with teenagers cornered me:  "Do you know who that is?  He beat up our sons and threatened to hurt them again if they wouldn’t sell drugs for him."

"Yes," I confessed.  "I know him.  And well, it’s sort of my fault that he’s here.  If you think it would be better, I can ask him not to come here on Sunday mornings."

"No, no, pastor," they said, "you don’t understand.  We offered to sit with him and told him we’d come get next Sunday so his girlfriend can come to church too."

Who, then, was making distinctions here?  The fearful pastor or the moms he thought he needed to protest?  Whose faith passed the test?

This is not about good behavior or bad behavior.  It’s not about political correctness or trying to make ourselves look good.  Not making distinctions among people and caring for the poor are, in the Bible, a test of the genuineness of our faith.  Now, you might ask, what about grace?  Aren’t we supposed to be saved by grace and not by works?  It’s natural to raise that question when we read James.  But here’s what I think:  I think it’s nothing but grace to get to live without making distinctions among people.  It’s nothing but grace to be able to serve the poor and the needy.  Sometimes there are homeless friends right here at Maple Grove, sitting in the lobby or sleeping on the benches outside.  And not that I’m glad they’re homeless or anything.  But since there are people who are poor and homeless, surely it’s nothing but grace that they come here, for it gives us a chance to test the genuineness of our faith.

1 Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 95-96.

 

2 Samuel 18:5-15, 31-33; 19:1-8

David & Absalom:  Leader and Griever

August 16, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

Well, we’ve come to the end of our summer series on King David.  Today’s reading is not the end of David’s story—he still has another rebellion to put down, he has to arrange his successor, he gets in trouble with God again.  But this is as far as we’re going with David.  I hope you have learned a lot and enjoyed our journey with King David.  Before we unpack the story of David and his son Absalom, let me give you a little quiz about King David. 

  1. How did David rise to be a military leader at a young age?
    1. By killing a Philistine giant with his sling shot.
    2. By inventing a new, stronger kind of armor.
  1. What did David do to calm the nerves of King Saul?
    1. Read to him from the Bible.
    2. Played for him a musical instrument called the lyre.
  1. Which of these is true of David before he was King of Israel?
    1. He angered God by consulting a medium in a séance.
    2. He was a warlord for the Philistines, Israel’s enemy.
  1. What did David finally do to Saul, who had tried to kill him?
    1. He spared Saul’s life several times.
    2. He ultimately killed Saul in battle.
  1. How many wives did David have?
    1. Thousands.
    2. At least eight, though possibly more.
  1. Why didn’t God allow David to build the Temple?
    1. God wanted David’s son Solomon to build it instead.
    2. David had too much blood on his hands.
  1. Who was the mother of Solomon, who succeeded David as King?
    1. Michal, daughter of King Saul.
    2. Bathsheba, whom David took from Uriah.
  1. In his final words, David
    1. Asked Solomon to kill some of David’s enemies.
    2. Forgave all of his enemies.
  1. Who was King David’s most famous descendant?

A. Isaiah.  

B. Jesus.  (for answers see footnote #1)

The story of David and Absalom is, in the first place, a story about a father and a son, and so by extension about parents and children.  It’s a story about a son who had lost all respect for his father, who had, in fact, started a civil war against his father.  And it’s the story of a father who loved his son dearly yet came to fear him too. 

It’s not an easy relationship, is it, father and son?  It’s a relationship capable of great admiration and tenderness, but also of terrible regret.  It’s a relationship that can be marked by great affection, but affection which so often goes unexpressed.  Every time I see that scene from the end of Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad’s—what?—ghost, I wind up crying.  Not because there was anything wrong between my father and me, but, well, it’s not an easy relationship, is it, father and son?

The trouble between David and Absalom goes way back.  And the trouble was never that David didn’t love Absalom, but that he loved him perhaps too much, or at least in the wrong way.  Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon, raped Absalom’s full sister—David’s children all of them.  When David failed to do anything about it, Absalom took matters into his own hands and killed Amnon in revenge.  But David essentially failed to do anything about this either, eventually receiving Absalom back, but never talking about what had happened. 

Is it any wonder, then, that Absalom came to think of his father as weak?  And by then, what was Absalom to David—beloved son or dangerous traitor?  Well, both.  David discovers that it’s easier to run a whole kingdom than it is to raise your own son.  It is not an easy relationship, father and son.  And it was never harder in any family than it was for King David. 

This is also a story about grieving a horrible loss, and yet somehow going on.  This was not the first grief of David’s life, and the Jewish scholar Robert Alter notes how David’s responses to loss changed over time.  When Saul and his friend Jonathan died, David wrote an eloquent elegy.  When his military friend Abner was murdered, there was an elegy, but much briefer.  When his son by Bathsheba died, there was no poetry at all—just words about the inevitability of death.  And now when Absalom is killed, David is reduced to a sheer stammer of grief, repeating over and over what is just two words in Hebrew:  "Absalom, my son, O Absalom, my son, my son."2

I was decorating graves with my grandma one Memorial Day, when she was in her 90s, and she started to cry, which was unusual for her.  She finally sat down on a bench and wept.  I asked her, "Grandma, is it about Grandpa?"  And she said, "Not only Grandpa, honey.  There have been so many."  It’s not just one loss, but the accumulation of many losses that wears us down.

So Joab, ever the practical, hard-nosed general, tells David he’s got to get his act together, that unless he puts on a face to thank the army, he will win the war but lose his kingdom anyway.  And as rough as Joab was on him, I wonder if David wasn’t actually grateful for his advice.  Sometimes in great sorrow, we need someone to think for us, to tell us what to do until we can think for ourselves again. 

How hard it would be to be the king and be overwhelmed with grief at the same time!  President and Mrs. Lincoln had already lost one son, and then their son Willie died during Lincoln’s first term.  One writer says that "the loss of Willie plunged them into an altogether deeper grief and cast a pall over the White House that would linger throughout the [civil] war. I can only imagine.

Here’s how Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, sums it up:  "The king’s public appearance . . . restores order and confidence.  The people are reassured. . . Life can go on; but life will never go on in the same way.  The grief will linger, for David and for us, forever.  Life must go on, but it really does not."4  None of us is king, but we all experience something like this—grieving and going on, but never quite the same; able to know life and faith and even joy, but never forgetting the sadness.

And finally, this is a story about blessed messes, or put another way, messy blessings.  Despite it all, David found a way to go on, and so did his family, and so did Israel, and so do we.  I watched a documentary recently about President Johnson.  Immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy, someone had to round up a Bible and some photographers to swear in a new leader.  The country was shaken, but went on.  We’re hearing a lot right now about the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  Some businesses have never recovered, some people still have nightmares, the whole city may never be quite the same—but New Orleans goes on.  What else are you going to do?

The story of King David affirms what we already know—life is messy and sometimes almost unbearably sad.  But God is in it all—leading and guiding, comforting and strengthening, using our gifts and if necessary using our faults to get the story to the next chapter. 

Some people, I know, only want to read what they think of as the "nice" parts of the Bible—the 23rd Psalm, the Good Shepherd, the Beatitudes, you know, the uplifting parts.  I understand that.  But the Bible knows that not all of life is "nice," and that God is in the trouble too.  My own extended family has known car wrecks and divorces, there have been addictions and people in jail.  And yet we go on and somehow God blesses our mess.

There is a hymn called "And Are We Yet Alive," written by Charles Wesley.  We used to always sing at the start of annual conference.  I think King David would have appreciated it.  Do you know it?  It goes like this:

And are we yet alive,

  and see each other’s face?

Glory and thanks to Jesus give

  for his almighty grace!

What troubles have we seen,

  what mighty conflicts past,

Fighting without, and fears within,

  since we assembled last!

Yet out of all the Lord

  hath brought us by his love;

And still he doth his help afford,

  and hides our life above.

It’s a story of a father and a son.  It’s a story of grieving and going on.  It’s a story of blessed messes and messy blessings.  Yet out of all, sang David, the Lord hath brought us by his love.  Yet out of all, let us sing, the Lord will bring us by his love.

1 1) A  2) B   3) B  4) A  5) B  6) Both A and B  7) B  8) A  9) B

2 Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 311.

3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/willie-lincolns-death-a-private-agony-for-a-president-facing-a-nation-of-pain/2011/09/29/gIQAv7Z7SL_story.html.

4 Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 325. 

2 Samuel 12:1-13a

David & Nathan:  Hearing the Truth

August 9, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

Some other day I want to preach a sermon from this scripture called "Forgiveness and Consequences."  We read how David confesses his sin and later in the chapter the prophet Nathan tells him: 

  • "Now the Lord has put away your sin." In other words, David is forgiven by God.
  • "Nevertheless," Nathan goes on, "the child born to you shall die."  And even more trouble will follow for David and his family.  In other words, though he is forgiven, there are still tragic consequences to David’s actions.

David confesses, David is forgiven, and you might expect everyone to live happily every after.  But it doesn’t turn out that way.  I suspect we’ve all experienced something like that.  We may be forgiven by God.  We may be forgiven by other people.  And that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it.  Sometimes mercy is granted, but the mess remains. 

There’s so much more to say about that, but it will to wait for another day, because today I want to focus on how hard it isto hear the truth—hard to hear it at all, and then hard to handle once you’ve heard it.  David, you remember, has done all sorts of stuff—rape, adultery, murder, treason--and he doesn’t even seem to be aware that he’s done it.  Until his phone rings one day.  He looks at the caller ID.  Ah, it’s the prophet Nathan.  "Morning, Nathan!  What is it?"  And it turns out it was the truth calling.

Hearing the truth is hard.  Let me show you a film clip.  It’s from

A Few Good Men

, which won Best Picture in 1992.  I don’t think the scene needs any introduction.  Just see what Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson have to say about hearing the truth.

Here’s my take on that famous scene.  I don’t think either character can handle the truth.  On the one hand, Col. Jessup is right—Tom Cruise’s character doesn’t want to know about the violent and unsavory realities undergirding our national security.  It’s easier to feel good about ourselves and our country if we don’t face that truth.  But on the other hand, Jack Nicholson’s character also won’t face the truth, the truth that he’s been on the wrong side of the line between good and evil, that some things are wrong even if you believe they save lives.  The truth is hard to hear, and few of us handle it easily.

Another lesson from this scripture and from this film clip is that shouting at one another is probably not the best way to help people hear the truth.  Remember—David’s phone rings. 

"Nathan, what’s up?"

But Nathan doesn’t shout at David, never points his finger at him. He just says, "Well, King, I’ve got a little story to tell you.  That’s all."  Just draws him in, draws him in, draws him in, until David pronounces judgment himself, and then Nathan springs the trap.  He looks David in the eye and says, "Sir, you are the man."  What a clever truth-teller Nathan was.

There are lots of people who are all too eager to share hard truths with others—criticizing, finding fault, blaming.  But what happens when you dump a whole load of truth on someone’s head all at once?  They fend it off; none of it gets through.  "Tell all the truth," wrote Emily Dickinson, "but tell it slant. . .  The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind."1  The truth is hard to hear.  Sometimes it has to sneak up on you.

The institution of prophecy was a most unusual thing in ancient Israel.  People often think that what prophets did was foretell the future.  But that’s not really what prophets did.  Oh, they may have said, "If we keep living like this, bad things are going to happen."  But that’s not so much telling the future as simply explaining consequences.  No, what prophets really did was tell the truth, God’s truth, to the people and in particular to the king.  The unusual thing was that the kings had to listen.  Oh, they didn’t always like what they heard.  They didn’t always take the prophets warnings.  They tried to find false prophets who would tell them what they wanted to hear.  But you noticed that when the phone rang, and it was Nathan the prophet, David took the call, whether he wanted to or not.  I suppose we could all use a prophet hanging around our lives, giving us a call from time to time.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, Lutheran pastor Peter Marty suggests that clergy get too much praise.  That may be so in Lutheran churches.  In Methodist churches I’ve noticed that praise often gets mixed with a fair amount of criticism!  And if the truth is not really in the praise, I would also say that there’s not always a lot of readily accessible truth in the criticism either.  Here’s how Rev. Marty puts it: "Pastors often get lots of affirmation.  What they need," he says, "is constructive feedback."2  In other words, what we need—what everybody needs—is the truth.  And here’s how I know when constructive feedback is the truth:  it tends to make me angry at first, uncomfortable, resistant.  The closer to the truth something is, the harder it is for me to hear it.

But the thing is, hard as it is, we need to hear the truth.  If David hadn’t heard the truth about his life, he probably would have just kept doing what he’d been doing—adultery, murder, pretty much using his power however he felt like it.  By the time Nathan came to see him, David had already done a great deal of damage and much of it couldn’t be undone.  But hearing the truth at least stopped the downward spiral. 

Episcopalian preacher Fleming Rutledge says that "what really counts in the Christian life is the capacity for looking into one’s own heart and discerning the sin that lies embedded there.  What really matters for Biblical faith," she says, "is the willingness to think to oneself, maybe I am the man."3  Hearing the truth in this way is upsetting, unsettling.  It causes what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance."  That is, the sort of person we believe ourselves to be and the sort of person we suddenly see that we are, are not the same.  In David’s case this must have been pretty extreme cognitive dissonance.  But we’re all liable to cognitive dissonance if we’re willing to hear some truth:

  • I’ve always thought I’m a very kind person, but all of a sudden I notice the way I’ve treated certain people has not been kind at all.
  • I like to think of myself as generous, but when I see how some other people give, I’m not so sure I am.

And what’s true personally can also be true corporately, nationally:

  • We like to think that we’ve gotten over racism in this country, but you watch the news and see the statistics, and it tells a different story.
  • We figure we’ve already done more than enough in saving energy and cleaning up power plants, but temperatures continue to rise.

Hearing the truth is the first step in transformation, in being born again, and again.  But of course, hearing the truth is not the same as accepting the truth.  Walter Brueggemann points out that you might think David had no option; that he was caught red-handed and had to confess.  But he didn’t have to confess.  A lesser king, Brueggemann suggests, would not have confessed but would have eliminated the prophet.4  David had killed before; he could have killed again.  But David does confess.  He lets the truth take hold of him and turn his life back towards God.

The truth, as painful as it can be to hear and hard as it can be to handle, is not our enemy, but ultimately our friend.  The cognitive dissonance can help you choose to become a different person, one more in keeping with the person you want to be and God created you to be. 

Here’s how Barbara Taylor puts it.  She says that Nathan hadn’t come to condemn David.  If he’d come to do that he would have shouted judgements.  He had come, instead, to change David’s life, if he could—to help the king see what he had done so that his conscience was revived.  When David said, "I have sinned against the Lord," when he saw the truth for himself, Taylor says, "that was the beginning of his coming back to life."5

And here’s how Jesus put it:  "You will know the truth," he said, "and the truth will set you free." 

I want to say one last thing about the truth that is hard to hear.  This truth is not always our sin and pride and hatefulness.  For some people, what’s really hard to hear and affirm is their belovedness--how wonderful and special and blessed they truly are.  Some people have been told so many times that they’re no good, they’ve come to believe it.  Some of us have told ourselves so many times that we’re not good enough, that it’s hard to hear anything else.  The truth of our belovedness is shocking, uncomfortable, hard to handle.  But it is the truth nevertheless.  And as much as I pray that you will face the difficult truth of your sin, even more I pray that you will accept the shocking truth of your belovedness.  Hearing the truth is hard.

I think perhaps your phone is ringing even this very moment.  And without even looking, I know who it is.  It’s Nathan the prophet.  It’s the truth calling.  And what I’m wondering is, will you take the call?  Will you take his call, my beloved friends?

1 Emily Dickinson, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" (1263), http://www.poetryfoundation.org/ poem/247292.

2 Peter W. Marty, "Called to Account: The Importance of Pastoral Evaluations," The Christian Century (July 22, 2015), 20-25.

3 Fleming Rutledge, Help My Unbelief (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 61.

4 Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 282.

5 Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 13-14.

 

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