Fantastic Voyage

Mark 4:35-41


35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


Well this is a different kind of Sunday. And a different kind of sermon to prepare. I remember having a conversation with my son back in November about my plan to retire. I remember telling him how excited I was about starting a new chapter in my life, but also of how much dread I had about making this announcement to you – my church. Because it has gone well for me here. He totally got what I was saying, and he helped me understand what I was feeling. He said it sounded like the way you feel when you initiate a break-up. And that’s it – sort of. I mean being the pastor of a church is a lot like being in a “relationship”. And it’s always painful to end a good relationship.


My friend and mentor, Lewis Chesser, described being appointed to a church as being like entering an arranged marriage. There is this expectation that a pastor and a church will love and respect each other. The metaphor breaks down at some point, but there’s a good amount of truth to it. And sometimes these arranged marriages work out better than other times. I feel like we were a good match. We’ve had a good relationship, and on a significant level it feels really bad to break it up, but it was really clear to me back in the fall that I was ready to pass the baton.


The United Methodist appointment system sort of requires you to make your intentions known at the first of the year, and so as most of you know, I’ve had this pending retirement status for many months. Paul Simon has a song about the 50 ways to leave your lover. You know the lyrics: Just hop on the bus, Gus, Make a new plan, Stan. No need to be coy, Roy. (and so on). So being the songwriter that Lucas is, he added a new verse for me, his was, Stick around for months, Dunce.


Breaking up isn’t a perfect analogy of what’s going on here, but there are some of the same emotions. We’ve been really involved in each others lives in a meaningful way on a regular basis, and that’s about to come to an end. And I’m the one who has initiated this conclusion. It’s on me and I own that. As heart-breaking scoundrels are often known to say, It’s not you, it’s me. And in this case it’s really true. I’m not leaving you to go chase after another church. I’m shedding the role. Hanging it up.


One of the great preachers of our age, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote a book called, Leaving Church. In that book she tells the story of her burnout as an Episcopal parish priest. It’s been a few years since I read the book, but I remember reading it soon after I left West Helena to go to work in campus ministry. I had been in parish ministry for about 10 years before I went to the Wesley Foundation, and I remember thinking that I shared some of the same sentiments that she so wonderfully articulates. She was an effective preacher and pastor, but for the sake of her soul she had to let it go, and she went on to have a great career in academia.


So this is actually the second time I’ve sort of hung-up the role. The first time I left local church ministry I went in to campus ministry. And that was a huge shift in roles. When you are the pastor of a church you are in a highly examined position. There are a lot of expectations that come with that role and a lot of focus on your family, but that all changed when I went to the Wesley Foundation. When I went to UALR as the Director of the Wesley Foundation the only people who really cared what I was doing were the people I harassed for unauthorized parking in my parking lot, and my kids weren’t very conscious of being preacher’s kids. My job was to create some demand for my services, and in time I did.


But after being in campus ministry for a little more than a decade I wanted to reenter parish ministry, and I’ve been the preacher again for the last nine years. And apparently that’s about how long you can count on me as a pastor. I guess I’m sort of like a pitcher that’s good for about 6 innings – good for a start, but don’t keep him in too long. I think I’m good for about a nine year stretch and then I’m done. I don’t want to make to much of the statistics, but sometimes statistics reveal some interesting patterns.


Last week I was talking about the statistics that the United Methodist Church collects on preachers and churches. I threw out a little teaser that I would share an interesting statistic about myself today – what I said above is notable, but it isn’t particularly interesting. I don’t know how rare this is, but in my 30-plus years of ministry I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve only had one robe. And this may be more information than you want to have, but in those 30 years I’ve never taken it to the cleaners. I guess the material is a little bit like Teflon – nothing really seems to stick to it – at least not in an obvious manner. It would probably be interesting to see how many different strands of DNA you could find on this robe.


I’ve had one robe, and I’ve had one wife. And Sharla has had the most influence on me and my work than anybody or anything. It probably wasn’t the best career move for Sharla to keep her last name when we got married, but it may well have been the best thing she could have done to preserve her sense of self, and to keep our marriage intact. I told you when I arrived that I wasn’t normal, and neither is she. Sharla isn’t compelled to do the abnormal things that are appealing to me, but she is abnormally honest, and sensitive, and righteous. She’s not self-righteous – she’s actually righteous. And that has an impact on a preacher.


Sometimes people comment on my honesty as a preacher – that I’m pretty realistic about who I am and what I think. Well you can give a lot of credit (or blame) to Sharla for that. I’ve never wanted to explain to her why I would say one thing and think or do the other thing. I don’t think we’ve ever had to have that conversation, and I’m grateful for that. That’s not a debate I would have won.


Sharla has made me a better pastor and preacher in every way, and I’m grateful that she has stuck with me. She sacrificed her career in order for me to have one, and I’m grateful to her for that. She hasn’t been a typical preacher’s wife – whatever that means, but she has been an essential partner in this deal. I was happy with the way the picnic flyer was printed. It identified that today’s retirement picnic was to honor the retirement of Rev. Thompson Murray and his wife, Sharla Chalfant.


I could go on about the value of Sharla in my life and in my work, but I need to say something about the other highly significant person in my work as a pastor and a preacher, and that would be Jesus. I like to think he’s had something to do with all of this. The truth is that I didn’t go in to professional ministry because I aspired to be a preacher. My aspiration was simply to try to get to know Jesus. That’s basically what drew me to seminary, and then it turned in to a job.


And I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to have such a job. My job has been to try to get to know Jesus and to share my thoughts about who he is and what he is calling us to do. That sounds pretty simple, and on some level it is very simple. My job is to love Jesus, to love my neighbors, and to try to encourage more love for Jesus and one another.


Of course it’s more complicated than that. I don’t know why we always let these good things get more complicated than we do, but we do, and we all know about complications. Life is complicated, and preaching is complicated.


I love this morning’s scripture lesson. It occurs to me that this is a great illustration of what I regularly experience as a preacher. Just think about this for a moment. Jesus instructs his faithful followers to get in the boat and head over to the other side. And they do as they are told. They start going where Jesus told them to go and in the process they encounter a life-threatening storm. They are terrified and rightfully so. They are about to die while they are doing what Jesus told them to do – and Jesus is asleep.


As a preacher, I rarely find myself in an actual life-threatening situation, but there is rarely a week that goes by that I am not in touch with the fear of preaching failure. I experience some level of crisis every time I am in need of a sermon. Sure, I’ve got a pile of old sermons, and there are a couple of paragraphs I can lift from something I said three years ago, but people don’t make the effort to show up for worship in hope of getting fed some reheated irrelevant theological concepts. People who come to church deserve some fresh and nutritious spiritual food on Sunday mornings, and it’s not an easy task to prepare that dish each week – not for me.


And it’s not unusual for me to wonder where Jesus is when it’s time to go to work. Here I am sitting down at my computer to do some serious word-work for these good church people and where’s Jesus.


Of course, this is probably the perspective of a man who has more fear of somehow appearing foolish than of a man of deep faith. It’s easy for me to think that somehow it’s up to me to generate the right words to say that will properly illustrate the reality of the living Christ. I’m inclined to think it’s all on me to find the right story and to tell it in the right way in order to produce the right kind of inspiration or challenge or encouragement that you need to hear. The “crisis” I experience each week is largely an exercise in protecting my vanity. It’s never been easy for me to speak for 12 to 15 minutes without saying something regrettable, or foolish, or worst of all – boring.


And I should know better. I should know that it’s going to be ok. Even if I do speak in a way that’s foolish, regrettable, or boring the truth of God can come through. I’ve had a sense of crisis every time I’ve approached the task of preparing a sermon, and I’ve been rescued every time. I regularly have these moments when I think Jesus is off taking a nap while I’m going under, but I don’t think I’ve ever stepped in to the pulpit without feeling like I had been provided with a little something to offer. When God-loving people come together to worship and celebrate the living presence of Jesus Christ it’s going to be good. Jesus will be in the house. The storm will have passed and peace will prevail.


This is the pattern of existence I have come to know and to love – to some extent. I’ve never enjoyed the pressure that has to mount before I’ll sit down to do the work of preparing a sermon. Someone asked me one time if I worked well under pressure – I said I don’t know because the only way to get me to work is to generate some kind of pressure. Work is what I do when I’m not doing what I want to be doing. But I’m happy to have done this work of preaching.


The Chinese define the word, crisis, with two characters – one meaning dangerous and the other meaning opportunity. So you might say I’ve been presented with a dangerous opportunity each time I’ve approached the task of preparing a sermon, and that’s been a good challenge for me.  I love the feeling of discovering something new that I hadn’t noticed in a previous look at something Jesus said or did and how that matches up with something that happened just the other day. I love the feeling I get when worship is over and it went well and I have the sense that Jesus rescued me again.


But I’m ready to become familiar with a new pattern of existence. I’m ready to trade in my weekly roller-coaster ride of impending doom and miraculous salvation for some less dramatic terrain. I really am ready to be less of the guy in charge and to be more of the guy who just sort of shows up.


In my opinion, those of you who regularly show up are doing the work of God in this world. Showing up for worship, showing up for Sunday School, showing up at meetings – it’s a powerful contribution to simply show up. If you are so moved to teach Sunday School or chair a committee or get involved in the food pantry or any of the other essential and unrecognized jobs that keeps the community of faith alive and people fed you are building up some serious treasure in heaven.


I’m sorry to be stepping out of this good community. I’m not happy to be leaving you, but I’m happy about where I’m going, and what I’ll be doing. I’m very fortunate to be able to make this move back to Little Rock where Sharla and I will start a new chapter in our lives. I’ll miss seeing you on a regular basis, but I hope to stay in touch. I know some of you may think that I’m departing prematurely, but I assure you I’m not. And if you are ever inclined to think that things would be better if I was still around please trust me that it wouldn’t.


I’m so glad to have been here and to have been the pastor of this church, and I’m so glad to pass the pastoral baton. You deserve to have a preacher that wants to be in that role, and that is no longer me.


I still have work to do as a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not bailing out of the boat. I expect this fantastic voyage with Jesus to continue, and I’m still trying to become more familiar with him, but I’m shedding the robe, and in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, I’m hanging it up for the last time. (I removed my robe and hung it on a nearby coatrack)


Thanks be to God.









Proper 6B

June 19, 2018

Dreaming Small

Mark 4:26-34


26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


As you may have noticed over the course of my three years here in Newport, I am not a church growth guru. We’ve increased our membership this morning in a good and significant way, and that’s a wonderful thing, but we haven’t had a massive influx of people in to our church over the past few years. I’m more of a maintainer than an expander. The UMC keeps statistics on these things. I get an email every Sunday night from the United Methodist Church Vital Signs program that invites me to submit what they call our vital statistics. There are seven categories of statistics they want to know:


  1. Worship attendance
  2. Number of professions of faith
  3. Number of small groups in the church
  4. Number of people involved in those small groups
  5. Number of people involved in mission & outreach programs
  6. Amount of money contributed to mission & outreach programs
  7. Amount of money collected for our general operations


I’m not very disciplined at entering these statistics each week. About every two or three months I get an email from my District Superintendent telling me to get caught up and I do. Shirley would and now Lara prints out a sheet every Monday with our weekly contributions and the number of people in worship and Sunday School. I went in last week and sat down with Lara to go over the ledger to see what we spent money on that qualifies as mission and outreach, and I do some educated guessing on how many people from our church have been involved in mission and outreach work.


Jeremy may figure out a better way to track and submit these Vital Sign reports. Being relatively new in to ministry he’s been submitting these numbers from the very beginning, and he will have a lifetime profile of statistics. Just like baseball players who have lifetime Batting Averages and pitchers who have Earned Run Averages, preachers will be known for the number of Professions of Faith they generate – people who come in to the church for the first time. That’s the most highly prized statistic in the UMC world. If you’ve got a high POF number you will probably advance quickly in the hierarchy of the UMC. The interesting thing for me is that my final year in ministry will probably be my best statistical year.


But I’ve never put much stock in statistics – at least not in church statistics. I’m not saying that they aren’t revealing in significant ways, but I’ve never been motivated to be statistically successful. I’m not necessarily proud of this – it’s just the way I am. I’ve never really figured out how to match faithfulness with effectiveness, but there are people who know how to do this well.


Adam Hamilton comes to mind. He’s the pastor of the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection in Kansas City. Adam Hamilton was the founder of that church, and when it began in 1990 it was small enough to meet in someone’s home. Today it’s the largest United Methodist Church in the United States. There are 22,000 members of that church and about 12,000 people attend worship each week. Adam Hamilton figured out how to be faithful and effective. I’ve never attended his church, but I’ve heard him speak, and he’s the real deal – he’s not a megalomaniac. I consider him to be a very well motivated person. He scatters seed, and it grows!


And that’s what we’re talking about this morning. This mystery of spiritual growth.


We’ve got these two parables this morning, and they are interesting parables. This first parable is probably less familiar than the second one. You’ll find a version of the Mustard Seed Parable in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but you only find this parable of the seed scatterer in Mark. Some suggest that the other gospel writers left it out because there isn’t a good moral to the story. The scatterer throws out the seed and waits for something to happen. The surface message of this parable isn’t very motivating. It doesn’t exactly lend itself to missionary zeal. It does serve to promote the importance of trust – which is probably the main point Jesus was making, but it’s also a reminder that the power to produce growth in the kingdom of God is largely out of our hands.


There’s no place for pride in the business of spreading the good news of God’s love as it was revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. We are to do what we can and what we know to do, but how this message gets spread and effectively communicated is a mysterious thing. The Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting in this enterprise, but this is not to say that we don’t have work to do, and we should learn to be as effective as possible.


I think we also have to be careful about how we measure effectiveness. In some ways I think it’s all but impossible to measure the outcome of our work as disciples. As I indicated earlier, I don’t put a lot of stock in the ability of the United Methodist Vital Signs to measure the effectiveness of my ministry. I’ve never been very number oriented in my work as a minister, but I know there’s some meaning behind those numbers. Poor preaching and lazy pastoral care is going to be reflected in the numbers. Good preaching, energetic programming and competent pastoral care are going to produce better numbers. I think there’s some good information reflected by church statistics. I also know they can produce the kind of pride and self-righteousness that Jesus railed against – in preachers and in parishioners.


So I think I’ve been very effective at not generating the kind of spiritual arrogance and pride that Jesus found to be so poisonous in the lives of the scribes and Pharisees. Of course I also know that God can use people who are full of themselves to bring comfort and meaning in to the lives of people who are hungry to hear a good message.


Whether I should or I shouldn’t, I don’t have the same respect for Joel Osteen that I have for Adam Hamilton. And it’s not just out of brand loyalty. I don’t really know Joel Osteen any better or worse than I know Adam Hamilton, but in my opinion, Joel Osteen is a little bit more interested in the money and the fame than Adam Hamilton is. I clearly don’t know the heart of either of these men, but I’m a little suspicious of Joel Osteen’s enterprise.


That being said, I have to give the man his credit. I’m guessing there are a good number of people who are living better lives because of what he preaches. He’s probably helped hundred’s of couples turn their marriages around and become better parents. I’m sure he’s helped people get and stay sober and to show up for work more often. And just this very week as I was carrying a woman’s box of groceries out to her car at the food pantry she started telling me how much she counts on hearing what Joel Osteen has to say every week. She said she’s almost beat by the time Sunday comes, but he pumps her up and gives her the energy she needs to get through another week. She also said she was grateful for the groceries we provide, but it’s Joel Osteen that keeps her going.


So what I know is that I don’t know how God is going to use who we are or what we do to bring good news and comfort and hope in to the lives of other people. This business of discipleship is mysterious business. The work of discipleship is not to be neglected. That’s not the message of this first parable. If we just sit around and wait for God to do something our yield will probably be about the same as it would be for an actual farmer who sowed the seed and went fishing for the rest of the summer.


We have work to do, but aren’t in control. We are to do what we can and trust that our work will be sufficient. And as this second parable so well illustrates, small acts can blossom in to glorious things.


In going through boxes of files and papers I tried to find the essay I wrote for my application to seminary. I had a very average undergraduate transcript, and my bachelor’s degree was in Environmental Science. They weren’t automatically going to admit me so I worked hard on answering the question of why I wanted to attend seminary. And I very clearly remember the opening line of my essay. I said:


I haven’t heard a voice from heaven calling me in to ministry, but I did once receive a miracle from the hand of a Jewish man.


I went on to tell the story of how I had been the leader of a 5-week bicycle trip sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Council of the American Youth Hostel Association. I explained how I had been in charge of these 8 New York Jewish kids. Actually one of them was from Philadelphia, and he didn’t mix well with the others. It wasn’t that he was from Philadelphia, but he was a magnet for problems. Ben was his name and he was the first kid to have a wreck that required hours of work on my part to repair. He left the tent poles at a camp site. Ben was just sort of different, and you know how kids that are just sort of different get treated by their middle school peers.


I was the responsible person in the mix and I frequently got exasperated by his words and actions. I worked at getting along with Ben and protecting him from the barbs of the others, and he made it. In fact we all made it. I was about 19 and I had been in charge of eight 14 & 15 year-old kids for 5 weeks. There were 6 boys and 2 girls and we spent five weeks riding about 500 miles along the New England coast and in to Nova Scotia. I can’t imagine letting my child go on a trip like that, and I doubt if they run those kinds of trips anymore, but it happened and it was a powerful experience.


So when we flew back to New York it felt like a big moment, and I thought all the parents would be so happy to see me and their child, but the bikes had somehow gotten lost by the airline, and that’s all that I was hearing from most of the parents. All of them but one – Ben’s father.


Ben’s father simply walked up to me and smiled and handed me a $100 bill. And I looked at him and I said, I’m not even going to act like I can’t take this money. Because I hardly had a dollar on me and this was 1978 and the only people who had credit cards were my parent’s age. I really didn’t know how I was going to get all of the equipment I had back to the hostel headquarters and it wasn’t a weekday, so I couldn’t just call and ask for instruction, but I hadn’t really worried about it. My focus was on getting everyone on and off that plane, and I had done that. And it turned out that I needed every bit of that bill to get myself and all the equipment I had back in to the city and to get a room at the YMCA.


I don’t know if that story got me in to seminary, but it helped me share my belief that God watches over us in mysterious and surprising ways, and how our largest challenges often turn in to our richest blessings. In some ways I think that gift from that man planted a seed in me that made me want to live a life of trust in God, and I try to maintain that sense of trust.


As I approach the end of my career in ministry I don’t have any amazing statistics to point to. Actually I do have one sort of remarkable number to share, but you’ll have to wait until next week to hear that. But what I know is that we are in the business of scattering these seeds that God has provided for us, and to trust that God will use what we do in ways that we can’t even imagine.


And thanks be to God for this! Amen.

Proper 5B

June 11, 2018

God’s Wildest Child

Mark 3:20-35


3:20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


Even before I knew I would be coming to Newport I listened to a book that provided me with some good background information about Jackson County. It was a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by a man named Rick Bragg. Being the relative youngster that I am, I wasn’t very aware of the craziness that Jerry Lee Lewis instigated, but I have come to understand what a wild child he was. I’m not sure how often he played at a Jackson County nightspot, but I know he spent a few memorable nights in this neck of the woods. Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t God’s wildest child, but he’s a contender.


Before Jerry Lee Lewis came along I don’t think anyone understood how much ruckus you could cause with a piano. Who would have thought that you could get thrown out of Bible College for the way you played the piano, but he did. And Jerry Lee Lewis’ first hit, A Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On, got banned from most radio stations in the south soon after it came out because it offended the sensibilities of the preachers and politicians.


It was an interesting book. It sensitized me to the extent of the raw emotion that Jerry Lee Lewis generated. His friends, his fans and his family have faithfully adored him, but he’s always been the object of a whole lot of scorn, and he deserved all of it – the praise and the criticism. Different people saw Jerry Lee Lewis in different ways – which is understandable because Jerry Lee Lewis sees himself in different ways. He has a strong belief in God, and he believes God gave him the gift of playing music the way he did, but he doesn’t even know what to think about it all. He loved getting people all worked up, but it wasn’t always in such a good way. He has this sense that he was doing the work of the Lord and the devil all at the same time.


Knowing what I know about Jerry Lee Lewis and the commotion he could create helps me understand the scene that our scripture lesson describes. Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Jesus was operating in a way that was unprecedented, and many people just didn’t know what to think about it. The desperate and disenfranchised people that Jesus was healing and helping weren’t confused about his goodness, but many of the more conventional religious people of the day – some of whom were members of his own family, were scandalized by his behavior. His unconventional behavior left some people thinking he was out of his mind, others thinking he was an instrument of the devil, and others trusting that he was doing the will of God. Jesus truly was God’s wildest child.


And I’m thinking that there’s a type of wildness that’s admirable. I’m not talking about the stereotypical kind of wildness that moves people to be promiscuous and intoxicated. That’s not the kind of wildness that Jesus exhibited – I’m talking about the kind of wildness that enables you to break the constraints that need to be broken. Jerry Lee Lewis was wild in that way, but that’s not the only way that he was out of control. Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t play by the conventional musical rules. He didn’t play the piano properly – he played it like he was trying to set it on fire. And it set people’s hearts on fire. Of course he also set his life on fire in some destructive ways.


An authentically wild person is different from a stereotypically wild person. An authentically wild person is untamed by the conventions of society, and as I say, that’s not such a bad thing. Many of the expectations of society don’t necessarily bring out the best in us, and it’s both inspiring and unsetting to encounter an authentically wild person.


In my way of thinking Jerry Lee Lewis was both stereotypically and authentically wild. He was inspirational and he was destructive. He moved people in good ways, and he caused tremendous heartbreak. He pushed the limits of music, and he wrecked his own body. As I listened to the story of his life I found myself wanting to have some of his fearlessness, but I’m grateful that I haven’t created the kinds of problems he generated for himself and others.


Hearing the story of Jerry Lee Lewis helps me understand the dynamics that were swirling around Jesus. I’ve watched a couple of old videos of live performances of Jerry Lee Lewis, and he caused people to lose their minds – and it wasn’t just the women. There’s a video on youtube from one of his early performances where he’s playing a piano that’s surrounded by these young men who were absolutley carried away by his music. As they were dancing around would reach out to touch him like they were touching a god. He was doing something so different from anything they had ever experienced they sort of lost their minds.


Because I’ve seen what a man can do by playing a piano in a new and unbounded way it’s easy for me to imagine what happened when Jesus came along and was able to heal people’s damaged souls in such a new and powerful way. It’s not easy to imagine how it was that he was able to generate such a groundswell of emotion without the use of a piano or guitar or microphone, but Jesus was the rockstar of his day.


People were released from their demons and their troubles by his very presence, and it caused a powerful commotion. Jesus disrupted the way that people understood the reality of God, and that caused even more chaos than a Jerry Lee Lewis performance. Talk about a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on – that’s exactly what happened when Jesus showed up and started teaching and touching and healing!


It’s easy to see why it got the attention of the religious authorities. Their job was to maintain the established understanding of God and the proper protocols of faith. They weren’t interested in this new way that God’s spirit was being manifested in their midst – they were advocates of the old way that God was understood. And I’m not unsympathetic with their point of view. None of us really want our worlds to be upended, and few of us are aware of the ways we’ve tamed the authentically wild nature of Jesus.


I guess it’s to be expected, but it’s sort of sad to me that we’ve so thoroughly domesticated Jesus. I know I don’t feel very unsettled by what I know about Jesus, and in a way that makes me think I don’t know him as well as I should. We’ve made Jesus so safe, and so compatible with what we already believe.


They made a movie about Jerry Lee Lewis back in 1989 that I haven’t seen, but according to his biographer he was terribly offended by the way he was portrayed. In his mind they cleaned him up too much. They turned him in to sort of a friendly and clueless bumpkin, and that’s not who he was. He was determined, unsettling, and dangerous. He had an edge and you didn’t want to get in his way. His nickname is The Killer, and that’s a name he tries to live up to.


I fear that we’ve done the same thing to Jesus. We’ve made him much more commercially appealing than he really was. It’s true that he was loved by great crowds of people, but most of those people were terribly desperate for access to food and health and work and God. The people who flocked to him were largely disenfranchised from the essentials of life and the community of faith.


Jesus speaks of this possibility of committing an unforgivable sin – which is about as harsh of an accusation that he ever made. If you’ve ever worried that you may have committed such a sin you can probably rest assured that you haven’t, because I think the sin Jesus was addressing is the sin of being so self-assured of your rightness about God and everything else that you aren’t even willing for God to change your mind. That is the unforgivable sin – being unwilling for your view of God to be adjusted by the very presence of God.


The officially unrighteous people had no problem hearing what Jesus had to say and being touched by his words. It was the righteous and upstanding people who were unsettled by what Jesus was doing and who he was touching.


One of things that has been good for me in my work as a pastor is the way in which I’ve always been confronted with people who are living in desperate circumstances. This is not to say that I’m happy that there are so many people who find themselves in terrible situations, but those people serve to remind me how little power I have, and they keep me from living under the illusion that things are as they should be in this world. I know there are many people who do many things to contribute to their own troubles, but this world is not organized in a fair way. I hate the extent of suffering that I have been exposed to in my work as a pastor, but it’s kept me from becoming complacent.


This is not to say that I’ve figured out what needs to change and have worked tirelessly to make those changes, but knowing the names and faces of people who are sick and lost and rejected and poverty stricken keeps me humbly praying to God for help.


Of course you don’t have to be a pastor to be in touch with desperate people. I know we all have encounters with people who are living in desperate circumstances, but as a preacher, I’ve been forced to make sure my words match up with the reality I encounter, and I find this world to be very challenging and confusing. I don’t have easy answers. On one hand it’s easy for me to say that the answer to every difficulty in life is to trust God and love Jesus. I do think that’s good advice, and in an ultimate sense this will solve your problems, but it won’t put food on the table or shoes on your children. And it’s knowing that there are so many sick, and hungry and poverty stricken people in this world that keeps me from being perfectly happy with the way things are.


I don’t really want my world to get turned upside down, but I’m thinking we need to remember how disturbing Jesus was to the world that he stepped in to. And it makes me think our love for Jesus shouldn’t be such a safe thing. Jesus was disturbing to the religious people of his day, and we religious people of our day should keep this in mind.


Jesus wasn’t just a wild man. He was wild in a very specific way, and that’s the thing we are challenged to understand and to follow. We are called to be as radically loving as he was, and that will always be a disturbing thing to this world.


Thanks be to God for the uncontrollable love of his wildest child for us and for this world. May we have the untamed wisdom and courage  to be his faithful followers.


Thanks be to God.




Proper 4b

June 4, 2018

Playing By the Rule

Mark 2:23 – 3:6


23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” 3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.


After the sudden death of my mother from a massive stroke my father was terribly despondent. It hit us all pretty hard, but my father was lost. I think he fully expected to proceed my mother in death, and it was hard for him to figure out how to live without her. A couple of weeks after she died he was spending a few days at my sister’s house, and he mentioned to her that he was thinking about getting a dog. Well he only had to say that once. She called me and told me that we needed to find him a good dog, and we did. She did a little research and suggested that we get him a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel because they are known for being outstanding lap dogs, and that’s what we got him.


We got him this little puppy that he named Charlie, and that was about the best thing we ever did. Having a dog to come home to and to take care of basically nursed him back to life. My father sort of reengaged with life. He resumed his various interests, and that meant that Charlie had to spend some time at home alone, and my father started feeling bad about that, so he decided he should get another dog to keep Charlie company. I tried to talk him out of it because I thought it would add more trouble than pleasure to his life. In fact I remember saying to him, Daddy, you aren’t here for Charlie, Charlie is here for you.


But he wasn’t persuaded. He proceeded to get another dog from the same people, and it was fine, but I thought I made a pretty good argument against getting another dog. It was clear to me that this was a case of the tail wagging the dog, and I think that’s the same backward logic that Jesus was dealing with on a much more tragic level.


Religious institutions always have a hard time balancing the spirit of truth with the need for clear regulations. And of course we all understand this tension. God-loving people are always inclined to live highly ethical lives, and we want our faith community to reflect our sense of disciplined living. The success of the Jewish community can largely be attributed to the relatively strict guidelines that they followed. They maintained their identity through some really trying times by keeping the traditions of their community. And observing the Sabbath was a big part of how they preserved their identity. It caused them to pause each week and to remember who they were and how they were to live. There was a lot of wisdom behind this tradition of keeping the Sabbath.


But there was some foolishness as well. It became the tail that wagged the dog. As Jesus found the need to point out, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. It’s easy for us to point to the Pharisees and think that this was a Jewish problem, but I think we all know that this is something every faith tradition has to grapple with. And it’s a hard thing to get right.


I enjoy playing games, but I don’t like a game that doesn’t have clear rules. I can’t recall the names of any of these games, but there are some board games out there that invite some subjectivity in to the scorekeeping. In other words, you have to make judgements about whether somebody met the criteria for points. I hate games like that. They produce more anxiety within me than pleasure. People who know me well might argue that I just don’t like to lose, and I’m not so good at thinking quickly and defending my position, but I would argue that I like a game where you know if you’ve scored or not. The ball goes in the hole or it doesn’t. The cards add up or they don’t. I don’t like for some kind of judgement to enter in to the games I play. I don’t really like Olympic sports that involve judgement. I prefer watching those sports that are judged by instruments.


So I have some appreciation for people who want clear boundaries to define the way things are to be. Clear rules provide clear understandings. But life is more complicated than a game, and we have to make judgements about how we deal with the rules. Jesus clearly understood this, and I appreciate the way in which he handled the rules of life. He knew the difference between the tail and the dog.


Our denomination is in a quandary right now about the rules. I hate to bring it up because it’s such a touchy subject, but we are having to deal with the issue of human sexuality and what our policy will be in regard to marriage and ordination. It’s hard for me to see how it’s going to be resolved in a universally satisfying manner. The Council of Bishops has been charged with providing our denomination with guidance, and they’ve tagged their initiative as The Way Forward. There is a wide range of attitudes that exist within our denomination in regard to sexual orientation, and I don’t know how we’re going to move forward in a way that will respect those differences.


It’s a hard issue for us. We have some language in the Bible that seems to be very clear about this, but even those seemingly clear verses can get fuzzy when you do a little research on the context and the intent. And it gets even more complicated when you think about other verses in the Bible that we have no trouble disregarding because we recognize them as being shaped by the cultural expectations of the day.


And we have this tension between the authority of scripture and our sensitivity to human experience. Of course, we all have different human experiences, and if we let our various human experiences be our guiding principle it’s easy to see that we would sort of spin out of control. Having clear rules is a way of maintaining a clear identity.


I could never be a Unitarian because I don’t know how you focus on God without looking to Jesus for instruction on who God is. I think I could be a Muslim before I could be a Unitarian because I need a bit of an authority figure to provide me with some instruction about God. Actually, Muhammad is too authoritarian for me to want to follow him, so there’s a better chance of me becoming a Baptist than a Muslim, and there’s little chance of that. But I have no interest in participating in a faith community that has no authoritative scripture or tradition. I value the words and teachings and traditions that have come to us from our Judeo-Christian ancestors.


And one of the traditions that has come to us from Jesus is the importance of letting love be the judge of every other rule.


I have a friend who grew up in the United Methodist Church, and his life has been guided and enriched by our denomination. For most of his life he tried to live what you might call a normal life, but after about forty years of trying to be normal he came to understand that he was more attracted to men than to women. It was a crisis for him. As I say, he had been trying to be a straight man for decades and it just didn’t work for him. His understanding of his sexual orientation changed, and that enabled him to live a more authentic life, but he had a hard time reconciling who he knew himself to be with what the Bible seemed to say about such things. He was actually very haunted by the judgement that he found in a few verses in the Bible, and he told me that one day.


He was hesitant to bring this up with me because he thought I would side with those condemning verses – which surprised me, but I think I surprised him more when I told him that if those verses bothered him that much he just shouldn’t read them. I told him there’s a larger message in the Bible that should color the way we see individual verses.


We should read all scripture in light of the primary message that came to us in the life of Jesus Christ, and that light is generated by love. This is not to say that God doesn’t care how we live our lives. I fully believe that the way we chose to live has a powerful impact on the quality of our relationship with God, but none of us live such perfectly formed lives that we earn the love of God. We are able to live in relationship with God because God’s love for us isn’t contingent upon our ability to follow all the rules. The primary message of the Bible is that love rules over everything. It’s God’s love for us that enables us to live in relationship with God, and it’s that love that is to guide our relationships with one another.


This is a hard thing for us to get straight. We generally want to know the rules so that we can make clear judgements about how we are to view one another, but Jesus made it profoundly clear that there’s one rule that trumps all the others, and we are to judge all the other rules by how they measure up to that one primary rule.


I don’t know how this thing is going to play out in our denomination. I’m not retiring because of this, but I’m not sorry I won’t be figuring out how to navigate the rhetorical storm that seems to be brewing. As you can see, I’m very sympathetic to those who want our denomination to become more open-minded about this issue, but I’ve also come to believe that significant change in our denominational policy could be very disruptive to our faith community, and I don’t want us to fly apart. I’d rather for our current rules to stay in place for now than for us to change the rules and to expire. I don’t know if that will happen, but I have some fear that it might.


Of course what I know is that it really doesn’t matter what the rules are that guide our denomination or any other system that we find ourselves within. The primary challenge for us is to figure out how to let that primary rule be the guide for our lives. Jesus operated within a system that put too much emphasis on the less important rules, and he had to make some hard choices about how to balance those demands. He made some hard choices and he faced some harsh criticism. In fact you might say Jesus was crucified because he didn’t play by the rules of his faith community, but he didn’t waver from his commitment to the primary rule. It cost him his life, but his resurrection from death revealed love’s ultimate power.


So we actually have nothing to fear as a denomination or as individuals. It’s never going to be easy to allow that most important rule to be the guide for our lives, but there’s nothing that can ever prevent us from allowing the love of God to rule our lives.


Thanks be to God.



Trinity B

May 29, 2018

Catching the Spirit

John 3:1-17


1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


It turns out that this passage of scripture contains what I consider to be my favorite Bible verse. I had never really thought about this until I was asked to provide my favorite verse for a little handout they’re creating for the Retirement Ceremony at Annual Conference. And the verse that came to mind comes out of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, but it’s not that most famous verse in the world, John 3:16. My favorite verse is John 3:8,


The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.


As I say, I wasn’t really conscious of my fondness for this verse until I was asked to name my favorite verse, but this is it. And I think it goes back to a sermon I heard on the night of my ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. The ordination system has changed in the UMC, and I won’t burden you with those technicalities, but in that ceremony that took place in Conway in June of 1987. The guest preacher at Annual Conference that summer was Rev. Will Willimon. This is a man who has become quite famous as a preacher and a writer. I guess even then he was a highly acclaimed preacher, but it was not his fame that spoke to me that night. It was an image he provided that has stayed with me through the years.


Now what you need to know is that I can hardly ever remember what I talked about a week ago. I can remember the date of our wedding, and I know the birthdays of my immediate family, but I don’t have a great memory. I’m sure I’ve heard some great sermons from other people over the years, but I don’t remember them. I do, however, remember hearing something that stuck with me from that sermon in 1987.


Rev. Willimon talked about being from South Carolina, and how hot it gets there. Air conditioning was starting to become standard in homes when he was growing up, but he described the way in which the previous inhabitants had sought relief from the heat – which was to build their farmhouses on the little hills that you would find every now and then on the open land.


He said the native Americans had a word for those little rises that would dot the wide open places – they called them hiwasses. And it was under a shade tree on top of one of those small hills that you were the most likely to catch a breeze on a hot summer afternoon. And a breeze in some shade in August in South Carolina was like gold.


I can’t remember how he explained all of that. In fact I may have been daydreaming when he was preaching and imagined that this is what he was talking about, but the point I give him full credit for making was that while we aren’t in control of the Holy Spirit or of anything that God is doing in this world, there are things we can do to place ourselves in the best possible situation to receive the blessings of the Spirit. Just as there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch a cool breeze if you build your house on the highest spot on the land, but it’s more likely to happen there than it would be on the lowest dip in the field.


And so it is with our spiritual lives. We can’t will ourselves to be born anew. We can’t make the church explode with new life. But there are some things we can do to make such things more likely.


As I say, I don’t remember exactly what Rev. Willimon said in that sermon, but whatever it was he said was both comforting and inspiring to me. He acknowledged that this business of following Jesus and seeking to do the work of God in this world is essentially mysterious. This is not something that we fully understand and we certainly don’t control it, but we are participants. We aren’t in charge, but we aren’t just puppets who have no control over what we do or where we go. We are people who are invited to engage in a dynamic relationship with God, and it’s an exciting opportunity.


Some people might like the idea of the Holy Spirit being an unavoidable force in the world – a force sort of like gravity that is going to impose it’s will upon us whether we like it or not. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is a little bit like gravity. I think it invisibly surrounds us and that it’s a relentlessly powerful force, but I don’t believe we have to respond to it. I don’t think God ever lets any of us go, but I don’t believe God makes us do anything. Some people choose to live their lives free of the Spirit. I’m not in any position to say who those people are, but I assume this is a possibility, because I believe this relationship we have with God involves some choice.


We don’t control the spirit – it’s profoundly free, and so are we, but when you combine our willingness with God’s creative power you’ve got gold. It’s like a cool breeze in the shade on a hot summer day.


I don’t want to overstate the power that this sermon had on the shape of my ministry over the years. I spent three years listening to lectures and writing papers on church history and theology and Biblical studies, and many more years listening to others and pondering these things. But I think that sermon confirmed my basic assumption, which is that we believers in the revelation of God through the life of Jesus Christ are the recipients of a great gift. We didn’t receive this great gift because we knew what we were doing and made all the right decisions. This spiritual gold isn’t something we earned.


It’s probably more accurate to say that we obtained this treasure by being born of the right parents. And then we made all the right mistakes or fell in to the right ditches – because it’s usually our need to recover from our various failures and disappointments that enables us to be born again. It’s a good thing to grow up in the church – at least in a church that portrays Jesus in a relatively accurate way. This is one way of building your house on a high spot, but few people who are passionate about their love for Jesus acquired that in Sunday School. Most people who feel that their life was transformed by the love of Jesus Christ came to that understanding when they found themselves in need of something more than what they learned in Sunday School or heard in a sermon. It’s something that came to them on a dark night when they didn’t know how they could go on.


You might say Nicodemus was a man who grew up in the church. Of course the church wasn’t around when he was growing up. He grew up in the synagogue. He was well trained in the religious tradition of his day. He knew the teachings of Moses as well as anyone, and he knew enough about his spiritual tradition to be curious about Jesus, but he wasn’t so familiar with the ways of God’s Spirit. They hadn’t taught him the actual truth about our untamable God. It’s one thing to memorize the various teachings of a religious tradition – it’s a whole other thing to encounter the living presence of God, and that’s what happened to Nicodemus. His extensive religious training had not prepared him for an encounter with the son of the living God.


And that’s the case for us all. None of us are prepared to live in relationship with God, but none of us have been excluded either. It comes to us as a gift, and then we have to figure out what to do with it.


This story of Nicodemus is a good one for us church people to hear. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the value of being a responsible member of the established institution. Nicodemus doesn’t come across as an astute spiritual giant. His good standing among his religious peers was actually more of an impediment to his transformation than something that positioned him to embrace the savior of the world, but it’s important to note that this story doesn’t end with Nicodemus slinking off in to the darkness and never to be heard from again.


Nicodemus reappears two more times in the Gospel of John. On one occasion he stands up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish court, arguing that he shouldn’t be arrested without being given a fair hearing. This was not an insignificant act. Standing up for a despised character in a powerful institution is a hard thing to do. This is not something he would have done if he had not been touched by the presence of Jesus. He was moving in the right direction, and I consider that to be a beautiful thing. Moving in the right direction is a whole lot better than staying stuck in a bad place.


And at the end of the Gospel it’s Nicodemus that brings spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Once again, this isn’t exactly the act of a spiritual hero, but it is the act of a person who had been touched by the life-altering spirit of God and who was placing himself in a better position to encounter that spirit again.


Some people have been blinded by what they’ve been trained to think that God’s spirit is supposed to look like. Some people have never been exposed to anything other than mind-numbing and soul-squashing people and media platforms. All of us have developed our own forms of resistance to the life-giving presence of the living God, but God’s spirit blows where it wills, and it knows how to break through any barrier.


It doesn’t tear in to our hearts, but it touches us in ways that gets our attention and turns us in new directions. And once it gets our attention we are challenged to find ways to reposition ourselves in order to become more open to the guidance of the Spirit. It’s an endless dance to which we’ve been invited – to live in relationship to the movement of the Spirit.


I’m comforted by the knowledge that this relationship isn’t within our control. I’m happy not to be responsible for the work of the Holy Spirit, but we have some work to do. Our work is to place ourselves in those situations that create the best opportunities to encounter the loving presence of God in this world and to share it with others.


As surely as none of us chose to be born in to this world, we don’t have the power to give ourselves new lives in the kingdom of God, but by the grace of God it happens. This mysterious presence of the living God is blowing in our midst, and to catch it – is spiritual gold!


Thanks be to God.







Pentecost B

May 21, 2018

The Spark of Life

Romans 8:18-27


22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.


Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in to the lives of the followers of Jesus after his ascention in to heaven following his resurrection. These events are chronicled in the first two chapters of the book of Acts. We didn’t read the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit, but I’m sure you have some familiarity with the story. It’s the story of the way in which the Holy Spirit whooshed in to the house where the followers of Jesus had gathered and it enabled them to speak in all these foreign tongues. It was an amazing circumstance.


Many of the people who had gathered and began speaking in tongues Galileans, which is code for country bumpkins, and the sophisticated elders of the community couldn’t figure out what was going on. They were hearing people speak in a manner that wasn’t normal for Galileans. Someone suggested they were drunk, but this prompted Peter to take charge of the situation and explain that they clearly weren’t drunk because it was only 9 in the morning, but that it was the Holy Spirit that had caused such a commotion.


It’s a colorful story.  I guess it’s good that God sent the spirit in the morning. Peter might have had a harder time convincing the elders that the Galileans weren’t drunk if it had happened later in the day. The story of that first Pentecost is in Acts 2:1-12 if you want to refresh your memory of the story. But there’s some history behind this event we call Pentecost that’s interesting to me. This word, Pentecost, actually has nothing to do with wind, or fire, or spirit. It comes from a Latin word that means fifty, and it refers to a Jewish festival that took place 50 days after Passover.


But the really odd thing about this word that has come to define a very definitive form of Christian worship is that it’s rooted in some kind of harvest festival that predated the formation of the Jewish community in Israel. In other words, what was once a pagan harvest festival became known as the Festival of Pentecost in the Jewish community, and while it still had some harvest festival connotations it was also given a religious identity, and it actually became one of the three major Jewish religious festivals. The Festival of Pentecost was one of the events that all good Jews were expected to show up for at the Temple in Jerusalem.


As I said, the Festival of Pentecost takes place 50 days after Passover, which is 7 weeks after Passover, and the date of Passover always coincided with the beginning of the barley harvest. The Festival of Pentecost is sometimes called the Festival of Weeks because it took seven weeks to harvest their different grains, so it still functioned as a harvest celebration, but it also had religious significance. The Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai.


You won’t be tested on all of this at the end of today’s service, but I think it is sort of interesting to think of the ways in which an ancient harvest festival evolved into a Jewish religious festival that marks the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And while all of these devout Jews were in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost this remarkable thing happened that gave birth to the church and a whole new connotation to this word Pentecost.


So this event that began as a harvest festival took on a name that made reference to fifty and now that name is given to a day that we think of as being full of rushing wind and firey tongues. We United Methodists along with many other denominations associate the Day of Pentecost with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and it happens 50 days after Easter, so there is still some connection with fifty, but it’s sort of an amazing progression. It would have been hard to predict that this word that means fifty and was originally connected to the seven weeks of harvest would end up playing such a large role in the church. It’s sort of amazing that this word that means 50 in Latin is how many churches are labeled all over the world where people speak in unusual tongues, but that’s where we are today.


As you well know, I’m not very Pentecostal in my style of worship. You might say I’m a lot more comfortable with the way the Quakers worship than I am with the way Pentecostals do it. I would probably get nervous around Quakers if they actually started quaking in some way, but from what I can tell they sit together very quietly until someone feels moved to say something spiritually nurturing. It’s not that I don’t think God moves people in dramatic ways, nor am I uncomfortable around people who get wacky, but I don’t need for that to happen in worship in order to feel close to God.


That’s probably something I should have explored with a therapist at some point, but it’s too late for that now. I’m a United Methodist with a high level of comfort with a moderate level of religious zeal. And it’s not that I don’t think our faith in God should be the foremost factor in our lives, but I don’t think that has to play out in dramatic expressions. I believe the Holy Spirit can come to us in a very subtle manner and affects us in profound ways.


I don’t think I’ve ever told you about one of the most dramatic moments in my spiritual life, but here it is:


It took place during a really difficult period of time in my life. It was when I was a young adult with a high degree of anxiety about what I was going to do with my life. I was a sophomore in college, and I wasn’t sure of anything. I had this sense that I could go in many different directions, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t see that there was any great urgency to do anything. Things felt a little meaningless to me. And that was new territory to me. I had generally had a pretty clear sense of direction, but I felt perfectly lost. I guess you might say that I had gained enough education to be dangerous, and it was my soul that was in peril. I was in despair.


Once again, some therapy might have been useful, but I didn’t know anything about that. I did talk to a number of good people, and I didn’t really engage in stupid behavior to try to make myself feel better. But I was heavy hearted and I really didn’t know how to shake it.


So I was walking by the Student Union in Fayetteville one afternoon and I saw a flyer advertising an event that was about to happen. A guy who had been on a bicycle trip across Kansas was presenting slide show in the theater. This wasn’t something that caught the eye of many students – there wasn’t a long line to get in to that show, but being a bit of bicycle enthusiast I decided to go in and see what it was about. I don’t know what I expected, but it was largely underwhelming. There aren’t a lot of amazing landscape scenes in Kansas, but there are a lot of different plants growing along the sides of the road, and the bulk of the slides were of various wildflowers.


I wasn’t very moved by the show until he flashed a slide of a plant with a big bug hanging on to the bottom of a leaf. And there was something that touched me about that bug. I don’t know what kind of bug it was or what it was doing, but what I saw was a living creature clinging to life. And I was inspired by that bug. That bug struck me as being a creature that was hanging on as if he had a purpose, and it occurred to me that I had at least as much potential as that bug. I wasn’t feeling as motivated as that bug at the moment, but I wanted to be. I didn’t know why that bug was hanging on the way he was, but it made me want to hang on.


I love the imagery Paul utilizes in this letter to the Romans. I appreciate the way he talks about the groaning of all creation, and of the way in which the Spirit of God comes to us in the midst of our troubles. I particularly appreciate the way he talks about how the spirit prays for us when we don’t even know what to pray for.


And this is such good news. We aren’t just on our own as we seek to navigate the various trials that this world can generate. God’s presence and God’s guidance aren’t always obvious to us, but I believe God’s Holy Spirit is always seeking to find a way to break in to our lives. I think this is what Paul is talking about when he writes of the way the spirit is praying for us. We often don’t know what we need, and the spirit speaks to us in ways we would never expect.


But the Holy Spirit can get our attention in some interesting ways, and once that happens I believe we can learn to become more sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. In fact that may be the most important thing we can learn to do. One of the things John Wesley sought to help people do was to learn not to resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


John Wesley believed we can practice living in ways that open us up to the presence of the Holy Spirit. He believed that when we make an effort to care for one another, to learn more about the ways God has been active in the lives of others, and to reduce the amount of harm we are doing to ourselves and others we become more sensitive to the ways God is present in our lives. And this makes a lot of sense. If you want to become better at anything you’ve got to spend time working on it.


Of course there’s always some mystery involved in the work of the Holy Spirit. There will always be a gap between what we know and what God is doing, but we don’t have to remain clueless, and we can grow in our relationship with the source of true life.


Pentecostalism has taken on a pretty specific form in our society, but the Holy Spirit will never be contained. The Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways and it moves us in different directions. This is the beautiful thing about the way that God works. We don’t always know how the Holy Spirit is going to appear or where it will take us, but we can always trust that God is wanting us to find the source of true peace and joy. This is what the Holy Spirit is praying that we will find and share.


You never really know where that Holy spark of life will come from, but it comes, and for that we can be eternally grateful.


Thanks be to God.



Easter 6A

May 8, 2018

Our Friend in Heaven

John 15:9-17


9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.


What we have this morning is some more of the prayer that Jesus prayef for us – his followers, near the end of his earthly ministry. And he prays that we will experience the best that God has to offer. His prayer was prompted by the fact that this world can produce some bad circumstances, and it’s good to hear Jesus pray that things will go as well as they can for people like us who are trying to live faithful lives. It was his imminent departure that prompted this prayer, and I think we all understand what was going on here. Praying is what God-trusting people do when things get rough here on earth.


I think there are a couple of good messages for us to get from this passage. One good instruction is for us to recognize and to embrace the value of prayer. I don’t think Jesus would have modeled this act of pouring his heart out to God if this wasn’t an important thing to do. Of course his options for action had largely evaporated at this moment in his ministry. Praying was about the only thing available for him to do at that point in his ministry, but he had chosen to be in the situation he was in, and praying is a form of action. It’s what we do when we don’t know what else to do, and the truth is that it might be the most important thing we ever do.


The effort to communicate directly with God is not an insignificant thing to do. We don’t have access to the mechanics of what goes on when we pray to God, but we know it’s an important thing to do. It’s a healing thing to do, and it’s good that there is something we can do when we realize there’s nothing else we can do. Just this week I heard one of our good members, Virginia Metzger, talk about how she had endured one of the most unpleasant medical tests she had ever had. She had to lay on this hard x-ray table for about 2 hours while they ran a series of x-rays. She said it was miserable to lay on that table and she considered sharing her displeasure with whoever would listen, but she decided it would probably be more effective to talk to the good Lord. I think she thought she had made a good choice.


I think it’s often when we encounter situations that leave us feeling totally out of control that enable us to discover the value of prayer. I told our Bible study group the other night that I was sure my prayer life became richer when my oldest child went off to college in Colorado. I think up until that point I had maintained the illusion that I could keep her safe, but the realization that there was going to be a thousand miles between us destroyed that fantasy. I came to understand that the only thing I could do was to mention to God to watch over her each day, and I took a good amount of comfort in that. And that exercise helped me see all of the other things that were out of my control that I could share with God.


I don’t understand how this business of prayer works. I can’t explain what happens when we say to God the names of the people we know and love and care for and worry about, but Jesus did it, and I guess that’s all I really need to know. That makes me trust that it’s a good thing for us to do as well. In a sense it’s an exercise in trusting God to take care of the things that are out of our control. And we’re doing something important when we exercise trust in God.


The other thing that Jesus brings up in this passage is the value of friendship. Jesus speaks of himself as our friend. And this is such a good thing for us to know and to embrace. I don’t guess there’s anything more valuable than a friend. As Jesus says, there’s no greater love the love of someone who lays down their life for a friend. I don’t guess any of us know if we have that kind of love for our friends until the situation presents itself. Certainly there are such opportunities that present themselves. Men and women who find themselves in combat situations are occasionally faced with those decisions and there are many stories of people sacrificing their own lives for the safety of others. And it’s not uncommon for law enforcement officers to make those kinds of decisions. It’s a sad and beautiful thing when people actually give up their lives for the sake of others.


But most of us come to understand the value of friendship through smaller acts of self-giving love. And those small acts can be really big. A surprising act of kindness from a friend when we are feeling lonely or in pain can be a powerful thing. And apparently there are a lot of people who aren’t feeling those acts of kindness from others. Just this week there was a story on National Public Radio about the number of people who suffer from loneliness.


There was this national study produced by a medical organization that examined the extent of loneliness in our nation and more than 50% of the respondents reported that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. We tend to think that it’s the oldest generation who become isolated and alone, but the surprising statistic from this latest study was that it’s the youngest adults who suffer from the greatest sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a really sad thing to me. It’s terrible that there is such a significant number of people in our nation who are feeling so lonely. I don’t know the solution, but this is a problem that needs attention.


Few of us have the heroic opportunity to lay our lives down for a friend or have benefitted from the heroic friendship of someone else. More often we come to know the value of friendship when we lose a friend, and I’m sure we’ve all felt that pain on some level. Sometimes this sort of pain comes when we lose a friend to death, and losing a friend in that way is a significant source of pain, but it’s a more insidious source of pain when we lose a friend through the breakdown of a relationship.


I’ve got such a broken relationship in my life and it haunts me. I guess I’ve probably got more than one ailing friendship, but I have a truly broken relationship with someone that I once enjoyed great friendship. I won’t burden you with the various dynamics of our relationship and what I think occurred that created the rift between us, but I don’t know how to fix it, and it’s such a sad thing to me. I miss being in contact with him, and it reminds of how painful it is to lose a valuable relationship. And I feel very powerless to fix it.


Which brings me back to the value of prayer – the thing that we can do when we don’t know what else we can do.


And not only is our friend Jesus, on hand to hear what we have to say – he is already in prayer for us. Even when we don’t have the wisdom and discipline to turn our hearts and minds to God – Jesus is praying that we will find our way to the source of true life. He doesn’t want us to be distracted by the illusions of life that we so often find in this world.


This word, abide, comes up several times in this morning’s passage. I don’t think abide is a word I ever use in daily language, but it’s a good word, and I like what it conveys. It indicates the presence of a mutually beneficial and satisfying relationship. I think about the only time I use this word is when I’m doing a wedding. During the exchange of rings the vow that goes with the giving of the rings speaks of the ring as a token and pledge of their constant faith and abiding love. It’s a good thing when people abide together. Criminals don’t abide with each other – they conspire, but they don’t abide. People who abide with each other want to be together and take pleasure in the company of the other.


There’s probably something about abiding that we can learn from our pets – they are often good at abiding with us. They can seem so happy just to be close to us – and their presence gives us a lot of comfort.


The good news in this passage is the way in which Jesus speaks of his desire to abide with us and for his invitation for us to abide with him. It’s a relationship that moves us to exhibit this particular kind of love that Jesus made known to us. It’s that kind of love that we often think of parents as having for their children. Children and their parents aren’t always known for wanting to abide with each other, but there is some powerful abiding that goes on between parents and their children. I think it’s a good example for what Jesus wants us to understand about how close we can be to the heart of God.


God continued to abide with Jesus in his death, and God has enabled Jesus to continue to abide with us through the resurrection. This abiding love of Jesus is still in our midst, and we can make room for his abiding love to be in our hearts.


This is not an easy thing that Jesus brought into the world, but it is the best thing. It’s the source of true happiness, and it’s the avenue to a more abundant life. It’s also something that the world is starving to find. There are a lot of lost and lonely people in this world who don’t know that they have a friend in heaven and who haven’t found a good friend on earth. I’m thinking our work as disciples of Jesus is actually pretty easy. We don’t need to perform miracles – we just need to be nice to one another. And that will feel pretty miraculous to some people.


There is some powerful abiding to be done, and through this abiding love of God in our midst a lot of healing can happen and good news can be spread. We have a friend in heaven, and he’s praying that we will make new friends on earth.

Thanks be to God for the abiding love of Jesus Christ and the opportunities we have to experience and to share that most precious thing.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Easter 5B

April 30, 2018

Into The Flow

John 15:1-8
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.


I don’t think we have a good sense of how scandalous it was for Jesus to say that he was the true vine. It sounds like a nice metaphor for us, and it’s not easy to understand why anyone would take offense at what sounds to me like a reasonable assertion, but there’s a revolutionary aspect to what he’s saying. What we hear is nice advice, but this isn’t how it would have sounded to 1st Century Jewish/Christian ears. These words highlight a rift that had developed between the house of Israel and the followers of Jesus who had been thrown out of that house.


The nation of Israel had been thinking of itself as God’s vineyard for many centuries.

Isaiah 5:7 states: The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;

Psalm 80:8 says: You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.


You can find the image of the grape vine or vineyard throughout the Bible. I read that there are more than 200 references to grape-vines or vineyards in the Bible. But when Jesus says that he is the true vine he isn’t speaking for the nation of Israel. Jesus was officially and brutally rejected by the leaders of Israel, and I think it’s helpful to pay attention to the jagged-edginess of what Jesus was saying.


In that regard it might be helpful for us to think about the way the Rock and Roll revolution tore in to our own society. Having been born in 1957, I wasn’t fully conscious of the way in which rock and roll disrupted the lives of average Americans, but I know that it wasn’t universally welcomed. I wasn’t old enough to be on the front line of that culture war, but I was somewhat aware of the battles that were being fought, and I was happy to come along and enjoy the new territory that had been seized by men and women who were armed with amplified guitars and microphones.


I recently listened to Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born To Run. He’s one of my favorite rock and roll band leaders, and I really enjoyed hearing him tell the story of his life. Bruce is a few years older than I am, but he hadn’t become a popular artist while I was a teenager, so I only came to appreciate his music a few years after he initially produced it. His family history is much different from my own, but what I understood about his story was how influential the musicians of his day were to him.


He was much more aware of the impact that Elvis Presley had on our society than I was, but according to Bruce Springsteen, the day that Elvis performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, September 9, 1956 was the day the world shifted – at least it was the day that altered the axis of his world.


The world he had previously occupied was pretty dismal. He was harassed by the nuns at the Catholic School he attended and his home-life was somewhat bleak. His father suffered with some undiagnosed mental illness and he self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes. His mother worked all the time and they had a hard time making ends meet, but his view of the world shifted when he saw Elvis Presley perform on television. That was the day he realized the world could be interesting and exciting.


That turn of events doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of what we would call a salvation experience, but on some level it spoke to him in a way that brought him to life. Seeing that performance by Elvis lit a fire within him that changed the course of his life and has had a powerful impact on the lives of many other people.


I’m not here to argue that rock and roll has been an unquestionably positive force in the world. There have been a lot of different messages blasted out from rock and roll speakers and those messages have led a lot people down bad roads. God has not been glorified by much of what has come out of the rock and roll revolution, but I think we all know that there’s something within a great rock and roll rhythm that can touch our soul. An amplified guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum set is a powerful set of soul-stirring tools. Add some lyrics sung by a gyrating man or woman and you’ve got something. This was powerfully clear to teenagers when Elvis hit the stage – as it was to their parents, but they didn’t share the same feelings about the situation.


And I think this is helpful to keep in mind when we think about the way Jesus was seen by the people of his day. The dividing line didn’t break down between generations in the way that it did when rock and roll broke out in Western Civilization, but there was this huge rift between those who saw Jesus as the savior they had been waiting for and those who saw him as the biggest troublemaker that had ever arrived in Israel.


We are inclined to think that the sap running through the vine that Jesus speaks of himself as being is nothing less than the source of true life, but that’s not how everyone felt about him. Jesus got everyone’s attention in a powerful way, but opinions of him were powerfully divided. You might say he was replacing some revered traditions and expectations with himself. This came as a refreshing blast of life to many and a point of blasphemy to others.


I don’t want to make too much of the comparison between the arrival of Jesus in Israel and the way that rock and roll burst on to the scene in America. The motto of peace and love that rock and roll claimed to promote turned in to some ugly excesses, but I do think the way that music influences our lives is similar to the way in which Jesus operates within us. And I don’t want to act like music didn’t arrive in the United States until 1956. I know how passionate my father was about the music of the 40’s, but he wasn’t ever touched by charm of rock and roll.


I believe whatever form of music speaks to our soul can help us understand what it is that Jesus offers – which is the opportunity to be caught up and guided by something that is greater than ourselves. In the same way that we can be carried away by the sound of music we can be swept up and guided by the spirit of the living Christ. If we are connected to the true vine that was the embodiment of the living God we can get into the flow of abundant living – of living as if we are connected to the life of Jesus Christ.


I’ve never had a productive grape-vine, so I don’t think I fully appreciate this morning’s vineyard metaphor, but I do know how it feels to get caught up in the flow of a rhythm and it’s a powerful thing. But I also know how difficult it is to get a grape-vines going, and how easy it is for grapevines to be unproductive. I’ve planted a few grapevines, and I’m always excited by the picture you see on the grapevine container, but none of them have ever survived and produced.


I guess I appreciate the flow of music more than I understand and appreciate the vineyard image, but this was not the case with the people of Jesus’ day. And they weren’t just familiar with the biblical image of the vineyard, they were also familiar with the process of grape production. They understood what it took to create fruit-laden vines, and apparently this act of pruning is essential to the process.


Jesus speaks of God as the vinedresser who understands what to prune. Now, it’s good for us to remember that we aren’t in charge of the vineyard, but this doesn’t mean we are to think of ourselves as passive objects in the vineyard of life. If we want to be productive branches that are connected to the true vine we aren’t to sit around and wait for God to do something. In fact, if we are sitting around waiting for God to use us in some way this is probably an indication that we’ve somehow already become disconnected from the vine. If we are connected to the source of true life, we are going to bear some good fruit of some kind.


As surely as you can’t sit still when your favorite song is playing, you can’t not somehow share the love of Christ if you are connected to the vine. What flows in is going to flow out in some way.


It’s good for us to think about the amazingly new way that Jesus revealed the love of God in to the world. It wasn’t in a way that suited everyone, but that was because those people weren’t ready for their world to be rocked. Jesus was very threatening to people who were more interested in stability than in justice and who were more interested in knowing how to be powerful than in how to be loving. Jesus didn’t come to bless the way things were – he came to reveal what life is like in the kingdom of God, and that is a far different way of living than the way this world is organized.


Things are different in the kingdom of God, and Jesus exposed those differences in ways that were very threatening. Jesus was seen as a troublemaker, and yet he pointed to himself as being the true vine. We aren’t called to be troublemakers, but we are called to be connected to the source of true life, and that can cause some trouble. It can cause us to speak up in the face of injustice and to expose ourselves when it would be safer to remain hidden. Jesus didn’t come to make sure nothing ever changed, he came to make something happen, and to see who wanted to find true life.


The world didn’t change on September 9, 1956 when Elvis hit Ed Sullivan’s stage. The entertainment bar got raised that night, but the world changed when Jesus stepped on the world’s stage and showed us what it means to be in the flow of true life. It was a truly shocking performance. There was too much love being too freely given. In fact it was so shocking the government and religious censors of the day sentenced him to death, but the Producer, the Lord God Almighty, wasn’t ready for the show to be over.


God brought Jesus back for an encore performance and the show hasn’t ended yet. In fact, Jesus has invited us to join him on the stage, and he’s wanting to see our best moves!


Thanks be to God.



Easter 4B

April 23, 2018

The Lord Is!

Psalm 23


1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.


I can’t think about Psalm 23 without remembering the meal that followed the funeral of Robert Anderson Jr., who was the man that took care of my grandparents for decades. He went by Jr., and I talked about him in a previous sermon. You may not have been here or you may have forgotten what I said about Jr. I wouldn’t have remembered telling you about Jr., but I’ve figured out how to do word searches on my computer, and sure enough, I talked about Jr. in May of 2016.


In that sermon I talked about how Jr. took care of my quadriplegic grandmother for 20 years and then my elderly grandfather. I told the story of how Jr. was was shot and killed by the elderly and deranged father of his girlfriend, and I talked about his terrible funeral. It was terrible because the preacher of the Black Baptist Church who preached his funeral pretty much used Jr. as an example of the kind of person you don’t want to be. Jr. didn’t go to church, but he was usually at my grandparent’s house on Sunday mornings fixing their lunch. I told the story of how I got to say the final words over Jr.’s grave and that I tearfully pronounced that Robert Anderson Jr. was a good man – which I considered him to be.


I know I said these things because I read the sermon that my word search led me back to, but I didn’t tell you what happened at the lunch we had following the service.


My mother and a few other women who knew and loved Jr. put together a meal for his family following the service. The church hadn’t offered their fellowship hall, so we had the meal at a more appropriate place – it was at a nightclub that wasn’t open during the day. I was impressed that my mother had pulled together such an event at such a place, and she was pretty much in charge of the event. When the food was all laid out and we were about to begin eating she didn’t ask anyone to say a blessing – she suggested that we all say the 23rd Psalm together.


I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it seemed like a good thing to do so we began, and we started off strong, but we didn’t get far beyond the green pastures phrase before we got lost. I dare say all of the lines of Psalm 23 are familiar to many of us, but it’s a challenge to up and repeat it without looking at it. Our group recitation of Psalm 23 was filled with these awkward pauses followed by various lines spoken out of order that someone would remember ( …restores my soul, …yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of… ) but we never could really get a good flow going. Miraculously someone managed to get us going on the final words of the Psalm and we finished with a strong, … and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


It was pretty comical and probably pretty appropriate for that gathering. I’m sure Jr. spent more time laughing at that night club than he did studying scripture at church, but I dare say the Lord was his shepherd also.


Psalm 23 is certainly the most familiar of all of the Psalms, and it may be one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. It’s familiar, but in some ways it’s terribly foreign to us. We don’t come from shepherding people. At least most of us don’t. We come from people who worked in buildings or on farms where crops are grown. Some of us know about raising cows and horses and chickens, but we don’t generally come from people who have spent any time tending sheep, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever set out to become a shepherd.


I know there are some people around who keep sheep, but those are people who have the luxury to have an interesting hobby. And there might be a few people in Arkansas who keep sheep on a commercial level, but those people are not sleeping outside and warding off predators with a stick. This is not to say that we don’t come from people who were brave and hearty in their own way or that we don’t know what it feels like to face dangerous foes in trying circumstances, but I am saying we don’t really know what that job was all about that we so fondly refer.


We don’t know about sheep, but we know about animals, and we know that animals go where they shouldn’t go and they do what they shouldn’t do. Shepherding isn’t that different from any kind of animal care, and I guess that’s why this metaphor of God being our shepherd has remained current for so many centuries. We have gotten away from the work of chasing after sheep and warding off dangerous predators, but I don’t think God has been able to leave that kind of work behind.


It’s an interesting image to think of God as our shepherd. It’s an image that puts us in the role of being like an animal that is in need of guidance and protection. I’m reminded of our little dog, Pickle, who has a bit of an infection on his foot. If he would leave his foot alone for a few days it would be fine, and I’ve tried to explain this to him, but he won’t quit licking it. So we’ve had to put this crazy cone on his head that prevents him from licking his foot.


God doesn’t have such clear methods of preventing us from doing harm to ourselves and others. God’s care and guidance aren’t as obvious as the tools of a shepherd, but I’m comforted by this image of God as our shepherd, and I’m certain that God’s protection and guidance are equally real.


God isn’t as hands-on as a Palestinian shepherd. Too many people actually fall in to harm’s way for me to think God’s primary job is to simply keep us safe, but I do believe that we are all as familiar to God as is the flock of a caring shepherd. And even though God is unable to keep us from pain and death – I join the Psalmist in believing that God maintains a vigilant watch over our lives. And God rejoices when we find our way in to the realization that we are in God’s presence and consciousness regardless of what’s going on in our lives.


It’s been 5 years since the bombing of the Boston Marathon. There were many amazing stories of heroism and care that came out of that event. One of the stories I heard was of a man who went to the hospital soon after the event to speak with some of the survivors. This man was in the business of crafting prosthetic limbs, and he had gotten in to that line of work 25 years earlier when one of his legs was crushed in an industrial accident.


The man said that he went back to the hospital where he was treated a few months after his accident because he wanted to visit with other amputees and reassure them that they would be ok. The hospital staff actually turned him away because they said he didn’t have any qualifications for such work, but an astute chaplain pulled him aside and asked him what was going on. The man explained that he just wanted to provide some reassurance to fellow amputees that they would be ok, so the chaplain invited him to come to the hospital the next Saturday for a short training session for chaplain volunteers, and with that he was authorized to go visit anyone he wanted to go see in the hospital.


He said the most memorable visit he had had was with a young man who had just lost the lower portion of his leg, and when he tried to tell the young man that he would be ok, the guy got really angry and said he was so tired of people coming in and telling him he would be fine. He went on to tell the volunteer chaplain he had no idea what he was facing and he asked him if he would just leave him alone. With that the volunteer chaplain put his prosthetic leg up on the bed and pulled his pants leg up so the young man could see who he was dealing with.


The young man didn’t have much more to say, but he began to cry and he did thank him for coming in. This volunteer chaplain told his interviewer that he believes the purpose God has given each of us in life is to watch out for one another.


If often takes a disaster of some kind for some of us to remember this essential truth, but this is something we often see in the wake of a disaster – people remember how important it is for us to watch out for one another. God is our shepherd in an ultimate sense, but we are called to be shepherds for one another in a very immediate sense. In some ways I wish we could simply use the tools of shepherds to watch out for one another. It would be nice if we could just slip a shepherds crook around the neck of a loved one who is going in a dangerous direction, but this work of watching over one another isn’t so simple. But we should never forget the power of clear and compassionate words.


We don’t generally get to physically stand in the way of enemies who are coming after our friends and loved ones and beat them off with a stick, but we can listen to the struggles of those who are living in fear of disease or other forms of personal disaster and do what we can to provide relief.


In a mysterious way I do believe that God reaches out to us in the same way a shepherd watches over the sheep. Devastating disaster does happen to good-hearted people, but even in the midst of calamity I believe we have access to the calming hand of God, and often that profound sense of divine compassion comes to us through the hands of human angels who know their purpose is to watch over their neighbors.


Because God is, we are ok regardless of what may come our way. Because God is, we are empowered to provide divine care to those who are walking through that valley of the shadow of death.

Because God is, we are dwelling in a holy place, and there is nothing a twisted person with a bomb or a gun can do to destroy our communion with God’s holy spirit.


Devastating death came to Jesus, but that didn’t put an end to his life, and in a mysteriously miraculous way this greatest shepherd that God has ever provided continues to provide for us. It’s easy to get anxious and to fret over what may come and what may happen, and at such times it’s wonderful to remember that the Lord simply is. If you are like me you might not remember every word of this beautiful Psalm, but it’s hard to forget the main points.


The Lord is and because of that we are – loved, guided, protected, nourished, and cherished – always.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


Easter 3b

April 16, 2018

Jesus In The Flesh

Luke 24:36b-48


36b While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.


In spite of the relentless attempts to define the Christian faith in very narrow and particular ways the essence of faith in Jesus Christ is experiential. What I mean by this is that to follow Jesus Christ is not just to hold a particular set of beliefs or to follow a clear set of rules. To follow Jesus Christ is to engage with the world in a unique way. To be a faithful Christian we can’t just to show up regularly for religious services – we’re to live in a way that reveals our trust in the presence of the living Christ.


Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to have all the right answers to the theological debates of his day. Jesus instructed his disciples to practice the most important commandment. Jesus was very clear about what was most important – he said we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. This was the one rule Jesus espoused, and he spent his time doing things and telling stories that illustrated what that meant. Ultimately he revealed what love for God and others looks like by surrendering his life – which was an event that left everyone speechless and paralyzed, but his death was not the end of the story. He showed back up. In fact, according to Luke he showed up hungry.His disciples didn’t just experience his life and death, they experienced his resurrection, and that’s why we are here today.


The thing that keeps the church alive is the thing that set it in motion – it’s the way in which we continue to experience the presence of the risen Lord. I don’t think any of us have experienced the risen Lord as clearly as the disciples did when he showed up and asked for a fish to eat, but I think this story does speak to the experiential nature of our faith. This story illustrates the way in which we encounter Jesus in the ebb and flow of life and we are reminded of our need for repentance and forgiveness. These are the elements that allow us to experience and to share the presence of our resurrected Lord.


I’ve been going through boxes of files and papers that I’ve accumulated over the past 30 years. It’s an interesting process to go through the archives of my personal history and to recall the various experiences I’ve had in ministry. My career in ministry has put me in touch with a lot of people, and I’ve had some rich experiences. A rich experience – that’s what you call an experience that you survived, but that nearly squeezed the life out of you. As I say, I believe our faith is essentially experiential. And they aren’t just sweet experiences.


One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in ministry occurred while I was the Director of the UALR Wesley Foundation. It happened during the summer that we built the yurt. Some of you haven’t heard the story of my yurt project, but a yurt is a big round tent looking thing. It was an economical and interesting way to add some additional programming space, and getting that thing done was it’s own rich experience, but the richest part of that experience began when Randy entered the picture.


Randy came riding up to the Wesley Foundation on a bicycle one hot July afternoon as we were working on the yurt. He was a man in his fifties who had clearly been travelling by bicycle for a long time. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and he was about as brown as the descendant of a European can be. Leathery would be a good way to describe him. My friend Charles Zook would go on to nickname him, Grissel, which seemed quite appropriate.


I really wasn’t in the mood to address the needs of a man who was obviously transient – I was focused on my yurt project. I tried to keep him moving by offering him nothing but food and directions, but he wouldn’t leave and he asked if there was anything he could do. I had a huge pile of debris in the back yard of the Wesley Foundation, and I was wanting to put that pile on a trailer to haul off, so I told him I would be happy for him to load all that debris on the trailer. Given the fact that it was close to 100 degrees I thought surely that would get him moving down the road, but it didn’t. He put that huge pile of construction waste and roots on that trailer, and at that point he had my attention.


I was also at a critical point in the construction of the yurt and the truth was that I needed some help. I told Randy I would let him stay the night at the Wesley Foundation if he wanted to stick around and help me the next day. He said he would and he did. We got to work early the next day, and he and I worked well together.


We’ll that one day turned into a week, and I had never worked around anyone who was as focused and diligent on doing whatever I needed him to do. Assembling that yurt was a really interesting and labor intensive project, and Randy was an excellent helper. He didn’t pretend to know what needed to be done but he would do whatever I asked him to do. Randy became critical to the process. I told him I couldn’t pay him, but our deal was that he could sleep at the Wesley Foundation and I would keep him fed, and that suited him.


Randy and I became very familiar with each other that week, and he was an interesting man. He had been riding his bicycle for about 18 months. He began in Minnesota, he had ridden to the east coast, he then went down to Florida, he made an inland tour of Alabama, and then over to Biloxi where he had worked at a UM hurricane recovery center, and then he came to Little Rock. His journey had been shaped by an interest in the Civil War, but it was made possible by the United Methodist. His mother had raised him in the United Methodist church and United Methodist institutions were always the 1st places he checked for food, work or shelter as he made his way around the country.


Had Randy left after that first week I would consider him to have been nothing but an angel who had come to Little Rock on a mission from God. But he didn’t leave after that week. We continued to work together for a couple of weeks, but classes began to meet at UALR and as I often heard him say, he wasn’t a people person. I came to realize that there was a theme to most of the stories he told, which was that most of the relationships he entered into concluded with some kind of train wreck. And that would be the case with me as well.


Randy’s capacity to work hard was rivaled with his capacity to drink hard and we had a number of incidents – two of which involved the campus police. I han told him he couldn’t drink at the Wesley Foundation, so Randy set up a chair just beyond our dumpster that he came to call his office, and Randy proceeded to become a problem.


I decided it was time for Randy to go, so I acquired a really good used bicycle for Randy a friend, I pulled together some money, I wrote him a nice note, and I told him he had to go. He said he wasn’t ready to go and he proceeded to use that money to get really drunk and belligerent, so our next to final day ended with him in a stupor and me calling the police. They showed up, told him he was never to return to the UALR campus and they hauled him off to somewhere.


A student called me the next morning as I was on my way to the Wesley Foundation and told me Randy was back. I genuinely thought he had returned to attack me in some way, so I arrived from a different direction, and when I saw him I hollered at him from a safe distance. It turned out that he was sober, and apologetic. He was also broke and his bicycle had been stolen. He said he was willing to leave but he needed a bicycle. Fortunately a student who was standing nearby and aware of the situation heard what was going on and offered to give him an old bicycle and a ride to the edge of town.


I’ll never forget my final conversation with Randy that day. He told me I had been a good friend to him. I pointed out that I had called the police on him on two different occasions, and he said, Yeah, that’s what I mean, you only called the police twice.


This story didn’t end with angels rejoicing in heaven, but I can’t help but believe Jesus had brought us all together. Randy was a badly damaged person in some significant ways, but he wasn’t just a damaged man. As he often told me, I’m a Methodist.  He wasn’t an exemplary Methodist, but the church had made an impression on him and he frequently turned to the church for help. And he didn’t just take from the church whatever he could. Randy offered what he could as well, and when he was in his right mind he sought forgiveness and reconciliation.


I believe we are called to engage in the messy work of reaching out to one another in gracious and redeeming ways and to always understand that we don’t even know how God will use us to do the work of reaching lost souls. This calling to follow Jesus can put us in some uncomfortable situations, but I believe the risen Christ is on hand to redeem the difficult circumstances that we often find ourselves within. The primary message of the resurrection of Jesus is that God doesn’t abandon us when we encounter the terrors of life.


Jesus didn’t offer nice lessons about how we are to understand the meaning of life. He didn’t provide us with the answers to the great mysteries of life. He told us to love one another and that requires us to get involved with one another. He didn’t offer easy outs – he offered rich experiences.


The gift that Jesus offered to his disciples was an encounter with his damaged flesh and the good news that God is always with us when we reach out to one another with love. The supremacy of God is the message that comes to us in scripture from the very beginning, but the power of this truth was made unmistakably clear through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


The resurrection of Christ is a call for us to be reoriented around the good news that God is supreme and that Christ is alive. It’s a message that reminds us to repent and to forgive. We don’t have to live with fear or resentment – we can experience reconciliation with God and one another.


This is the nature of the rich experience that has brought us together this morning. Most of us have nearly had the life squeezed out of us in some way, but somehow God has managed to reach out and bring us back to life. You never know who going to come riding up in to your life or where those relationships will take us, but we can always trust that God is with us when we reach out to one another in love and that good will come from our most feeble efforts. This is how God chooses to be in our midst – in the flesh.


And thanks be to God for this.