Saturday, July 15, 2017

Whenever

Grumpy old man alert!  I never liked the “whatever” language fad.  I don’t know if it is still in to say “whatever” in response to every comment. I hear it occasionally.  But still, I grumble.  It’s a disengaging word.  A disconnecting word.  An attempt to imply that nothing matters, nothing is of significance.  I just don’t like it.  But then, I’ve been known to utter it myself from time to time. When nothing makes sense, when there seems to be no solution, when frustrated beyond measure. Whatever.  It’s a good word to use, at times.  Better than swearing, I suppose.  Better than getting angry and lashing out.  Whatever.  Useful, perhaps, in some settings, once in a while, a little bit.  Sort of.  Whatever.

But I want to propose a different word.  Similar, but different.  Whenever.  I know, it doesn’t fit the context.  It isn’t as dismissive, as cynical as a good “whatever” can be.  But go with me here. Whenever.  It has that attitude, don’t you think?  It presents a similar sort of cavalier mindset, but on a whole different level. Whenever.  And the best part?  It’s biblical!

Matthew 6:5-15 5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 "Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew says that Jesus put this prayer in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  His Summa Theologica, if you will.  His final paper for Professor Schubert Ogden’s Christian Theology class. (Excuse me, I just had flash backs and chills running up and down my spine.)  This prayer, implied in the placement, is the definition of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  If we claim this prayer – and the warnings surrounding it – if we pray this prayer, no, if we live this prayer, then we will be followers.  

Luke says a similar thing with the placement of the prayer.  In chapter 11, the disciples approach Jesus and say, “teach us to pray.”  Some commentators say that they weren’t looking for a lesson on prayer, but for a prayer that they could keep in their pockets, a prayer that would identify them as His followers.  It was a secret handshake, a code phrase that would identify who was in and who was out.  

Well, maybe.  Maybe it was a sign of the followers. Or maybe it was a plea.  They saw him in prayer. They knew that He didn’t do anything without praying about it first.  Whenever.  That He began every day in prayer, that He ended every night on His knees before the One He called Father.  Maybe they were hoping it was in the technique.  If we just knew how, if we had the formula then we could get as much out of spending time in prayer as He does.  All we get is sleepy.  So, they asked him and He gave him this prayer.  Whenever you pray.

Whether it was in response to a question, or a part of His thesis, here it is.  A simple prayer that we remember and recite and say so often we’ve stopped listening to it.  Stopped realizing that we are tearing down the world as we know it and building up one more like the one God intended.  Stopped noticing that we are making a commitment in this prayer, that we are aligning our priorities with the Kingdom.  Stopped understanding that we were putting ourselves in a place farther down the line than we are used to wanting.  Stopped admitting that this prayer that we pray in our sleep sometimes is admission of failure, of brokenness, of the great need for a savior.  This prayer shakes the foundations of the world whenever we pray it.  And we often yawn our way through it.  Ho hum, here we go again ... Our Father ... 

Our - a sense of community, we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than we can see with our eyes, something we can only grasp through faith.  Our - it’s not just me and my needs and my hurts and my wanting to be fed, to be filled, to be blessed.  Our - it’s about us together, with friends and family, but also the stranger and the enemy, the ones who don’t look like us and think like us, the ones we enjoy and the ones we hide from.  Our - we are joining a community, a movement when we pray this prayer, we can’t escape with thinking it is an editorial we that really means just me.  No, that won’t work any more.  Our - we’re in this together.  With the one who called us children.  Our Father.

Our Father - no matter how well our earthly fathers measured up to this ideal, no matter how well we who are called father fill those shoes, we are told to call on the Father, the father of the fatherless, the One who wants to gather us like a mother hen gathers her chicks.  Our Father – this isn’t some distant, unapproachable, incomprehensible, nameless power of the universe, “use the force Luke!” No this is personal, this is intimate, this is the One who knows you.  Jesus’ instructions say don’t try to dazzle with words, don’t try to pull the wool over the divine eyes by flattery, the Father knows us already, knows our needs, knows our hurts, even the ones we hide from the world, hide from ourselves, we are known.  Already known, and yet loved.  Still loved.  The Father, who loves like a Mother, knows and still claims, still calls, still wants to hear from us.  

But wait, it all sounds so conditional, a trade off, do this then that happens.  At least that comes out at the end.  If you forgive then you will be forgiven, if you don’t then you won’t.  So there!  Take that!! Conditional?  So, in the end we are bargaining with God?  Better shape up, better measure up, or else. Or is Jesus giving us a truth here, not a law?  Is He trying to help us understand that we are indeed a community even as He and the Father are a community that we call Trinity?  That just like He and the Father are one, we are one in the spirit with God and with each other.  And if we refuse to live in community, then we won’t have access to the fullness of grace.  That if we hold ourselves apart, wish vengeance on those who have wronged us, look down at those not worthy of us, turn away from the one who needs us, then we can’t – not because God withholds it some how, but because we can’t – experience grace for ourselves.  Because we are not in a grace receptive position.  The same walls we build to keep the riff raff out, the same shells we create to keep us from crossing paths with undesirables, keep us from receiving what God longs to give us; forgiveness, grace and wholeness.  

Our prayers tear down those walls.  Real prayers, prayers of humility that are directed toward God and not the people around us.  Jesus isn’t saying that we can’t pray in public anymore.  How could we be the community of “our Father” if there was no such thing as corporate prayer?  But He is saying stay focused on God.  Pour out your heart to God, not on saying a prayer to impress.  

Teach us to pray.  So He does.  And perhaps the most important point of all is hidden in the way Jesus talks about prayer.  You notice?  He doesn’t say if you’re going to pray.  He doesn’t say if this seems like a good idea.  He doesn’t say if you’ve tried everything else.  No, the only if is the condition of our hearts.  But he says over and over, whenever.  Whenever you pray.  There is an expectation here. When, not if, when you are praying, He says.  Whenever.  Kind of like, whenever you breathe. Whenever your heart beats.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever. 

Shalom, 
Derek 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Beloved, Pray for Me

Starting over.  A fresh start, a new start, a reboot.  Lots of good in such an idea, such a possibility.  On the other hand you can’t help but mourn what used to be.  The familiar was ... just that, familiar.  This new thing is scary, lonely, new.  So, which is it?  Which will we embrace, which will we encounter? Good or bad, happy or sad, gain or loss?  Both?  Maybe both.  Some of both, that’s how life works you know.  Take the bad with the good, they say.  Take it all and turn it into something positive, someone powerful, something transforming for us and everyone else around us, everyone we encounter.  Yeah, that’s the ticket, that’s the brass ring to grab for.  Make lemonade.  

Except that recipe always escapes me.  Just when it need it.  Just when biting down on the sourest of lemons and I need to think of sweetness and light, it escapes me.  And I’m stuck with the sourness. At least that is how it seems to happen to me more often than I’d care to admit.  My memory isn’t good enough to look for the light in the midst of the darkness, the hope in the midst of despair.  I mean sometimes I can do it.  But other times, the worst times, I just can’t. 

The good news here is that I’m not the only cook in the kitchen.  I’m not the only stirrer of lemon juice and sugar.  The best place to start any new thing is with prayer.  Prayer based in panic perhaps, in the fears of the unknown or the self-doubts and sense of inadequacy.  Prayer based in confidence and hope, on the other hand, in the joy and excitement of a new beginning, a new hope.  Doesn’t matter really which it is.  As long as it’s real.  As long at it’s you.  Prayer is the perfect place to start. It is ultimately the reminder that we’re not in charge.  It is the opportunity to put everything, our lives, our hopes and fears, our doubts and our confidence, not in our own hands, but in the hands of the One who is faithful.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-25 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 25 Beloved, pray for us. 

I’m starting my ministry here in Southport with prayer.  An admission that on my own I can do nothing.  An invitation to partner with the community of faith in this place and to tap into the Source of all power, the means by which anything good might happen in this place, at this time.  I’m starting with a conversation about prayer.  So that we can both pray and talk about praying.  Which oddly enough is the same thing.  When we pray we are talking about what it is that is on our hearts, on our minds.  It is a conversation with the Creator of the universe.  Who, we’ve been told, is powerfully interested in us, in our hearts, in the depths of our souls.  Prayer is a conversation with God and with one another.  To pray is to talk about praying, and to talk about praying is to pray.  And it is, says Paul in our passage this week, as necessary as breathing.  As important and never ceasing as our heartbeat.  

First Thessalonians is considered to be the first book of the New Testament written.  This is where Paul chose to begin his ministry of writing.  And some of the first words that got written down were about this conversation we’re supposed to be having with God, but also with each other.  There is a whole lot in this passage, most of which we are simply going to set aside for another time.  So that we can concentrate on the one part, the conversation.  One small verse, “pray without ceasing.”

How does that work exactly?  Can we actually pray without ceasing?  Do our lips move constantly like some entranced shaman muttering an incantation, do we mumble under our breath as we go about the business of our day, forever disconnected from everything but the conduit of prayer to God? Well, of course not.  Well, then, what in the world did he mean?  

Look at the list.  It’s like a lot of Paul’s lists.  Complete.  Daunting.  Yet, exciting at the same time. It’s like he hints at a life that we have only barely tasted.  Rejoice always, he says, like that was even within the realm of possibility for us normal human beings.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  All? Did you really mean all, Paul?  Maybe you meant all good circumstances.  Maybe you meant all holy ones, all Sunday morning ones.  Maybe you meant ... But no, you said all circumstances. Incomprehensible.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Well, that sounds good, living at the level of spiritual excitement, power and glory, all the time.  Can’t imagine it, but yeah, let it happen.  I wouldn’t quench it, I wouldn’t pull back from that.  Unless there were other things I needed to do, you know.  I mean, it’s fine for a while, but really now.  Do not despise the words of the prophets.  What?  Those guys?  Come on!  Test everything, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every kind of evil.  Well, of course.  As a general rule, that’s pretty good.  That’s what we all want to do, plan to do, intend.  All of us.  All the time.  Except ... when it is necessary to look at the greater good and allow a smaller ... well ... you know.  Right?  

Frankly, it’s beyond us.  All of it, not just the praying without ceasing.  I mean that’s impossible, we admit that.  But the rest of it is just as impossible, just as outrageous.  On our best days we might get close, for a while, a short time, in specific situations, grading on a curve, close, kinda.  But, our best days are few and far between sometimes.  It’s just simply beyond us.  We might as well give up.  But before you do, take another look at the list.  The whole list.  Paul wraps it up, as he does so often, with a doxology, an expression of praise.  But it is more than praise.  It is a promise.  Take a look.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. 

It isn’t up to us.  God will do this.  God’s Spirit, God’s grace, God’s love will be at work in us.  We are being sanctified.  It’s a process, we’re on the way.  Surrendering ourselves, bit by bit, inch by inch, until we hand our whole selves over to the One who is faithful.  The One, the only One who will take what we give and make it holy.  Make it precious.  

That’s what prayer is, in essence.  It isn’t asking for stuff.  It isn’t following a ritualized pattern of magic words that will, by our own efforts, turn us into something better than we would be otherwise. It is throwing ourselves into the arms of the One who loves us as we are, who accepts us and claims us and then loves us too much to leave us as we are.  Prayer is throwing ourselves into the arms of the One who will take out our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh, knowing all the while that we will suffer because of that love infusion, but in that suffering we will truly be alive.  Truly alive. Like we always wanted.  Like we hoped for.  Like we prayed for.

But then, I added another short verse.  Most will stop at verse twenty four.  That finishes the theology, the exhortation.  The rest is just extra, just salutations and closings, the rest is just ... necessary. Beloved, pray for us.  Here’s real treat.  Even the praying we don’t have to do on our own.  The gift we were given is that we can pray for one another.  We can lift one another up.  We can lower one another through the ceiling into the very presence of the One who heals.  Beloved, and we pray for one another because of love.  Beloved, pray for us.  Not a last resort, but a gift of power and grace. Beloved, pray ... for us.  Please?  

The best place to start.  Shall we pray?

Shalom, 
Derek

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Breathe On Me

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, / fill me with life anew, / that I may love what thou dost love, / and do what thou wouldst do.”

Pentecost Sunday.  That celebration of the arrival of the Spirit on that little frightened band of disciples hiding out in the upper room behind locked doors with pounding hearts.  The noise like a tornado, a freight train of a zephyr, blowing them from a tragic yesterday into a tomorrow swept clean and pulsing with possibility.  You remember that wind?  That breath?  Yeah, we read about it every year.  Pentecost Sunday. Acts chapter two.  They were all together in one place.  When suddenly ...  We’ve read it, proclaimed it, depicted it, pretended it was happening to us.  We wore our red, waved our fans, fluttered our ribbons, flew our kites, lit our candles.  And enjoyed it, were refreshed and renewed by it, perhaps.  Yet.  There was some lack, some empty space not quite filled up with our play-acting, our commemoration.

Pentecost, in the mainline church at least, is a curiosity more than a true celebration.  It sounds great on paper, in the book, but in our comfortable sanctuaries is seems a bit ... odd.  Which is why I decided to skip it this year.  Yeah, no rush of wind, no tongues of flame, no list of unpronounceable regions in the ancient world.  Just breath.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, / until my heart is pure, / until with thee I will one will, / to do and to endure.”

Breath - Spirit - Wind.  In both Greek and Hebrew it’s the same word.  Pneuma in Greek. Ruach in Hebrew. Just breath, that’s what I chose to look at for this penultimate Sunday in my tenure at Aldersgate.  Just breath, that might also be wind.  Which just could be Spirit.  A transforming Spirit, an enlivening Spirit.  An up from the grave Spirit.  A not much to work with but still bringing life out of death Spirit. Wait, what? Read this:

Ezekiel 36:23-28  I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

Oh, right.  But wait, there’s more.  Ezekiel, is that the guy who ...

Ezekiel 37:1-14 The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD."

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.  Yeah, that guy.  A new spirit, that’s what God promises through Ezekiel.  A new heart and new spirit.  Open heart surgery is what’s on offer.  I will take out that heart of stone, the one you grew to protect yourself.  The one you’ve gotten used to because it keeps you from getting wrapped up in the messiness of other people’s lives.  It’s just too hard, in this contentious age, to talk without being misunderstood, without getting defensive and overheated, without getting hurt.  So, grow a shell, harden your heart.  It’s easier.  It’s safer.  Learn to keep people at arms’ length, at the end of the barrel of a gun.  It’s our right.  And it is about as far from God as you can get.  But God has a solution.  Surgery.  Take out the heart of stone, replace it with a heart of flesh.  Will it hurt.  Yeah, it will hurt.  And go on hurting, every time you get stepped on.  Every time you get rejected.  Every time you are neglected, ignored, overlooked.  It will hurt.  But it will also glow.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, / till I am wholly thine, / till all this earthly part of me / glows with thy fire divine.”

Maybe surgery seems too radical for you.  How about mouth to mouth?  Resuscitation.  Get those lungs working again.  Breathe in, breathe out.  It’s a better way to live, trust me on this. Breathing is essential to a life in the Spirit.  Breathing.  Not simply respiration.  That’s important too.  But breathing deeply, until your lungs are bursting, take in all that God has in store for you.  Even that which seems like punishment, because somewhere in there is new life and new hope and the ability to breathe even your tired old bones back into life.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, / so shall I never die, / but live with thee the perfect life / of thine eternity.”

Life out of death, that’s what Pentecost is all about.  About a new start, a real start.  And breathing in hope when surrounded by despair. Moving in close enough to feel the breath of God, to know the Presence, even in the darkest night.  That’s what I want - to be Alive in Christ.  Breathe on me breath of God.  Amen.

This will be my last online Bible study as pastor of Aldersgate.  Though there is one more Sunday, it is at the end of one whirlwind week and the beginning of the next.  So, I can’t promise to write something here.  Those who are continuing one, stay tuned for a new chapter from Southport UMC. To those I leave behind, may the breath of God breathe life into your bones so that you may come alive in Him.

Shalom,
Derek

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Finishing the Work

With a stroke of pen ... No wait, with a million and half strokes of a pen, we became homeowners. For the first time in our lives, we now are the owners of a home on the south side of Indianapolis. Close to the University of Indianapolis where our journey began, sort of.  But now a new journey begins.  We met at the Chicago Title Office in Greenwood (I wonder if there is a Greenwood Title Office in Chicago?) And sat with our realtor and with the current owners of the property and their realtor and a title person. (Not a titled person, this wasn’t local royalty, as far as I could tell).  And we signed forms.  A ream of paper.  Form after form, she told us what everything was as she handed it to us to sign.  This one is affirming your identity.  This one is saying you didn’t lie on the last one.  This one says you aren’t lying on any of those others.  This one says you understand what you’re doing.  I had to hesitate on that one.  But La Donna nudged me and I signed.  This one says you’ve not been declared mentally incompetent.  I looked for affirmation once more, she pointed out that it didn’t say by your wife.  Oh, OK.  I signed.  Then the forms outlining the dire consequences for not paying the mortgage.  I swear one of them said they could make soup out of my bones if I was more than 15 days late.  Signed that we would have insurance.  Signed that we would improve the property.  Signed that we would be good neighbors (the Mr. Rogers Form).  Signed that we wouldn’t run away screaming - and just in time, I must say.  And then suddenly, hands throbbing with cramp, we were done.  Just like that.  The sellers handed over keys and a garage door opener.  Told us about a couple of repair things they promised to do.  And then got a little weepy as they realized the house they lived in for thirty years was now in the hands of strangers who didn’t have clue what they were doing, and less than two months ago had no plans of buying a house.  And it was over.

We stumbled out into the bright sunshine and tried to massage some feeling back into our fingers while we chatted with our realtor.  She’s a member of my new church and therefore especially keen to do a good job, and she did.  Including sending her husband the contractor crawling under the house to look at some plumbing issues.  And then we said thank you and got in the car for the two hour drive back to Fort Wayne.  It was quiet for a while, as we realized that we were both poorer and richer than we have ever been in our lives.  A lot of money disappeared from our bank account with the wave of a modern technological wand, money we scraped together from a variety of sources that we didn’t plan on touching for a long time, and now it’s gone.  Didn’t even have to write a check (Google it kids!)  But then we have a house, in a nice neighborhood, and we’ll move in a few weeks and start over again.  A new chapter.  A new life.  And it felt ... good.  

John 17:1-11  After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Glory.  That’s what Jesus’ prayer is about here in the Gospel of John.  Glory.  Glorify your Son, Jesus prays.  It’s chapter seventeen.  Almost the end of the Gospel.  We are coming to the climax, to the end toward which the whole event was aiming from the philosophical beginnings and the first miracle with water into wine and the wonder that ensued.  Glorify your Son.  Your Son, he prays.  Not me. Not glorify me.  Which is what you’d expect if it was just a prayer between Jesus and His Father.  But no, it’s not just a prayer, it’s a sermon.  An announcement.  A word of encouragement for those who are about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  It’s not a prayer like we understand prayers.  It’s a pastoral prayer.  Where the pastor prays words that the congregation doesn’t have words to pray.  But nods along as though those are exactly the words they were longing to say.  Jesus prays like that, for them.  For Himself too.  But through Him, through His life and His suffering and His death, He prays for them.  Puts the words in their mouths.

Oh, I know, the prayer could be a construct.  Since John was written many years after the event, this prayer could be a prayer made up of the prayers of the church, of leaders and followers and hopes and dreams.  It could be a prayer that was really a theological treatise on the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus.  Glorify your Son, as a way to explain to those who come after the event what it all means.  Probably.  Most likely.  But then again, maybe He prayed this way for those who haven’t yet made it through.  So that they had a word to hang on to when the wind begins to howl and rain begins to fall.  A word to cling to when the ground trembles and the temple shakes.  Glory.  

What a word to have on the tip of our tongues when things seem uncertain.  Glory.  Not the glory of this world, awards and prizes and offices and achievements, not the glory celebrity or wealth.  No, glorify Your Son because Your Son is glorifying You, by finishing the work.  By accepting the cross, taking the nails, breathing through the pain. Glorifying God by dying.  I know it sounds ... barbaric. This is the stumbling block that Paul talks so much about.  How does this cruel and painful death give God glory?  Wouldn’t living be a better way to glorify?  

Yes.  It is a better way.  For us.  We are called to live, to hand over our lives to Him and live.  Live fully, live joyfully, live united.  His dying prayer is that we might learn to do this living thing together.  Together.  That’s how we finish this work that He has given us to do.  By living fully, joyfully and united.  In peace.  Shalom, the fullness of all that God has in store for us.  Our lives give God glory, because Jesus’ death gave God glory.  Because He finished, we can finish.  Because He was faithful, even unto death, we can be faithful in all of life.  And give God glory.

Because He was poorer than He had ever been before, He gave away everything, not holding back even the blood in His veins, the breath in His lungs, because He became poor, He was rich in glory. Glorify your Son, He prays before those confused and soon to be terrorized disciples, glorify even in death, so that there is glory in life.  I’ve glorified you, He prayed, by finishing the work.  And a day later He says from His place of execution, It is finished.

No, no, no.  I’m not equating a new house purchase with the death of the Son of God on a cross.  But like so many things, it can be a metaphor, a reminder, a pointer beyond the event itself, toward the gift that life is.  It can be an opportunity to give God glory, by finishing the work that He has given me to do.  Us to do.  To live for Him, not just in a pew on Sunday mornings, but in the world, at work, at school, as we go out and come in, in our house.  I may have gotten the form to make soup from my bones wrong.  I’ll admit that.  But I’m right about our home (and yours) being a place to give God glory. Let God be glorified.   Amen.

Shalom, 
Derek 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd again

Day Four: Spiritual Borderlands and Drag Queen Bingo  

The theme for the Festival this year is “Preaching On the Borders.”  It has cropped up in various places throughout, many sermons and many lectures pointed toward it.  But today it came rushing to the fore.  Or maybe it is because this event is almost over and I’m about to head back home.  Home to transition.  Home to a border crossing, from one place to another place of service.  To say there are mixed feelings doesn’t adequately describe it.  But a part of the anxiety is the change itself.  Crossing into the unknown is always daunting.  But perhaps that’s where we’re called to go.  Perhaps that’s where God is.  Oh, certainly God is in the safe center too.  No question.  But on the borders, or as the Celts called it, the thin places, God seems more real.

The day began with Bishop William Willimon.  Bishop Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop, long time Dean of Duke University Chapel and pastor in North Carolina, and kindred spirit of mine.  He speaks with a biting sarcasm and talks of biblical characters as though he met them at a bar.  I like that.  He also seems to make up his sermons on the fly.  And is surprised as we are when they end. “The Light of Love Comes Shining Through” was the hopeful title of his sermon this morning.  He talked about his ministry, as pastor and bishop, and concluded that his best times were when Jesus pushed him over a boundary.  Jesus, he says, never met a door He couldn’t kick in, a border He couldn’t cross, or a boundary wall He couldn’t tear down.  

Willimon told of receiving a fill in appointment to a declining church in Raleigh.  He was told it would be a couple of months, he was there for a year.  He decided to try to make it go, to make it relevant to the changed neighborhood where the church was located.  He sought out some folks who knew the area and asked them “Where do we go to find out what is going on in this neighborhood? How do we become relevant to our community.”  The urban expert said “Drag Queen Bingo.” Bishop Willimon said, I’m not sure we are ready for that.  The expert said, “Oh, I thought you were serious about evangelism.  Better go back and prepare to close down.”  The bishop and a few members of the church went to Drag Queen Bingo.

They crossed border into a world they didn’t know existed.  Their eyes were opened and so were their hearts.  Was the church saved?  Did the community find Jesus and give up their wayward life?  The bingo addiction I mean.  Well, he didn’t actually say.  These things take time.  But doors were opened.  And Christ will go through.

After a break the Bishop moved from preaching mode to lecture mode, “Confronting Racism through Preaching” was the title.  Not quite a hopeful, or easy.  He spoke of attending a Methodist camp one summer as a youth, and being asked to room with a “Negro.”  Willimon claimed that when he left that camp he no longer lived in the same world he had occupied before.  His world was wider, deeper. His roommate grew up a few blocks from him, he discovered, but his experience of their home town was different, and a town he never knew was described to him.  This border, what was once called “the color line” is a border in our hearts, but also in the structures of our culture in ways many of us don’t want to or can’t acknowledge.  But one of the things that Jesus can do is open eyes.  And one of the tools He uses to do that is preaching.  So it is on us preachers, and us congregations to raise these issues and open our eyes.  Biblically we can look at the stories of Jews and Samaritans, or later Jews and Gentiles.  These too are racial divides.  And demand proclamation.  Demand salvation from this sin.  The bishop reminded us that God only saves sinners.  Let’s confess our sin.

Grace Imathiu is a Kenyan Methodist preacher now pastoring in the States. Her sermon was called Border Scandal.  Based on the story of the Woman at the Well, Grace is the one who invoked the memory of the thin places.  But thin places while holy and full of Presence, are also dangerous places, she argued.  Dangerous because change happens in those places.  Transformation happens. Be prepared to cross over into a new way of seeing, a new way of being.

The current Dean of the Chapel at Duke University is Dr Luke Powery.  Powery has degrees in theology and preaching but also in music.  He is an advocate of the place of the Spiritual in both the history and theology of Christian proclamation.  And, oh my goodness, can he sing them.  Spiritual Borderlands, Powery says, means not just Spirit, but spiritual.  And the songs shape the experience theologically, even as they shape the singers spiritually.  The spirituals are keys to speaking the truth, too preaching on the borders.

First of all spirituals sound the note of the reality of human suffering.  Not the health, wealth and prosperity of an easy gospel, but the blood and tears and death of a real world.  Proclamation tells the truth.  Spirituals sound the note of divine suffering .. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? We proclaim his death until he comes.  But then Spirituals also sound the note of the ecology of community, the reminder that the only way we live in this world is together.  The only way we make sense, make meaning in this world is as a body together.  And we do it singing, as spirituals sound the note of the practice of singing as a homiletical strategy.  We are a community that proclaims, and sings our faith with confidence and joy.  Luther said Music is the handmaiden of theology.  We sing our way across the borders.

Which is part of what David Lose said, the final speaker of the day.  “Proclaiming Truth in an Alt-Fact World” that was his title.  And he starts by admitting, he didn’t know how to do that.  Shortest lecture of the week.  Actually no.  He raised some questions, gave some pointers and said that we all are sorting our way through this crazy world.  But the point that resonated the most with me was when he pointed out that in this current climate, studies have actually proved that facts presented rationally are the least effective means of changing minds.  We have learned, Lose presented, to seek out information that affirms our opinions and biases.  We don’t seek information to learn or to change, but to be agreed with.  And facts that contradict our opinions are at best ignored and at worst slammed as fake news.  So, if facts don’t work, what does work?  Well, what works better is story. Or what we in our tradition call witness. We tell it from a personal perspective. 

What’s your story?  Where are your borders?  

Shalom,
Derek

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd some more

Day Three: Pharisees and Sleepers


Woke up to rain.  Rain in San Antonio.  Isn’t it supposed to be dry as a desert?  No, apparently not.  It rains in San Antonio in May.  And I didn’t bring an umbrella.  Or rain coat.  Or poncho, or goofy hat.  So, I could either wait it out and miss the opening worship and lecture, or get wet.  It was Brian McLaren preaching and then lecturing.  Brian McLaren has written more about how the church needs to change in the current century, about the revival of evangelism that makes a difference in the lives of those we seek to invite into the body of Christ, about a faith that honors those who are different the way Christ honored those who are different, about worship that is vital and preaching that matters. Brian McLaren was preaching and teaching.  I got wet.
The opening worship was titled “A Service for Organizing Spirituality” and the sermon was “Why People Hate Organized Religion.”  He began with a blessing, no, an absolution.  It’s not your fault, he told us clergy as we sat in that theatre and listened to his litany of what has happened to the church we love and serve.  He took a passage from Luke, chapter 11 verses 37 through 44.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees what has gone wrong with their thinking.  But when McLaren read it, he took out the word Pharisee and substituted Leader of Organized Religion.  “You leaders of organized religion clean the outside of the cup, but inside you are greed and wickedness.  Woe to you leaders of organized religion, you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds but you neglect justice and the love of God....”  Whew, hard to hear.  But it is bigger than any of us.  Bigger than all of us.

Why do people hate organized religion?  Maybe, McLaren argued, it is not that we shouldn’t be organized, but it is that we are organized around the wrong things.  Wrong things?  We are obsessed with trivialities, arguing over sanctuary furniture or instrumentation or service times, and not the things that really matter.  We are driven by greed and by money, bowing to the will of those who give the most who seem to believe they should determine what the programs, the mission of the church ought to be.  We are obsessed with popularity, with numbers and ratings, desperate to be liked.  Jesus compared this way of thinking with a graveyard.  We might look good on the surface, but there death underneath.

The solution, however, is not for organized religion to become unorganized, but to organize for different things. What are those things?  The things Jesus calls for, justice and the love of God.  But then the question arises: How will we do this?  McLaren says that will only become clear when we decide to do something.

A powerful ending to the sermon, which was luckily followed up by a lecture on just this issue.  He began with a poem by Mary Oliver titled “When you finally did what you had to do.”  The lecture was essentially a “just do it” message.  It’s about deciding that there is more to do than maintaining the institution.  But also recognizing that institutions serve a purpose and are necessary for the community.  But they can’t become ends in themselves.  Which is why movements help keep institutions honest.  Keep them on mission.

Part of that mission is what Bishop Yvette Flunder called Radical Inclusivity.  Asking us if we are really ready to see all of God’s children as worthy of inclusion or not.  Asking how we can undo the tools of shame and fear, that celebrates diversity not just puts up with it.  But, she also warns, it is hard work.  Worth it, but hard.  Being the church we are called to be is always hard work.

And it begins, says Father Michael Renninger, by paying attention.  His sermon was titled Awakened Savior, Awakening Church, from the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat during the storm.  Don’t you care, they asked him, when they found him sleeping.  Well, says Fr. Renninger, the Lord is asking us that same question now.  When there are so many storms in our world and we are seemingly sleeping in the boat.  Don’t we care that so many are abused, neglected, refugees and trafficked?  We may not be able to still every storm, Fr. Renninger, but we certainly need to pay attention to something.

A good day.  A heavy day.  But also one that offers hope.  A wake up call to the church.  To each of us in the church.  Each of us as the church.  But nothing will change by each of us.  It will take all of us.  

Together.

Shalom,
Derek

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd

Day Two: Whole Hearts, Fake News & Thresholds

The first full day at the Festival began under a cloud.  Well, there was the fact that I somehow slept through my alarm and had to rush more than I intended.  But I really meant that the skies were overcast, leaden clouds hinted of rain, or maybe just a humidity you could feel in every pore.  But I made my way to the Scottish Rite Theatre for worship with my distant relative from Denver.  Well, actually, I’m pretty sure we aren’t related, though her name is Nadia Boltz-Weber.  She is the pastor of the Church of All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran Church in downtown Denver that is made up of people who never found a home in the respectable churches in town.  Boltz-Weber is a former stand up comedian who became a Lutheran pastor and founded a church because she never really found a home in the respectable churches in town either.  Tattooed and pierced she often sets people on edge.  But her theology is compelling and Christ centered in a powerful way.  Boltz-Weber said in her lecture later in the day that she is always a pastoral preacher, she holds no designs on being a prophet.  She wants the Word to matter to the people, to her people, people on the edge, people wounded and wounding.  But that’s later, this morning she is preaching.

She decided to bring us an Ash Wednesday text.  Joel - “return to God with all your hearts.”  Even the crappy parts of our hearts, she suggests.  Even the parts we’d rather not acknowledge, the parts we ignore, pretend aren’t there, that embarrass us.  Those parts too.  Return them to God.  But not, she tells us, because it is some kind of test for us, to see if we are strong enough or holy enough.  No, it’s because God can handle it.  Our hearts are safe in God’s hands.  God will receive our heart and bless it and heal it.  Even the part of our hearts we’ve given to those who hurt us the most.  The parts we won’t name.  The parts that are cold and dark, like a root cellar.  The hearts that were broken by a heartless world.  Or the parts we’ve given to a shepherd shaped wolf.  Because, the good news is we have a God who never tires of forgiving.

Which might be a useful skill for all of us to learn, at least according to Dr Alyce McKenzie, who teaches at my alma mater, Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas.  Dr. McKenzie came to speak on “Finding a Way in the Wilderness: Biblical Wisdom’s Good News in a Culture of Fake News.”  McKenzie has long been fascinated by preaching from the Wisdom literature of the Bible.  Do we live, as some propose, in a Post-truth era?  Truth seems to matter less and less all the time.  We live by opinions and biases.  What we look for is not information in order to learn, but that which will confirm our opinions.  We don’t want to understand, we want to be proved right, even if we have to make things up - fake news - to do it.

McKenzie says the antidote is an emphasis on Wisdom.  Biblical Wisdom contrasts Fake News in that Wisdom is about shalom and fake news is about chaos.  Wisdom wants to guide us through life, to the good life, Fake News just wants to upset, throw out the “experts” and drain the swamp.  Wisdom is collaborative and Fake News is conflictual. Fake news presents us the fool that Proverbs speaks of, in contrast with the wise person, who is characterized by living in the fear of the Lord (humility), compassion for others, impulse control and the courage to speak up.

The analysis of the current age continued with a presentation from Dr. Jennifer Lord, who teaches at Austin Presbyterian Seminary.  Her presentation was titled “Way In and a Way Out: Preaching and Liminality in a Culture of Change.  Liminality is the stage of change from one thing to another, usually used to define ritual change like rites of passage.  Lord spoke of her own childhood as she moved from Brownies to Girl Scouts, and Bluebirds to Camp Fire Girls.  Yes, she said, she was both.  And she remembers most vividly the ritual of transfer from Bluebird to Camp Fire girl.  The night of the ritual, they had constructed a little bridge for the cross over.  The appropriate time she and the other bluebirds walked across and became camp fire girls.  She said that bridge was her liminal space.  Moving from separation - through liminal space - to incorporation into something new.  

But, Lord asks, what if she stopped in the middle of that bridge and didn’t keep moving forward?  She would have been neither, or some of both, or ...?  Her thesis is that is where we are in our culture today.  A constant state of liminality.  Moving from one to the other, except no one knows where we are going, and we are losing track of where we have been.  Delayed adolescence, others call it.  The surge of the gaming culture, all kinds of gaming - gambling, electronic games - merges with the event culture to live in a constant state of non-reality.  I know I’m not doing her lecture justice, but here’s the mic drop issue.  The Christian life is a constant state of liminality.  We are always becoming.  But will likely never reach our goal in this life.  

You thought that the preacher was to rage against this not here or there kind of world in which we live.  I know I did.  But instead, Lord suggests that we claim it.  Live into it, embrace it, proclaim it as essential to the Christian life.  But, and this is important, the Christian liminality is different from the world’s liminality.  In many ways, but the most crucial is this, we know where we are going.  We know who we are want to become.  We are to be like Christ.  Unlike the world that embraces the unknown and unknowable, the Christian faith is crossing the bridge with every step.  

There is more.  There was more, but my brain is full and I don’t want to tax yours.  So, I’ll let these three carry the meaning of the day.  Time to rest for another day.  Oh, I also managed to explore a little bit and will post some photos of the Riverwalk and other interesting San Antonio sites.  As soon as I can figure out how to get them off my phone.  I mean they are there but not yet here, kind of in transition, crossing over, at least I hope.  If you see what I mean.  

I need some sleep.

Shalom,
Derek