Saturday, May 25, 2019

Joined and Knit Together

Thirty nine years.  Or sixty-four percent of my life.  That’s a majority.  That takes the vote, determines the passage of the bill into law, that’s ... well ... a lot. It was my anniversary this weekend.  Well, our anniversary.  It’s hard to have a wedding anniversary by yourself, I suppose.  She was there.  Thirty nine years ago today.  A Saturday morning in South Bend, Indiana.  In a beautiful sanctuary, with dark, carved  wood, a huge stained glass window, and baptismal font that was supposed to be almost a thousand years old.  We stood before the altar and my dad walked us through the vows we made, the promises that would change everything in ways of which we only had a glimmer.  A hint at best at what our lives would be from that moment on.  

Like the hundreds, or thousands who stood at that font, or where held over the water and had hands laid on them, wet, dripping hands, and words intoned, the Trinitarian formula, the words of blessing and cleansing and renewal, words of claiming and promise.  And the suspicion that life would be different from then on.  Only a suspicion, mind you, a hint, a glimmer of what was to come, how life was to unfold. But what was certain was that nothing would be the same from that moment on.  That water washed moment.  That promises made moment.  

Because lives were intertwined in that moment.  Hearts were joined.  Responsibilities shared.  I can no longer think only of me.  She could no longer look only to her own horizon.  Two became one, not so that something is lost, but so that all that was is woven into what will be.  All of me was wrapped into us.  All of me.  She accepted the less than perfect parts as well.  Most of which she didn’t even know yet.  Much of which I didn’t even know, until confronted with life that stretched me and twisted me and turned me inside out.  And then we would see how I would fare.  Sometimes well, sometimes not so well.  But she took that, and wove it into her life.  Even as I did that same.  Thirty nine years ago.

Or a thousand years ago.  Two thousand years ago.  Lives have been woven together by words and promises.  The body has been shaped, formed, and has stood strong or not so strong at times.  That ancient font has stories to tell, your story and mine too.  Stories of the body of Christ, woven together and made into something more than what any of us would be on our own.  And not just the strength of numbers, though that is a part of it.  No, there is something more, something mysterious and profound.  A Spirit that binds us, connects us, strengthens us.  A Spirit and a Presence that is within our grasp and beyond our vision.  We are more fully ourselves when we lose ourselves in that body.  We are victorious when we surrender to the other.  To the Other.  To the Spirit and to the community of faith.  

On our journey of faith, our discipleship path, as the disciple’s heart is being placed within us, we begin to recognize that we need companions on the way.  We need those who will come along beside and shore us up and allow us to guide and strengthen and shape.  We are in this together.  That’s where we are in the series called “A Disciple’s Heart.”  The recognition of the need for the community of faith.

Ephesians 4:1-16 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." 9 (When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

One.  How many ones did you count?  Paul falls all over himself with the one refrain.  One, one, one.  We are one.  He sings that song – we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and on and on until we all go crazy.  But the point is made.  Unity is a sign, says Paul, a sign of the body of Christ, a sign of the Presence of the Spirit.  It is an essential element in the process of sanctification, of making of disciples.  But why?  We live in a world that is all about the individual.  About self-actualization.  About the lone hero prevailing against impossible odds.  That’s what we hear every day, hundred times a day.  It’s all about me.

Which is precisely why we need a community.  We aren’t made to be rugged individualists.  We aren’t designed to forge our way alone.  We are made to be connected to others.  To partners and friends, lovers and confidants.  “It is not good,” says the Lord, the Creator God at the beginning of everything that is, “for the human being to be alone.”  It is part of the design that we walk together.  

Together.  And yet uniquely ourselves.  See this togetherness isn’t sameness.  Unity isn’t about uniformity. We each have our gifts, we each have our calling, our part to play in the larger whole.  Some commentators have argued that Paul’s list here in this passage is about offices, about what it takes to have a church, a community of faith.  Maybe, but I’m not so sure.  I think these are roles, these are gifts that are shared with the community as a whole, and the wider world.  Like each of the lists that Paul makes in his letters, this is a sample of the variety of gifts and abilities and inclinations that the members have.  And the purpose of each of the gifts is the same: to equip the saints.  To build up the body.  To help us all grow up to maturity. 

Paul isn’t really contradicting Jesus when he tells us to not be like children.  It kinda sounds like it, but Paul is emphasizing a different aspect of childishness.  Jesus says be like children, trusting.  Paul says don’t be like children, gullible.  Admittedly it’s an fine line.  And it begins with speaking the truth in love.  Being true to one another, to living in community, accountable to the promises and the hope that is within us.  That’s why we need each other, to practice loving in an atmosphere of forgiving grace.  We can risk loving like Christ within the body, because everyone is on the same journey, everyone has the same goal and hope. 

So, how do we do it?  How do we take the risk of loving one another?  How do we survive the ebbs and flows of life and heart and soul?  Well, Paul has a suggestion for that too.  In fact he leads with it.  “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  That’s the goal, that’s the hope, that’s the race that we run.  But here’s the methodology: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the key, he says.  That’s the plan.  With humility – how we hold ourselves with honesty and clarity; and gentleness – how we hold one another, the “golden rule in action, treating others with the same caring honesty with which we want to be treated.  And with patience.  With patience.  He says it twice just be sure we’ve got it.  Because we live in time, and we wait for the Lord, and we wait for completion, for maturity, and so we wait for one another with forgiveness and grace and hope and love.  For thirty nine years.  Or more.  Thank you, La Donna Riddle Weber for your grace and patience over the last 39 years.  Who knows what might be next?


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Festival of Homiletics, 2019 Minneapolis Day Four: Climbing Trees and Going Home

Day four of the Festival is the last full day.  Friday morning we’ll hear from the Rev Dr. Amy Butler, the Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and then we’ll go back home and attempt to put into practice some of the things we learned, attempt to share some of the inspiration in our preaching in our own congregations, attempt to hold on to the grace we have tasted in this place.

But that’s tomorrow.  Today we spent some time with some familiar characters and learned we hardly knew them at all.  The morning began at Westminster again, as we heard Dr. Matt Skinner present a sermon titled “Don’t Give Me That Old Time Civil Religion.”  We revisited Philippi with Paul and Silas.  And all seemed well until the slave girl with the spirit of prophecy outed them as emissaries of the God of salvation.  Paul healed her because she annoyed him and ended up in jail because he messed with a source of income.  And that was just the problem with the story, even the girl was just a commodity.  And that maybe our call is to move beyond the winners and losers mentality that allows us to keep score.  Especially in our polarized culture we devolve into shouting matches and muscle flexing that accomplishes nothing except widens the gaps.  Maybe we need a different approach.

Maybe we need to climb trees.  At least that is the advice of Dr. Anna Carter Florence, Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta.  Her sermon was based on the familiar story of Zaccheus.  Aware of all the usual interpretations, Florence Carter instead invited us to step into the head of Zaccheus for just a moment.  Imagine, she asked us, wanting to see Jesus so much that you would risk the humiliation, the risk to life and limb, you would think creatively enough to actually think of climbing a tree just to catch a glimpse.  Maybe our problem is we think Jesus is so available, we’ve forgotten to desire a glimpse, forgotten to live our lives trying to catch sight of Him.  Maybe we’ve forgotten we’re looking, or maybe we’ve stopped looking.  Maybe it’s time to climb a tree.

The next hour Dr. Carter Florence introduced us to a work in progress.  Her next book will be a dictionary of sorts.  As a teacher of preaching, she decided to write a book that presented characters and places and words from the Bible while she looked for the preacher in the story.  Or the Word that spoke.  So, she presented various letters, like C, which was Caleb and told the story of the one spy who believed in the promised land.  Or L which was Lukewarm, like Laodicea the town that couldn’t get a good water supply; the cold wasn’t cold and the hot wasn’t hot and both were calcified in the pipes.  So when John the Evangelist put the word Lukewarm in the mouth of the Lamb of God, it made all of them sick to their stomach.  Q which was Quirinius, governor of Syria when Jesus was born, and U is for Ur the town were Abraham was from, but never really lived in.  We all need a place to be from, she argued.  It is and will be a reminder of the power of that Book, the more you listen and the deeper you go.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel had the hardest job all week.  She was a last minute addition to the program to take the place of Rachel Held Evans, the progressive blogger and writer whose writings challenged the complacency and patriarch of the church.  Rachel, or RHE as she was known by those who learned from her and loved her, was taken to the hospital a few weeks ago with an infection that moved to her brain.  The next thing you knew, the brain seizures were so severe she was placed in a medically induced coma while they sought the medications that would cure her.  Except they couldn’t.  And at 37 years old this mother of two, died to the shock and horror of many.

Lillian Daniel agreed to speak in her time slot because she was a friend of Rachel, and she said, “we have a hope that is not seen.”  With all that in background, Daniel spoke of the need for and the danger of the personal in preaching.  The very act of preaching is self-revelation of the deepest sort.  But it is also possible that the vulnerability of the preacher can block the presence of the gospel.  So, it is a line we walk each and every time we climb up into the pulpit.  Something I’ve been trying to talk with my students about for years.

We then ended this last full day with a poetry reading by Natasha Trethewey, the US Poet Laureate from 2012-2014.  Trethewey writes powerfully and passionately about the vulnerabilities of life, her life and through her the life of our nation.  She is of mixed race, born in the sixties in Mississippi when we were still trying to find our identity as a nation with civil rights.  After her white father divorced her black mother, her mother remarried, to a black man who had anger issues and after divorcing him he came back and murdered Natasha’s mother.  The grief and the guilt and the anger are work together to create breath-taking art.  Each poem is a heart wrenching exercise in the search for hope in the midst of despair.  In other words, preachers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the place of the personal in their presentation.

A beautifully heavy end to the week, though we still await a word from Dr. Amy Butler.  But soon we’ll all return home.  And I for one will be looking for a tree to climb to claim a new perspective on my life and the gospel and the life of the church and the world.   I am grateful to those who fed me, challenged me, encouraged me and troubled me this week at the Festival of Homiletics.  And I am also grateful for those who come to listen as we go out on a limb to catch a glimpse of our savior.  Come and climb with me.  You can see for miles.

Derek C. Weber

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Festival of Homiletics, 2019 Minneapolis Day Three: Abduction Method and The Great Chasm

As I posted yesterday’s reflections online, the heavens opened up.  No, it wasn’t a revelation from God or an announcement of divine approval of my writing.  It was a Minnesota thunderstorm.  It rolled through between one and two a.m. this morning and drenched the city in a short period of time.  But, at least the storm had the good sense to come when most were sleeping and save the 1,600 preachers wandering the streets of Minneapolis from a soaking.  Who says that many proclaimers of the Word don’t have a little divine favor?  Or maybe it’s good luck.  Either way, most of those I asked during the day if they heard the storm said no.  They, at least, were sleeping.  And so as not to be up too late again, let me get to a reflection of Day Three of the Festival of Homiletics.

We began again with worship.  I decided to head to the second venue, Westminster Presbyterian Church, for early worship with the Right Rev. Rob Wright, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta.  Bishop Wright asked us to engage in “Reimagining Leadership” and took as his text the story of James and John and their mom asking for special places of honor at Jesus side in the Kingdom.  Jesus took that occasion to talk to us about what it means to lead in the Christian Context.  “It shall not be so with you,” He said.  The “lording over” or the “tyrant” leadership.  No, ours is about service, about giving life away.  A different approach.  One of sacrifice.  But can we cast a vision, through preaching, that counters a world of lording?  That’s the question.

One minor quibble with the good bishop’s message.  As he concluded and was moving into praise, he quoted from an “old Anglican who wrote “O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great Redeemers praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumph of His grace.”  Except that old Anglican was Charles Wesley, part of the founding duo of the Methodist movement.  Old Anglican indeed.  Technically correct, but oh so wrong!

After our break we reconvened in the sanctuary for a sermon and then a lecture by the Rev. Brian McLaren. McLaren has been a provocateur for years, challenging the way we do church, the way we do faith communities, asking us is it time to rethink everything about who and what we are.  It is my personal belief that the past few years and now months in our denomination at least are proving him to be not merely a provocateur, but a prophet.  

His sermon was titled “Scaring the Hell Out of Rich People.”  And he walked us through five parables that we’ve usually taken individually, but argued that they are a case that Jesus was building to help people, his audience at the time - pharisees, rich people - to understand a fundamental truth about life, namely that you can’t serve God and wealth at the same time.  We’ve convinced ourselves that you can, and we’re destroying ourselves because of it.

So, how do we begin to think differently.  From sermon we turned to lecture and McLaren suggested that in order to begin to think differently we need a shock, a new reality.  As a teacher of preaching I know about the inductive and deductive methods of constructing sermons, or of teaching.  McLaren suggests there is a third, which he called the Abductive.  We need to see the world differently.  And in order to do that we have to be taken out of the world as it is, so that when we return everything looks different.  For example, he argued, we receive a cancer diagnosis, we are abducted into a new reality and suddenly what seemed so important before no longer does so.  Everything has changed.  We preach to abduct the hearer into a new way of seeing the world.  Which is exactly what Jesus was doing.  He wanted us to see truth so that we could live truth rather than persisting in the lie.  

But we are slow learners.  Because there is too wide a gulf between truth and the lie.  Dr. Frank Thomas, Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis was our next preacher.  He preached on the “Great Chasm” in Jesus parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Thomas challenged us to bridge the gaps that exist in our society, seemingly insurmountable.  But that Jesus parable was less about the afterlife and more about this life and how we cross the chasms between rich and poor, left and right, urban and rural, and on and on and on.  

Then back at Central Lutheran, Dr. David Lose, former professor, now pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, asks “Why Preach?”  In a world of so many words, spoken and written and tweeted and posted, we are drowning in words, why add to it with sermons that fewer and fewer want to hear anyway?  He admitted he wasn’t about to suggest we stop, but wanted to ground his encouragement in scripture.  Taking a look at Luke’s Gospel, Lose suggests that like Luke our message is ultimately to Theophilus.  Luke is the only Gospel that begins with a subscription.  He writes to “Most Excellent Theophilus.”  There are many guesses as to the identity of this person.  Including the suspicion that it might not be a single person at all.  Theophilus translates as Lover of God.  So, this might be, Lose suggests, Luke’s church.  The people he knows who love God.  On the other hand, Theophilus could also be translated as the Beloved of God.  In which case Luke and we are announcing to the world that they are loved.  A message worthy of continued proclamation.

After our dinner break we gathered back at Central Lutheran for a Jazz/Gospel worship, where Sarah Renner and her gathered musicians sang Marvin Gaye and Andre Crouch and Aretha Franklin and gave us a taste of the heavenly choir.  And Rev. William H. Lamar, Senior Pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington DC welcomed us to Central Lutheran Holiness Church and encouraged us to let Jesus ride on and then join the parade.  It was an invitation hard to resist.

One more day and a half to go.  And by the way, more rain is predicted.  But not until the preachers leave town.  Another blessing of the Spirit?  Or simply coincidence?  You decide.  Ride on King Jesus!

Derek C. Weber

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Festival of Homiletics, 2019 Minneapolis Day Two: Winds of Change and God's Favorite Preposition

The wind was blowing today.  Not outside.  It was a sunny and comfortable day way up here in the north.  They’ve had below average temps for a month now, but when the preachers arrive it warms up.  No comment about the collective hot air please.  I’ll do the jokes.

No, the wind that was blowing today wasn’t a physical breeze, but a Spirit presence that lifted all of us higher.  Well, me anyway.  I have to begin this report by commenting not on the preaching (I’ll get to that, don’t panic), but the worship.  It began last night, but continued all day today, a profound experience of worship that simply overwhelmed me.  Maybe it was because I didn’t have to plan it and choose the words myself.  Maybe it was because this is a kind of worship we don’t do at Southport and it fed a hunger in me that I’d forgotten I’d had.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that I spent significant portions of the services with tears in my eyes as I sang or listened when I couldn’t sing as the people of God called for justice in a broken world, called for light in a dark time, called for hope in a time of despair.  And then the day ended with a concert that felt like worship from Peter Mayer, who is a guitarist with Jimmy Buffet (and no, he didn’t bring Jimmy along) but he did bring his son Brendan and a violinist and cellist and some original music that I knew and some that was new and few tunes from his time with Jimmy and a couple of Beatles hits just for spice.  He finished the evening by moving them all from the chancel in the huge sanctuary down to the middle aisle (including the cellist and her chair) and sang his song “God is Loose in the World” mixed with “All You Need is Love” that had all us aging baby boomers singing along. 

But that’s the end of the day, let me go back to the beginning.  It was a beautiful day, as I said, and we gathered for worship this morning to hear our preacher the late Rev. William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor-People’s Campaign.  No, he isn’t dead, he was late.  Got stuck in traffic or something, so we sang some extra songs, did the worship out of sequence and finally he arrived.  And climbed into the pulpit and preached, just like that.  Like he hadn’t been delayed, like he hadn’t been frustrated, like he hadn’t been limited.  Like he was filled with the Spirit and came to share it.  Barber is an icon in civil rights preaching, his resume is awe-inspiring.  But he preaches to set all people free.  He called for a Moral Pentecost, to let the wind of the Spirit blow through our nation again and right the wrongs.  He knew his facts, the color-blindness of poverty and the spread of greed, the systemic divisiveness of racism the scapegoat-ing of immigrants and above all the emptiness of words when unaccompanied by actions.  Let the wind of Pentecost blow proclaimed Barber, and then, reading from Acts 2, told us preachers it is time to get out of the upper room and out into the streets.

He was followed on the chancel by the return of Dr. James Forbes, who continued his message from the first night and also managed to sneak in a homily about Jonah, telling us that when we find ourselves in a fish, it just might be a God thing and we should give thanks and then listen to the new direction. 

Listening to God was also a theme from Otis Moss III, Pastor, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.  He brought an Easter message declaring that “It’s Too Early.”  All the stories of the Easter event declare that it was very early in the morning that the women went to the tomb, but that the rest of the disciples didn’t believe them.  His conclusion is that we often quit when it is too early.  God is still at work, give it some time, be persistent, keep working, keep proclaiming.  Don’t give up on the church, it’s too early.

After lunch I went to the other venue, Westminster Presbyterian Church.  Worship began that afternoon with the Fleshpots of Egypt.  No, not a pagan ritual, but a bluegrass music group singing gospel hymns.  Our preacher was the Rev. Anthony Bailey, Lead Minister, Parkdale United Church of Canada in Ottawa.  Bailey invited us to risk upsetting the status quo by provoking in love those with whom we disagree or differ.  His sermon was titled “Imagine That: Provoking Diverse Communities.”  But the chief revelation was Bailey’s conviction that God has a favorite preposition.  If you look, he told us, at the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, the word right in the center of that psalm is “with.”  How often does God say with?  It’s even in one of the names we use for God - Emmanuel, which is “God with us.”  God demands, no God encourages, or even better God is a community, one in three and three in one, and the model for Christian life is with, a life with.  

He was followed by a United Methodist, at last.  Retired Bishop William Willimon, always an entertaining but provocative speaker.  His lecture was on “The Comedic Moral Imagination of the Pastor.”  Comedic?  Well, yes, argued Willimon.  If you follow Jesus, or proclaim Jesus, you’re going to sound funny to the rest of this broken world.  Our challenge is to laugh at ourselves, even while we take Jesus seriously.  As outrageous as He was.  For example, Willimon told us about a sermon he preached on forgiveness, 70 times 7, outrageous forgiveness.  After the sermon, Willimon  was approached by a woman who said, “do you mean to tell me that Jesus wants me to forgive my abusive husband who I finally got the nerve to leave after a decade of being physically and emotionally degraded by him?”  Like all us preachers, Willimon when confronted by that wanted to say “hey, I was only preaching, I didn’t mean anything!”  He hemmed and hawed around for a while, only to be forced back to the text and to stutter out, well, it kinda sounds that way.  To which the woman replied, “Right.  I was just checking.”

We shouldn’t try and protect people from Jesus, he declared from that encounter.  But let Jesus do what He does and tell the truth.  Amen Bishop.  By the way, as Willimon began his lecture, he referenced the called General Conference and simply said, “hey, Episcopalians!  Don’t say we never did anything for you!”  

Today I heard for the wind of the Spirit to blow, the church can’t stay as it has been, but that God isn’t done with it yet.  May it be so.

Derek C. Weber

Monday, May 13, 2019

Festival of Homiletics 2019 Minneapolis Day One: Persistence and Dream Teams

I’m back at the Festival.  That crazy circus of preachers and preaching that I love so much.  A week long total immersion into the living waters of proclamation.  Or something like that.  It is actually hard to describe even to preachers, let alone to the average lay person in the pew who hopes each week the preacher doesn’t go too long!  

Normally I come for inspiration and for a time to reflect on the art and craft of preaching.  This year there is that.  But also a new dimension as I am on the threshold of a new calling as the Director of Preaching Ministries.  I have been telling folks that my responsibilities will include equipping and inspiring preachers across the denomination and beyond. Certainly, being a part of the Festival will continue to be important.

This year we’re in Minneapolis, the venue where I first attended the Festival almost 20 years ago.  The theme is “Preaching as Moral Imagination” which has more layers of meaning than I can even begin to describe.  But we got a good start at tonight’s opening sessions.

We began with worship at Central Lutheran Church, one of the very few venues that can host the approximately 1,600 preachers from all over the world.  I walked into the magnificent sanctuary while the organ was playing powerful pre-service music.  It was barely heard, however, over the buzz of preachers trying to be heard by their colleagues known and unknown.  Eventually we did settle down and after some welcomes from the host pastor and the conference organizers, worship began. 

We sang “Christ Is Alive” (from the cranberry Lutheran Hymnal - Not red, but cranberry) and in that space, with all those voices, no one could doubt that Christ was alive.  Alive among us, Alive within us.  And we were alive, more alive because of it.  The music was led by a team of White Minnesota Lutherans who could sing the blues and gospel and African rhythms with passion and power.  My favorite was Bambelela, a Zulu word that translates as Never Give Up.  And those were the lyrics!  But we sang, and we promised, never give up.

This was sung in response to the sermon.  Our preacher was the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lunblad, who is the “Joe R. Engle Professor Emerita of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  I’m not sure what emerita means in this case; she’s still teaching, but maybe not as much?  Or she simply has more authority than she used to?  Better pay attention!  And we did.  Her sermon title was “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” signaling to us all that politics was going to be a part of the proceedings.  But never once did she mention to origin of the quote, perhaps assuming we all knew.  Instead she talked about the persistence of the widow in her pleading for justice from the unjust judge.  Barbara led us to listen to the text again, and pay more attention to what Jesus says than how Luke frames it.  Luke 18:1-8 is the passage and in verse one, Luke tells us this is a parable about prayer.  Indeed it is, we can agree, and to keep praying.  But Jesus seems to imply there is something more, that perhaps this is a parable about justice.  In the short parable Jesus uses the word justice four times.  He doesn’t say prayer at all, though He does encourage us to cry out for justice to the Lord.  But then at the end, Jesus gives us the moral.  The moral?  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  So, is Jesus saying the parable is about faith?  

And of course the answer is yes.  Yes, this is a parable about prayer.  Yes, this is a parable about justice.  Yes, this is a parable about faith.  Lunblad said if we forget prayer we think change is all up to us and our efforts alone.  If we forget justice, then our prayers are empty words in violent and tragic circumstances.  And if we forget faith, then we’re likely to give up when justice is slow in coming.  They weave together these three.  All are needed.  Nevertheless, we should all persist.

After the sacrament of holy communion and much more powerful singing (including the Canticle of the Turning, one of my favorite Celtic music hymns) we turned the evening over to the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who is Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City.  An evening of emeritus, it seemed.  Forbes was there to lecture to us ... No, he was there to recruit us for God’s Dream Team.  After a sweet tribute to his wife of 55 years, where he (like me) admitted to marrying an older woman (she was born in March and he was born in September - he’s only 83 and she’s 84.  He said he had to yes ma’am her for a few more months), he then gently began presenting his invitation.

He reminded us of the decision of the US Olympic Committee in 1992 to move from an all college level basketball team to a roster of NBA All Stars to represent the state of the game in our country.  Forbes said God told him there were 1,600 preachers who needed to be signed up for the team.  For God’s Dream team.  He began the appeal by talking about how some have been asking whether these were the last days, with all that’s going on in our nation and world, are we about to come to an end?  When we think of the last days, we often turn to the trouble, all the brokenness that surrounds us, the despair and violence.  And that is a description of the last days.  But there is another description.  It comes in the Acts of the Apostles, on the day of Pentecost, when Peter stands us to declare that God promised in the last days God will pour out the Spirit all flesh, men and women, youth and aged, free and slaves.  And Forbes says, we need that Spirit.  We need those proclaimers.  We need a new dream team.

I’m in.  How about you?

Derek C. Weber

Saturday, May 11, 2019

While We Were Still Weak

It’s Mother’s Day this weekend.  The secular holy day that causes most pastors to quake in their preaching boots.  Not that we’re afraid of mothers, that’s not what I mean. But that honoring them can be difficult.  It’s really one of those no win situations.  If you go all out and celebrate mothers with flowers and songs and special presentations then there are those who have struggled to be a mother who feel left out, or those who had a bad experience with mothers are reminded of their pain. Or those like me who have lost their mothers now find it a time of sadness. On the other hand, if you give it a miss, or only slight attention, then there are many who feel like you aren’t properly respectful of the ones who nurtured your life, and won’t hesitate to let you know.  Like I said, you can’t win.

Some argue I’m making too much of it.  Just tell those who struggle that we’re not trying to make them feel bad, or feel left out.  Just go with us for now.  Just pretend you don’t really hurt, you aren’t really struggling.  It’s just one day.  Most people, you understand, loved their mothers and would feel bad not giving them honor.

That seems the usual approach.  The one that makes the majority happy.  It’s just a few who are put out by this.  Just a few who’s experience isn’t the norm.  Just a few who are too broken, too wounded to share the joy of the day.  Just a few.  The very few whom Jesus came to save.

We’re in the midst of our series titled “A Disciple’s Heart,” and it is my good fortune to present to the congregation a conversation about salvation.  Salvation is one of those words we use a lot within the faith.  But I sometimes wonder if we really grasp what it means.  Or all that it means.  We talk of salvation as if it were a moment.  I was saved on ... That may be partially true.  But salvation is a journey.  I may have a clear beginning, but it is a process, it is a way in which we walk.  James Harnish, who wrote the text we are using for our Disciple’s Heart study, says salvation has a past and a present and a future.  There is a what we were before, there is a what we are now and there is a what we will be.  All because of salvation which is at work within us.

Paul says this about salvation in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 5:6-17 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned – 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Well, that clears that up.  Right?  OK, there are commentators who call these verses the most theologically dense passage in the whole Bible.  I’m not going pass judgment on that statement, except to acknowledge that there is a lot going on in these eleven verses.  More than I can deal with in this space or in a sermon this weekend.  So, let’s see if we can get some glimpse of something that’s in here.  

Paul falls all over himself telling us about the free gift.  The gift of grace that makes salvation possible.  That makes hope possible.  And it came to us through one man, Jesus the Christ.  Paul uses the figure of Adam (which in Hebrew translates as human being) to introduce the before reality, so that he can then turn to Jesus to represent the present and the future reality.  

Before we were sinners.  Before we were without hope.  Before ... There is always a before, whether we can remember it or not.  There was always a time before we claimed faith for ourselves.  When we lived by our own will and our own understanding.  While we were still sinners, Paul says.  While we were still weak. Let’s be clear, he isn’t implying that everything anyone does is a bad thing.  It is possible to do good things without Jesus, without faith.  People do it all the time.  It isn’t about good and bad, unfortunately.  That would be so much easier.  

One way to think about it would be to realize that there aren’t two kingdoms - the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.  That’s normally how we understand the shift from one reality to another.  The problem with this duality is that we then see the world around us, the world that God so loved, as a bad place that we want to get out of.  So instead let’s think of three kingdoms.  The first that Paul describes is the kingdom of sin, or of death.  It is life without God, life without hope, without the ability to see beyond our own experience into something greater, something all encompassing, something like love.  

Now, however, there is something else, something more.  Now there is the kingdom of grace.  The present reality of those being saved is the kingdom of grace.  Sin still happens, mistakes are still made, brokenness is still an all too frequent part of our reality.  But this sinfulness has been forgiven.  We aren’t former sinners in the kingdom of grace, we are forgiven sinners.  We are the redeemed.  Reconciled, says Paul, brought back into right relationship with God.  Still in this world, but learning to lean into all that God has in store for us.  Learning to long for and live for the kingdom of glory.

This is the free gift that Christ has given us, a taste for glory.  Not our glory, not the transient glory of this life.  But the glory of the very presence of God always.  And grace allows us the space to learn to live in glory.  Grace gives us the encouragement to practice living in glory.  Paul says “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life...”  Exercise dominion in life.  We are called to practice our living in glory.  That is what we call the spiritual disciplines, the exercise of dominion in life.  We are trying to live as Christ invites us and equips us to live in glory.  Wesley, and others, called that sanctification.  We’re being made holy.  We are walking in the way of salvation.  Not complete, not resident in glory yet, but walking in the way.

But here’s the thing for Paul.  He’s not only excited about the free gift.  He’s excited about the giver.  And the lengths the giver will go to bring us this gift.  While we were still sinners.  While we were still weak.  That’s what makes it gift.  We don’t earn it.  We receive it.  God comes to us, in our brokenness, in our suffering, in our sinfulness and our shame and loves us into grace.  Which means what else should we do but stand with the hurting, support the broken, love the refugee and outcast.  Even on Mother’s Day.