Saturday, September 27, 2014

"If You Can Keep It" - September 28, 2014

Matthew 21:23-32

You’ve probably heard the story about how, when the U.S. Constitution was being hammered out, which was done behind closed doors, a group of curious and anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall and caught Benjamin Franklin as he was coming out and asked him, “Dr. Franklin, what form of government are you going to give us?” to which he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  There’s a certain sense in which you could say the same thing about the Church. 

On the one hand, there is the kingdom of God, which is the sum total of all people who live under the merciful, kind, and righteous guidance of the Holy Spirit.  There’s something mysterious and miraculous about the kingdom.  It is not a human creation, but is given by God.  It transcends nations and centuries and even time, as those who are part of it receive eternal life as a gift from God in Christ.  It even goes beyond the human race, as when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and offer our praise, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”.  When someone is baptized, it is a way that God confirms that person’s welcome into the kingdom, which is why no one is ever baptized United Methodist or Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or Syrian Orthodox.  All are baptized simply as Christian.  That’s why we do not rebaptize anybody.  That would be like taking someone and saying we need to reattach the umbilical cord and then cut it off again.

On the other hand, as human beings who live in a specific time and a specific place, we live with particular details to our lives.  All humans need food, but last night I had a salad and a slice of meatloaf.  We all dream, but we dream about different things.  Everyone has different abilities and talents and interests, but we are all bring something to the whole.  In that sense, although the kingdom of God is general and the result of the action of God through Jesus’ ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church as we know it is the way that kingdom shows up in concrete and specific ways in our world in our day in our setting through our choices and activities.

That’s where this parable about two sons comes into the picture.  Jesus said this:
“‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’”  [Matthew 21:28-32]

Jesus told this story to put the religious people of his day on the spot.  I believe that it still does.  It doesn’t call into question anybody’s place in the kingdom.  Both sons in the story remain sons of their father.  It does, however, highlight the way that we live as part of the Church.

            Let me be blunt.  There are a lot of things that need to be done and only get done when somebody does them.  “What form of government are you going to give us?” “A republic, if you can keep it.”  “What kind of Church are you going to give us?”  “Good question.  It’s up to you.”

            There are many ways of organizing a local church.  Some of them are, in my eyes, better than others.  There are some churches where the people expect the pastor to make all the decisions and to give orders and he -- because this kind of church rarely allows women to hold office -- he expects his orders to be carried out.  For example, an Amish bishop declares how long a man’s hair should be and what color dress a woman may wear, and everybody goes along with it.  Aside from that degree of micromanagement, that is not the United Methodist way, nor that of most mainline Protestant groups.  I do not say, “Go and work in the soup kitchen,” and someone says, “I go, sir!”  What we do is have set groups that are responsible for various areas of ministry and I go to people and say, “Would you be willing to chair the Missions Committee?” or “Would you consider serving on the Trustees?” or “We need some new blood on the Administrative Council and the Finance Committee,” and then wait for an answer.

            The problem that I have, that we have, is that a lot of people give the second son’s answer: “I will not,” and really mean it, and don’t ever reconsider like he did.  That is not to say there aren’t good reasons for saying, “No, I cannot do that right now.”  If that’s the answer, that’s fine.  I especially appreciate a direct “no” when it comes from someone who has at least considered things and either has a full plate or knows that they just are not cut out for a specific task.  The apostle James [3:1] pointed out that   and he was right.  A bad teacher can do a lot of damage.  But if someone is a good teacher, they should be teaching.  The same is true of all other areas of service. 

            So here’s the deal.  In the bulletin is an insert that lists a lot of the positions that we are going to need people to serve in the coming year.  Think back to the spiritual gifts inventory that we did at this time last year, and consider what God has equipped you for.  Please look it over and pray it over, and see where your name should appear. 

            Jesus pointed out to the people of his day that when the expected people didn’t always step forward, God would raise up people from beyond the religious community, people that Matthew identifies as the tax-collectors and the prostitutes.  I really don’t think we’re at that point, but I do trust that if we were, the Lord would find the right people.  It would just be sad for the ones who had the first opportunity and missed out on it.  We’ve been given a Church and it’s up to us to keep it.

In back of the church, in the narthex, are the pictures of all sorts of people who served in all sorts of different ways.  There is Richard Allen, who was born into slavery in Delaware and worked as a free laborer in Philadelphia, who became a great preacher and an advocate for social justice and for thirty-four years was part of the Underground Railroad.  There is Susanna Wesley, the wife of an Anglican priest and the mother of a large family, who was a tremendous teacher of the Bible and led classes in her kitchen that sometimes were better attended than her husband’s worship services.  There is Thomas Webb, who was a captain in the British army and whose gifts of both preaching and administration helped to start a church in New York that survived the American Revolution and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001.  There is Jane Addams, who helped immigrants find their place in a new country, and Martin Luther, who thought he was just being a good New Testament professor when he started up a reform movement that has been stirring up the Church for about five centuries now.

In the same place you will find a box where I invite you to place one of these service offering slips, today or next Sunday.  On the side are the words, “I go.”

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Condemnation" - September 14, 2014

John 3:13-17

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world.” 

What exactly does that mean?  How would anyone find themselves condemned by God living among us?  Isn’t it a good thing that God lived among us in Jesus?  Well, yes, but… It isn’t always such a comforting thing to be around someone whose life is so pristine, so pure, so (in Jesus’ case) perfect.  A bright light casts a sharp shadow, after all, and one that is focused will show the flaws in even the best diamond.  Jesus, simply by being who he is, can make the rest of the human race terribly aware of the things that are wrong with us. 

            When I was in college, I took organic chemistry, which was torture for me.  I’ll spare you the details.  No, honestly – I’m sparing myself details that I don’t want to remember.  I will note, though, that I was not the only student who struggled with the intricacies of synthesizing carbon tetrachloride from a can of Pepsi and a bottle of White-Out, or whatever we were supposed to do.  I know that because the professor one day, shortly after we had all gotten the results of our midterm exam, announced, “I just want to comment that a lot of you have said that you thought the exam had some unfair questions on it.  There was, however, somebody in this room who had a perfect score.  If he or she wouldn’t mind, would they identify themselves?”  And one hand went up, one hand attached to somebody sitting in the very front row (of course).  All around the room arose a low, echoing, universal “Boooo!”  Here was the person who had ruined, completely ruined the grading curve for everyone else.  Other people had struggled and strained and done their best, and for what? 

            It isn’t the folks who don’t care who get upset when they are confronted with someone better.  It’s the ones who have something riding on their own efforts.  I had to keep my grade point average up to maintain a scholarship.  A lot of other folks in that room wanted a good grade in organic chemistry on their transcripts before they applied to medical school.  Nobody wanted anyone else to fail, and I don’t think anyone really wished anything bad for the next person.  Having somebody in the class score a 100, though, was out of the question and there was real resentment in that booing, along with the laughter.  He wasn’t trying to show us all up, but that was the effect.

            You know who got angry with Jesus?  It wasn’t the people who knew that they weren’t going to make the grade.  It wasn’t the Samaritans and the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the lepers and the untouchables who generally had a problem with him.  They welcomed him.  He didn’t threaten them in any way.  They already knew where they stood.  They were at the bottom, and for Jesus to enter their lives was an honor.  It was God’s declaration that they were every bit as important as the more respectable folks.  No, the people who got upset with Jesus were those respectable folks themselves, the scribes and the Pharisees. 

Those were people that Jesus pointed out to his disciples as being good teachers.   

“Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;” [Matthew 23:1-3]
He knew that in many ways, they got it.  They knew right from wrong.  They knew the way that things should be.  But he also knew their failings and said,

“but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” [Matthew 23:3]
He troubled them because he understood their shortcomings, which were as often as not the unseen things of the heart.  He understood, as they did, that what was inside did not always match the outside.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  [Matthew 23:23-28]
That was why they found Jesus threatening.  He hit a nerve.  He messed up the grading curve.

            No wonder he had to let people know that wasn’t what he was there for.  He didn’t come into the world to condemn it.  There’s enough condemnation around already, and much of it comes from the people who try hard but still miss the mark, and end up judging themselves.  Then along comes Jesus, who gets everything right, both the letter and the spirit, and they see their failures and feel them sharply. Jesus came to help them as much as the folks who could use an obvious dose of forgiveness.  It’s just so very hard for people in that spot to open up enough about the needs of their souls to leave room for grace and mercy.  It’s hard to be the one who comes in second or third all the time. 

Nicodemus Visiting Jesus
               by Henry Ossawa Tanner
This very passage, where Jesus declares his purpose, is part of a discussion that he has with a man named Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, that would eventually pass judgment on Jesus and hand him over to the Romans.  Nicodemus needed desperately to speak with Jesus at this point in his life, but he would only approach him after dark. [John 3:1]  When he did approach him, though, Jesus helped Nicodemus immensely, and even though he called himself old [John 3:4], Jesus helped him to experience the renewing power of God’s Spirit.  He changed in a way that gave him courage to stand up for Jesus at his trial in a way that no one else was able or willing to do, and to be one of the two people who risked their own position to give his body a decent burial.

            He came to help the people who fail big-time, but also the people whose shortcomings are known to them alone.  He came to help, not to embarrass, the person who tries and tries and tries to be kind, but often does it with resentment inside or with gritted teeth.  He came to help, not to make things worse for, the person who knows who knows to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, but just cannot manage to love that neighbor God has asked him to love.  Jesus came to help, not to put down, the people who come so very close to getting things right but mess up at the very last moment every time.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [John 3:17] 
            I’ve wondered, from time to time, why the chemistry professor asked the wunderkind to hold up his hand.  Surely he knew, and surely the professor knew, what kind of response would follow.  Maybe, though, somewhere in the lecture hall that day was someone who instead of being put off was able to see someone who could help.  Maybe there was someone who went up to him afterward and asked if he could explain benzene rings or left-handed chelation.  Maybe there was someone who knew that he was being put forward, at some risk to himself, because he could raise someone from a “B” to an “A”, or keep somebody else from failing.  Maybe there were a lot of such people. 

Maybe it wasn’t actually about explaining why so many grades were lower than expected, but about who could help us learn the actual material.  Maybe the real lesson had to do with more than chemistry.  Maybe it has taken me a long, long time to see that.

What do you suppose God was doing when he sent the Son into the world, knowing how we would respond?  Could it be that he wasn’t condemning the world, but saving it?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Forgiveness: Opening the Door" - September 7, 2014

Matthew 18:15-20

            Every year, in preparation for Charge Conference, which is the annual administrative meeting for the local congregation, and which is led by the District Superintendent or her designee, the pastor of each local United Methodist Church meets with the Staff/Parish Relations Committee to discuss how things are going.  As part of that, being United Methodists and therefore doing things in a methodical way, we fill out forms that ask questions that are designed to keep everybody focused on ministry and to head off distractions and problems before they come up.  Part of the covenant that the committee and I have used for the past couple of years is headed “Conflict Resolution” and says this:

“Both the pastor and the SPRC agree that in the upcoming year conflict(s) will be resolved by using the following steps:

1.      Any conflicts will first be addressed person-to-person at the first possible opportunity. If the pastor feels the SPRC Chairperson or committee should be aware of the conflict at that time he well let them know what is needed and appropriate.

2.      If the conflict is unresolved , he will then utilize the support of the SPRC. The SPRC chairperson or another member, the pastor and involved parties will meet to attempt at a satisfactory resolution. A written summary will be provided to all parties.

3.      If the conflict remains unresolved by the pastor and SPRC, we will then notify the District Superintendent or her designate who will be invited to assist in resolution. A written summary will be provided to all parties.”

I’m glad to say we haven’t had to use this, but I’m also glad that there is a clear way of proceeding if one was needed.  I’m also glad that we didn’t have to develop it, but borrowed the idea (with the addition of a written summary) from someone who knows about conflict and conflict resolution: a man named Jesus.

            It begins with an assumption that it’s always best to make, even if it turns out to be wrong.  That is the assumption that when there’s a conflict between people they will have the good will toward one another that allows them to talk it over directly, one-on-one.  Respect and trust are built into that approach, and without those you are going to be stuck. 

Respect and trust or their lack inform even the most informal, brief relationships.  Say that a waitress puts a cup of lobster bisque soup down in front of someone who’s allergic to shellfish.  One possible response is, “What’s this?  Are you trying to kill me?”  Another is, “I’m sorry, I think this is somebody else’s; I ordered the chicken gumbo.”  Which of those will get the better response?  Which of those can anyone build upon?

Then consider a more complex relationship, say a marriage.  On the one hand a concern could be voiced as, “Why don’t you just sleep at the office?  You’re never around when I want you.”  On the other hand, it could be said, “You’re working so much lately that I’m starting to miss you.”  The same situation is being addressed, but in different ways.

To approach someone with a grievance involves some vulnerability.  It says that something is going on which is hurting you or could hurt you, and you are trusting that somebody else doesn’t really want to do that – they just aren’t aware.   The other person may also be called on to be somewhat vulnerable, admitting that they just didn’t notice (which is to show a blind spot) or asking for understanding because of some other factor.  “I’m sorry I’ve been working overtime.  I’ve been worried about being able to pay for a new car when this one dies.”  Then there’s more work to be done around discussing whatever needs talking over, but people are still expressing care for one another, even if they don’t reach any kind of agreement right away.

In fact, sometimes that is such a difficult situation that it helps to have a third party (someone that both people trust) to help clarify what’s going on.  Jimmy Carter is a good example of that.  Who would ever have thought that someone who served one term as president would end up as somebody so widely respected (there’s that word again, “respect”) that he would have a new career as a peacemaker after four years as Commander-in-Chief?  It’s a role that grows out of his Christian faith.  In his book Living Faith, he writes about how having someone work with people who are involved in severe, sometimes violent, conflict can move the situation toward a good outcome.  He writes,

“Sometimes our peace efforts involve situations in which the leaders refuse to deal with government officials.  Another problem is that almost all of the major wars now taking place in the world are civil conflicts, not hostilities between sovereign nations.  It is often unfeasible for U.S. officials or UN representatives to communicate with a revolutionary group attempting to change or overthrow a regime to which our ambassador is accredited or which is a member of the United Nations.  So it falls to representatives of The Carter Center or other nongovernmental organizations to serve as the contact point between the warring parties.”[1]

It’s interesting to note, here, just in case you ever find yourself in that position – because these situations take place on small-scale as well as on the world stage – that it is not the business of the person trying to bring reconciliation to offer forgiveness.  That would imply having taken a side.  Jimmy Carter notes,

“Although forgiveness is taught in the Bible, I don’t draw a parallel between this religious principle and the activities of The Carter Center.  We are not in the business of forgiving anyone.  We only attempt to resolve crises and prevent the repetition or continuation of illicit acts.”[2]

Forgiveness, in most cases, has to be a mutual thing by the time it has reached the point of including a mediator.  Even if there is wrong on only one side, there is often bitterness on both.  Forgiveness has to come from the people involved in the conflict themselves in order to restore the relationship.

            It may also be, and this is the sad part, that reconciliation does not happen.  Not all stories have a happy ending.  There are angry words we speak and regret before the sentence has reached its end.  Once they’re said, they’re said.  “I take it back,” only goes so far.  There are people who are more interested in holding onto a grievance than working through it.  There’s a poem by Stephen Crane that goes,

“In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, ‘Is it good, friend?’
‘It is bitter – bitter,’ he answered;
‘But I like it
‘Because it is bitter,
‘And because it is my heart.’”

That, I’m sorry to say, is part of human nature.  Have you known that person?  Have you tried to reach them?  Maybe you have done all that you could and you have been pushed away.  There is no way to force someone to forgive you, although you can offer the most sincere repentance, or get them to accept forgiveness even when you offer it from the depths of your soul.

            Sometimes, therefore, even Jesus said you might have to move on.  Hear the process again all the way to the conclusion.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.[Matthew 18:15-17]

Remember, though, how Jesus viewed and treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  He made a Samaritan the good guy in one of his most pointed parables and healed the daughter of a Phoenician woman and the servant of a Roman centurion.  He called a tax collector named Matthew to become part of his inner circle and stayed at the house of another, named Zacchaeus. 

            Moving on does not mean slamming the door shut.  It means not being ruled or defined by the harm that you have done or that has been done to you.  If someone will not hear forgiveness from you, express it through God.  “Lord, if no one else will listen, you will.  I forgive John Doe, and ask forgiveness in return.  All this is in your hands now.  Help me to learn from my mistakes, to repeat whatever I have done right, and to live like Jesus.  Amen.”  Then get on with life. 

I’ll quote Jimmy Carter just one more time here, in closing.  He says,

“For me, sharing any problem through prayer provides a powerful element of calm and objectivity.  Then, when I might fear or regret the consequences of a choice I have made, an awareness of the presence of the Spirit of God can give me courage.  John says that Christ knows us all (John 2:24), and Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).”[3]

Amen to that.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1996), 155.
[2] Ibid., 146.
[3] Ibid., 15.