Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Atticus Finch: Racism and Justice

Since Go Set a Watchman (whose title comes from Isaiah) was released there has been a lot of talk, and perhaps consternation, that it sets up Atticus Finch as a racist.  This shatters the sacredly held vision that people had of Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird leaving many people upset about what happened to the hero they believed Atticus to be.

Let me start by giving some caveats.  The first is that I love To Kill a Mockingbird.  The first gift that I ever gave to my wife when we started dating was a copy of that book because it came up on our first date that she had never read it.  I had a cat named Atticus and we now have a cat named Scout, so I have some background and love of the story.  Second is that I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman so can't speak from firsthand knowledge of the story. I am on vacation next week and that is one of the books I will read and maybe can provide some more perspective.

But all that being said, I don't understand what all the ruckus is about, except that some of it is because of what people brought to the story not what the story actually presented.  First is that the case of Jim Robinson was assigned to Atticus, he didn't take it on, and he actually has little to do with the black community throughout the story, thus we aren't really shown any convincing evidence that Atticus does not have negative feelings towards African Americans.  He also does nothing to challenge any of the perceptions that the community has about Tom as a black man, especially to the jury.

Second, I see no connection between someone being a potential racist as well as someone who wants to see justice carried out.  Let us not forget that John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston massacre.  That did not mean that Adams was for the British position, or against the patriot position, far from it.  But he did want to see justice carried out fairly.  That seemed to be Atticus' goal.  We could then argue whether there could actually be "justice" for a black man accused of attacking a white woman, but that is another much larger topic, and something Atticus does nothing to address.

So to me to hear that Atticus turns out to have the same prejudices of the society in which he was raised is not shocking, it's really what's to be expected.  Now it is shocking to Scout, or Jean Louise as she now going by her given name, but isn't that often the case?  Aren't we often shocked to hear what our parents or grandparents believed that seems so alien to us?  And isn't the fact that Atticus was able to raise Scout, and presumably Jem, although we don't know, without passing on the same prejudices a credit to Atticus?  This represents the generational shift we see on so many things, and the already there and not quite there that is so prevalent in society.

While both books portray very real aspects of the society and culture in which they were written, and still resonate today, let's not forget that these are fictional characters and we often bring more to them they are actually presented.  Since the books were not written to be of one piece it's also hard to necessaarily see them as a collective whole.  Perhaps Harper Lee was upset with her first version of Atticus and wanted him to be better, and so portrayed him so in Mockingbird.

Or perhaps, Atticus is simply a complex character, just as we all are, and as such seems to hold conflicting or contradictory thoughts together at the same time, and is not as good as his best actions and not as bad as his worst either.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

James: Patience, Suffering and Temptation

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 1:12-18 and 5:7-11:

When I met my wife Linda, she had a black lab, Vivian, and Vivi was really smart.  All you had to do was show her, or tell her, one time what you wanted her to do and normally she would pick it up right then.  That was a smart dog.  I’ve had some other smart dogs, but the dog we have now, Yogi, is not in that category.  And this isn’t just that he’s being ornery or stubborn, he’s just not that smart.  And to make it worse, he is part terrier and possibly some beagle, and so he likes to get his nose going and then just go.  So if given the chance, whether it’s the door being left open just a bit, or if he can find any way out of the backyard, he’s going to take the opportunity and take off and run as far and as fast as he can, until he’s picked up by the dog catcher and he ends up in doggy prison.
Now if Yogi was human, or perhaps if he was a little smarter, he might try and give some rationalization for what he was doing and why he ended up in trouble, because that’s what we try and do.  Perhaps he might try and blame the devil, with the proverbial “the devil made me do it” excuse.  No personal culpability.  Everyone else is responsible except for him, not even for giving in to the temptation.  Or he might even argue that the temptation was put there simply in order to try and bring him down because of who he is, and so not only is he not weak, it’s because he is so strong and so good that it even happened.  He is suffering unjustly.  Or he might even say, and we certainly hear this all the time, that it’s God who led him to this point, either to tempt him to see what he will do, or even worse in my opinion, is to say that God has led him to this, and not just led them to it, but actually pushed him through the door to run for all he is worth and to doggy prison, but that God will get him through it.  It’s that whole, “God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle” cliché.  But regardless of what excuse is used for temptation and suffering, they all take patience, and for me with Yogi it takes patience for me so that I don’t try and kill him.  But what James tells us today is that all of this is wrong, and the truth is we simply don’t understand what’s actually going on.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

James: The Royal Law

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 2:1-13:\

On January 11, 2007, Joshua Bell, who is world renowned and Grammy award winning violinist, performed to a sold out crowd in Boston’s Symphony Hall.  The lowest priced tickets started at $100 apiece.  But just two days later Bell performed a concert for free, but in an unexpected place.  In a situation arranged by the Washington Post as a social experiment, Bell stationed himself in the L’Enfant Metro Station in Washington, DC during the morning rush hour, and began playing one of Bach’s most difficult and stirring violin concertos.  Bell played for 45 minutes using the same violin he always plays, a Stradivarius, constructed in 1713 during the master’s golden period and valued at more than 3.5 million dollars.  Of the 1,097 people who passed by during his concert, 27 games him some money, but only 7 stopped to listen.  He ended his concert without any applause, collecting a grand total of $32.17 in tips, which included $20 from the one person who seemed to recognize who he actually was. 

So more than 1000 people witnessed one of the world’s greatest musicians playing one of the world’s greatest masterpieces on one of the world’s greatest instruments and had no idea what they were actually seeing, and so because of that they didn’t stop.  They made a quick decision about the type of musicians who play in subway stations and so just completely ignored it; he wasn’t worth their time, they had more important things to do.  How often do we make the same sorts of decisions, the same sorts of judgements that in the end turn out to be so very, very wrong, if we ever even know at all?

Today we continue in our sermon series on the book of James, who is concerned not with deep theologically statements about who Jesus and God are, but instead about how it is that we live our lives out, that’s why this series is entitled “where the rubber hits the road.”  This is about where we stop talking about our faith, or claiming what we believe and instead start living it out, how it applies to our lives.  Which led my wife say to me after last week’s introduction, “so James is the reason why we can eat bacon?”  Yes, James is the reason we can eat bacon, because he is the one who ruled that gentile converts, that is non-Jews, did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws or become circumcised to become a Christian.  So James is the one who made the Baconnator possible.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Stupidity of Some Church Signs

I know there are lots of people who talk about church signs, and even places that post the stupidest of them and yet they don't go away.  Why?

There is a church near where I live and the sign says "Don't invest in a GPS, Jesus gives directions for free."  Really?  Do they actually think this is "cute"? Or that it will attract someone to start attending their church?

Today I am flying into Denver and then driving to a conference and I really want to call this church to ask them for Jesus to tell me where it is that I am going and how to get there.  Better yet, I'll invest in a GPS and ignore their sign.

The church already has enough image problems, we need to stop feeding into them with ridiculous things on our signs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Female Sports And The Objectification of Women

We watched with excitement the US Women winning the World Cup on Sunday, but then I was slightly confused with the imagery as the medals were being brought in:

So we just saw some of the best athletes in the world competing, who also happen to be women, and we cap it off by having skinny, predominantly white, women come out in black, tight, slinky, cocktail dresses with stiletto heals. Who exactly thought this would be a good idea?  Can we say disconnect?

On the good side, since they were walking on artificial turf there was therefore no possibility that their heals were going to sink into the ground and at least the Mountie carrying the trophy was a woman.

I have two daughters and I want them to have the same opportunities to compete and to excel as anyone else.  But when we see this, and we hear about the huge disparity between money for the men's and women's World Cup, we realize just how far we have yet to go.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Servant of God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  We began a new series on the Letter of James, and the text was James 1:1-11:

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at the Book or Letter of James, which is found nearly at the end of the New Testament.  But for most Protestants it is not a book that we spend a lot of time in or talking about.  I have never preached from James before, and I have never heard anyone preach on James either.  Just wondering if anyone here has heard sermons from James?  I think it’s a shame that James has been ignored because James has a lot to say to us, and important things.  So for example, some good advice for any time, but especially for the past few weeks, James says, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  But there is one line that has sort of cursed James within the Protestant tradition, and that is when James says that faith without works is dead.
At the time of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther began to proclaim, using the letters of Paul found in the New Testament, that we are saved by faith alone, a tenant that we still hold.  So if we are saved by faith alone, and if James is saying that we need works, then Luther needed to reject James.  In fact, Luther wanted to remove James from the cannon of scripture entirely, and while he was obviously not successful in that, in Luther’s own writings, which never included a commentary on James, he moved the book of James to a section of lesser, disputed writings.  He also called James a book of straw, in comparison to the true gold found in the gospels and the works of Paul.  Now I don’t believe that Paul and James were actually saying different things, and we’ll get to that much later, and even though the other reformers did not agree with Luther’s distaste for this letter, which is why it remained in the Bible, Luther did have a huge impact on James’ place within the Protestant tradition, mainly being that it was ignored for large periods of time.  But in recent decades James has seen a revision in how it has been viewed and interpreted and its place in the tradition, and so we’re going to build on that a little bit over the next six weeks.

While James is a letter, it is also different then most of the other letters we find in the New Testament.  I would invite you to look at James versus some of the other letters, but there is no full greeting, no opening prayer, no commendations, nor does James mention anyone else.  It is known as one of the general or catholic epistles, catholic in this sense meaning universal.  James addresses it to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, meaning those who are living outside of Palestine, and in particular Jerusalem.  It’s not clear who James means by this, but the tradition has tended to believe that he is specifically addressing Jews who have become followers of Christ.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Try The Other Side

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 21:1-11 and it represented my State of the Church Address:

Today marks the end of my second year, or the beginning of my third year, here at Mesa View, depending on how you want to look at it.  I would like to begin today by thanking all of our volunteers and people who give of themselves in some many ways to this church and in service to the community.  But in particular I would like to thank the members of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, some other key members, and for the prayer partners who were lifting me up in prayer this past year, because it was by far my hardest year in the ministry.  Every organization has cycles of ups and downs, and I firmly believe that this past year we hit the bottom of our trough and are now on an upward climb.  Our attendance has seen continued increases each month this year, until last month, but we always see a drop off when school lets out, and let me remind you that your presence here is really important.  Not because of numbers, but because it’s a lot better, and to be honest it’s more fun, when the sanctuary is filled then when it’s less full.

I was appointed by the Bishop to Mesa View for many reasons, but one of the biggest was to get our finances in order.  Many churches approach their finances by using the mushroom communication model.  Do you know what the mushroom communication model is?  Keep them in the dark and shovel in lots of manure.  Hopefully you know that’s not the way I want to operate.  The truth is we are doing better.  I would like to say that we no longer have financial worries, and that everything is great.  I’d like to say that, but it’s not true.  We are better, but we are not out of the woods yet.  We didn’t get here in a few years, and we won’t get out of it in a few years.  If you have been reading the newsletter, then you should have seen that our last financial report was a little bleak.  The last number I got from Don Coates this week was that we were projecting to be somewhere around $2000 in the hole at the end of June.  So don’t stop giving just because you might go away for the summer, because our work doesn’t end.

But here is the good news.  Our electronic giving options are helping us to create a stable, reliable income stream, and thank you to everyone who has signed up for electronic giving, and I would strongly encourage others to do the same.  The good news is that for maybe the first time, but definitely the first time in a long time, we created a savings account, in which we had $5000 when we entered the summer.  The good news is that last month we paid off our debt to John Deere for the purchase of our lawn mower and this month we paid off the conference loan we took out to help pay for the roof repairs.  The good news is that when we started here two years ago we owed more than $10,000 to the conference for back pension obligations and we will have that paid off in October.  The good news is that we refinanced our mortgage, which freed up resources that we have needed.  We ended up having to put in a new HVAC unit in the annex, a $7000 charge, but we covered the entire thing in cash, and that allowed us to bring in the YMCA and turn that building into a revenue source for us again, while also serving the community.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Battling Giants: Racism and Violence

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was the familiar story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:4-11, 19-23 and 32-49, but the message was changed because of the shooting at Emmanuel AME in Charleston:

I dislike weeks like this past one.  First there was the strange story of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, and who knew Spokane needed an NAACP chapter?  Then there was the announcement by Pizza Hut that they were releasing a pizza that had 21 mini hotdogs baked into the crust, because that’s exactly what we all need.  And finally Donald Trump declared that he was going to be running for president, and every comedian rejoiced.  For a normal week that would be enough and unfortunately, these stories sort of typify certain aspects of American culture.  But then there was the news that we all woke up to on Thursday morning of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, which sadly is also a part of American culture.  As a pastor I know that such tragedies need to be addressed, but as a preacher I’m never quite sure what to do.  Do I stay with what I was originally going to say, or do I change it all up in order to address these issues?

I had a good sermon about David and Goliath all planned out that I was going to try and somehow connect to Fathers’ Day.  And while I wasn’t really struggling with that message, it wasn’t exactly coming together either, and so Linda asked if perhaps I needed to stop working on that message and instead talk about what happened in Charleston.  And yet the story of David and Goliath I think also has a lot to say to us about this very issue because of two things that are easily overlooked.

But let me start by saying what might be the most important thing and that is that God did not cause this event to happen, or allow it to happen, as some part of God’s master plan.  Because if that is true, then God is not on the side of the victims, but instead on the side of the perpetrators.  But what we see time and time again is that God sides with the victims and with the least, the last and the lost, and that takes part in the story of David and Goliath as well.

This passage can be seen as a story of violence and yet it’s also a story against violence.  Goliath calls to the Israelites and asks for one person to come forward and fight him.  This is known as single combat, and the purpose was to try and eliminate the largescale death and destruction of war, by having only two people fight.  Sometimes the people doing battle would be the best soldiers, and other times it would be the respective leaders who fought each other.  Perhaps this should be something we should think about as it would certainly greatly limit the saber rattling of our politicians if they knew that instead of sending others off to fight for them that they themselves would be fighting.

Golf Needs Tiger

This weekend was the US Open, one of the 4 major golf tournaments, and I didn't watch it.  I used to. And I would watch the Masters and the British Open, but I haven't watched a golf tournament in a while, and don't see myself doing so anytime in the near future.  And, I suspect I am not alone in this.

I grew up watching golf with my dad, and following the biggies, Palmer, Nicklaus, Norman, etc. There were several were major stars that everyone who was even a casual fan knew.  It didn't matter that the didn't win every time, but there were several who were clearly at the top of the game and some of them were at least in contention each tournament.

Then when Tiger was at his best, I watched it all the time because it was clear that we were watching a once in a life-time talent and seeing the game played at its highest level.  It was like watching Michael Jordan play, you knew this was special.  But Tiger is not Tiger anymore, and who is there to really take his place?  That's golf's problem.

They want to boost up the young players and say "he's the next Tiger", but they're not.  They boost up Rory McIlroy, who is great, but then he'll go on stretches where he doesn't compete, and everyone turns it off again because it's clear he is not who golf said he was.  Then they promote the next player who will replace Tiger.  Now it's Jordan Spieth, who won yesterday and also won the Masters, but does he have the staying power?  That is yet to be seen.(Although he only won yesterday because another player let him win, and I won't use the "c" word for it.)

Golf either needs to find the next Tiger, the player who is going to dominate, so that golf tournaments will become must see viewing, or and ever better scenario would be to starting promoting a number of golfers (4-6) so that there are multiple faces and they are no longer dependent on just one player. Or, they can keep following the same path, which is downhill, and become an even more niche sport.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

To Whom Is The Church Speaking?

Yesterday I went and talked with the city counselor who represents our district.  What I wanted to know was what he thought the most pressing issues were in the community and how we as a church might respond.  We had a good conversation about what was going on, but as one of my last questions I asked him his perception of how well churches have been in responding to the needs of the community or working with the city and other groups to address them.  His response floored me.

He said that in his 10 years on city council I was the first clergy person who had ever made an appointment to come and speak with him.  The first in ten years.  He said that he had spoken with the pastors at some of the very large churches in the district, but that was because he sought them out.

Churches do some amazing things, and I hope they are talking with other groups about pressing issues, but how do we address the issues of our neighborhoods if we aren't talking with the community leaders whose jobs are to try and address those issues?

I apologized to him on behalf of the other clergy and we then talked about how we can work together to get the churches more engaged with community leaders to address the issues that are facing the people in the communities where we live, work and worship.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What's The Purpose?

In a few hours I will be leaving to attend Annual Conference.  For the non-Methodists, this is the annual gathering of clergy and laity (equal representation of each) from each of the churches in the conference, which in this case is New Mexico and southern west Texas.

In the past, annual conference had several main reasons for its existence.  The first was that this was when appointments were announced.  United Methodist clergy serve on perpetual one-year appointments, and so you would find out at annual conference if you were moving or not, and where you would be going.  The second reason was to conduct the business of the annual conference, such as passing budgets, and voting on legislation, ordaining new clergy, etc.  The third reason was that it was the only time of the year that most clergy ever got together, and so it was a time of fellowship and catching up and remembering those who had left the ministry in the past year either by leaving or dying.

The problem with annual conference now is that none of those reasons really exist anymore. Appointments are announced well in advance of annual conference.  Except for ordination, all of the legislative work is either done differently than in the past, or could honestly be done online or in other forums.  And because of social media and other technology, those clergy who want to be in touch with each other outside of annual conference can be.  It's still nice to get together, but it does not serve the same purpose as it did in the past.

So that really leaves us going to gathering whose purpose has been eliminated with no new purpose having been put into place.  We keep doing things the same because "it's how we have always done it" and the result is it's just a three-to-four-day committee meeting.  I know of few people who actually look forward to attending Annual Conference, and the biggest reason is because it doesn't serve a purpose.  It's rare that people actually take something home, or learn something, which they can use or apply in the local church.

It's time for the UMC to totally rethink annual conference (and general conference and jurisdictional conference for that matter) and to begin that conversation we have to start with answering the question, "what is the purpose of annual conference"?  Once we answer that, then we can restructure everything and make it be something that is not only useful for churches, but that people would actually look forward to attending.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What I Miss About Libraries

Once upon a time, when you checked out library books they would stamp the due date on a little sheet of paper glued to the front cover.  This was not only a reminder when it had to be back (although that meant no online renewal), but it also showed you how popular or not a book might be.

I once checked a book out of the library at Harvard, and the last time it was checked out, at least according to the due date form, was in the 20's and before that it was last checked out in 1909.  That was pretty cool.  But the only way I knew that was because of that sheet of paper at the front.  Books no longer have that.

I am reading a book right now that I found in the new books section, and I thought "Hey, I could be the first person to be reading this book since it was purchased by the library."  And I might still have that idea, except that someone else wrote in the book, (and really unimportant statements as well) and so my image was shattered.  But, if there was a due date sheet at the front I would have already known that someone one, or several people, had already read it.

I miss that due back paper.

Monday, May 25, 2015

By the Power of the Holy Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21:

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had a remarkable experience.  John had been struggling with his faith, and in particular with the claim made by some that after accepting Christ into his life, he should have been filled with continual joy, never experiencing any doubts about his faith, which is not what was happening in his life.  And so listening to those same people he believed that he had not actually been saved.  And so on May 24, , and let me remind you that today is May 24, John wrote in his journal, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  This event, known as the Aldersgate experience, was preceded three days earlier by a similar experience of his brother Charles, who on the one year anniversary wrote a poem, the 7th verse of which begins “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise,” which became a hymn of the same name and has been traditionally the first hymn found in any Methodist hymnal, from the first to the present day.

Although John and Charles had already really put into place many of the pieces that would lead to the formation of the Methodist movement, many people consider John Wesley’s heart being strangely warmed to be the date when the Methodist church was really begun, that without that event, we would not be sitting here today.  John himself in writing a letter to his much older brother Samuel said that before this event he was never a Christian.  To give some perspective, Wesley was already an ordained minister, spent more than two hours in prayer every day, plus private devotion, he fasted a minimum of two times a week, received communion 4-5 times a week, and engaged in service to those in need, so if Wesley wasn’t a Christian prior to this, then I would say none of us are Christian, and Wesley himself would later back off that claim.  He came to believe that people could have instantaneous conversion experiences, but for many, if not most, it was an experience that happened over time, and our faith continued to deepen and grow throughout our lives.  Now personally, as a church historian who studies Methodism, I think the Aldersgate experience is a little overdone in importance.  Not to say it’s not important, but I’m not sure we can claim that today, or this moment, are really the birthday of the Methodist movement.  Why Aldersgate is important, however, was because the transformative effect it had in John’s life and because of the power of the Holy Spirit which became present for him in that moment.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mary of Magdala

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 20:1-18:

As many of you know, it is said that the best-selling book of all time is the Bible.  The 13th best-selling book in any language is the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which is also the tenth best-selling book in English.  So, it is perhaps not surprising that when I began asking people what women in the Bible I should preach on, nearly without exception, the first name that came up was Mary Magdalene.  Although people have had a fascination with Mary Magdalene for a long time, and within recent memory, she has played a significant role in Jesus Christ Superstar and in the novel and movie The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion it is The Da Vinci Code which has driven resurgence in interest and thinking about Mary.  But most of this has been more speculation and fiction, than reality.

Now I don’t have a very high opinion of Dan Brown.  I think he is a great suspense writer, and I have, in fact, read most of his books, but the problem is he includes facts that could be disproved with just two minutes on Wikipedia or ten minutes in the library, and then passes those off facts as the absolute truth, and this is especially true in The Da Vinci Code.  So for example, he says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950s and contained the earliest Christian writings, when in fact they were found in 1947 and do not contain any Christian writings at all.  But the claims he makes about Mary, and what we can claim about her are even worse, and I strongly suspect have influenced what many of you think about Mary Magdalene.  And so to begin we are going to spend some time deconstructing some beliefs of Mary, looking at what we know about her from the Bible, and then because Dan Brown focuses a lot of his material on non-canonical texts, that is books that were not included in the Bible, we will look briefly at those as well, and then we will discuss what she means for us and why she is important.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The MLB Is Doing The NFL's Job

This week Major League Baseball announced that although the umpires are already the ones who prepare all the game balls, and mark them as such, before every game.  Now the umpires will have control of the balls until the game begins, rather than having the ball boys taking them to the dugouts. In addition, if more balls are needed during the game, an official will go to the umpire's locker room, which is otherwise locked, to retrieve new balls.  They announced these changes in the wake of what is happening in the NFL.

Of course I am glad MLB is making such moves, but why is no one asking the NFL why they aren't doing similar things?  Why are they going to continue to allow different teams to play with different balls?  Why are they not taking steps to make sure the officials have control of the balls until play begins?  Or even more, why they don't hire their own staff to control the balls during the games, rather than leaving it up to the teams?  Why does it seem like their pressure gauges don't work the same, since they got two very different readings at different times using different gauges?  Why, for all the broohaha about this, does the NFL not seem to be taking the "integrity of the game" seriously when they have been shown to have a significant problem?

Well, at least the MLB is doing the NFL's job, now if only the NFL would act similarly.