Brooks Chapel United Methodist Church

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Proper 17 (22) | Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B) | 2-Sep-12: Doers of the Word

Posted by revjones on September 2, 2012 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Song of Solomon 2.8-13 | James 1.17-27 | Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Last week, I attended a financial stewardship workshop at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, TN. It was led by widely-acclaimed author, financial advisor, and United Methodist pastor Clif Christopher. I have to say that, when I was initially approached by our District Superintendent to go, I wasn’t so sure about it; I had a hard time seeing how any of what the speaker might say would apply to our specific ministerial context. But that’s because I had a misconception of what the workshop would be about. I assumed, wrongly, that it’d be entirely focused on churches getting more money. Yet while money was a thread that ran through both days’ discussions, it was far from being about money. It was about ministry. It was about mission. It was about reaching people with the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and transforming lives for the better.


And I can actually say that I came away with some very useful insights. One thing Dr. Christopher shared was that congregations which tend toward spiritual and numerical growth are those that have higher expectations of the people: congregations which are explicit about what being part of the Church universal (and that congregation in particular) means. He advocated for making sure people understood membership vows—perhaps even putting potential members through classes before joining the church—instead of treating the process like no big deal, as we sometimes do.


But I think the most eye-opening statistic we heard had to do with the reasons folks contribute their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to a congregation. Some of the reasons were that they like the persons on staff at the church, or because they feel like they have to. But the top reason people get involved in the mission and ministry of a church is because they believe in the mission and ministry of the church. It’s because the mission is relevant. It’s because they see lives being changed. People want to be a part of that.


And if we’re to believe scripture, we who’d be Christ’s disciples need to be a part of that. Our lessons this week point to righteous living, and what it looks like. In the gospel, Jesus is confronted by some “Pharisees and…scribes” who want to know why Jesus’ followers don’t keep the “purity codes for processing and eating food.” This was, after all, an integral part of the Jewish tradition which supplemented Mosaic law, and was kept (according to St. Mark) by all Jews. This, from their view, was part of upright living. Jesus’ response, however, says that such a thing is a “human tradition,” having little to do with God’s commandments.


He goes on to say that it’s not what a person takes in, but what emanates from a person’s heart that bespeaks his or her holiness. “Evil intentions,” which birth evil actions, are what “defile[s] a person.” In other words, it isn’t what goes into but what comes out of a person that indicates whether or not he or she is a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is, simply, by our fruit that we’re known. Those whose hearts are bound by deceit, theft, and avarice lack holiness of heart, and their lives dishonor God. But those whose hearts are set on truth, giving, and generosity show Christ’s love and bring glory to God.


Indeed, holiness of heart is inextricably linked with holiness of life. For whatever resides most prominently in one’s heart will come forth in one’s actions. Our epistle lesson highlights this, as James depicts righteousness as a standard established by God to which the believer seeks to conform through unity of word and deed. The apostle says Christians are given “birth [that is, new life] by the word of truth, so that we could become a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures.” I don’t think James’ use of the phrase “first fruits” is incidental, as he would’ve surely been familiar with the Jewish system of sacrificial offerings. Yet he doesn’t say we’re to give our first fruits; we’re to be the first fruits. In other words, we’re given life so that we might give our lives—sacrificially—for others. We offer not only what we have but who we are in order to see people impacted for the sake of the Gospel. This is what he means by being “doers of the word” : that we’d “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” This, he says, is “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”


And we have opportunities, daily, to live into this. We have opportunities, daily, to convey grace and goodness to a hurting world, proclaiming that “the winter is past, [and] the rain is over and gone…[that] the time of singing has come.” We have opportunities, daily, to live into God’s righteousness and dispel the effects of wickedness.


For instance, Friday I was asked by a friend for a ride to Need Line; he’s unemployed and having trouble paying his bills, and also without a vehicle. So I took him over there. He went in, and I sat in the car and waited. Before long, a young lady came out looking terribly upset and frustrated. I don’t know her, but immediately recognized her as working at Huck’s gas station; I see her almost every time I’m in there. At any rate, she got into the car next to mine and drove away. Shortly after, my friend came out and said he needed to go to the HELP House, an organization run by Murray First UMC.


So we headed over there, only to find that they’d just closed. My friend was quite upset, understandably, as they’re only open three days a week—which means his request for assistance will now have to wait until Wednesday to be heard. But as we were pulling away, I noticed the same woman from Need Line sitting in the HELP House parking lot—head on her steering wheel, as if she were praying or weeping or both. And not knowing what to do, I continued to drive. I took my friend home, then returned to the parsonage. And since that moment, I’ve been unable to shake the feeling that maybe I should’ve done something. I can’t say exactly what I should’ve done, because I don’t know this person’s story. But might I have somehow extended Christ’s hand to her? Might I have shown the Gospel in some form or fashion? Might I have said or done something to let her know that, after the rainy season, the “tree puts forth” fruit and the “vines…blossom”?


Surely, as God’s people and as followers of the Christ, this is what we’re to be about. Our lives are to reflect the boundless mercy and love we’ve received “from above…from the Father of lights.” That’s why the Church exists; that’s what our mission is. According to Dr. Peter Drucker:


A business has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it. Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective. The “non-profit” institution neither supplies goods nor services nor controls. Its “product” is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation. Its product is a changed human being. The non-profit institutions are human-change agents. Their “product” is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.

 


Certainly, he was speaking in generalities about a certain type of organization. But the Church fits squarely into that category. We’re a body, instituted of God, to see lives changed by way of offering hope, healing, and life to any who have need thereof. Sometimes this looks like feeding a group of hungry college kids who are away from home. Sometimes this looks like sitting with someone who’s in a hospital bed. Sometimes this looks like assembling cleaning buckets or sending donations to help rebuild storm-ravaged communities. Sometimes this looks like giving someone down on their luck a ride to somewhere they have to go. And sometimes this means stepping outside of ourselves, and offering a stranger in a parking lot at least a prayer. But whatever shape it takes, the call to holiness of heart and life is ever before us: a call to recognize our mission and carry it out in relevant and life-altering ways. May God bless us with ears to hear the word and, even more, with hearts and hands to do the word.

 

Proper 16 (21) | Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B) | 26-Aug-12: Words of Life

Posted by revjones on August 27, 2012 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)

1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43 | Ephesians 6.10-20 | John 6.56-69


It certainly is good to be home. Having missed two Sundays in a row, it feels as if I’ve been away for ages. But Kristy and I had a very good time on our trip: while in Michigan we attended the wedding of one of Kristy’s cousins, visited the lovely German village of Frankenmuth, and I got to go to a shooting range—where I learned I can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Still, all in all, it was a nice get away.


While we were up there, though, I received a rather troubling e-mail. It was forwarded to me from an individual who’s recently become involved with The United Methodist Church, and originated from a person in her former denomination. She left her old church for very specific reasons, and has stated that she feels peace in the UMC—like God sent her there. But the e-mail, instead of thanking God for this, was harshly critical of the UMC—denigrating its history, its polity, its style of worship, and essentially saying it isn’t part of Christ’s Church. To read such things obviously upset me, but made me hurt even more for this person; she’d been so happy to find a church home, and was now being told that she’d made a grievous mistake.


It’s no secret that such contentious attitudes are too frequently present among Christian denominations. That’s a primary reason so many different ones exist. Sometimes they’re quite easy to identify (as in the case of that e-mail), and sometimes they’re more subtle: unspoken or under the surface, but there all the same. Prejudices, misapprehensions, and hastily-formed opinions—often based not on experience or research, but on little more than hear-say.


And it’s the same sort of surface-level understanding that caused so many folks to take flight when Jesus taught. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is continuing his teaching on the bread from heaven—which he’s been talking about for the last few weeks. But in this morning’s lesson, his discourse takes a turn that that his listeners find more than slightly unsettling: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…whoever eats me will live because of me.”


We hear this, and it may not strike us as particularly off-putting. After all, we gather at the table for the Eucharist each month, and ask God—by the power of the Spirit—to make the bread and cup Christ’s body and blood; to make them re-presentations of the sacrificial offering made by Christ for us. We understand that we’re not eating literal flesh and blood, but elements that mysteriously make Christ present and point us toward him.


If however we try to hear Jesus’ words with first-century ears, we might find ourselves just as befuddled as those to whom he spoke. They can’t wrap their minds around what he’s saying; they call it “difficult” —the Greek is skleros—which means “offensive” or “intolerable.” And they characterize it in this way because what Jesus is telling them to do is forbidden; it violates the Torah because, “as the life of any creature, [blood is] sacred to God.” Thus they’re disgusted by what Jesus is saying—not only because of this notion of eating flesh and blood, but also because of the thought of breaking God’s law. And the scripture tells us that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”


But it’s the exchange between Jesus and the twelve that I find most relevant for our consideration today. After the other disciples had gone, Jesus asked his apostles if they also wanted to split. And Peter (who’s often portrayed as the group’s spokesperson) answers: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Ah, Peter—he didn’t always get it right. But here he hits the nail on the head.


But it’s important for us to understand, I think, that—in terms of the religious landscape—the time and place that Jesus and his contemporaries occupied wasn’t much different from our own. It’s not as if Jesus was the only game in town. Myriad views of the divine existed and intermingled—and not always peaceably. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings represented just one set among many. There were scores before him (and after) who claimed special knowledge of the divine or insights to the things of God. A lot of voices were overlapping, each claiming to have the truth. And this makes Peter’s realization all the more poignant; he recognizes Christ for who he is in the midst of competing religious ideologies, and identifies him as the one to follow.


We too live in something of a pluralistic society, with a host of perspectives on religion. There are many and vastly varying views of God, creation, humankind, sin, salvation, et cetera. This can certainly be seen between faith traditions, as—for example—the divide between Christianity and Hinduism is quite wide. Yet it can also be seen within religious groups, as sects and divisions exist in most. Christianity is a prime example of this, with an estimated 38,000 denominations around the globe.


While that number seems staggeringly high, it helps to remember that “Baptist” or “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” are umbrella terms; there are many subsets in each. For instance, there are Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Freewill Baptists, American Baptists, and Cooperative Baptists—just to name a few. We’re United Methodist, but one can also be African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Free Methodist, Congregational Methodist, or Primitive Methodist. One can be a Cumberland Presbyterian or an Orthodox Presbyterian or part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). With all of these voices and others like them making their own proclamations, some of which are quite distinct, how can we know which one has the absolute truth?


I submit that none of them do. No one person—no one group—has a monopoly on the truth. Likewise, no one person or group has a complete and flawless understanding of God; the God who, in the words of Solomon, cannot be contained in “heaven and the highest heaven” is far vaster than we can even begin to fathom. Thus anything that anyone asserts about God is partial at best, and even then can only be known because God has chosen to reveal it. Make no mistake: I love the denomination of which I am a part. I choose to be United Methodist, because I agree with its doctrines and the way it’s organized. I agree with our social principles, and see truth in Wesleyan theology. But that doesn’t mean that I perceive Methodism as the truth. That doesn’t mean that I perceive us as having all the answers, or the only answers; that’s far from being the case. Rather, I choose Methodism because I feel that it points me toward the one who does have the answers; the one who is truth, and in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. I choose it because it points me to the one who has the words of eternal life.


And in the final analysis, it is only this one—only the Christ—whom we’re to follow. It’s for this reason I’m quite leery of any individual or organization that claims such exclusive possession of what’s true. This doesn’t mean that we can’t take lessons from others, or learn from their examples. But no human being—not one of us—grasps the entirety of the mind or will of God; to say we can is beyond short-sighted: it’s woefully arrogant, and ultimately destructive.


I can admire John Wesley and value his teachings (which I do, greatly)—but they aren’t the end-all be-all. Others might look to the patristics or Luther or Calvin or other forebears in the faith, yet the same is true for them; even the greatest Christian thinkers and leaders have struggled to comprehend fully what St. Paul calls the “mystery of the gospel.” Still others might stay closer to home, patterning their faith after parents or grandparents, siblings or friends, or even a pastor or other respected figure. But St. Peter correctly said that those who’d be Christ’s disciples can go to no one else. When all is said and done, Christ is the source of truth; Christ has the words of life.


As stated, this means no one has every answer; you don’t, and neither do I. None of us get it right at every turn, either. And because that’s the case, no one can rightly claim that their belief or practice is superior to someone else’s. No person can. No congregation can. No denomination can. For this reason, it does very little good to get caught up in arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong, and straining over the excruciating minutiae of every doctrine. It’s far more beneficial to ask, instead, whether one is earnestly striving to follow the Christ through loving God and neighbor. Whatever else we may agree or disagree upon, this is the mark of a true Christian and the key to living abundantly and eternally. To whom can we go? Only to Christ, who feeds us with heaven’s bread and calls everyone to life.

 

Proper 11 (16) | Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (B) | 22-Jul-12: Breaking Down Walls and Moving Fences

Posted by revjones on August 5, 2012 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (0)

NB: This sermon wasn't written prior to the preaching event; it was preached extemporaneously.  Yet the response to it was so overwhelming, I've attempted to here summarize that which was said.


Ephesians 2.11-22 | Mark 6.30-34, 53-56


 

Last Tuesday was an historic day for the city of Murray. For one, it was named by Rand McNally as the friendliest small town in the U.S. But the thing that really made headlines was the vote that was taken, regarding the sale of packaged alcohol. The vote passed (narrowly), and within a few weeks we’ll be seeing spirits available at the grocery and in gas stations. This fact obviously has some people rejoicing. But it also has many up in arms, out of concern for what they think might happen to Murray. But in my mind, the result of the vote isn’t the most pertinent issue.


From where I stand, the most problematic aspect of the whole thing is the behavior of people on both sides of the vote. Those who voted yes belittling those who voted no, and those who voted no slandering those who voted yes. Most disturbing, however, are the persons professing the Christian faith on both sides questioning the belief—the very salvation—of those on the opposing side. Those who voted yes want to argue that Christ drank wine, and even used it to institute the Eucharist; those who voted no feel the immorality often associated with excessive drinking makes voting yes a damnable offense. In short, this vote has led to much division—much hostility—within the body of Christ: between denominations, and even among congregations.


Yet the sad truth is, such hostility existed long before the vote. We Christians tend to squabble and quibble over just about anything, from points of doctrine to styles of worship. Christ said we’d be known as his followers by our love for one another, but we’re usually far more comfortable castigating and criticizing those who don’t see things the way we do than we are listening to others’ perspectives and attempting to understand.


St. Paul speaks, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, about a “dividing wall” being “broken down” by Christ—such that “hostility” between Jewish and Gentile Christians could be “put to death” ; elsewhere, the apostle tells us that there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free: all are one in Christ Jesus. But do we live as if we believe this? We’re not going to agree on everything, and that’s okay; in fact a little constructive disagreement can be healthy, as it challenges us to grow. But whether or not I agree with your opinions or you agree with me on every detail is far less relevant than the Gospel’s mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And this means getting rid of the hostility, in whatever form it’s present.


It’s hostility that leads to things like what happened a couple days ago in Colorado. It’s hostility that leads to anger. It’s hostility that leads to violence. It’s hostility that leads to war. It’s hostility that leads to death. There’s more than enough of that in the world; it has no place in the Church. Still, it exists. We like to draw lines and create barriers. We like to say who’s in and who’s out: who’s with us, and who’s with them. We’re quite adept at minding the fence. Less frequently do we consider moving the fence.


The story’s told of a man who lived in WWII Poland, which was largely Roman Catholic at the time. This man was a very good man. He was honest and dependable. He took care of others, putting their needs before his own. He fed beggars and housed travelers. He even sheltered those who were fleeing from the (mostly-corrupt) authorities. In short, he loved his village and its people—and they loved and respected him in return.


It happened one day that this man died, and the townsfolk rallied to prepare for his funeral. They visited the local priest, who of course agreed to conduct the service. The only problem, he said, was related to the burial. For this man wasn’t a member of the church; he hadn’t been baptized. Therefore it was against church law to bury him on church land. The people protested, saying that this man had taken such good care of so many of them—and lived more like Christ than most who’d been in the congregation for ages; if he didn’t deserve to be buried at the church, who did? The priest agreed that this man was indeed loving and kind in extraordinary measure, but maintained that his hands were tied. So he suggested that, as a compromise, they bury the man just the other side of the fence that surrounded the church cemetery. That way he’d not be on consecrated ground, but would still be near to the church. Reluctantly, all agreed.


The time came for the funeral, and the body was processed to its resting place. The priest performed the necessary rites, and the headstone was placed. The mourners went home. Night fell, and morning came. And as the priest made his way to the church for mass, he saw something that froze him in his tracks. Someone (or a group of someones) had come during the night—and moved the fence that surrounded the cemetery to the other side of where the man was buried. He who’d been outside was now inside.


This is what it means to remove hostility. It means breaking down walls. It means, when necessary, moving the fence. We’re going to hold varying perspectives and opinions. We’re going to have different understandings of what’s right and what’s wrong. But to walk in Christ’s love and to follow him requires opening ourselves to those who may not think, look, or act exactly like us and making room for them in the same way that God does: which means there ought to be room enough for everyone.


The end of the gospel lesson for today says that “all who touched” “even the fringe” of Christ’s cloak were healed. All. Not some. As many as reached out for him were made whole, made well. And notice he didn’t stop them as they approached to ask where they stood on certain issues, who they voted for in the last election, or if they were conservative or liberal. He didn’t ask for names. He didn’t get background checks. All who came were healed.


How can we expect people to receive the life of Christ, and life from Christ, as long as we’re saying who can and can’t come? Christ didn’t mind the fence in that way—why do we? Christ, instead, tore walls down. He “brought near” the ones who’d been “far off.” He put to death hostility. He made “one new humanity.” Isn’t it time we stop trying to undo what he did? Isn’t it time we learn to put aside every petty difference, agree to disagree, and embrace one another as brothers and sisters? This can happen, and will, as we join the Savior in breaking down walls and moving fences. May it be so.

 

 

Third Sunday after Pentecost B | Proper 6 (17-Jun-12): Small is the New Big

Posted by revjones on June 18, 2012 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Small is the New Big

Proper 6 (11) | Third Sunday after Pentecost | 17-Jun-12 | Father’s Day

Bethel UMC – 9:30 AM | Brooks Chapel UMC – 11:00 AM

 

1 Samuel 15.34-16.13 | 2 Corinthians 5.6-10, 14-17 | Mark 4.26-34


 

The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, based upon the classic book by J.R.R. Tolkien, tells the story of a hobbit named Frodo Baggins. Hobbits, for those of you who don’t know, are diminutive creatures (usually less than four feet tall) that resemble humans somewhat—except for their pointy ears and oversized, hairy feet. This particular hobbit embarks, with six friends, on a quest to destroy a magic ring—one that’s come into his possession quite serendipitously, and has within it the power to obliterate every living thing and cover the land in darkness. While his friends are with him, Frodo knows that—ultimately—the task is his; he’s the ring-bearer, and must make the journey across treacherous terrain riddled with all manner of dark and fearsome adversaries to see the ring destroyed. At one point in the first movie, Frodo begins to question whether or not he can complete this mission; he knows it’s his, but is understandably troubled by it. And to this fear, the elf queen Galadriel speaks: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”


The problem is: we’re conditioned to believe the exact opposite. By society, by the media—we’re conditioned to believe that bigger is better, and that smaller is of less value. Think about it: Which material items are valued more? Not necessarily those that are physically larger, but most always those that are flashier, fancier, or more en vogue. That’s why we buy the cars we do, the perfume we do, the jewelry we do, the clothes we do, the phones we do. We know what’s “in,” what’s acceptable, what’s fashionable—and we tend to gravitate toward those things.


But we don’t just do this with things; we do it with people as well. Indeed, that might be—sadly—where such distinctions are most visible. Consider the myriad ways in which we divide ourselves up from one another: by race, by class, by gender. And typically, we operate under the guiding principle that bigger is better. This is part of the reason why systemic evils like racism, classism, and sexism continue to be so prevalent: those in the majority are most often the ones considered to be of worth; those in the minority, on the other hand, tend to be pushed to the side—their voices silenced, and their stories unheard.


This “bigger is better” sort of thinking has even begun to make its way into the Church. Congregations that are valued, that are paid attention to, whose ministry is noticed, whose efforts are applauded, are far too frequently those whose numbers make the right people look good. These are the congregations that are normatively perceived as “better”: congregations like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston, which boasts a weekly attendance of over 43,000; like Willow Creek in South Barrington, IL where nearly 23,000 turn up on any given Sunday; or like T.D. Jakes’ flock of some 17,000 in Dallas. The numbers don’t lie; people come in droves to these churches, and keep coming because bigger is commonly perceived as better.


But bigger isn’t always better. Whatever it is we’re pointing to, be it material goods or one’s social group or what have you—bigger isn’t always better. And scripture attests to this quite plainly. In our Old Testament lesson for this morning, the prophet Samuel is sent to find and anoint a king for Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young men are lined up, and the first one Samuel comes to is Eliab. Evidently he had something stately about him, for upon merely looking at him the prophet thought, “This is the guy.” But God speaks to Samuel, saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Outwardly, it’d seem Eliab fit the bill. But he wasn’t the right person for the job. Apparently, there was something about him that just wasn’t quite on target.


One by one, Samuel moves down the line through the sons of Jesse—and one by one, they’re passed over. No suitable king can be found—until the youngest son of Jesse is called in from the pasture: a boy named David. We know how the rest of that story goes, but the real take-away from David being selected is that he was the last one anyone would’ve expected. He wasn’t the biggest. He wasn’t the eldest. He wasn’t the strongest. But God makes the reason for the selection clear: “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” God chose David, because God saw right through to the heart of David—to who David was. Others may have only seen what was true on David’s exterior; God saw the potential within.


It’s not unlike what Jesus says in the parable of the mustard seed. As he’s explaining what the kingdom of heaven is like, he uses images of planting and growth and harvest. And then he offers something most intriguing; he says:


The kingdom of God…is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.


 

The smallest of seeds. Have you ever seen one? Have you ever held one? The mustard seed is indeed tiny, easy to miss, easy to overlook, almost insignificant—except for what it contains: except for its potential. For from that minute seed comes forth life: and not just life, but life that sustains and protects other life—thus perpetuating the cycle of God’s creative work. We look upon one of these seeds—or any seed for that matter—and we’re not likely to see this. We’re likely to see only what’s tangibly in front of us. “In the bulb,” however, “there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!” All of these are “unrevealed until [their] season, something God alone can see.”


Unless, that is, we can learn to see the way God sees. Unless we can learn, as St. Paul says, to “walk by faith, not by sight.” Unless we can learn “to regard no one from a human point of view,” but rather to see them as the handiwork of God who makes “everything” —yes, even us—brand new. But we miss the beautiful picture of what God is seeking to do in and through our lives, because our eyes are so often closed to it: because we’re looking in the wrong direction, or looking for the wrong things. We get so consumed by the “bigger is better” mentality, that we sometimes miss what or who God has anointed—right before our very eyes. We get so consumed by this mentality, that we sometimes miss the truth that the parable of the mustard seed teaches us: that God can do very big things through very small seeds, so long as they’re planted and nourished and given a chance to grow.


My question this morning is: What’s our vision of the kingdom of God? And, more precisely: How do we perceive ourselves as participating in the work of this kingdom? Maybe we don’t have a clear vision of what the kingdom looks like. Maybe we don’t have a clear understanding of what our role therein ought to be. And maybe this is because we’ve too long and too regularly been fed the lies that we don’t matter. That we can’t make an impact. That even our best efforts won’t amount to much.


As I said last week, the voices of the naysayers sometimes ring loudly in our ears, even to the point where we can barely hear what God has to say. But if we can manage to sift through those voices, and listen for the voice of the One who made us, we’ll find it telling us an entirely different story: encouraging us, though we be small, to place our trust in the grace of our big, big God—who is able, as we’re faithful, to do big things through us.


Some of you may have known this, though I’d wager most of you didn’t: but our denomination’s founder, John Wesley, was quite small. Though well-proportioned, he stood at a mere 5’3”—quite short for a man, of any era or by any standards; to be sure, not much bigger than our hobbit friends. I’d imagine that through the course of his life, he received his fair share of teasing and razzing, perhaps even getting picked on. And it’s a sure thing that, as an adult, there were many who didn’t take his ministry seriously. He was often pelted with stones as he preached, heckled and shouted at as rode through towns, and even had his life threatened a time or two. Yet despite his travail—being literally and figuratively quite small—he is quoted in his journal:


I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his [sic] blessing attends it.


 

Friends, may we be so bold, as to not be discouraged by what we lack or by what we perceive as deficiency or by what we fail to accomplish. May we, rather, be urged on by the love of Christ: encouraged by the promises of God who sees our potential, and by the blessings that attend our obedience to the divine will. For even the smallest persons, the smallest ministries, and the smallest congregations can change the course of the future if they’re depending on God to guide.

 

Second Sunday after Pentecost B | Proper 5 (10-Jun-12): Belonging to God

Posted by revjones on June 18, 2012 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Belonging to God

Second Sunday after Pentecost (B) | Proper 5 (10) | 10-Jun-12

Bethel UMC – 9:30 AM | Brooks Chapel UMC – 11:00 AM

 

1 Samuel 8.4-11, 16-20 | Psalm 138 | 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1 | Mark 3.20-35

 

I think most children are asked, at some point, what they want to be when they grow up. I know I was, anyway. And when presented with such a question, I usually had an answer. Problem is, that answer would’ve been different depending on when you asked me. Had you asked me when I was in high school, I might’ve said I wanted to be a professional basketball player. Had you asked me in junior high, I might’ve said I wanted to be an artist. Had you asked me in grade school, I might’ve said I wanted to be a Ghostbuster or Ninja Turtle.


Obviously, none of those things panned out. It may have been, in the case of the basketball career, because I didn’t possess the necessary skills. It may have been, in the case of the artistic career, because I didn’t put enough effort into it. Or it may have been, in the case of the Ninja Turtle, because I’m neither a ninja nor a turtle. But I believe that the most likely reason I ended up where I have is because God placed a calling on my life. And as I knelt before our bishop on Monday morning in Jackson, TN—to have him place his hands on my shoulders and invoke the work of the Holy Spirit in and through my life—that belief was undergirded.


One of the problems we face as persons of faith, however, is that we’re not always attentive to God’s call. That is to say: we’re not always attentive to what God wants, and pursue rather what we want or what we choose. While that’s no stunning revelation, it does run consistently through today’s texts. Consider, for instance, what we heard in today’s Old Testament lesson from the book of 1 Samuel. Samuel was a prophet of God—meaning that he spoke to the people as God’s mouthpiece, if you will. But though he endeavored to communicate God’s desire for the people to the people, his message (as is the case for most any prophet) wasn’t always well or rightly received. Apparently this is what’s happening here. The people approach Samuel, and ask him to “appoint” for them a king, that they might be “like other nations.”


Now we might hear that and think, “Okay, how’s that so terrible? After all, Israel had been ruled by kings at various points in their history. What would it hurt to have one now?” But the problem isn’t so much in their wanting a king, as it is in their wanting to be like the other nations. You see, one of the main tenets of ancient Judaism was that they were set apart. They were chosen by God—hand-picked—and therefore were required to live in a particular way to reflect who they were as God’s selected ones. Reading through the Torah and encountering its massive number of laws and regulations, it’s easy to be taken aback by all of the things required of the Hebrew people. That is, until one understands that the reason for the law was to distinguish the children of Israel from every other nation. The law kept them from being too much like the races and cultures that surrounded them, whom they perceived as godless and immoral and unholy.


And God doesn’t want God’s people to be like everyone else. God’s people are to be peculiar. They’re to be noticeably different. Why? Because they’re to walk in holiness and uprightness. They’re to shun evil and embrace good. They’re to love their neighbors, and their enemies as well—and yes, even strangers. Scripture tells us that these aren’t the ways of the majority. But they must be the ways of those who belong to God. So when the Israelites tell Samuel that they want to be like everybody else, he understandably gets perturbed. And so does God. But God isn’t surprised; God says, in effect, “They’ve been doing this stuff from day one—‘forsaking me and serving other gods.’ Let them have their king. But they’re going to regret it.”


And how often are we filled with regret, because we’ve moved away from what God wants in order to get or to do what we want? How often do we look back, and wish that we’d done things God’s way instead of attempting to forge our own way? How often do we wish we’d have listened to God’s Spirit leading through a still, small voice rather than hearkening to the myriad other voices that so frequently compel us to go in the opposite direction?


Even our Lord was surrounded by such voices. In this morning’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus and a crowd pressing in upon him; nothing remarkable there. What’s startling about the scene is how the people are interacting with Jesus, in response to the miraculous things he’s been doing. The masses are saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” The Greek there (existemi) is difficult, because it has so many shades of meaning. But the word typically carries a connotation of being somehow displaced within oneself: of somehow taking leave of one’s senses. And this has not uncommonly been the assessment of those who serve “not two masters, but One.”


Still, it gets worse. For the scribes who are present assert that Jesus “has Beelzebul” ; in other words, they’re accusing Jesus of being possessed—and not just by a demon, but by the “ruler of demons.” Yet even this is perhaps not the worst thing Jesus endures here; indeed, he’s been labeled with other unfavorable tags, from “drunk” to “liar.” No, what I see as most difficult for Jesus here is that there are those who attempt to restrain him. Among those whom Jesus considers his family—his own people—are some who want to keep him back from doing God’s work. They are hindering him from doing what God wants him to do.


Ever before us is God’s will; Jesus says that those who do it are his “brother and sister and mother” : his true family. Yet we’re frequently distracted. Sometimes, we distract ourselves by allowing our own designs for success to crowd out what God envisions for our lives. We want so much to fit in—to keep up with the Joneses, as it were—that we lose sight of where God’s leading us and who God’s asking us to be. We focus so much upon what we can see and touch and quantify, that we forget about that “eternal…glory beyond all measure” that comes only to those who allow themselves to be renewed by the grace of God.


And then, at other times, we simply pay too much attention to those ‘round about us who tell us that we can’t. Though we know what God wants, we listen more to the ones who tell us that we’re crazy: that we’re wasting our time, or that what we’re doing will never amount to anything. We listen more to those who tell us that our efforts are misguided, or that we’ve gotten it wrong. And possibly worst of all, we sometimes let ourselves be held back by those who care for us—or those for whom we care. This is a very narrow path to tread, and takes a great deal of Spirit-led discernment, because we certainly want to receive the opinions, advice, and guidance of those we’re closest to. But at the end of the day, we have to place our future in God’s hands before we place it in any human hands. That’s hard for us. But God knows what’s best for us, better than anyone else does and even better than we do. And, as the psalmist writes, “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for [us].”


What it comes down to is: Can we trust this? Can we and will we trust in “the unshakable fidelity of the divine love” : that God is faithful, even when we aren’t, and that God—in steadfastness of love—not only has a design for our lives, but also is able to work in us to bring that design to pass? Can we so trust God, that we’re willing to lay aside what we want in order to pursue what God wants? Can we so trust God, that we choose to hear God’s voice before we hear anyone else’s? Can we, as individuals, have this sort of trust in God? [Can we, as a congregation, continue to trust the One who’s guided us these past 116 years?] In the final analysis, it’s a question of who or what we belong to. Christian thinker Henri Nouwen puts it this way:


As long as we belong to this world, we will remain subject to its competitive ways and expect to be rewarded for all the good we do. But when we belong to God, who loves us without conditions, we can live as he [sic] does. The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from belonging to the world to belonging to God.

 

Dear ones, to whom or to what do we belong? To the ways of this world, seeking to be like everyone else? To ourselves, and to our plans or desires? To others, who might—wittingly or unwittingly—take our eyes away from God’s purpose? Or do we belong to God, rendering the whole of who we are in love and in service to our Maker? Christ said that neither a kingdom nor a house divided against itself can stand. Thus we can’t halfway belong to God; we must entirely belong to God—heart, soul, mind, and strength. May this therefore be our aim, that we might find God’s path and, more importantly, that we might live as God’s people.

 

Pentecost B (27-May-12): Thinking Differently about Difference

Posted by revjones on May 27, 2012 at 9:55 PM Comments comments (2)

Thinking Differently about Difference

Pentecost (B) | 27-May-12

Bethel UMC – 9:30 AM | Brooks Chapel UMC – 11:00 AM

 

Acts 2.1-21 | Romans 8.22-27 | John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15


Grâce et la paix au nom de Jésus-Christ. Gracia y paz en el nombre de Jesucristo. Chári kai eiríni sto ónoma tou Iisoú Christoú. Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ. What you heard just a moment ago were my (feeble) attempts to offer that traditional Christian greeting in French, Spanish, and Greek. Perhaps you could identify those languages. What you might not have known is that those three languages and the one I’m presently speaking only account for about .0006 percent of our world’s living languages. There are believed to be nearly seven thousand distinct languages currently being spoken around the world—a number that’s already high, but doesn’t even take into consideration variances such as dialect. I don’t know about you, but when I hear a fact like that it makes me feel very, very small; it makes me realize I’m just a minuscule piece of a much larger and magnificent creation that’s wonderfully vibrant in its diversity.


But it also prompts me to give pause and marvel at the fact that—of all the things God’s Spirit could’ve touched at that first New Testament Pentecost, of all the areas of the disciples’ lives that could’ve been affected—the Spirit first of all touched their tongues. The Spirit first of all affected their speech: their communication. The Spirit first of all altered the ways in which they thought and spoke about God.


Can you imagine the scene? These first disciples of Jesus, huddled together. Perhaps discussing what they’d only recently heard from the Lord regarding the coming of God’s promise: “What did he mean when he said we’d receive ‘power’? Who or what is this ‘Holy Spirit’?” Perhaps still battling the fear of what the religious leaders might do to them; perhaps wrestling with anxiety that now, somehow, their master’s work was in their hands. And it’s onto this scene that the Spirit of God bursts; it’s into these lives that the Spirit rushes. Abruptly. Invasively. Fiercely. And these followers of Jesus are so overtaken by the burning flame of this Spirit, that they can’t restrain themselves from praising God. Even St. Peter, who at times had been so unsure (and at other times had simply gotten it wrong) was emboldened to stand and quote the prophet, saying God’s Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh” and that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This is the Gospel, to be sure.


But sometimes, I think, we’re guilty of wanting Christ’s Gospel to be something else. The apostle seems to recognize, here, that God is throwing wide open the doors of invitation: that God’s greatest desire is reconciliation. We, on the other hand, tend to frame the Gospel as one of assimilation: one in which everyone is exactly alike. The problem is that—more often than not—we see our beliefs, perspectives, traditions, ideals, and the like as the ones others need to assimilate to. If you worship like us, if your priorities match ours, if you have the same stance on issues that we do—you’re a Christian.


But sometimes it goes even further. Because sometimes we draw barriers around those things over which people have little or no control. And we say things like being Christian means being American. Being Christian means being Caucasian. Being Christian means being wealthy (or, at the very least, not destitute). Really, we fill in that blank after “being Christian means…” with all kinds of things. We might recoil and protest, “We’d never say that.” But sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it; it’s implicit, in our attitudes or behaviors. Other times, sadly, we’re very aware. And we’re intentionally exclusive.


And not just us. We live in a world in which the forces that divide threaten to destroy us. Nations are divided by rival systems of politics and economic groups. Groups within nations are divided by class consciousness and conflict. Families are increasingly divided by divorce. Even individuals are divided within themselves—virtually split in two—by grief, depression, anxiety, and hordes of other emotional and spiritual challenges.


This isn’t the story Pentecost tells. And it isn’t the Gospel Pentecost presents. For the good news of Pentecost is that in which we find unity. It’s that in which we find a radically-inclusive God blowing across boundaries in the form of a violent wind, and setting disciples’ hearts ablaze with a divine fire. Look at the words St. Luke chooses, to recall the events: together, one place, the entire house, each of them, all of them, every nation, each one, everyone. Again and again, we’re reminded that God’s Spirit is poured out for all: made available for all. Sons and daughters. Young and old. Everyone.


And perhaps the greatest indicator of this comes in the form of what happens when the disciples begin to speak aloud God’s praises. The scripture says they “began to speak in” hetereis glossais—literally, with tongues that weren’t their own. Can you imagine the sound, especially if there were indeed a hundred and twenty persons there (as Acts chapter one suggests)—and especially if they all chimed in at once? It would’ve been chaotic, to put it mildly. And yet, somehow, those who hear the sound don’t seem the least bit confused—not by what’s being said, anyway. What has them “bewildered,” instead, is the fact that—even though they represent a multiplicity of nationalities (and, thus, languages)—they’re able to decipher what the disciples are saying. “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”


And that’s the beauty of this narrative: that they do hear the mighty works of God being proclaimed—that they do hear the Gospel—in their own languages. The Pentecost story doesn’t dissolve the differences that exist between people. Rather, it acknowledges and highlights the beauty of difference in God speaking to the people in ways that each of them could understand. God met them—where they were, as they were, and without respect to who they were.


What we need to be aware of is that the Pentecost event commissions and strengthens us to do the same. The arrival of the Holy Spirit commissions and strengthens us to take part in bringing the Gospel to the people, and making it available in ways that they can understand: in ways that are relevant for them. We heard Jesus say last week that his followers are to be his witnesses; in today’s gospel lesson, he says his disciples “are to testify” to the truth of who he is. But knowing this is our task does us little good if we’re unwilling to make the good news accessible. St. Paul said he was willing to become all things to all people, that he might by all means save some. How willing are we to do the same?


More frequently, we cling so tightly to what we’re persuaded is absolutely right and proper that there’s no room for any discussion of any sort. We say our hearts, minds, and doors are open—but often, we only open them to those whom we perceive as being enough like us that they pose no threat. Make no mistake: there’s only one Gospel, and it doesn’t change; Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But the times, they are a-changin’. And people change as well. And because we’re fashioned by our Maker to be unique, it means there’s no guarantee that a given means of faith-sharing is going to strike any two people in precisely the same way. Through the Spirit who empowered willing vessels, God spoke to the people on the day of Pentecost in ways they could understand. And so should we.


How, then, do we proclaim the Gospel to the elderly man who just lost his wife of fifty years? How do we proclaim it to a homosexual neighbor who’s perpetually been shunned by most Christians? How do we proclaim it to the fifteen-year-old girl who thinks religion is a waste of time? How do we proclaim it to someone of another racial group who doesn’t feel white people can be trusted? How do we proclaim it to the friend who’s married and has three small children, and just lost his job? How do we proclaim it to someone with whom we’ve been angry and locked in bitter disagreement for years? We mustn’t change the Gospel. But if the Church is to thrive, we have to proclaim it—in word and in deed—in the vernacular of those who are on the receiving end.


Because it truly is for everyone, this good news. The “whole creation,” Paul writes, “has been groaning in labor pains until now” —waiting for redemption. That may not be something we always grasp, or always live into very well—but it’s true nonetheless. The way of life has been opened to all. The Spirit of God has been poured out upon all flesh. God desires all things to be reconciled to God’s self, and wishes no one to perish. We’ll continue to come from different places, have different stories, value different things, possess different ideas; we’ll continue to approach and comprehend the Gospel in different ways. Still it finds us, as we are, and shapes us so that our lives more clearly depict the image of our Maker.


I often like to end sermons by sharing hymn lyrics. This one is no exception, as I find that the words of one of Charles Wesley’s works encapsulate and summarize well what we’re to be about, as Spirit-led people. He wrote:


Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire,

let us thine influence prove;

source of the old prophetic fire,

fountain of life and love.


 

Come, Holy Ghost (for moved by thee

the prophets wrote and spoke),

unlock the truth, thyself the key,

unseal the sacred book.


 

Expand thy wings, celestial Dove,

brood o’er our nature’s night;

on our disordered spirits move,

and let there now be light.


 

God, through the Spirit we shall know

if thou within us shine,

and sound, with all thy saints below,

the depths of love divine.


 

May our hearts be strangely warmed, and so inspired by the flame of God’s life-giving Spirit, that we’re empowered to go forth with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ—making it accessible to and available for all.

 

Easter 5B (6-May-12): Abiding in the Vine

Posted by revjones on May 6, 2012 at 10:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Sermon audio available here: http://bethelbrooks.sermon.net/da/119908656/play


Acts 8.26-40 | 1 John 4.7-21 | John 15.1-8


I’m by no means a student of viniculture, but I was amazed when I learned this past week that there are some sixty species of plants within the grapevine genus. Most of these species are in the northern hemisphere, and over twenty-nine thousand square miles of our globe is dedicated to the growth of grapes—with much of this land being located in Spain, France, and Italy. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, seventy-one percent of that growth is used for wine, twenty-seven percent as fresh fruit, and just a fraction as dried fruit or juices. It’s also worth noting that the land area used for vineyards is increasing about two percent each year. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t aware it was such a big business.


Apparently, it was fairly common in biblical times as well. The scriptures are replete with images of vines and vineyards (and those who tend them), appearing in quite nearly two hundred verses. Jesus, especially, has much to say about vines and their fruit—mentioning one or the other (or both) in each of the gospels. Much of the time, he uses the word ampelos—which indeed refers to grapevines. But most of what he has to say on the subject comes in St. John’s gospel—and, indeed, right here in the fifteenth chapter that’s before us this day.


As noted last week, Jesus makes a handful of assertions concerning his identity in the fourth gospel; these are known as the “I am” statements. I am the gate; I am the bread of heaven; I am the way, the truth, and the life; and so on. But this week’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus referring to himself as “the true vine.” What’s a bit different about the imagery he used last week, however, is that he quite specifically addresses his hearers and how they fit into the metaphor. Last week, though he called himself the good shepherd, he didn’t specifically say, “And you guys are the sheep.” They were left to figure it out for themselves. But here, he’s quite explicit. “I am the vine,” he says. “You are the branches.”


And there’s really not much guesswork with this one. Jesus makes it clear that the reason he refers to his hearers as branches is because he has expectations of them: expectations to bear fruit—and not just any amount. He expects “more fruit” ; “much fruit.” Now of course, we all know this. We all know that, as Christ’s followers, we’re to be about showing forth Christ in the way we live. We’re to be about showing forth Christ in our conduct and in our actions. We’re to be about showing forth Christ in holiness and uprightness. Our deeds should be those which make present the Gospel, elevate Christ’s name, and bring glory to God. And we know, because we’ve heard it time and time again, what form this fruit is to take. It’s to take the form of loving others, as we’ve been loved by God—which is spelled out for us in this morning’s epistle lesson. We “ought to love one another,” the author writes, because “God loved us so much.” We can’t say that we love God if we don’t love our fellows.


I see a profound depth of love present in St. Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian eunuch, about whom we read in this morning’s passage from Acts. It might not be evident at first, as the apostle—on the surface—just appears to be doing a bit of witnessing. But there’s more happening here. Because Philip isn’t preaching to a crowd. He approaches an individual—and a stranger, at that. He expresses concern for this stranger. He makes time for this stranger. He listens to this stranger. He sits with this stranger. He offers Christ, but not in a passing or thoughtless way. He offers something of himself to benefit another; in this, he truly shares the Gospel. And, in this, he shows great love.


I believe we understand that this is the fruit God wants us to bear. I believe we understand that this is the fruit Jesus instructs us to bear. And I believe we make every effort—I believe that we strive—to bear this fruit. But that’s where I’d like for us to pause, and think for a moment. Because we’ve heard so much all of this talk about vines and branches and fruit that, sometimes, we miss a point that I believe Jesus is trying to convey.


And the point is: no plant has to work at producing what it yields. An apple tree doesn’t have to deliberate about making apples. A rosebush doesn’t have to struggle for its flowers to bloom. Or, to use Jesus’ symbol: a grapevine doesn’t have to try to grow grapes. It happens naturally, as part of what the plant is: as part of how the plant’s made. Because it’s an apple tree, it’ll make apples. Because it’s a rosebush, we’ll find roses blooming. Because it’s a grapevine, we can expect grapes. The plants don’t do the work, per se.


But that doesn’t mean no work is done at all. Because someone finds good soil. Someone plants the seeds. Someone applies fertilizer. Someone provides water. Someone minds the weeds. Someone tends the plant, in some form or fashion, so that it can be healthy and strong—so that it can bear good fruit. The plants simply respond to this nurture—and to their nature—by yielding a harvest.


When viewed from this perspective, I wonder if we miss the mark when we think of our service to God as something we must work toward. I wonder if we misunderstand what it means to bear kingdom fruit when we talk about struggling to do God’s will or about putting all of our effort into doing what God wants. Yes, Jesus says that those who hear him are to be branches—meaning that they must bear fruit. But Jesus is the vine, and the Father is the vinegrower. Do you see the picture? God’s the vinegrower; God’s the one who does the actual work. God takes care of and nourishes the plant. God prunes the branches, that they’ll be more productive. And Jesus, as the vine, is the source of life for the branches. What the branches need in order to survive and to be productive comes through him.


And that’s what it all comes down to: our task—as those commanded to be fruitful—isn’t so much to preoccupy ourselves with the actual bearing of the fruit, as it is to focus on abiding in the one through whom we’re able to bear fruit. If we’re branches that are connected to the vine, we’re going to produce fruit; it’s going to be what happens naturally, just as with any plant. Does Jesus say that those who abide in him might bear fruit? Does he say it’s possible, but that we’d still have to work really hard at it? No. He says that those who abide in him (and he in them) bear much fruit. No qualifying statements. No asterisks. When we abide in the vine, we—as branches—will bear fruit.


And I think that the reason Jesus is so certain about this is because of what it means to abide in him—to truly abide in him. Because it’s not offering lip-service with a simple statement of belief. It’s not an intellectual assent to what’s proclaimed about the Christ. The word Jesus uses is meno, which means “to remain.” It refers to one who continues to be present, or to something or someone that’s held or kept continually. It refers to that which lasts: to that which endures. It’s not merely acknowledging Christ; it’s holding to Christ—clinging to Christ—as the one in whom we live and move and have our being. It’s not merely saying yes to Christ; it’s saying yes to him over and over and over again, in the midst of everything else that might lure us toward saying no. It’s not merely making room or making time for Christ; it’s recognizing his presence at all times and in all things. When we abide in him, and he in us, we’re one with Christ. We’re branches connected to the true vine. And such branches will naturally bear fruit.


Friends, don’t hear this as espousing idleness. Don’t hear this as downplaying the significance of our works. We understand their importance, in making the good news tangible for the hurting ones around us. We understand their importance, because—without them—faith languishes and dies. I believe that our Lord would have us know, however, that our chief concern ought to be remaining in Christ. Our chief concern ought to be getting and staying as close to him as we can. Our chief concern ought to be keeping him at the very center—the very core—of who we are. And so, we search the scriptures. We open our hearts in prayer. We open our minds to eternal truths. We open our hands to be a blessing. We gather with our brothers and sisters for worship. We take our place around the Table, and—in the bread and in the cup—we remember. In these things—in all of them—we listen to Christ and we learn from Christ, that we might remain in Christ. For apart from him, we “can do nothing” ; apart from him, we wither and die. But abiding in him, we bear much fruit—glorifying God and bringing the kingdom near. May it be so.

 

Easter 4B (29-Apr-12): Sheep in Need of a Shepherd

Posted by revjones on April 29, 2012 at 10:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Acts 4.5-12 | Psalm 23 | 1 John 3.16-24 | John 10.11-18


When I was a boy, my parents and I traveled frequently to Branson, Missouri. We’d usually go in the summer of the year and, while there, typically stayed at the Mountain Shadow Inn—a lovely place nestled in the Ozarks, boasting a view that’d take your breath away. We often ate at barbecue joint called Adam’s Rib, and went to see some of the live shows put on by the acts who had their own theaters in town (two I immediately recall seeing were Mel Tillis and Willie Nelson).


But my favorite part of the excursion was something we always did: we always went to watch The Shepherd of the Hills. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s a play (put on in an outdoor amphitheatre) featuring more than eighty actors, forty horses, and the nightly burning of a cabin. It’s a beautiful story based on the 1907 novel of the same name, by Harold Bell Wright. The basic plot revolves around an old man—known to the locals, because of his wisdom and caring, as the Shepherd—who settles in the Ozarks among the mountain folk to escape the buzzing restlessness of the city. It’s a somewhat complex tale of love and betrayal, with themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. But at the center of the story is the Shepherd, who holds all of the pieces together.


This isn’t entirely unlike this morning’s gospel text, which also points to a shepherd—the good shepherd—who’s at the very center of the good news and holds all things together. In the gospel according to St. John, Jesus makes several statements about himself which reveal something of who he is and why he’s come. There are seven in total, scattered throughout the book. Jesus calls himself the bread of life, the light of the world, and (just a few verses prior to today’s reading) the gate. He tells Martha of Bethany that he’s the resurrection and the life, and elsewhere says he’s the way, the truth, and the life. In next week’s gospel lesson, he’ll call himself the vine. But here, he wants his hearers to know him as the good shepherd.


And it’s an interesting image, this image of the shepherd. It would’ve likely been quite familiar to the ones to whom Jesus spoke. Shepherding, after all, is one of the oldest known occupations in human history—traceable to Asia Minor some six thousand years ago. We know as well that it was a relatively common job in biblical times, based upon the number of references we find in scripture. Several Old Testament characters (such as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Amos) are described as having been shepherds; shepherds are also said, according to St. Luke, to have been among the first informed of the birth of Christ.


So the people would’ve understood to what Jesus was pointing as he made reference to the shepherd. They would’ve understood that he meant someone who maintained the sheep and kept the flock intact. They would’ve understood that he meant someone who tended the sheep, making sure they had food and water. And they would’ve also understood that he meant someone who protected the sheep, doing whatever was necessary to make sure they were safe. It’s this image which Jesus paints, and he does so as a self-portrait. He tells the Pharisees, to whom he’s speaking, that as the good shepherd he cares for his own and knows his own—“lay[ing] down his life for the sheep.”


Less obvious might’ve been who Jesus was referring to as sheep. Do you think those who heard Jesus on that day would’ve got it? Do you think they would’ve recognized themselves as sheep? Being among the religious elite of the day, I’d guess they probably didn’t. From what we read in other gospel passages, the Pharisees seemed to think pretty highly of themselves as those who knew the law, taught the law, kept the law, and were descended from Abraham. I can almost hear their protest: “Sheep are dependent. Sheep are weak. Sheep are foolish. We are none of these.” To be sure, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day often failed to grasp the underlying truths of his words.


And how much we are like them! For we, too, tend to think of ourselves as independent. We tend to think of ourselves as strong. We tend to think of ourselves as wise. We don’t want to admit that we can’t always figure things out or do them without assistance. We don’t want to admit that there are times when our ability is insufficient, or our intellect is limited. But perhaps hardest for us to hear: we don’t want to admit that we can’t save ourselves. We frequently fail to see (or choose not to see) our need for Christ, because we want to make our own way.


But God quickly reminds us that there is no other way. “There is salvation in no one else,” St. Peter says, “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Do you hear that language? We must be saved. We must be rescued. It’s not something we do to or for ourselves. We can’t make it alone and we can’t forge our own path, because we’re far too prone to roam. We’re far too prone to stray. We’re far too prone to go after other things, not heeding God’s call. For this reason, we need a shepherd—one who will keep the flock intact. We need one who will take care of us. We need one who will lead us. We need one who will guide us. We need one who will search for us when we wander. We need one who will pull us back when we get too close to harm. We need one who “laid down his life for us.” This one is Jesus, the good shepherd.


Yet I firmly believe that a large portion of the problems we see in the contemporary Church stem from our refusal to acknowledge our need for this shepherd. We find ourselves in all manner of conflict with our sisters and brothers over the most minute and peripheral points of doctrine and discipline, and—unfortunately—this is particularly visible in our denomination. Right now, at General Conference, we’re arguing about the necessity of certain programs. We’re arguing about how long our bishops should serve. We’re arguing about whether or not ordained elders should be guaranteed appointment. We’re arguing about who should be permitted to church membership or leadership. And on every side of every issue are those who truly believe themselves to be listening to and following the Christ. But is he speaking one thing to one side, and something else to the other side? Is God divided? I’d say it’s far more likely that we’ve let far too much of our own interpretation and bias cloud our judgment and thinking. I’d say it’s far more likely that, though we believe we’re following, we’re actually trying very hard—in many ways—to shepherd ourselves.


When we follow the good shepherd, on the other hand, we don’t have to strive to make it on our own. Because, the Lord being our shepherd, we “shall not want” ; “he leads [us] in right paths for his name’s sake.” When we follow the good shepherd, we know and experience his love. And the love we’ve been shown in his giving himself for us inspires us (as the author of 1 John says) “to lay down our lives for one another” —loving “in truth and [in] action.” Can you imagine what might happen to conflict within congregations—and the body of Christ as a whole—if we’d only do this? Can you imagine how different the face of Christianity might look—and how much brighter the image of Christ would shine in and through us—if we sought first of all to be led by our shepherd?


I’m here reminded of a mid-nineteenth century hymn attributed to Dorothy Thrupp—the words of which say:


Savior, like a shepherd lead us,

much we need thy tender care;

in thy pleasant pastures feed us,

for our use thy folds prepare

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!

Thou hast bought us, thine we are.


 

We are thine, thou dost befriend us,

be the guardian of our way;

keep thy flock, from sin defend us,

seek us when we go astray.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!

Hear, O hear us when we pray.


 

Thou hast promised to receive us,

poor and sinful though we be;

thou hast mercy to relieve us,

grace to cleanse and power to free.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!

We will early turn to thee.


 

Early let us seek thy favor,

early let us do thy will;

blessed Lord and only Savior,

with thy love our bosom fill.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!

Thou hast loved us, love us still.


 

Christ our Savior and good shepherd loves us, and waits to lead us. He waits to lead us “beside still waters,” and to restore our souls. He desires to bring all of his sheep from every fold, that there might be “one flock, one shepherd.” But all of this requires that we relinquish shepherding ourselves. May we therefore believe in his name, hearken to his voice, and follow—making this shepherd the center of our story, and abiding in God by the Spirit we’ve been given.

 

Easter 3B (22-Apr-12): Have You Anything Here to Eat?

Posted by revjones on April 22, 2012 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Acts 3.12-19 | 1 John 3.1-7 | Luke 24.36b-48


It’s no secret that United Methodists love to eat. Really, I think most Christian traditions have a knack for breaking bread together. But we’re especially good at it in our denomination. Think about it: at many of the gatherings we have, food’s involved. Revival services? We’re going to eat. Fifth Sunday Rally? We’re going to eat. Someone graduated? We’re going to eat. Funeral? We’re going to eat. Homecoming? We’re going to eat. Labor Day? We’re going to eat. Christmas program? We’re going to eat. Why, even tonight we’ll be having a singing at Bethel. And guess what? We’re going to eat.


And why shouldn’t we? Sharing meals has a strong biblical basis as well as profound theological implications. Moreover, the image of the table has typically been at the very center of the household construct. I think about the emphasis that’s placed, in many cultures, on the family dinner: something which is becoming increasingly rare in our society but which once was valued as a moment for persons to gather, to break bread, and to tell the stories that make them who they are. Tables, especially those which we sit around to eat, represent home. And when you’re home, you know that there’s always room for you at the table; you know that what’s on the table will be shared with you.


These are powerful, powerful symbols. No wonder Jesus’ ministry has so much to do with food. Consider what we find in the gospels: We see Jesus, criticized by the religious elite for dining with tax collectors and those who were regarded as sinners. We see him feeding a multitude—more than five thousand—with a few loaves and fish. We hear him teach that the kingdom of heaven is like a great wedding banquet, one to which all are invited. And we see him with his closest followers, sharing a final meal in which he calls the bread his body and the cup his blood.


These are just a small handful of the host of examples wherein Jesus’ ministry is connected to the symbolic significance of eating. But today’s gospel text could also be numbered among them. St. Luke offers to us yet another post-resurrection narrative. Resembling what we heard in last week’s account from St. John, the disciples are assembled together when Jesus appears among them and speaks a word of peace. Also much like John’s version, Jesus shows them his wounds. And, as usual, the disciples are still a bit lost. Luke tells us that they’re joyful, but are still “disbelieving” and “wondering.” In other words, they aren’t entirely convinced; they aren’t sure what they’re observing is real. So Jesus asks for something to eat. The evangelist says that “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.”


It seems like quite an odd detail to include, especially considering that nothing else is said about it. But it’s interesting because, after it happens, the disciples don’t appear to be so confused. They’re absolutely bumfuzzled up to that point, even though they’ve seen Jesus, heard him speak, and been invited to touch him to make sure he isn’t a ghost. But it’s only after they give Jesus something to eat that they’re able to have their minds opened to understand Christ’s mission, and their need to be witnesses to the Gospel.


This of course bears a striking similarity to what one reads just a few verses before today’s text, in the Emmaus story. I mentioned it in passing last week, but essentially it goes like this: a pair of travelers, probably disciples, were headed toward Emmaus when—suddenly—Jesus was walking with them; they, however, had no idea who he was. But they journey on together, talking about all that’d recently happened. And the scene concludes with Jesus sitting at a meal with the pair, breaking bread, and giving it to them. And it was “then [that] their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” In both passages, there’s a correlation between food being shared and the reality of Christ being experienced. In one case it’s bread and in the other it’s fish—but in both instances, the light only goes on over the heads of Jesus’ followers in the context of a meal. More to the point, the light only goes on over their heads as something is freely given.


But here’s what I feel is most intriguing: in the Emmaus story, it’s Jesus who gives to the disciples; in today’s gospel reading, it’s the disciples who give to Jesus. In the Emmaus story, the disciples’ experience of Jesus was contingent on grace—because neither of them ask for Jesus to give them bread. Jesus simply takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it—and the disciples, in receiving, see Christ. But in what we read this morning, the disciples’ experience of Jesus was contingent on their willingness to give. Jesus asks for food, and the disciples give—and the disciples, in giving, see Christ.


And why is this? I’d contend that it’s because giving is so central to who God is, and how God operates. God is a providing God. God is a sharing God. Indeed, one of the best-known verses in the entirety of holy writ points to precisely this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Because God loves, God gives. And as those who are made in the image and likeness of God, we’re called to possess something of the divine nature and character. This is why we experience Christ so profoundly and so deeply as we give—as we offer, in love, our very selves to God and neighbor. According to theologian and Vanderbilt professor Doug Meeks:


The fundamental logic of the economy of God is that Jesus Christ is the…unexcelled generosity by which God has gifted God’s own life in order to redeem us from the nothingness of death, and that this gift is what obligates, moves, and empowers our lives for serving life against death in the world.


 

“See what love the Father has given us,” exclaims the author of 1 John. Yet we frequently fail to perceive our giving as the necessity that it is. We don’t usually think of it in terms of bringing God’s image to bear in our lives. We don’t usually think of it in terms of bringing the message of the Gospel to bear in our world. We tend to see it more as a divine mandate: as something we have to do or ought to do. Some of us see it as something that we do to maintain our image, or a degree of respectability. Still others see it as something that we tack on when we have spare time, energy, or resources. But giving, wrongly motivated, isn’t giving. The Church’s motivation is to be the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—through which all abundance has been gifted to creation. The only proper motivation to give is that we do so in loving response to what God’s given us.


But at times, we tend to limit our experience of Christ to what he’s done for us. That is: we tend to view God’s love solely through the lens of what we’ve received, what we’ve been offered, or how we’ve been blessed. Make no mistake: “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks” to the Lord; we need at all times to recognize what God gives to us, and to do so with gratitude. For, as was just said, this shapes how we give and share. But when our total understanding of the reality of God lies in what we get from God, we’re most likely going to be missing the big picture. Because there are times in which Christ visits us and gives to us what we’re needing in that moment; there are times in which our eyes are opened by what we receive. But just as often, there are times in which we’re asked what we have to eat; there are times in which we’re asked what we have to give.


And when we’re responsive in those moments, we’ll find the Christ standing before us—but maybe not as we’d expect. He may appear as the man in the third chapter of Acts: one “lame from birth,” but made well “by faith.” He may appear as an unwed mother. Maybe as an unemployed husband. Maybe as an elderly resident of a nursing facility. Maybe as an orphaned child. We might see him as a wounded veteran, as a person who’s homeless, as a convict, or as a substance abuser. Yes, we may find him in all kinds of faces—because as we do for the least of these, we do for him.


Today, I wonder: Do we wish to have a fuller, deeper experience of Christ? Do we wish to see the reality of who he is in our day-to-day lives? Do we wish to be assured of his presence with us in every situation? Then let us not look only for what God gives; let us open our ears and our hearts to listen for the voice of God that asks us to give: that voice which asks us for something to eat, speaking eternal truths to us as we open our hands in gratitude and generosity.

 

 

Easter 2B (15-Apr-12): Do Not Doubt But Believe

Posted by revjones on April 16, 2012 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Acts 4.32-35 | 1 John 1.1-2.2 | John 20.19-31


Why do we tend to believe just about everything we hear? I don’t have any statistics on that, but it seems to be pretty much true. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose email inbox and Facebook newsfeed are regularly flooded with all sorts of stories, typically quite sensational and vitriolic, the bulk of which do little more than prey on the undiscerning and stir up havoc. Case in point, something received in an email shortly after the events of September 11, 2001; it’s presented as a quote from the Qu’ran—the sacred text of the Islamic faith—chapter nine and verse eleven:


For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome Eagle. The wrath of the Eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah and lo, while some of the people trembled in despair still more rejoiced; for the wrath of the Eagle cleansed the lands of Allah; and there was peace.


 

Many read that and were taken aback, as it appears to be a prophecy that foretells and justifies our nation’s launching of military action against Afghanistan and Iraq. But it’s ridiculously false. These lines not only don’t appear in chapter nine and verse eleven; nothing like them is found anywhere in the book. By the way, if you’re interested: the eleventh verse in the ninth chapter of the Qu’ran speaks of repentance, prayer, and helping the poor.


Another claim, this one circulating on Facebook not long ago, said that good Christians would avoid drinking Pepsi because the company was going to a release a commemorative can in which the words “under God” were missing from the Pledge of Allegiance. Again, this isn’t true. Neither Pepsi nor Coke has ever produced such a can. However, in November of 2001, Dr. Pepper did produce a can which featured an image of the Statue of Liberty and the phrase, “One nation…indivisible.” And, among certain circles, it stirred a bit of brouhaha. But these cans have been off the shelves for a decade.


I’d wager these are the sorts of things American firearms expert Jeff Cooper had in mind when he said, “A smart man [sic] only believes half of what he hears, a wise man knows which half.” Now I wouldn’t categorize myself as either smart or wise, but I do tend to be something of a skeptic. I tend to carefully approach things that I hear, and weigh their legitimacy. I question the veracity of the ghost-hunting shows on TV, as well as the skills of the so-called Long Island medium. And I think this is why I relate so well to one of the main characters in this morning’s gospel lesson. St. Thomas has traditionally gotten a bit of a bad rap, though it’s admittedly not as severe as it once was. But what was he guilty of? We call him “Doubting Thomas” because he needed a bit more evidence to be sure that the things he heard concerning the risen Lord were true—but who among the disciples didn’t need convincing? None of them, upon hearing of the resurrection, act like they knew it’d happen or as if they’d been expecting it.


As we heard last week, Mary Magdalene thought Jesus’ body had been taken, and Peter and the beloved disciple were flummoxed. St. Mark has some of the women going to anoint the body—essentially, to finish burying Jesus—which isn’t what one who’s looking for a resurrection would do. According to St. Luke’s gospel, when the ladies return to tell the other disciples, they blow the good news off as being an “idle tale” ; moreover, the disciples in that account don’t even recognize Jesus walking and talking with them on the road to Emmaus. In short, none of the disciples would’ve gotten a gold star. Because none of them “got” the resurrection right off the bat. None of them seem to believe.


Yet our gospel text for this day is undeniably concerned with belief. Thomas says he needs to see Jesus’ wounds in order to believe. Jesus appears to the disciples and says to Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe.” And the passage concludes with the author saying that all these things were recorded so that those who encounter them “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” It seems pretty clear, from my vantage point, that Jesus was quite concerned with making sure his disciples believed that he’d overcome death. But for what purpose was it so vital for them (and for us) to believe?


Verse thirty-one offers the short answer, saying it’s necessary for life; we have life in the name of Christ, as we believe that he’s the Messiah. But what’s interesting is that the Greek word for “life,” used throughout this passage, is zoe—a term that refers not only to physically being alive, but also to life in a larger, more complex, and even metaphorical sense: full life; genuine life. Life in which one is complete, and lacks nothing. Indeed, this is what the scriptures attest is God’s desire for all of us; earlier in John’s gospel, this is why Jesus says he came: “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”


That’s why Jesus came. That’s why Jesus was sent. But what’s often glossed over in this story, because we give so much attention to Thomas’ hesitation, is that Jesus’ disciples are also sent—sent by Christ himself. And not only are they sent; Jesus says: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Christ was sent with the good news of the life found in God that’s offered to all. His disciples are sent with that same message, with that same commission: to offer life, and that abundantly.


This means that we “testify” to the Gospel: that we “proclaim…that God is light and in him…is no darkness” ; it means we “declare…what we have heard [and]…seen…concerning the word of life.” But we mustn’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk. In this, offering life means that we look after the needs of others; the book of Acts tells of a Church that was united in “heart and soul,” in which “everything…was held in common” so that all were taken care of. No one was left wanting, because there was no “yours” or “mine”—only “ours.”


But, and perhaps most importantly, to offer life as Christ does means that we offer forgiveness of sins. This is something that’s unique to the Church, but we don’t often see it as our task. We’re much better at acting as the moral police, but that isn’t our job. Forgiveness is the Church’s job: proclaiming it, in the name of Jesus. You see, the Church exists “to deal with the sin that world can’t turn off or escape from.” We’re not in the business of telling the world what’s right and what’s wrong so that it can “do good and avoid evil. [We’re] in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness” to do what it knows it should.


All of this is Christ’s call upon his disciples. We’re called to life, and sent to proclaim the life of God in Christ through our words and actions. But what hinders us—at times—in doing this life-giving work of Christ is lack of belief. We, like those first followers of Jesus, often fail to trust him. We often fail to take him at his word. We often fail to expect him to come through with what he’s promised. And we want to lean too much on our own understanding.


Even so, lack of belief in God isn’t the only thing that keeps us from bearing fruit. Because we also lack belief in ourselves. We can’t do it. We don’t have enough resources. We’re too small. We’re too afraid. We’ve failed before. We’ve been hurt too badly. So we lock our doors and hide away, trying to cling to what scraps of faith we might possess. And it’s into the midst of this that Christ comes, proclaiming peace and baring his scars. The resurrected Jesus shows the disciples his wounds: not only to prove his identity, but also to show them that what seems like defeat needn’t be defeat. The cross wasn’t the end; Christ was alive three days later. And that’s the message of the resurrection: we too can rise again. Indeed, we must.


And we can, as we turn to the crucified and ever-living Savior. We can, as we turn to the one who imparts life to all who will receive and instructs us to offer the same. But before we’re able to do this, we must believe. We must believe that Jesus conquered death, that none of God’s creation need be held in its captivity. We must believe that Christ still removes all barriers, to stand among those who follow him. We must believe that he gives to us peace, the likes of which no one and nothing else can give. We must believe that he breathes the very life of God upon us, to fit us for our great embassy.


As noted at the outset of this message: some things we do well to deny, or to expose as untrue; after all, the lies of the accuser are everywhere. And even a bit of doubt, in proper measure, can be beneficial—if it pushes us to search for the deepest truths. Besides, Jesus never tells us not to question. Jesus never tells us not to wonder. He only tells us to believe. Thanks be to God, by whose grace we find the faith to do precisely this—that we might live, and offer life to others.

 


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