Rev. Jeremy Smith
Date: May 12, 2013
Title: “For Us or With Us”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Ruth 1:6-18
Introducing the Scripture:
The book of Ruth is an Old Testament story hundreds of years before Jesus that contains hidden ironies known only to native Hebrew speakers. It begins with a famine covering Bethlehem, which means literally “the house of bread.” Naomi marries into a tribe of Ephrathites, meaning “fruitfulness” and yet the whole tribe dies out without any fruit—children—to show for it. They die leaving Naomi to fend for herself and her two daughters in law Orpah and Ruth.
And more than that, it is a story of Ruth, who is a detested Moabite, which is what Ducks fans are to Beavers fans, and Beavers fans are to Ducks fans. And yet she exhibits a faith surpassing the Hebrew people. The final irony and lesson for us is that even an outsider to the beloved people of God can be incorporated into God’s plan for God’s people—indeed, only four women are mentioned in the Geneology of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, and Ruth is one of them. Listen now as Cheryl reads the Scripture for us about Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.
Scripture: Ruth 1:6-18
I have a confession to make to you this morning. I’m in my thirties but I’m pretty sure I’m turning into a curmudgeon.
Because I find that holidays disappoint my expectations. The more you read about holidays, their origins, and their current forms, it seems that every holiday is watered down in some way from its original intent.
- Obviously Christmas is made to be more about gifts bought for each other than about Jesus’ birth.
- Easter is made to be more about bunnies that lay eggs rather than Jesus
- Thanksgiving is made to be more about meals and turkeys rather than enemies seeking reconciliation for however short a time.
- Martin Luther King Jr Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth of July are more about having a day off than honoring our fallen heroes. Worst of all is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts is more about a day off to run the Marathon and go to a Red Sox game than to honor our veterans. Perhaps after this year, they should rename it “First Responders and Police Officers” Day.
And today being Mother’s Day, we have strayed far from its original intentions, though to be fair, its original intentions did not even last as long as its originator was alive.
The original Mother’s Day proclamation in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe was not a rhyming poem on a greeting card, rather these are sections from it:
“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
We, the women of one country, Will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Mother’s Day in this country began as a cry for peace. This proclamation is more than tender reverence for mothers; it is a cry of protest amid a violent nation. Mothers everywhere are called to say no to violence and yes to peace, called to reveal God’s love for humanity in a resolute stand against the world’s warring madness.
The other name most associated with Mother’s Day is Anna Jarvis. She lobbied for Mother’s Day but then a decade after its creation she turned against her own invention. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” She crashed meetings, protested florists and greeting card industries, and got arrested to stop the commercialization. It’s said that when she went to eat at a restaurant and they had a “Mother’s Day salad” on the menu, she ordered it, paid her check, and then threw it on the ground in a huff. To her, Mother’s Day had been taken over and she fought its recognition for the rest of her life until she died at 84 years old…the bill for her final arrangements paid for by a group of appreciative florists.
I have a theory this morning. My theory is that holidays begin to fall short of their intent when we focus more on the word FOR rather than the word WITH.
It seems that the word that epitomizes Holidays is “for.” We cook Easter Ham “for” our family, we buy presents “for” others at Christmas, we offer to do chores “for” our mother on Mother’s Day…all to say we lay ourselves down “for.” But there is a problem here. All these gestures are generous, and kind, and in some cases sacrificial and noble. They are good gestures, warm-hearted, admirable gestures. But somehow they don’t go to the heart of the Holiday problem. Doing things for other people isn’t nearly as important as doing things with other people.
What if holidays were more about who we spent it with rather than what we bought for them? What if the national holidays were days were we spent time with our wounded veterans and working with those seeking justice and equality rather than time set aside for a day off? I suspect we would turn back the clock and restore such holidays to their intent as being not for the named persons but with the named persons.
I’m convinced of theory because in the Scriptures, God is lifted up as “with” us not just “for” us. Today’s scripture is of a mothering spirit between Naomi and Ruth. They were not related by blood—Ruth had married one of Naomi’s sons. The sons and the father were all dead, and the three unrelated widows including Orpah were left on their own. Naomi tells the daughters to go back home and to leave her—there is no Jewish prohibition against widows leaving one another or a daughter in law abandoning a mother in law. Orpah obeys her mother in law and returns home. Ruth refuses and pledges that “where you go, I will go” and eventually changes Naomi’s mind. Orpah chose to do something “for” Naomi and satisfy her wants, but Ruth chose something “with” Naomi to satisfy her needs.
The simple truth is that “for” is not the way God relates to us. God does not simply do things for us. God does not simply shower us with good things. “For” is not the heart of God.”
Theologian Sam Wells writes that in Matthew’s gospel, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get in a single sentence the Cliff Note’s succinct statement of what the Christian faith means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” With us. “The Word was with God. The Word was in the beginning with God. Without the Word not one thing came into being.”
“With” is the most fundamental thing about God. Jesus’s very last words in Matthew’s gospel are, “Behold, I am with you always.” In other words, there will never be a time when I am not “with.” And at the very end of the Bible, when the book of Revelation describes the imagined end of the world, this is what the voice from heaven says: “Behold, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
Throughout Scripture, God said unambiguously, “I am with.” Behold, my dwelling is among you. I have moved into the neighborhood. I will be “with” you always. My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us. Sure, there was an element of “for” in Jesus’ life. He was “for” us when he healed and taught; he was “for” us when he died on the cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended to heaven. These are things that were done FOR us, certainly. But the power of these things God did “for” us lies in that they were based on his being “with” us. God has not abolished “for.” Doing things FOR others is fine. But I’m convinced that doing things “for” others follows a commitment to be with others. That is the good news of the incarnation.
On a day like today, it is perfectly appropriate to describe God as “with us” while lifting up the motherly images of God.
One of my clergy friends in New England wrote the following: Scripture after Scripture describes God not as a conquering king but as a loving mother: God is a woman in labor whose forceful breath is an image of divine power; God is a mother who does not forget the child she nurses; God is a mother who offers comfort with her children; God is a mother who births and protects Israel; God is a mother who gave birth to the Israelites. The early scripture writers understood the ways in which the Divine is known to us through our mothers and those who offer a mothering spirit to us. Through this human love we come to know divine love in God, as we are birthed, fed, nurtured, comforted and cared for.
Lest you think that Mothering is all about soft-focus pastels on the Lifetime channel, God’s love as mother is also portrayed as fierce. In scripture we read of God as a Mother eagle and mother bear, fiercely protecting their young against life-threatening situations. Jesus himself is described as a mother hen who gathers with her brood, shelters and cares for them, to instruct and teach them in the ways of the world.
The Good News for us today is no matter what our gender is or what our family looks like, we can live into this mothering spirit of being present WITH one another rather than simply doing things FOR one another. And in doing so, we live into that fierce protective spirit found in the Bible as God cares for the marginalized and the oppressed.
I spent some time in the Library this past week reading old sermons. For at least the latter years of Dr. Ray Balcomb’s tenure here, he would do biographies on Mother’s Day, outlining the life of a courageous woman who exemplified a mothering spirit even if she wasn’t a biological mother to anyone. People like Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Howard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, and others. And in each one, I was started to become critical (a curmudgeon, remember? Don’t cut my mic off, Gene) because there was no sermon intro or conclusion, no wrapping up their lives in scripture or prose, but simply outlining their service alongside the marginalized and allowing their lives to stand alone as testimony to the God who is with us.
We live into both the biblical narrative and our historical traditions when we choose to serve with and alongside one another rather than simply doing things for one another. This Church 20 years ago began a Shelter for homeless families. And there were concerns! We were inviting people to be here and to eat meals with them and spend the night with them. How much less scary it is donate a canned good for someone or donate clothes and items for someone. But this church persevered and now service with and alongside the marginalized is part of our DNA, passed down to every person who comes through the door, choosing to name each one as a beloved child of God. We rose to the occasion.
Twenty years ago this year, our church was in the midst of many transitions not only with the Shelter. The church voted to become Reconciling 20 years ago, we’ll celebrate that milestone in two weeks. Your senior pastor Larin Hall died a few months after leaving the pulpit, embodying what it meant to be a suffering servant. The new wing and Chapel were built to invite even more of the community to be here with us. I’m convinced that if you were here during those formative years of 1992-1994 that there’s something grafted onto your spirit that recognizes the value and strength of ministry with one another.
The challenge from scripture and elder stateswomen and men of our past is to respond to the marginalized in society. We are great at “for” we have successful offerings for groups and individuals and sometimes all they need is what we can give for them. That’s fine. But in what way will you choose to serve with? Will it is be serving in our Shelter? Will it be advocacy for marriage rights for all? Will it be reaching out to that family that you’ve never spent time with? What will it be?
The choice is yours. And the Good News is: you are not alone. God with us, Emmanuel, is with us. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: April 21, 2013
Title: “The New Creation”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Romans 8:18-25
The New Creation
What a week.
As a preacher, we stand, like you, with what Kart Barth called “a bible in one hand, a newspaper in another.” One is eternal and challenging but predictable to preach from, and the other changes rapidly. A bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday, an earthquake killed 35 in Pakistan on Tuesday, Ricin laced letters sent to elected officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate failing to act on gun control on Wednesday, an explosion in West Texas killing 14 people on Wednesday night, a shootout and police casualty at MIT on Thursday night, an unprecedented Boston lockdown and a successful manhunt that did not result in more loss of life on Friday. An earthquake in China killing over 180 people happened on Saturday. That scribbling sound you heard each night was preachers writing prayers for the victims and rewriting their sermons to reflect the world’s events. But this is Sunday, the beginning of a new week, where we gather. Some are perhaps hoping for a narrative to make sense out of senseless death and human failings. But I suspect some are just hoping for a blank slate, a reset button where the horrors of last week are forgotten, looking for Good News after the Bad News of last week. We want something new.
This week we continue our sermon series called “The New Normal.” We are focusing on what has changed after Easter, what has changed to the followers of Jesus after he was resurrected and what has changed in our own lives now. Our scripture today, chosen a month ago and relevant no matter the news, speaks of the whole earth groaning in anticipation, pregnant with possibilities. Like the people in the Roman church, we yearn for the release of something new being born, the release of 1 week, 9 months, years, decades of pain and discomfort. But there’s a difference between our situation and the Roman situation. In Paul’s writings, he expected Jesus to return in his lifetime, so for the long-suffering followers of Christ in Rome and all the other places, all they needed to do was hold on a bit longer and the New Creation would take place. They had to be faithful for another few months or years, and they would definitely see the return of Christ. For us, 2000 years later, that expectation, while still part of our hope and expection, is less a guide for our day-to-day living than it was for the Roman church. The Old Creation has not passed away, we still live between the times.
So how do we navigate this tension between the old and the new creation? On this Earth Sunday where a week like ours has us questioning the goodness of our human and our natural world, how do we navigate being faithful to God while wanting to hit the reset button. I’d like to start with the tale of two Bostons. First is the Boston of 2013, people running towards the blast, people who ran 26.2 miles and ran a few miles more to Mass General to give blood, people opening up their homes to displaced runners who couldn’t reconnect with the finish line meetup spot. Story after story of help and support, which is surprising because Chelsea and I lived in Boston for six years and compassionate is not the term we would use to describe Bostonians.
But there was also the Boston of 2009. I was in my third year of pastoring a local church in Boston when on a Sunday morning, Helen Jackson, an 82 year old woman got her scarf stuck on the metal grating at the bottom of an Escalator. She was pulled down to the ground and suffocated to death over the course of two minutes where people just walked by, assuming she was sleeping or homeless or who-knows-what and the two passerbys who tried to help were unable to get a knife or scissors or anything to cut the scarf from anyone walking by. She died and people just kept walking by in a 2009 version of Kitty Genovese.
The two stories of Boston beg the question. In both cases, people were dying, hurt, in need of help. So what was the reason why people helped in droves in 2013 but others kept walking in 2009? What changed between those two worlds? I think it comes down to tipping points. What pushes us to act, what pushes us down the hill? What causes us to turn the corner? A visible explosion and a visible need for help? People respond. An elderly inner-city person stuck on the escalator where people sleep and drunk people fall over? People walk by.
What is the Tipping Point when we are willing to help? Our televisions seek to push us over the tipping point and open our wallets. TV commercials with starving children pleading that for only 19 cents a day you can feed others. The ASPCA commercials with rows of shelter pets and Sarah McLachlan singing that you can save these abused animals. Entire cable news networks whose sole purpose, after they make money, is to push you over the tipping point and hate everyone that they want you to hate. Our human psyches are often either really vulnerable or completely immune to the media’s pushing of us over those tipping points.
But the truth is that our natural world also encounters tipping points, times when humanity, as stewards of Creation, have to decide to act even if there’s no obvious disruptive danger. There are tipping points in nature where things just don’t go back to normal. In Greenland the ice sheet there is bright and reflective and redirects much of the sun’s heat. But in recent decades, the more ice is melted, the less sunlight is reflected, and the more ice gets melted, and the less sunlight is reflected, and so on. We’ve reached what scientists believe is a tipping point, a negative feedback loop from whence it will be very very difficult to recover.
That’s the bad news. But hear the Good News. The tipping point for us to change our lives, our families, and our natural world is present already. There are two ways to live into the New Creation written about in Romans. The first is to see that before we can truly be part of the New Creation, we need to be in love with the current Creation around us. This New Creation, according to Paul, started with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, it started earlier with Jesus coming into the world and providing a way, according to John 3:16. However, the farmer and writer Wendell Berry takes it back even further than that. Quote: “People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in this statement: that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world–not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness–the lovability–of the world.” The pattern of salvation is that God loved the world first and then sent Jesus to inaugurate the New Creation through community and spirit.
In Romans, the birth pangs follow a pattern too, starting in the world. They start in the world, then they go to the community of the church, and then they go to the spirit. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, felt this same pattern. Wesley’s emphasis on “cleanliness” came as he observed a world of open sewers, impure water, unplanned cities, and smoke-filled air. In the mines and mills of England, squalor and filth were everywhere, as was disease. The substantial decline in the death rate in England from 1700 to 1801 can be traced to improvements in environment, sanitation, and a wider knowledge of concepts of basic health such as those advocated by Wesley. The birth pangs of a new way to live began in the world, moved to the Church through Wesley, and now that sense of connectedness is part of our DNA, born of the Spirit anew in each church across the globe. We are called to live at the overlap of the New and the Old Creation. Not to passively wait for the New, or reject the Old, but to live in the tension.
The second hope for us today is how to be part of the New Creation in everyday ways. That tension of being between worlds can get the better of us sometimes. This past week, day after day, news alert after news alert, text message after text message “have you seen the news?,” the tension has us in its grip. But we are not without hope. From the Book of Discipline, the book of United Methodist doctrine, it states: “We assert that God’s grace is manifest in all creation even though suffering, violence, and evil are everywhere present.” Even though violence and spectacles get most of our attention, our everyday attention ought to be in small, incremental changes. The way the natural world works gives us much-needed guidance. So much of environmental change and preservation is as slow as those ice sheets melting in Greenland. But each community that does choose the small actions, the different levels in your bulletins, they choose to be part of the solution–the agonizingly slow, methodical, and quiet solution–rather than contribute to the problem.
In short, this is a very Methodist way of dealing with the issue of the environment and of a world that some weeks is full of pain and suffering. John Wesley was on a boat with some folks and there was a terrific storm, a storm only matched by the anxiety in his heart. You see, he had been a preacher for a decade or two but he had gone through a spell where he was unsure of his role and unsure of his faith. He confided in a colleague on the boat who said “then you preach faith until you have it.” Little wonder that after this he began the small accountability group, Wesleyan bands, that would be a weekly meeting place for people to explore the bible and each other’s lives. While large-scale conversions and lived experiences of the divine did take place, for the majority they noticed a gradual growth in the spirituality and their dedication to God known in the church, in each other, and in the natural world. My hope for us is that we preach the New Creation until we have it. That we hope, yearn for something new that redeems the old. That we do the small things that in aggregate can pile up and make a difference.
In conclusion, if Creation is to be renewed, not abandoned, and if that work has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus, Christians must be in the forefront of bringing God’s healing to bear upon Creation in all levels. The Methodist way is one of those quiet, methodical ways. We may not be flashy, we may not have big-time authors or speakers. We are not abolishing the old world; we are being transformed into a new one. The groaning is a sign of hope. So may we groan in our labors. May we groan when we take out the recycling. May we groan when our natural and human worlds fall short. May our groanings be signs of our yearnings for this New Creation to come in its fullness. And may we continue to endeavor, to work, to persevere in spite of the groaning, because behold, through the Spirit we are building something new. Glory be to God. Amen.
Lest you think because you’ve done most of the things on your checklist provided by Planet Church, here’s a quote from Bill McKibben: “You’re not a member of the Resistance just because you drive a Prius. You don’t need to go to jail, but you do need to do more than change your light bulbs. You need to try to change the system that is raising the temperature, the sea level, the extinction rate – even raising the question of how well civilization will survive this century.”
Date: February 24, 2013
Title: “When to Burn the Boats”
Preaching: The Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: John 12:1-8
One of my friends wanted to learn how to swim. Well, that’s not quite true, his father wanted to teach him how to swim. My friend James tried swimming across the pool but he would keep his hand on the wall the whole time. And he did the inflatable arm things that was always strange to me that his elbows were more important than his face. So what did his dad do? The same thing dads have done since the beginning of time. His dad took him to the deep end of the pool, and pushed him in. There was no wall. There was no arm thingys to keep his elbows above water. It was sink or swim. There was no plan B. There was no way out other than to swim. I’m not saying it is the right way, traumatic and feeling abandoned by your father as it must have felt. But the motivation was there: It was sink or swim. There was no backup plan.
But we are a people who like Plan B, don’t we? We like to have backups, we like to have escape routes. We like to not be stuck in one frame. If we don’t succeed in this, well at least we have that. If we can’t fix the plumbing ourselves for cheap, then we’ll hire a plumber. If we don’t get that job we applied for, well, at least we have this one that we hate. If we can’t get our spouse to see our point of view, well, we’ll move the furniture when s/he is out of the house. The backup plan is in place, so there’s less motivation to succeed in the main plan, isn’t there?
In the scripture today, Mary broke into the upper room with a pricey possession: an alabaster jar of ointment. It was ridiculously expensive, sealed to be opened only by the rich who would likely have eventually bought it from Mary, at great benefit to her family. But Mary takes it, breaks it, and shares it with Jesus, pouring it on his feet, drying it off with her hair. She takes her most prized possession, worth a fortune intact and worthless broken open, and poured it all out, risking her livelihood and future for a moment of blessing.
Mary showed not only by her actions but by the response of the other disciples that she understood that Jesus didn’t have a backup plan. The disciples sitting around that table were just like us in that were surely living with two plans in mind. For the disciples, there was plan A and plan B.
- Plan A was to follow Jesus to establish the kingdom, to accomplish everything Jesus wanted them to accomplish. It would be hard work, involve a lifetime of pain, they would have to leave their families, most of them would likely die terrible deaths, but it would be tremendous joy to live out their faith in Jesus Christ.
- But Plan B, which was more accessible, was to help Jesus become the militant messiah, the king of Israel, defeat the Roman Empire, move into the palace, each of them become regional governors in a kingdom under Christ that would never end and the Jewish people would be afraid no longer. There had been many other militant leaders who tried this path before but Jesus seemed to have the best chance.
But what they discovered, what Christ knew, what Mary knew, was our human condition of that when we have a plan B, we usually end up falling back on it.
I have a friend who is engaged to a well-to-do spouse, and every 1-2 months he gets a job and when everything is going great, he quits or gets fired spectacularly. He finds reasons to quit or he sabotages himself. He does this every time. He has his safety net of a partner who can cover for his financial difficulties. I wonder what will happen when that safety net won’t cover for him any longer, won’t be co-dependent with him. And I wonder when we are supposed to make that choice to not rely on the safety net any longer.
The Good News for us today is that Jesus knew when to burn the boats.
It is said that the ancient Greek warriors possessed an unwavering commitment to success. When their armies landed on their enemy’s shore, the first order the commanders gave was “Burn the boats.” These commanders knew the power of motivation and necessity of focusing on Plan A. With no boats to retreat to, the army had to be successful in order to survive. As the soldiers watch the boats burn, they knew there was no turning back – there would be no surrendering – there was only Plan A.
In the Scripture today, there’s a contrast between Mary who had embraced Plan A and Judas who was living under the lifestyle of Plan B. The false and the real disciple. Mary recognizes the cost to Jesus of raising Lazarus: he has literally traded Lazarus’s life for his. The Judean rulers would not allow him to live now. Indeed, during this scene, they are looking around town for Jesus. So she embraces Plan A and, as Jesus says, she prepares him for death by pouring out a gift of extravagent love. The sweet smell of the perfume is the perfect counterpart to the stench of Lazarus’s tomb just the previous chapter. Mary symbolizes that in Christ the smell of life triumphs over the stench of death.
In this scene, we see Jesus burning the boats. There is no going back to the militant messiah. The militant messiah will be dead in the tomb, but Jesus would live. The worldly leader who would be a perfect ruler of the imperfect world would be dead, but Jesus would live. The one who would establish an earthly kingdom with borders and boundaries subject to human sin would be dead, but Jesus would live. Plan A would succeed, but out of deference to our human condition to want a fallback plan, Plan B had to be totally removed from the equation.
In the most recent Batman movie The Dark Knight Returns, Batman has been injured and captured by the antagonist and placed in a prison unlike you’ve ever seen. The prison has no guards, no jailors, and the sun shines into it from open-air. You see, the prison is dug a few stories underground in a long tube like a missle launching silo, the prison is at the bottom with rock outcroppings to climb up so escape was feasible but for most futile. The prisoners would take turns tying a rope around their waist and trying to jump from rock to rock, only to inevitably fall and be caught by the rope to be able to try again. Batman recuperates from his injuries and keeps on attempting until he realizes that it isn’t his ability that is keeping him from making the longest jump between rocks, it isn’t the impossibleness of the jump…it’s that he has the rope tied around his waist and he has a fallback plan. Batman removes the rope, climbs to the jumping part, and with soaring dramatic music…jumps…and makes the jump.
Backup plans, safety nets are good because they can protect you from pain and injury, but they can also keep you from really putting it on the line. So What does burning the boats look like in your life? Cutting up your credit cards is a boat to burn. It will force you to live on cash alone without having that good old Visa to fall back on. Maybe write a letter to your boss saying you’re quitting, and have a friend mail it if you don’t start working on your ideal career in ninety days. Or put up signs all over town informing the public you’ll pay $10 to anyone who catches you smoking. Those are some extreme examples but when are we called to be extreme? When do we burn the boats?
Let me be clear. The suggestion here is not to cease doing your due diligence or act in a rash manner, but rather once you have completed your discernment process and when that still-small voice says, “Go!” You go!
Burning the Boats is the biblical and psychological way for us to funnel our desires towards powerful ends. Mystics often talk of desire as a burning experience. John Wesley talked about knowing God’s love as a “heart strangely warmed.” So being motivated and empowered is like playing with fire. So when we burn the boats, when we motivate ourselves to follow Christ to the extreme, to seek justice in a bold way in our world, we run the risk of burning ourselves up and burning up those around us.
So how do we keep from burning the boats while we are in them? There was another commander who knew of the Greek’s practice. Conquistador Cortez historically in 1519, with 508 men and 16 horses, he burned his ships on Mexico’s southeastern coast, thus committing himself to conquest. He told his men there was no escape and they must conquer, and they did. But In reality, Conquistador Cortes did sink all of his boats… except one. The one he needed to keep a connection with Spain for supplies. So burning the boats was not folly, but a calculated risk. Cortez did not cut himself off from help, but did cut out his escape route.
So in our life choices, in the ways in which we wade through this world, we are to discern what is a boat full of baggage that is holding us back, and which is our support and our help in times of turmoil and trouble. What is it that you are struggling with? Whatever it is, be it your job, your fears about your abilities as you age, your contentment with your family’s way of being, put those fears, worries, and Plan Bs in the boat and burn it. Only then will we see that the burned boat was nothing but dead weight holding your down. Only then is it obvious how confining and restrictive those fears were to your personal growth. But be wise and don’t burn the boats with you still in them.
Today our discipleship needs to be set ablaze. Like a soldier watching his ride home burn in the ocean, we knew everything we needed to begin the Jesus Movement. We just needed to do it. And that meant Jesus cutting off the escape route, so that we would live without a safety net, live without plan B.
Well, that’s not exactly right, is it Church? We do have the ultimate in plan B, right? We know that no matter what happens, we who place our faith in Christ, we have eternal life. That’s a pretty good plan B. The Christian faith wouldn’t have millenia of martyrs who died to live the Gospel if there wasn’t a plan B.
But in our series of “one more chance” my hope is that you forget. Our human inclination is to rest our laurels on plan B. Many Christian traditions focus on personal salvation, on Plan B, on our backup plan. Hear the Good News: We have assurance that there will always be a backup plan. We will always have eternal life in Jesus Christ. But we can’t stop there. Christ becomes more than a backup plan. When transforming the world becomes Plan A, Christ becomes fully present everywhere we are. He is no longer a particular human being who occupies a particular place and time, he is not some kind of ghostly presence who hangs in the air but never takes form. No, Christ is now present in us, present in this body of Christian believers.
So no matter what catastrophe or chaos comes into our lives we will not be abandoned, we will not be left to face it alone, we are not without Christ’s presence with us, we are not without Eternal Life as a Plan B. But each and every day we choose Plan A, we choose to build the kingdom of God, we choose to treat one another as beloved, we choose to do no harm, do good works, and stay in love with God, we choose to engage every person as if they needed to know God loves them. We choose Plan A to build the kingdom, not because that’s all there is, and we have to earn our way into heaven, but because we have already been given eternal life.
I invite you today to choose which plan you will follow. We can either live a life radically in the Spirit. Leave your apathy and regret and paralyzing fear at the bottom of the ocean with the burned out boat, and begin moving towards a life-giving discipleship that lives beyond each of us here. Or we can sit in the boat, unaware it is burdening us down. May the God who loves us and offers us choices give us the wisdom to discern help from hindrance, and guide us to always choose the kingdom of God over our fears. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: February 3, 2013
Title: “Beyond Control”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: John 14:1; 25-17
My grandfather went 20 years without buying a new car. He had an old Lincoln that he thought served him well.
Then, one day, out of the blue, he decided it was time, and he bought himself a new car. It had all the bells and whistles. In fact, compared to his last car, it had 15 new buttons on his new car. That’s just on his steering wheel! Buttons for all kinds of things. Cruise control, headlights, floodlights, foghorn, leghorn, 4-wheel-drive, CD-player controls, all sorts of buttons to control every aspect of the car.
When he first bought the car, it was a cold wintery day. After fiddling with some of the buttons, he drove it home. Halfway there, he started to feel his backside getting warm. At first, he thought that it was just him, but the seat kept getting hotter and hotter. He started to get afraid something was wrong, that the car was going to explode. He pulled over, jumped out of the car, ran a few paces away, called the car dealership, and found out he had hit the heated-seats button.
He wasn’t even aware that was something he could control. After that experience, he said he should have bought a new car every three years. That way, he would have had to learn only one new button each time, one new thing to control.
I tell that story to emphasize a common truth. We have too much control today of desires that want to be filled immediately. Blockbuster Movie Stores are failing because we have On-Demand movies that are always in-stock, music stores are failing because we have music online that deliver any music within minutes. We have Kindles and iPads that deliver new books in 60 seconds or less, much to Border’s horror.
We have Drive-thrus, instant coffee, reheatable dinners, Digital Platinum Five-Star XFinity On Demand Cable, and six remotes in your living room putting whatever you want under your control and meaning that only one family member can properly run the movie.
We have cameras that can be set up in your house so that you can control its temperature and environment from your smartphone. I’m waiting for someone to approach me about putting a GPS microchip in Anjali so I will always know where my daughter is. I haven’t ruled it out.
We talked in the Gathering the parents Sunday School class about college applications almost requiring that helicopter parents keep circling over their 17 year olds because they are in control of all the financial data. It has gotten so bad that I hear that new recruits to major companies have “parents’ meetings” so that young employees’ parents can get all the information they need to feel in control of their 24 year old child’s life.
Our sermon today is a continuation of our Beyond Belief series: A Real Faith for a Real World. This week is entitled “Beyond Control.” In what ways are we seeking too much control in our lives? In what ways can we live more fully into a diverse world instead of seeking to rule it?
The Tower of Babel is the perfect scripture for us today. At first glance, it makes sense. The people decided to build a tower to achieve the same level of existence as God. And God punishes them by giving them diverse languages so that they couldn’t communicate easily anymore. And like that, they disband and leave their tower to crumble as they sought their different paths to different continents and cultures to settle.
So the first glance tells us that the Tower of Babel was a gift not a curse that God gave us. Because unlike other parts of Genesis, God didn’t just wipe out most of humanity and start over.
Before and after Babel, rather violent action is pretty characteristic of God in Genesis: casting out sinners and cursing murderers, flooding 99% of the earth’s population, forcing circumcision and bartering over the destruction of Sodom. These sort of actiona are not sustainable. If God wanted to transform God’s creation, God couldn’t keep periodically pressing “reset.” Instead, God sought to control humanity by not controlling us; by changing our makeup from a homogenous body to a diversity that could one day seek unity if we overcame our biases and our language chasms. In short, a curse was really a way for God to give control back to us but only after we had done the hard work of reconciliation with one another.
But there’s a second glance that we need to look at. Our Scripture Introduction today came with a question: what were the residents of Babel afraid of? Common stories says that they wanted to be like God, that they were arrogant, that they were prideful. Read it again. Where are those words? I don’t see those words, those motivations. The only motivation the people express is this: “let us make this tower or else we shall be scattered upon the face of the whole earth.”
Humans often fear what the future might bring. And for Babel, their fear was that their community would not be kept intact if they did not do something. They built a tower to secure their own future as their own community, isolated from the rest of the world. They were fearful. Fearful of being scattered, left to our own devices, fear of losing control and afraid. The builders of Babel were afraid. They did not trust in God. They trusted in their own works and believed if they built something that they would be able to be in control of their own destiny.
Rather than keep pushing the boundaries, the people of Babel stopped and decided to build an empire where one was not appropriate.
In our history of the Church, we often followed this same pattern of building empires that would not sustain. One example is that we felt that if we controlled the media environments we were in, then we would still control people’s desires. We created parallel worlds for the churchy people, Christian radio stations, Christian bookstores, Christian parallel universe to the culture to which we are called. Especially with children and youth, if we controlled what they heard and saw, then we could control their beliefs. The thing is that we are only a drop in an ocean of media messages. Ten years ago, studies showed that the average teenager was shown 3,000 media messages.
Not per month or week, but per day.
Think of all the billboards, the labels on the food we eat, the video games, the t-shirts we wear. 10 years ago, 3,000 messages per day. Today the estimates are 30,000 media messages per day. Look around this town and you will see billboards and advertisements in the windows. Drive by athletic fields and school sponsored by companies. Media messages aren’t bad, they are a part of life, and we have to decide what we do with them.
For our elder generations, it used to be that we had the control. Preachers would stand on bully pulpits. Parents would censor their child’s TV shows. We could stand at the gates and judge messages too unfit to be in God’s holy temple and our bodies as temples. We can no longer keep our children and youth clean from unhealthy messages. Our parallel universe won’t sustain itself. We no longer have the power to censor forever. We no longer can stand at the gates and allow in only the messages that are pure and life-giving. Because we are now just one voice among 30,000 each day…no matter how loud we may be.
It’s for the best really. Those of you that have children, you know the worst thing one can do for a child is to put them in a hypoallergenic room for their entire lives. Children get sick and need to get sick to build up their immunity.
Maybe control today is figuring out how to wade through the messages and teach our children and youth how to filter the messages rather than avoid them completely. Having them confront these messages in life-giving environments may inoculate them to dangerous messages further down the road. It’s like getting a vaccine, a weak form of a dangerous message. If we confront these messages head to head in sunday school in youth group in worship in education, then our students can decide how to respond.
The church’s relationship with media is one example of how we can move beyond control. What is beyond control is either more control or an acceptance of how much control we ought to have. In seeking to empower students one by one, we accept our role as guides rather than dictators. In seeking to allow for diversity of experiences, we allow for a stronger church universal. In embracing our differences rather than forcing everyone to be alike, we open up a whole buffet of experiences beyond the cookie cutter ones.
In closing, in becoming the church in the world instead of a parallel universe of control, then we are fulfilling the biblical edict that Babel violated. At the Garden, we were commanded to fill the earth. After the flood, Noah was commanded to fill the earth. The proper development of creation, of our natural world, depends on human ingenuity and diversity. We are stewards of our natural world. An isolationist view of our place in this world, centered on self-preservation, puts the rest of creation at risk. God instead calls us to give up control, move into the neighborhood, and transform the world from the inside out, not from alongside.
Jesus said “Those who seek to save their life will lose it. But those who lose their lives will find it.” My hope for each of us is that we overcome the fear of a loss of control, accept what community we are in, and build outwards (not inwards) in ways that truly seek to transform the world instead of replace it with a Christian version of itself.
In the first pages of the Bible, a fearful people built a tower. In the last pages of the Bible, in Revelation, a hopeful people built a bridge. Let us build this bridge together.
In the bible that each one of us writes with our lives and our witness, which will you choose? A Tower, or a bridge?
Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: January 20, 2013
Title: “Beyond Tolerance”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Amos 5:18-24
Last week Rev. Donna talked about going beyond religion and the reasons why people don’t know what Church is all about, much less Methodists. I thought I would help today. Maybe some of you have been asked: “if I saw a Methodist out in the wild, how could I identify them” as if there was a birding book on identifying Methodists. But maybe there is something by Jeff Foxworthy called “you might be a Methodist” for example:
- If you have been in the same church all your life but have gone through 27 new pastors, you might be a Methodist.
- If it takes you ten minutes to say goodbye after church, you might be a Methodist.
- If you think that tithing means pledging to wear a tie to church at least six times a year, you might be a Methodist.
- If you you sit while singing “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”…you might be a Methodist.
- If you think someone who says “amen” while the pastor is preaching might be just a wild charismatic…you might be a Methodist.
- If you accidentally brought your coffee into the sanctuary last Sunday and felt guilty about it all week…you might be a Methodist.
- If You hear something really funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can., you might be a Methodist.
- If you think it is in the Bible that you can’t cross the center aisle during passing of the peace, you might be a Methodist.
- Finally, when you watch a Star Wars movie and they say “May the Force be with you,” you respond with “and also with you”…say it with me: “you might be a Methodist.”
Like a family with idiosyncrasies and features, Methodists have some unique ways of viewing the world. In our history, Methodism was not born out of some theological debate or schism or terrible event or a king wanting a divorce, it emerged as a revival within the Anglican Church that eventually became its own denomination.
The word “Methodist” goes all the way back to our beginnings in the 1700′s in England.
Methodism began on a college campus of Oxford with a college professor by the name of John Wesley. Wesley gathered around him a group of students who sought to be more earnest in their Christian life. Other students began to make fun of them by calling them “Methodists” because they were so methodical in their practice of faith. Methodist stuck to this crowd, and for that I am very thankful. because the other name they gave them was–get this–”Bible moths” How would you like to worship in the First Bible Moth Church of Portland?
But behind the name Methodist is the idea that there is some method to the Christian life.
John Wesley came up with three simple rules to do so.
Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in Love with God. That first one is where we’ll start today. “Do No Harm.” Wesley’s first rule of the Christian life is the first rule of medicine. It is not complicated. It almost goes without saying, right? Do no harm, yes, you are right. Done, we believe it! This should be the shortest sermon ever.
Today we continue our sermon series “Real faith for the real world” where we seek to go beyond the traditional terms that you hear in church services with “Beyond Tolerance” today.
To some people, “do no harm” is what Tolerance is all about. If we do not harm others, then we are tolerating them. If we don’t affirm or reject them, then we are tolerating them. If I don’t like mushrooms but I eat them so I can have dessert, then I am tolerating mushrooms.
Tolerance seems to contain a muted objection: “I’d prefer the front row seats but I’ll tolerate the back row if that’s all you have.” Or “I tolerate the bass thumps of the neighbor next door because he likely tolerates the crying child” means you’ve reached an understanding of an tolerable level of annoyance until the pictures start getting thumped off the walls.
In our world of difference and intersections of those differences, tolerance seems to be the best step towards peace. It doesn’t mean we all have to agree. It doesn’t mean that we all have to be the same. It doesn’t mean that one person’s perspective triumphs over anothers (although that can be the case). And to a people that pride themselves on rational thought and building coalitions, tolerance can seem to be the ideal state in which a society and church operates. We can do some hard work but we don’t have to do the really difficult work of life together.
I believe that Tolerance is not a static state of being. It is an active state, one where you move out of it, beyond tolerance, towards one of at least two different directions.
One direction beyond tolerance is towards acceptance without approval. Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church was asked about how he can be a strong supporter of AIDS ministries while simultaneously publicly supporting Proposition 8 in California, and he replied with this definition of tolerance:
“The problem is that tolerant has changed its meaning. It used to mean ‘I may disagree with you completely, but I will treat you with respect. Today, tolerant means ‘you must approve of everything I do.’ There’s a difference between tolerance and approval. Jesus accepted everyone no matter who they were. He doesn’t approve of everything I do, or you do, or anybody else does either. You can be accepting without being approving.”
For Rick Warren and for many of us, we can tolerate people or movements or social inequality because while we accept the person or situation we do not approve of what they are up to. Tolerance means coexistence without action, compassion without empathy, a static existence without growth one way or another.
To some, what is beyond tolerance is an agreement to coexist in this world together like oil and water. Maybe in parts of our lives, in our relationships at home, at work, at church, we live like this, beyond tolerance towards acceptance without approval.
But I believe there’s another thing beyond tolerance. The second direction beyond tolerance is towards seeking freedom and justice for everyone around us. To seek justice and freedom for others so that they can have their wholly best lives. Nelson Mandela who led his country against Apartheid wrote:
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
This sort of tolerance seeks out the best kind of life for others that gives them the greatest level of freedom and justice that we would want in their situation.
This is a much harder state of tolerance. It is no longer oil and water but a mixture where we are all in this together. An advocate for living wages for custodial workers said to me once “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If we all sought freedom and justice for one another, then all would benefit. This is that uncomfortable place beyond tolerance where we actively engage our neighbors, get to know their personal, professional, and spiritual lives, and seek to find ways to make their lives better and to enjoy the same level of justice that any one of us might enjoy.
It is uncomfortable. It leads to difficult decisions. If seeking to make the lives better for the Westboro Baptist Church who would likely hate and protest their own selves if it would get them more press coverage, if that’s what we are called to do, I suspect many of us would draw the line. But the point is to enter those conversations and not let silence dictate the need of a communal life together.
That is the society that God calls us to today through Amos. It is not enough that we’ve started to figure out how to worship and how to study the Bible (as if we have!). It is only when what we say in the sanctuary matches what each individual does in their lives that there will be no Amoses set our way.
In scripture God calls us beyond where we are. In all the prophets God resists religious expressions that separate orthodoxy (right beliefs) from orthopraxy (right actions). Isaiah complains about Sabbath observances disconnected from care for the needy (Isaiah 58). Joel calls for God’s people to rend their hearts, not their garments (Joel 2:13). Micah reminds us of what God’s final requirements are: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). These prophetic calls in no way diminish creed and liturgy in the life of the church: those actions give us the very grammar we need to worship God. But it does demand that world, liturgy and practice all be brought together in ways that mix.
In many ways today’s sermon is an extension of last week’s sermon on “beyond religion.” We see in the scripture passage that God is already beyond religion. God is beyond religion’s worship services, offerings, choirs, harps, and sermons. God is beyond them…unless what we do in this space is connected to justice, is not just connected but when you look at the trickle of one hour of worship that we participate in weekly that you cannot even see it because it is an undercurrent of an ever-flowing stream of people seeking justice.
The prophet Amos still speaks today, telling us what we are doing wrong, but the most frustrating thing is that Amos is short on details of how to solve the problems. In Amos’s day, he didn’t have to say how to correct things, what systems to put into place, what kind of justice needed to be reformed, how to deal with debt, how to lift up teachers, how to care for the poor…because God was going to set everything right and take out the perpetrators. God was going to put it all back together. All the people needed to do was repent and refocus their practices and God would give them the way to put it all back together in the next chapter or book.
As people of faith, we also believe that God is going to put it all back together. But 2000 years later, we are still waiting on a society that functions holistically in the good. We are still waiting for a society that values children’s lives over gun freedoms. We are still waiting for peace with justice to reign over the land. And in that waiting, in that interim space, we cannot afford to stop at tolerating one another.
My prayer for us all today is to go beyond tolerance in an active pursuit of freedom and justice for those around us. To seek out a method and a way to go beyond “do no harm” and start “doing good” to grow those relationships. If a rising tide lifts all boats, my hope is that by plugging the holes in our boats and in others boats, we might all rise together. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: December 30, 2012
Title: “To Walk Through the Door”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Exodus 18:13-27
Today is a national holiday, it’s National Associate Minister’s Sunday. I was an associate minister in Oklahoma for three years before coming to Portland and I would preach almost every Sunday after Christmas, every Sunday after Easter, and the Sunday after Charge Conference, and when there was the big Sunday football game OU/OSU. I’ve done it so long now that it feels routine.
We know about routines, right? Every time we stand on the cusp of a new year,I routinely get this sense of that everything is going to be different. Everything is new, right!
Our challenges are fixed! Our problems are over! We are going to be made clean, pure and spotless, not weighed down by the past,our house will be pristine, our laundry will do itself overnight, our credit card bills will be paid, we will become completely new in this new year, right?
I like to think of a new year as a new door placed in front of us that we open and are halfway through. We are still a part of the past room we were in, we can still see it from the doorway, but we are inexorbitably heading to a new room which has more space to move in, fresher air to breathe in, more opportunities.
The ancient Romans in biblical times believed in a lot of gods, gods like Apollo, god of the Sun, Venus Goddess of Love. They probably had a Jeff the god of biscuits. But they also had among their gods a god of doorways. His name was Janus. Janus had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, he was the god of beginnings as well as endings. He was the god of transitions. He gives his name, of course, to the month starting in 38 hours, “January,” the beginning of the new year and the end of the old year. And incidentally, Janus, the God of doorways, is also where “janitors,” get their names, as the keepers of doorways.
The two heads of Janus and that Janus is the god of doorways remind me vividly of the two gates of the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. In 1995 there was a bombing in Oklahoma City at the Murrah federal building. I was living in Oklahoma city, going to high school 9 miles from the site. My father had worked at the building a few months before it was destroyed. My best friends’ father was a first-responder and told of the tragedy that he found there, images burned into my 15 year old mind.
But today on the site is a memorial with two gates, one marked 9:01am, the other 9:03am. In between those two gates, held in stasis, is the horror of domestic terrorism that happened at 9:02am on April 19 1995. Rows of chairs mark people’s passings, rows of smaller child-sized chairs marked younger passings at the buildings’ nursery. There’s a reflecting pool, and at night the chairs have lights that seem to glow underneath them. But the entire memorial is encased in two doorways, two arches that enclose the moment.
It is beautiful and poignant but the problem I have with these gates is that they are identical. Everything about them is the same except for the time. It’s as if what happened between the gates didn’t affect the gates because they were identical before and after. While it can be a symbol of American patriotism and steadfastness, I found it telling that we wanted to isolate what happened and not let it be integrated into the new gate, to not let the wound show.
For us, transitions are like those gates. We remember the events between them, but we don’t like to let them change us. We remember the bad times and the hardships, but we still make the same resolutions year after year. We still hold to the same routines year after year. We expect our church to be the same year after year. We transition to a new year still wearing our old habits and we wonder year after year why thing never change.
And we have the god Janus to blame. The problem we have with transitions is that we are used to being janitors, keepers of the doorways, rather than walking through the doors and entering a new space.
In other words, we are very good at maintaining the doorways but not actively walking through them.
Look at our resolutions we are likely making for the new year. Probably to lose weight, join a gym, spend more time with our family, save money, take a vacation. Those are resolutions aimed at managing our stress and our lives, re-allocating resources to do better.But they are just maintaining the doorways.We aren’t looking for something new,we are just making do with what we have.
This coming January, most of America worships still the god Janus, keeper of the doorway, when we maintain the status quoin our lives even as we seek to change it.
But not us. Not today.Because there are different ways to transition into a new year.But they take a willingness and a “can do this” spirit in our homes, our work, and our church.
Researcher Dan Dick at the United Methodist Church has identified three types of skills when it comes to transitions.There is managing the new year. We make day-to-day decisions, allocate resources, perform, promote, and adjust our realities. We make sure our families, work, and church is working effectively. But we are not making radical changes; we are just managers. We are maintaining the status quo even if we make small changes here and there. If we look back on our last year, on 2012, I suspect there was a lot of managing our lives that took place.Dan Dick says there’s two other skills we can harness for the new year. We are not only managers, but also future-thinkers. Futuring work is the architect or developer role in your families, work, and church. Futuring is not figuring out what to do, but how to do it. It is not managing, but creating the frame upon which the organization builds its future.
Finally, we are visionaries. Since the Church, our workplace, and our families are always moving forward into the future, the opportunities, challenges, and demands will evolve and shift. We need a vision, a plan to persistently and tirelessly promote (cast) the vision and help others throughout the system understand and embrace it. And we’ve done this this past year.
We have a Strategic Plan, done through this process. It’s a guide for our every Parish Conference, Staff-Parish Relations, Ministry Conference meeting, to help us walk through the doorway. In a family, in a workplace, in a church, we serve all three of these. We vision, we build the procedures or chore lists, and then we manage that they are fulfilled. However, it is awfully difficult to effectively serve all three functions. If a person has responsibility for all three spheres, the contrary all-consuming demands of managing will supersede the critical needs of visioning and functioning.
Think of three children a rather dreamy, well-behaved four-year old (visioner), a curious, energetic three-year old (futurer), and a cranky, fussy 12 week old named Anjali (manager). If you’re baby-sitting, who gets most of your time, energy, and attention?We hear the advice of Jethro, from the passage from Exodus that Cheryl read today. Jethro saw that Moses, the visionary leader, was stuck managing, so Jethro had him create a leadership structure so that Moses could focus on the goal: getting people to the promised land.
If we continue to just get by, just manage our lives and work and church, we will just deal with the same things we always have. Dan Dick tells the story of when he was in college, a friend of his broke up with a longtime girlfriend and was depressed and not interested in things.But one thing he wanted to do was run in a half-marathon (13.1 miles). Dan and his friend both trained, worked out, and ran together, and he got his wish. When they sat down after the race, he thanked Dan for helping him and said, “That was great I can’t believe I did it too bad I’m still single!”
This tells me that we can throw ourselves on any rough edge in our church, workplace, or family life, but if we aren’t doing the work of futuring, of focusing forward, then we will continue to have the same problems in different forms.While the rest of the world is going to worship Janus, god of doorways as they manage their lives, I would invite you to worship the God of new things, the God who is making all things new.The power of this God is that beginnings follow what seem to be endings.And hear the good news: we are not alone in this work.
I believe the witness of scripture is that, what is impossible to any one of us is readily possible in relationship with one another. That there is a synergy that happens that takes our individual resolutions and turn them into community revolutions. This is the heart of the metaphor of the body of Christ knit together we can even accomplish that which Christ did. When we empower and enable each other to, first know who you are and what you have to offer, and second learn practical ways to develop your strengths, and third discover meaningful ways to live your strengths both through and beyond the local church, we are doing precisely what the church is supposed to do. Whether your strengths lie in visionary, futuring, or managerial roles, all are needed to build the up the body.
Starting in two weeks is our Small Groups program. The Greeters will be handing out the pamphlets to you as you leave today. For the first time, it is a one-stop place for all (okay most, I’m sure we’ve missed some) the small groups that meet in our church and beyond. My hope for you is that you give 90 minutes a month to something new, some group that you are interested in but haven’t been invited to. Friends, as we step boldly once again across the threshold into a new year, our greatest hope should be that in this in-between time, God is not finished with us. God is still at work in our lives and in creation. God is making all things new.
In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of transitions, he looked both forward and back as he held up the door. In Christian theology, our God refuses to be contained to simply holding up our burdens, helping us manage our pain, but instead gives us the strength, vision, and common purpose to let go to make all things new even in the midst of the old. Our God is not a god of doorways, but is Emmanuel God-with-us who walks through life with us never abandoning us. When every new thing comes our way, we are not alone; we are with God. Glory be to the God who loves us and walks with us. Amen.
Date: November 4, 2012
Title: “The Wireless Network”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: John 11:32-44
I was told that on a day like today, coming back from paternity leave, that I could just show a few pictures of our four week old daughter Anjali Claire, tell some cute stories of her and sit down, and you would likely be satisfied with that message. Is that right?
Well, sadly I didn’t listen. Because on this day celebrating the saints of the church, I have a specific memory that refuses to recess to the forgotten regions of my mind. When I was young and obnoxious, okay when I was younger and even more obnoxious, I went to an All Saints service at a nearby church in college. The church had done what we did today and printed the names of those who had died, but they did something different. They included a Superhero name as their nickname in the bulletin. Absolutely true. So for example you had those who died included Jane “Batgirl” Smith, David “Superman” Ross, Bruce “The Hulk” Banner, Carla “Catwoman” Jones, Manny “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” Ramos, and so on. I remember being a bit horrified that those who had died were given silly nicknames of comic book superheroes after death.
While that may sound crass to our ears, to the congregation it must have been more familiar, an offbeat way to celebrate the heroes in the midst. And to the gathered group, we could see how the saints of the past year were heroes, people who had lived long effective lives and those who had died too early. And they celebrated in their own way their saints as heroes.
I would say that it’s harder to think about Saints these days as heroes. We live in an age where our heroes are often fallen and discredited people. Cycling legend Lance Armstrong lost his seven Tour de France titles because of alleged doping, Mark McGuire/Barry Bonds were found to have used steroids to set their home run records. Charismatic politicians have been caught in adultery or corruption and resigned. Even the good heroes have fallen. The original Superman Man of Steel on the big screen Christopher Reeve was paralyzed after a horse-riding accident and died a few years back. Princess Diana’s laudable work on removing land mines was cut short by a paparazzi chase. These heroes fell by choices they’ve made or things that have happened to them. Even the iconic religious hero Mother Theresa was criticized when she died because it was revealed in her letters that she had doubts about religion and God and had confessed to not feeling God’s presence for most of her life. What kind of religious hero is that?
So today when we lift up the saints of our past, we do not lift them up as heroes, as an ideal tarnished by the realities of our world. Instead, we lift them up as saints, as real women and men in whose lives we get a glimpse of what it means to follow God, wherever God might be taking us.
Today’s scripture reveals that difference between heroes and saints clearly in the story of Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus is Jesus’s friend and has died, and Jesus and his followers travel there. They delay some so when they arrive, Lazarus has already been wrapped up and placed in a tomb, stone rolled over the entrance. Jesus tells them to roll away the stone and they complain about it. It’s one of the few times when the King James has the perfect translation, “Lord, by this time he stinketh” But they roll away the stone and Jesus gives his first command “Lazarus, Come out!” Lazarus shuffles out, bound up by wrapped cloths customary of the time, and Jesus gives a second command to his disciples “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Unbind him. Unbind him from the burial shroud, from the funeral cloths. Unbind him from the vestiges of decay. Unbind him from death itself, and let him go.
Saints are those that heed Jesus’ second command and are unbounded by their time and place. Those who live beyond what restricts those around them. Those who dare to dream even as the coils of life draw tightly in. Christopher Reeve could have lived a life mourning his paralyzed condition, but we remember him today as one who made great contributions in real life and wouldn’t let his condition keep him down. Mother Theresa could be seen as a fake, or you can choose to see her as someone who perseveres through doubt to serve a God she didn’t hear or see or touch. She’s like us!
Saints do the work of unbinding people from the circumstances of their lives and seek to allow them to live freer than before.
The sad truth is that the church more often does the work of binding people in their time and place rather than unbinding them.
- In the 1960s, a group of African-American Baptist ministers called a meeting to tell one of their own that he was sabotaging their work for racial reconciliation by demanding too much. That person they were calling to censure was Martin Luther King, Jr, who none today would claim he was “demanding too much” but in the eyes of the Baptist churches in the 1960s, they were too bound up in their time and place.
- One of the recent saints named in 2006 by our Catholic friends is Mother Theodore Guerin, who was an educator who worked in rural Indiana in the mid-1800′s. She was removed several times from her teaching positions by the presiding Catholic bishop there for being a female leader in the education system she started there. She persevered in a system that did not regard women as leaders. And no one more than that bishop is probably more surprised at her sainthood, as he was bound up in his time and place.
- In our own church today, have some heroes, focal people who are leading the charge against our institution that restricts gay and lesbians from living full lives in the church. But as a connected church we have entire regions of United Methodism who are seeking to live as saints, who are refusing to let the time and place of our church keep us from full ministry and opportunities for all those in our midst, regardless of who they love. Even as we live in a United Methodist Church that restricts opportunities, we at First Church and indeed most of the West part of United Methodism are seeking to live differently and affirming the full worth of everyone in our congregations. It’s a hard choice to seek to be obedient to the Bible’s call to love everyone rather than being obedient to our shared doctrine and polity, but one that our region has chosen to be unbound by time and place. Only time will tell if we have chosen the better path.
Our church needs more saints than heroes, those who do the acts of unbinding rather than the ones who do the big change things. Don’t get me wrong: our world needs heroes these days, doesn’t it? In a world where a fear and hatred of political enemies is encouraged; where polarization is lifted up; where hostility towards those different than you is inflamed; where politics offer up figures rather than facts; where children commit suicide; where injustice goes unpunished and indeed is often celebrated, is it not up to us to call for a Hero to emerge? Is it not up to the dreamers, the idealists, people called by God to stoke a heroic imagination in the people, to create the conditions by which a hero might appear, where Jesus might return, where the Spirit might be moving, where love might conquer fear, where eternal life triumphs over death? Is that not our call?
Perhaps we are called not to be heroes but to be Saints, to create the conditions for a hero to emerge in our contexts, to stoke a heroic imagination in our community that faces down oppression and stands with the marginalized. To unbind others. To tell the stories of liberation, sing songs of freedom, celebrate the Risen Christ triumphant in our midst.
The next age of the church will not be defined by the heroes in our midst, the ones who move the church forward. It will be defined by each one of us who do the difficult work of unbinding each other from the past, from certainty that does not stand the test of time. The Saints ask us today to complete their work, to create a heroic imagination in our community that faces down fear and embraces all people as beloved by God.
The saints have a wireless network, offered to all within their influence, unbounded by time and place, seeking that which is eternal and echoes throughout history. May we also seek the same today by their example.
Who Will You Unbind Today? And may you know as you consider that question that the answer can be your own name. Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: September 23, 2012
Title: Enough Persistence
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Mark 8:22-26
While sitting this past week at the Shovel and Rake picnic, one of the guys told me a story. One day, an elderly woman stood on a busy street corner, purse clutched tight, giving a little gasp with every car that drove by, hesitant to cross because there was no traffic signal. She must not have been from Portland as most Portlandians will only cross at a crosswalk when there are no cars for two miles in all four directions and the walk sign has been on for 30 seconds.
As she waited, a gentleman came up beside her and asked, “May I cross over with you?” The woman was relieved, she thanked him, he extended his arm and she took it. They started to cross. But the path they took was anything but safe. The couple walked in a zig-zag pattern across the street, subarus screeching to a halt, horns blaring, streetcars cruising inches from them, naked bicyclists riding much too close.
When they finally got to the other side, the woman was overcome with anger. She turned to the man and said “You almost got us killed! You walk like you’re blind!” The man replied, “I am blind. That’s why I asked if I could cross with you.”
Well if you’ve ever been to shovel and rake you know that that is the standard quality of their jokes, so don’t groan too loudly, you’ll hurt Terry Connell’s feelings.
Today’s scripture of another blind man seems like a miracle story. It is of a man being receiving his sight back. Is this a miracle? Maybe not today. Advances in science have made this healing possible for thousands of people the past few decades.
I read about a woman named Rose Crawford who had been blind for 50 years and underwent eye surgery recently. As the doctor lifted the bandages from her eyes after her recovery in an Ontario, Canada hospital, she wept for joy when for the first time in 50 years she saw a dazzling and beautiful world of form and color. The tragic thing about the story, however, is that the last 20 years of her blindness had been unnecessary. They had developed this surgery 20 years before and she just didn’t know that the techniques had been developed. Her doctor was quoted as saying, “She just figured there was nothing that could be done about her condition. Had she otherwise, much of her life could have been very different.”
Had no one told her? Had her doctors not told her about the advances in eye surgery? Not a neighbor or single one of her friends? Had she given up hope in the first years of her life and it wasn’t until much later in life that she found the secret hope had been there 20 years earlier? For this woman, healing was possible but the persistent chase after the healing had been abandoned.
Today’s sermon is entitled “enough persistence.” This sermon series of last week, this week, and next week addresses the question “what is enough?” What does it mean to have enough of something? In our society that demands more and more and gives us less and less, what effect could we have on ourselves and society and our church if we have enough of something. And today’s topic is persistence.
Like Rose Crawford who gave up her hope for vision, the church of Jesus Christ also at times does not seek the goal with the proper amount of persistence. In this scripture passage today, there are three ways that Jesus acts differently than we expect, three ways that Jesus challenges our conceptions, and in these three ways, Christ pushes against complacency and plants the seed of a boundary-pushing spirit in our great northwestern church.
First, Persistence has to do with crossing the line in the sand. In Jesus’s time, most blind men were brought into the villages to panhandle at the gates or at the synagogue’s entrances. They believed that the maximum exposure to the most people would get them the right amount of alms to make it through their day. But when the blind man was brought to Jesus, Jesus took him outside of the village. This doesn’t happen elsewhere in the stories about Jesus. Jesus healed in front of hundreds, dramatic healings of sick people or raisings of the dead…but here Jesus took the man beyond the village walls and healed him in relative privacy.
The blind man had staked out his post and believed that all he needed was in that circle. Likewise, when we suffer from an ailment or have a trauma in our past, we limit the extent of what we are capable of. Or the other side, when we reach great success and make a name for ourselves, we often rest on our laurels. Both are challenged by Christ in this passage: when we limit where we place our hope, we miss out on the opportunities just beyond.
My first church that I served as a pastor, a suburb of Boston called Winthrop, was established in 1630. Some time after that, a shipload of settles landed on American soil. The first year they established a town site. The next year they elected a town government. The third year the town government planned to blaze a trail and build a road five-miles westward into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to run their elected officials out of town because they thought it was a waste of effort to build a five-mile road westward into a wilderness. Who needed to go there anyway? Here were people who had the vision to see 600 miles across an ocean and travel 66 days overcoming great obstacles to get there. But in just a few years they were not able to see even five miles out of town. They had lost their pioneering vision. What have we lost by ignoring that pioneering spirit today?
Second, Persistence has to do with doing something today so that others can do something more tomorrow. In the passage, Jesus seems to make a mistake. He heals the person twice. He spits in the man’s eyes, places his hands on them and heals the man first and, as the front cover of the bulletin reads, the blind man could only see “men that look like trees walking.” Everything was fuzzy. Jesus then seems to perfect his healing powers on the man the second time and he is fully healed. It is obvious that Jesus’ powers of healing were not overwhelmed or ineffective, but Jesus did take two tries for a reason. And I believe one of those reasons was to remind us that what we hope for sometimes takes stages to become a reality.
Any technology nerd out there would tell you that progress comes in stages. The iPhone 5 just came out, the fifth most perfect phone. It’s running the sixth version of its most perfect software. And there’s Microsoft Windows 7, which is the 7th version of its perfect software. Any consumer with a clue knows that progress comes in stages and in other industries, sometimes at great cost. On January 27th, 1967, the first space shuttle Apollo 1 blew up in space, killing three astronauts in a heartbeat, and NASA could have given up, but they grieved their lost heroes, solved the problem and ten months later, the unmanned Apollo 4 was a success. Eleven months after that, the Apollo 7 crew successfully completed Apollo 1′s original mission. On Christmas Eve of that same year of 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong actually set foot on the moon. And by Apollo 13, they got Tom Hanks in space. Or someone that looked like Tom Hanks.
We often think we have a pioneering spirit. But how many good ideas have gone into committees where they are tinkered with and perfected and when they finally emerge, their timely opportunity has passed. Perhaps being bold is allowing imperfect ideas to move forward, perfecting them as they go along, releasing new versions of our bold ideas. This takes both courage of our leadership, and grace from our congregation and community as they also lift up new things in prayer and support. And we have both in deep supply here at First Church.
My final comment is this: Persistence has to do with recognizing you are in a different place than before. When Jesus healed the blind man fully, he said to him “do not go into the village.” While we know this is a continuation of Mark’s insistence that no one knows about Jesus’ divinity, it’s also telling because Jesus just tells the man to go home, skipping the village entirely. The Blind man was taken from the village to be changed and he could never go back. Maybe he needed to go home to figure out how to be his new self, and re-visit once the village had changed enough to accept the new formerly blind man.
For us today, we persist in our efforts because we believe, regardless of the timing. I’ve been reading through the biography of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple computers, who died last year. Apple is the first/second most valuable company in the world depending on the week and much has been attributed to Steve Jobs’ design culture and the pursuit of perfection. But it misses the point that Microsoft computers dominated the market for the first 25 years of Apple’s existence, and it took Apple 34 years to pass Microsoft in value of their company. What really happened is not that Microsoft or Apple had the right philosophy, but that they had the right philosophy to match the market at the right time. Apple eventually beat Microsoft not because Apple or Microsoft changed, but because the market changed. Jobs had to wait until the world caught up to his vision, and he lived to see that vision realized.
As United Methodists, we may not have the perfectionist genius of Steve Jobs, but we do have tools that are sufficient to preach the Good News the world around us. United Methodists hold reason, tradition, scripture, and experience as the keys to tell the Good News in ways that are appropriate to the world around us, in ways that move us through stages of discovery, and in ways that push us beyond the lines in the sand. Our tools are persistent and relevant. And these four keys are called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, usually understood as a square as a , but I find it more accurately described as a funnel, a tornado that as we walk through the keys (reason-tradition-scripture-experience), and each time we look at the issue we are in a different place with a new vantage point. In short, the United Methodist Method is that we are brought out from where we know to be changed.
It is in our history as a church and as a nation to have a pioneering spirit. To believe in something more than is in front of us. Some of us may wonder how we lost our own sense of this spirit in our personal, professional, and spiritual lives. Maybe we have advanced in age and lost abilities we once cherished; but in Christ we are called to leave our old villages and bring our remaining talents to a new one that needs us exactly as we are. Maybe we have recently moved or recently began attending church anew; in Christ, we have a first stage of healing and rejuvenation, and are invited to persist in our vision until we’ve received the next. Maybe our hearts ache and our hands itch and our gut clenches with a new sense of ourselves that doesn’t fit in with our friends and family around us; In Christ, we do not have to wait to be accepted but already are given a grace before we were aware and are empowered to live boldly into our new sense of ourselves.
The pioneering spirit is a persistent spirit, that is true. It’s a spirit that says we are on the road but not there yet. Throughout Scripture we see this common theme of already being on a path but not yet arriving at the destination. Jesus healed a blind man, but the first stage left the man “already but not yet” healed. The Apostle Paul believed that the end of the world when the kingdom would come in its fullest was “already began but not yet completed.” The author of Revelation dreamed of a world where the kingdom had come to spark an imagination with us that we are in the “already but not yet.” Today Olympians and young maestros of music, some of which undoubtedly are in our own choir, were recognized before they were fully developed “already, but not yet.” My own life these days of expecting a child is the very definition of “already but not yet.”
In our church, we are already but not yet. We may have become reconciling and affirming to all people as a church, but there’s a thousand churches beyond our borders that could be mentored and supported on their path too. We are already but not yet. We have a shelter already that helps families each and every night, and a mentoring program on the way, but we have not yet solved the problem of homelessness in Portland. We have a strategic plan, affirmed with no dissenting votes two weeks ago, and we are already on that path towards the three-year goals but we are not there yet until every person in our community participates in some way.
The whole of the Christian life is the already-but-not-yet. And we will never see the end until we find the right amount of persistence and sensibility to reach it, guided by the Holy Spirit. And even if we find the pioneering spirit again in the areas of our lives that need it, we may realize the unfortunate truth that pioneers leave their home base, leave their place of comfort, to commit to something beyond themselves.
My hope is that we also persist beyond discomfort, beyond falling short, to seek a vision that matches and moves forward our community to the already-but-not-yet. May Jesus Christ also spit on our eyes so we too may see Christ more clearly all around us, and encourage us to bold action in his name.
Glory be to God, Amen.
Date: August 12, 2012
Title: “Building for the Kingdom”
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:9-16
When I was 18, I was on a mission trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Our job was to help renovate and repair people’s homes who couldn’t afford the repairs. I was working on the roof re-shingling it, tearing off the old shingles with these miniature shovels so that we could tar and replace them with better shingles. And I got a little enthusiastic and I knocked a shovel off the roof and it smashed a clay pot on the owner’s front porch. The owner started yelling at me and telling me what-for and where to go and what kind of handbasket would take me there. And though I felt ashamed for my clumsiness, I also felt that we were doing several thousand dollars worth of work for her house, why was she so mad about a $40 broken pot? My small act of building the kingdom of God felt a little bit smaller.
10 years after that I would be standing outside of my first church in Boston looking at the broken back door of the church, a white metal door hanging off its hinges. My church shared its space with a Brazilian congregation who worshipped in their native Portuguese language. Now Brazilian culture has a more flexible understanding of property and our stuff got borrowed or broken but it was more or less OK. But there I was with the broken door, talking with the Brazilian pastor, trying to explain in English and in gestures whose fault I just knew it had to be. He kept on waving his hands and was unable to communicate with me. I was angry with him with disrespecting the church building. And about the time I was done shaking my head and hand, his lay leader’s pickup pulled up with a white metal door in the back. The lay leader translated for the pastor that they had discovered it broken, and the lay leader got up at 5am to drive to a place 2 hours away that had a ready door and hinge, and drove back in time to replace on his own time. If I hadn’t come in early that morning, it is doubtful that I would have even noticed. My small role in building the kingdom felt just a little bit smaller.
I share these stories today because you have stories like this too. Stories when you tried to build the kingdom and felt it wasn’t that effective. Stories when you were trying to do the best you could and serve others, only to have it blow up in your face. Stories of when you felt ashamed for falling short and feeling ineffective.
I thought serving others in the Christian life was like the movie Pay It Forward or those Liberty Mutual commercials where every good action led to another good action and you could immediately see the change in others. It was immediately infectious and had to be for a 30 second ad or a 90 minute movie. In both of my stories, clearly that sort of immediate effect of our work is not often our experience.
I think for us today, we have a disconnect. Followers of Christ are often called kingdom-builders, builders of the kingdom of God, but at times we meet discouragement, frustration, and cannot see how our actions mean anything. Your ministers praise you for your faithfulness but you are discouraged that your neighbor won’t come to church with you. People say you are an inspiration but you can’t seem to get through to your own children the importance of discipleship. People say you seek justice and yet justice to your eyes has not been fulfilled. What we call ourselves as Christians, followers of Christ, kingdom-builders, kin-dom creators, doesn’t seem to match with what we perceive we are producing. We believe we are building the kingdom with our every action and are discouraged when our contributions seemingly go nowhere.
That’s the bad news. Thankfully this has happened before. It has happened to the Church found in the Scriptures today. The text for today is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as they sought to make sense of their church. At first reading, Paul seems to put a heavy burden on us. He says that God has placed a foundation, and we build on it, and then God will set it on fire to see if we built it correctly. It sounds like a parent testing a sand castle with a power washer, or the strength of a house of cards with a leaf-blower. Surely nothing we do will stand in the face of the other saints of God. Surely Mother Theresa’s building is stronger than mine, surely the saints of this church, their building will be stronger than mine.
But friends what interests me in this passage is not the spectacle of burning up our accomplishments but the matter of time. In our world of fast judgments, knee-jerk decisions, reality shows that instantly judge a person’s singing ability by the press of a buzzer, we are used to judging things as they happen. And yet the passage says that the judgment is from God not each other not even ourselves. Are we judged from day to day, instantly assessing our efforts, or is the judgment withheld until a future date? Only God has the long-term viewpoint, the birds-eye view that takes everything into account.
Hear the Good News! Perhaps we are using the wrong terms. Perhaps We do not build the kingdom of God: we build for the kingdom.
When you read the scripture text, it doesn’t seem to say that it’s a bad thing that our efforts are set aflame. We put all our lives on the foundation, the parts of our lives that are flammable and the parts that are inflammable. Richard, are those both mean the same thing. But we put all of ourselves on the altar, and when we are judged in God’s time, we will see what has survived and thrived. The scripture frames it helpfully for us that we do not build the kingdom of God. We build for the kingdom.
Let me use an example I first heard made by the Anglican Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright and apply it to our church today. In reading through our history, our congregation at one time met in a new building on Taylor Street, finished in 1870. It was reportedly the “first brick church building of substantial size in Oregon.”
Imagine with me the people working then. There’s the architect, designer, surely an opinionated committee (they were Methodists after all) but there was also a brickmaker who was someone who probably didn’t know how to read or write, was undoubtedly poor, but someone had showed him how to work with clay, straw, and molds. They put him in front of the vacant lot on Taylor street and said we need a couple thousand bricks. Get to work.
The brickmaker will start making the bricks on his moulding table, and the best ones with a team of people could make about 4000 bricks per day. People may say “these bricks are for that new church building on Taylor street” but he doesn’t need to know. All he needed to do was complete the task before him, shape the clay into the mouldings and submit the work as accomplished. He wouldn’t even lay the bricks in the church building, just make them and move on to the next project.
The brickmaker is building for the church. He is not building the church. Someone else will take what he is doing and put it into the eventual structure. Someone else knows what is going on. But his piece matters and his part is necessary. What he has done, when it is finished, it will be enhanced immensely by everything else around it. The bricks are not the building but it certainly is part of the building. The piece matters.
When Paul finishes his letter to the Corinthians, the same letter that we read today, he says this in 1 Cor 15:58 “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
In God, your labor is not in vain. What you do in the present isn’t wasted. The efforts you make small or large, easy or difficult, are building for the kingdom. Later when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will see exactly how our actions now fit within the reign of God. The hay and the chaff will be burned away and the gold and silver will be revealed. That which has messed it up will be burned away so that that which is better can be revealed.
We may or may not see the first fruits of our work. But we excel in our work in front of us in faith that God will put it all back together.
Throughout history, Christians have been building for the kingdom even in times where it seemed so unlikely. In the 2nd-3rd centuries, before the Empire of Constantine, if a plague struck a town and people were dying, what would normally happen is that the people with means would move to the hills to their winter homes in Southern California and get away from the ghettoes. But the Christians would stay and care for not just only their own but anyone. People would get better or they would die. Christians would often get the plague too and they would often die. And when the plague was over the people would come back to the town and say “why did you do this?” “Well, because of this guy named Jesus.” And town by town, Christianity grew because of the small acts of charity and justice that seemed tiny in the face of the plague. They took on a massive project and emerged stronger than before.
We know from our history that when our church was on Taylor Street in the 1870s, it grew its fastest when its outreach was disproportionate to its worshipping congregation. As the newspaper article wrote at the time “when a hive is filled, the bees cease to work.” So they built a 600 seat sanctuary for their 120 member congregation. They held extensive education and outreach projects. And they grew like wildfire.
History proves that the church grows when it bites off more than it can chew. When our church leaves our bite marks on whatever mercy or justice issue that someone needs to take on. When it builds for the kingdom rather than seeking to build the kingdom. As Rev. Donna said last week, when we can’t do everything but we can do something.
We are now weeks away from committing to our strategic plan for the next three years. The Strategic Plan has been a prayer-filled yearlong process involving fifty elected leaders and many other passionate laity in our congregation. We will present it at Listening Posts before worship next week and after worship the following week, with the final approval taking place on Homecoming Sunday September 9th. For many people, I know, they are looking at the Strategic Plan as the way to build the kingdom and this church up.
But like the Scripture passage reminds us, our expectations need to be turned on their heads. The Plan is not the building of the kingdom. It is the building for the building. It is the push behind the wave that will surely sweep up across Portland and our surrounding areas. It is the mould that our clay, sweat, tears and straw can be laid in, hopeful that they will all add up to be larger than the sum of their parts.
I am inspired this morning by the words of Dr. Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale. He urged in his 1996 book Exclusion and Embrace that churches should “concentrate less on [legislating] social arrangements, and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of creating…just, truthful and peaceful societies.” We are in error if we believe we can place our human-made strategy on the altar and expect it to survive a purifying fire. But in prayerfully committing ourselves to being active participants during the next three years, I am confident that we will birth a church anew that is intent on shaping a climate in which social action will thrive, where love becomes an attitude that seeps into all our actions, where reconciling means all are welcome, where missions means awareness of the worldwide impact of the United Methodist Church, where education means the development of critical thinkers, where you may have three ministers but all are active in ministry, where it’s not enough that our doors are open here at First Church but we want all the churches to have open doors, hearts, and minds throughout the world.
When you leave today, take a hand and touch a brick on the wall. Say a prayer in your heart that no matter what, that you’ll keep building for the kingdom in your varied ways. And as we do that, I hope you feel strangely uplifted, knowing that the burden is not ours alone to bear. The Kingdom is God’s gift, a new creation, unmerited grace given to us. But, as part of that grace already poured out in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, we are building FOR the kingdom.
What labors you do in God’s name are not in vain,
Because of the resurrection.
Because of the love of God.
Because of the mission to which all are called.
Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: July 22, 2012
Title: Back to the Future
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Mark 6:1-13
In the Gospel, Jesus gives directions to his disciples. Strange directions that sound weird to them. I understand. Being new in Portland, I get some strange directions from you people.
- People tell me to go to the Will-Am-Mitt river and all I can find is signs for the Williamette river.
- People tell me to check out this shop on cooch street, and all I can find is couch street.
- People tell me to check out the Terwilliger Parkway, and there’s not a racecar in sight.
- And watching Winnie the Poo growing up makes me want to find Tiggard, but all the locals point me towards is TYE-GARD.
- And to top it off, did you know that one local pointed me towards North Portland by calling it the Fifth Quadrant. What?
That makes no sense. I’ve gotten some strange directions to some strange places in my past month here.
But none as strange as these directions that Jesus gave his disciples two millennia ago. Let’s go back to this original sending-out of the Disciples and see what wisdom we can glean from this story today.
The scene opens with Jesus being kicked out of his hometown of Nazareth. This first part of the story is surprising. This is Jesus’ hometown and he’s surely the most famous one and should be welcomed like a hero. There are hometown heroes that Portland has welcomed home before. Winning sports teams. Returning soldiers. But here we see the burden of one’s past that the people closest to you often can’t see each other clearly. They kick him out and reject him.
We know a bit about this, don’t we? Those of us who can solve other people’s problems cannot often solve our own. We can celebrate success in another family’s resolution of problems while our own family is a stubborn mystery to us. To his hometown, Jesus is Mary’s oldest son and Joseph is dead, so why isn’t Jesus taking care of his widowed mother like an eldest son should have done? His behavior of living out his mission from God must have been puzzling to his community, and it is often those closest to us who offer the most severe judgment and heaviest burden.
The scene moves onto its second act. The disciples are called, given directions, and then sent out in mission to the neighboring towns. We find out they DO succeed as they cast out demons and heal the sick. They must have followed Jesus’ three main directions and gotten to the location where they were supposed to go.
The first direction is actually pretty normal. Jesus tells them to go out in pairs, two by two. This is for safety reasons, for sure. But it’s also for legal reasons: the law required two witnesses to call for justice in a situation. If the disciples were to seek justice for someone in their assigned town, there would need to be two of them or else the charges would not stick and the situation would stay the status quo.
The second direction is pretty strange. Jesus tells the disciples to not bring anything with them. This really doesn’t work for me. My whole life I’ve liked being prepared. When I was very young I had an awesome fanny pack that I would put my quarters and snacks in…just in case. When I was a bit older, I had the huge wallet I put in my back pocket so that when I sat down I fell to the side. I was prepared! Nowadays I’ve got my bag full of everything to prepare me for anything that could happen. Those of you with purses know what I’m talking about. And I’m told that in a few months if I want to leave the house with a baby to expect a 20 minute load time for the car and 20 minutes to get out of the car. Some of the strollers I’ve seen seem to be able to store everything to survive an earthquake, a zombie attack, or an e.coli scare.
If you look into the trunks of our cars or our purses or European shoulder bags, we cannot handle going somewhere unprepared. We bring our burdens with us wherever we go, and are unlikely to shed them to find relief.
The directions that Jesus gives the Disciples are to leave some things behind. They are to take no bread, no money to buy bread, no bag to carry bread in. They cannot wear two shirts, the second would be a heavier one so they could sleep outside on the cold desert nights. With these restrictions, the disciples would have to stay with people in their assigned towns, depending on the mercy and hospitality of strangers. The disciples are to trust that God will provide for them through the hospitality of others. Maybe we as well need to stop going at it alone and be unburdened and find joy in allowing others to help us out.
Finally, the last direction is just odd. Jesus says if they go somewhere and they are not welcome, shake off the dust as a testimony. That’s not how it works in Portland. If we have a bad experience at a restaurant, people will know. We will tell our friends, we’ll write in letters to the editor, we’ll post a bad review online on Yelp, we’ll blog about it, we’ll take pictures with our phones of how much the food didn’t look like its picture in the menu, and we’ll tweet, text, and trumpet that picture so that everyone knows about how bad it is.
We’ll throw mud every which way and spread mud everywhere we go…but Jesus tells us to not even let the dust from the unwelcome place stick to us. To kick it out of our sandals and leave without any a thought about it. We are to let it go, to carry the burden of frustration no longer.
Jesus’ instructions are: those places that (First) do not offer welcome (which I would call offering mercy to the traveling stranger) and (Second) do not allow for a legal hearing (which I would call seeking justice)…those are the places that the disciples are to let go.
The only way I can make sense of this is to turn it around. If there is a place where mercy is not offered and justice is not sought, then healing that community and casting out evil will be impossible. If there is a town or a community or a family that doesn’t offer mercy to each other and doesn’t seek to do what is right, then healing cannot be done to that community.
But hear the good news. All it takes is one body, one person, one family offering mercy, and one leader in the community to risk and seek justice, that’s all it takes for a community to receive the power of the holy spirit. And one by one, that community will change, slowly, in God’s time. All it takes is just one person. Maybe it is you today in the various circles in which we swim.
All the directions Jesus gives us are a way for us as a community to navigate a world that has lost its way. A world that burdens us with suffering about the present. Instead, Jesus calls his disciples to risk the uncertainty of the present for the certain hope of the future. By looking at our past, at the basic ideas for how to be a community that chooses which burdens it will carry, can we determine how to carry these burdens forward, and let the bad burdens slip off our shoulders.
In closing, there’s one direction that is missing from the scripture. It’s not apparent on the surface. This story of Jesus instructing the Disciples appears in three different Gospels and they all have different instructions. In Luke, they are instructed NOT to take a staff or sandals. In Matthew, not only are they to shake the dust off of their sandals, but they are to pray that God smites the city. Three different communities have Jesus telling them three different sets of instructions.
This tells me that the Gospels were written in different decades in different towns that each area required different directions. Each Gospel writer listened to the area they were in and adapted to best tell of the saving power of Jesus Christ. And this is a very important direction to our church today.
This past week, our United Methodist Church reaffirmed that though we are united we are not uniform in the way how we live out our mission. At two of the five regional conferences (jurisdictional conferences), resolutions were passed that affirmed God’s love for all persons including those persons with varieties of sexual orientations and gender identities. These are different than the global Methodist church’s prohibition that such persons are not allowed to serve openly as pastors or be married. Two days ago our Western Jurisdiction of which we are a part passed a statement that says we are to serve the United Methodist Church as if that prohibition does not exist.
Like the church of the past, we adapt to our context of the Western part of United Methodist Church in America. Like the church of the past, we hope to not be errant individuals but have chosen this way forward together in community, chosen by a dozen states. And just as the Gospels use different instructions, they paint the same picture of Jesus Christ.
So I ask you to pray for our United Methodist Church. Pray that our church with its different mission fields still paints the same picture of the Church as a place where grace reigns, where justice is lifted up, where hospitality is offered, where the children are nurtured, where the elderly are respected, where the family in all its forms is strengthened, where transformation in this room becomes transformation outside the church walls.
This is our future. And to achieve it, it’s remarkably simple: we must go back to the past to the original directions and each of us live them out. Each day this week, ask yourself if you’ve followed these directions.
Each day, ask yourself if you’ve met with a companion on your journey, in some way, and grow together. Each day ask yourself if you’ve carried too much, be it guilt, anger, bitterness, or the sins of the past. Each day ask yourself if you’ve spread more bad news about the world around you or more Good News about Christ’s love and forgiveness for all. Each day.
Hear the good news. The future is Christ’s. We have nothing to fear. Where there is grace and justice, any community will become the embodiment of Christ to the world, casting out evils and healing our wounded hearts…but the choice to be that community is yours.
Glory be to God. Amen.
Date: July 8, 2012
Title: Channels of Grace
Preaching: Rev. Jeremy Smith
Scripture: Hebrews 13:1-6
It is an honor and a privilege to be in this pulpit, the pulpit of the late Dr. Balcomb, the pulpit where many of you have stood and preached. I’m thankful to Rev. Donna to share this immense responsibility and to begin a season of this church’s life with you.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a confession. I almost decided not to come here because of someone gossiping about this church. When I was at Annual Conference and I told another clergyperson where I was going, they said that that church has some of the most grace-filled people. And for a moment, I was worried the person said graceful because I would have not fit in. I’m not graceful, I run into walls, I trip over things, I knock over cups of coffee into computer keyboards, and I have no discernible sports abilities. Six years ago when I was commissioned as an Elder, I knelt in front of the bishop, had the laying on of hands, everyone is there around you, and when I stood up I caught my foot in my robe and pitched forward and almost knocked over the Bishop, the DSes, everyone like a row of dominos. There are many more stories of a lack of being graceful in my walking-around life. But the person said that this church is grace-filled, and well, that was a compliment. That’s a testimony to a people who are aware of what Grace means and to exhibit it in word and deed.
There are many different examples of grace, of what we consider unearned loving actions. Whereas I thought graceful meant an ability to walk through life without tripping on invisible curbs, I think people most often experience Grace as Food, Forgiveness, and Welcome.
- We experience grace as food, don’t we? When we are younger we are taught to say grace before our meals, to be thankful for the meal. When we suffer loss or trauma, an offer of a meal or a delivery of food is grace, isn’t it? When we have potluck dinners, having vegetarian options for vegetarians like my spouse Chelsea or diabetic options for some of you, that’s grace. This is the first church I’ve been at that offers gluten-free communion, so that all can gather around the table…that is grace indeed.
- We experience grace as forgiveness. When we mess up, when we fall short, grace is the person telling us it’s okay. Grace is forgiving a person who has done nothing to deserve it. Grace is the Apple store replacing my keyboard that some ungraceful person had spilled coffee into.
- Finally, we experience grace as welcome. Welcoming those different than us.
The United Methodist Church has a motto “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” I don’t take that as a slogan that says how things truly are, but what we seek to be.
The good news and the challenge for us this morning is found in the scripture passage today, where we see that grace is beyond all of those definitions, that grace is something more than food, forgiveness, and welcome.
First, if grace is just food, then I fear that we’ve kept that grace given at the dinner table from energizing the rest of our lives. We must do something with the food that we eat. That food that we are given cannot just sit in our stomachs. It is Olympic season and Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who four years ago won 300 gold medals…the man eats food. I don’t know what you had for breakfast, but Phelps definitely has the “Breakfast of Champions.” For breakfast he eats (and this is true) three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise. He follows that up with two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast and three chocolate-chip pancakes. I’d have to buy a new clergy robe pretty quick if I ate that much. But he can do it because he expends the energy swimming and burns through all those calories in his Olympic trials.
We’ve got something else bottled up within us right now that is not breakfast, that is not coffee, but rather we are filled with God’s grace, with God’s unearned love. We cannot just accept it but we have to do something with it. We’ll come back to this at the end of the sermon 30 minutes from now, but in short, My hope is that we offer grace beyond food and truly seek to spiritually nourish one another.
Second, if grace is just forgiveness, then grace would rely on our knowledge of what needs to be forgiven, and our knowledge of what grace we need to give. When we see someone who we KNOW wronged us, we can offer grace to that person. When we see someone who we KNOW is new, we are good about offering grace to that person. When we see someone who we KNOW is in crisis, we are good about offering grace to that person. It’s easier to offer grace when we know what’s up.
But what about those here in this room who are suffering in ways that we don’t know: those who have lost their job, whose kids are now off to college, whose adult children haven’t called in months, who have lost a spouse a year or so ago, people who have moved out of the workforce, out of their usual social circles, and feel alone. When these life transitions happen, when our worlds change, we often feel like strangers in them, strangers in the same clothes and with the same people.
Am I not speaking the truth when I tell you that there are strangers in this room right now even though you know their names?
Grace that is just forgiveness relies on what we know about each other. But the Hebrews passage calls us to something beyond this. When it says “you may have entertained angels in your midst,” we tend to think of strangers being secret agents of Jesus testing us. Secret shoppers that offer a test that we pass or fail. But I wonder if they are talking about us. If we see the divine in each other, if we can see that each one of us is made in the image of God, then grace is not just being kind to strangers, but turning strangers into friends. My hope is that by saying that we are grace-filled means that we give up our time to get to know each other better.
Finally, if grace is just welcoming, then I fear it has become just making us comfortable. Grace, showing unearned love, is not something that we can keep for ourselves. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, visiting people in prison, being a presence to people who are hurting and treated badly, those are all part of offering grace and the mission to which all are called. In these ways, we are living up to the Hebrews scripture, welcoming the stranger by pushing that welcome beyond the church walls, no matter what we know about the other.
John Wesley, the founder of our faith was once asked, “What does it avail to feed or clothe people’s bodies, if they are not Christian?” He replied, “Whether they will finally be lost or saved, you are expressly commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. If you can, and do not, whatever becomes of them, you are lost.” We see that offering grace has nothing to do with who the recipient is, but what we do with ourselves.
We can create a safe haven from the world around us, comfortable in our pews, not really wanting to do the evangelism thing because we don’t want to be pushy. But here’s the thing: every person you meet who is welcomed, every time you do a loving action for someone else, every skeptic who is offered grace is a possible convert to its power and its fidelity to the gospel.
If we stay here in this church, if we give the grace to each other, it goes nowhere. I’m your new Minister of Discipleship, and that does mean I’m focused on the internal ordering of our spirituality. There will be tons of opportunities for spiritual betterment led by laity and clergy alike. But if we don’t turn the reflections here into actions out there, according to Wesley and the Hebrews text, then we aren’t using the grace we are given faithfully, are we? My hope is that we extend our welcome beyond the church walls and turn our discipleship to our entire circles of life.
Grace is more than food, more than forgiveness, more than welcoming the stranger. Grace is a cycle of life, the grace that God gives us is meant to be used. It is free but it comes with expectations.
Martin Luther says that “Blessings at times come to us through our labors and at times without our labors, but never because of our labors, for God always gives them because of God’s undeserved mercy.”
The gift has already been given. This unearned love that we are given has to flow through us. Like the calories entering Michael Phelps body, they have to be used or else they sit and make the body worse for the wear. Hear the good news: We don’t have to give these gifts alone; Christ is always with us. And we are never alone when we offer Christ’s love to others.
In closing, there’s a little bit about the world around Jesus that is a helpful image for us today. In the Holy Land you’ve got the Jordan River going right down and on either end you have large bodies of water. On one end you have the Sea of Galilee. On the other end you have the Dead Sea. They are both big beautiful bodies of water. But you can’t imagine two bodies of water that are more different than one another. The Sea of Galilee is the place that we always think about the fishermen with their nets. From all the stories in the New Testament, it is a place of abundance where people can earn their living by catching the fish. They provide for their families and provide for others, because of the life that’s in the Sea of Galilee.
But, you go to the other end of the Jordan River and you find the Dead Sea. A place that has so much salt content in it that fish cannot live in, life just doesn’t even exist. It’s dead, hence the name! Both these Seas receive the same water. They both receive the same abundance, but the key difference is, Lake Galilee receives, but it also has an outlet and the water flows through it. But in the Dead Sea there is no outlet and so the water just accumulates, year after year, century after century, evaporating away, getting more and more salty and less and less hospitable to life.
Which are we like, church: Lake Galilee or are we like the Dead Sea? Each and every day, God is pouring all this blessing into our lives. How much of it leaks out? How much of it is passed on?
As we focus on our lifestyles and turn them into lifestyles of blessing, lets also recommit ourselves to being a channel, an outlet of good things to the circles of people that God has put around us. To commit to follow in the footsteps of Christ who welcomed all into his circle of friends and strangers, regardless of their gender, profession, ethnicity or identity. Christ who called Zaccheus down from the sycamore tree no matter what he had done in the past. Christ who called fishermen to leave their families. Christ who called out harmful messages by the Pharisees–other religious leaders, and told them that in the name of the Gospel, they were wrong; may Christ call all of us to do all of that and more. May we declare Christ is lord over all of Creation, and all are worthy of grace, care, and blessing in God’s name. May we have the courage to act.
Glory be to God. Amen.