Thursday, September 29, 2011

All I Can Say Is Wow!

Last night's baseball was simply incredible. Many people are saying it was the most amazing regular season night in the history of baseball, and who am I to argue. It was certainly the most amazing last regular season game. Outside of the two best teams in the leagues, the Yankees and the Phillies, all of the other playoff contenders had crucial games last night, and of course four of those teams were playing for their playoff lives. And three of those games were incredible. Two had blown saves in the 9th inning and two went to extra innings. Incredible!

We've had incredible games at the end of the season, the 78 Yanks/Sox and Bucky Dent's home run, or the 51 Giants/Dodgers and Bobby Thomson's home run, immediately come to mind, but those were just one game. Yesterday had three incredible games!

Now I love baseball and I watch it every night, but normally I only watch one game. Last night I was flipping around to three different games literally after each pitch to make sure I didn't miss anything because it was changing that quickly. When the Orioles hit the gaming winning hit I was screaming at the top of my lungs "run, run, run" which promptly brought chastising from my wife who said I would wake our daughters up (I didn't), and then I was celebrating too much and so hadn't changed back to the Yanks to see the Rays get the walk-off there. (This shouldn't be surprising as Proctor has been terrible for us. Props go out to him that he kept them as scoreless for as long as he did. Perhaps he does still have something left in his arm after Torre abused it.)

To have not one but two teams down the stretch blow significant leads is stunning, and the Braves are getting off easy in the press because of what happened to the Sox. This was the best team in baseball (yes they were even better than the Yankees) for most of the summer and then they simply imploded. They looked like the Red Sox teams that were "cursed" more than the ones who have won two World Series titles in the past ten years. Although I do have to say that old habits die hard for New Englanders as they have all been saying this is what they always do to us, they win today so that losing tomorrow will be even more painful.

This masochistic attitude is part of who they are, and to be honest a losing team fits their culture better than a winning team does, because they always expect the worst from the Sox. They are always ready for them to rip their hearts out, although not ready all at the same time. My Red Sox friends are always telling me, "they always do this to us", as if the titles in 2004 and 2007 had never happened, as if they still hadn't won since 1918. They don't always do this, you just expect them to, so at least this year they fulfilled expectations. Even though I am glad that the Red Sox lost, although I would have preferred a play-in game today, Red Sox fans do have my sympathies.

It's really too hard to put into words how great yesterday was, and here's the kicker: If the commissioner has his way and adds a second wildcard team next year none of it would have mattered. None of the excitement of the past two weeks as it came down to the wire with so many teams in the hunt would be there, because there would be two spaces.

With two wildcard spots available, going into yesterday the Sox, Rays, Braves and Cardinals would all know that they would be playing today so it wouldn't matter how they did. I certainly don't think the Orioles would have been playing as hard to knock the Sox out. The Rays would not have been playing as hard to come back to win. The Phillies would not have had most of their starters still in the game because it wouldn't have made any difference, all those teams would have already had a space.

I can only hope that the post-season can live up to what the last two weeks and yesterday have given to us, and Go Yanks!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Here is my sermon from Sunday, part four of our eight-part series on the challenge of being a disciple of Christ. The text was Matthew 28:16-20

We continue in our series of the challenges of being a disciple of Christ, by today looking at the issue of evangelism. But before I begin I’d like to take a little straw poll. By a show of hands, who here has ever recommended a book, restaurant or a movie to another person? If there are any marketing people here today they would tell us that this is word of mouth advertising. It’s normally the type of advertising you can’t pay for, and it is the most powerful form of advertising possible.

Several years ago the movie Little Miss Sunshine seemed to rise from nowhere to box office success because people who saw it told their friends they should see it, and they did, and a small film became a major hit and academy award nominee. So let’s conduct another straw poll, by a show of hands, who here has come to a church or come to Christ because of a revival you have attended (and I’m not talking about rededicating yourself, but instead doing it for the first time)? Who here has ever come to a church or come to Christ because of something you have received in the mail? Who here has ever come to a church or come to Christ because of someone who has knocked on your door? Who here has ever come to a church or come to Christ because someone, a friend or relative, asked you to or told you about it?

For many of us, evangelism is one of those scary words. We don’t want to have anything to do with evangelism, and there are several reasons for this. Probably the biggest one is that when we think of evangelism we often picture people knocking on our door or standing on street corners asking us if we’ve except Jesus as our Lord and savior. Most of us don’t want to be that person, and most of us also don’t want to have to talk to perfect strangers about our faith. But evangelism does not have to be something scary. The word, evangelist, comes to us from the Greek word euangalian. In the ancient world, a messenger who brought good news would often receive a reward, which was called a euangalian, or literally good messenger, or good news. We also get the word angel from this root word. It was later translated in the vulgate, which is the Latin translation of the Bible as evangelium, and then into middle English as godspel, from which we get the word gospel, or again, literally, good news. An evangelist is a bringer of good news, but messengers can be both effective and ineffective based on the information they provide and most importantly who they provide it to.

On April 18, 1775, a young boy overheard two British soldiers in Boston talking when one of them said there would be “hell to pay tomorrow.” This concerned the boy and so he went to find Paul Revere, who had been hearing similarly information. The local patriots had already intercepted a message from London to General Gage that the British regulars were planning to march to Concord to capture the arms that had been stored there, so they knew something was going to happen. They were also concerned for the safety of John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were staying in Lexington.

Revere and Joseph Warren met and decided that they needed to warn the local militias and Hancock and Adams that the troops were coming. Warren sent Paul Revere and William Dawes to send out the word. Revere made his way across to Charlestown and waited for the fires in the lanterns to be lit in the Old North Church, and Dawes set out to tell the western towns. But, we know the name of Paul Revere and yet few of us remember William Dawes. Why is that? Because Revere was successful and William Dawes was not.

In his excellent book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, tries to look at what causes some things to be successful, to move beyond the tipping point, while other things never do. Even though the message was exactly the same, Dawes did not get the same response that Revere did. Local militia leaders never got the word. So few men from one town responded that later historians concluded that it must have been populated by Tories, or those who supported the king. But the records indicate that that was not the case. In other towns no one from the local militia gathered, leading other historians to speculate that Dawes must not have stopped there but why would Dawes not stop to warn people? That is after all what he was sent out to do. But, according to Gladwell, there were distinct differences between Dawes and Revere which set them up for success of failure.

In Boston at the time, there were seven groups of revolutionaries. No one belonged to all seven groups. In fact, 80% of the members belong to only one group, but two men belonged to five of them, and one of those men was Paul Revere. Therefore, Gladwell says, it’s no wonder that Revere would not only be the one that a young boy would approach with an overheard conversation, but that Revere would also know exactly who he needed to talk to in each town. He would know who the town and militia leaders were and where to find them.

Dawes, on the other hand, did not know this information. When he went into each town he did not know on which door to knock, and so the leaders in these towns simply never got the message. It wasn’t that Dawes didn’t do what he was sent to do, but instead that he didn’t know the right people to tell and so the message never took off. The alarms were not set off the way they were North of Boston, on the route that Revere took because he knew who to tell, they knew him and they trusted him, and because of that they were willing to listen to him and then take action on the information he provided.

It is estimated that by the time the British regulars marched into Concord on April 19, that there were at least 40 riders out spreading the words to towns almost as far as Worcester, which is about 45 miles from Boston. A flame was lit in two lanterns in a church in Boston, and the flame kept going, but it kept going because Revere told people who knew him, trusted him, were willing to listen to him and to act on what he told them. That was really the difference between he and Dawes, and that is why I like the story so much. For you see, Paul Revere was an evangelist, and he teaches us an important message about evangelism: it is most effective when it is done with people we already know.

One of the things people fear about evangelism is having to talk to total strangers, but as we just saw from Paul Revere that is not where the most effective evangelism takes place. The most effective evangelism is done when talking with people who know us, who trust us, and who are willing to act on the information we tell them, in other words our family and friends. It is word of mouth advertising at its best. I know this is not what we often hear or witness. I have even heard a bishop say that churches should be knocking on doors to get new members, but it’s true, and we need only look at the two groups who are most commonly associated with doing evangelism by knocking on doors, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

How many people do you think the average Mormon missionary converts? Guesses? The answer is one. And here is the kicker: If they get one convert then their mission is considered a success. A large percentage of missionaries never convert anyone. Now remember that Mormon missionaries spend all day, a minimum of five days a week, knocking on doors, and at best they will convert one person in one year. We obviously do not have the resources or the time to do that. This is also not to say that knocking on doors for churches is a waste of time because there are appropriate uses for that, but straight evangelism is not one of them.

Mormonism is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, but the majority of their converts come not from their missionaries knocking on doors, but instead from conversions from friends and families. In fact, I would argue that the training and sending out of Mormon missionaries has more to do with training and indoctrinating an entirely new generation into the faith then it does with evangelism, but that’s a different message, that has more to do with how we conduct our Christian Education, or more appropriately Christian formation.

The best and most effective evangelism takes place with those we already know. These don’t have to be our closest friends, they can be just acquaintances, but people who know us are more likely to trust us and to accept an invitation from us. If you were to be invited to attend a party from a total stranger or from an acquaintance, whose party are you more likely to attend? I suspect that all of us would say from the acquaintance. In a poll done of unchurched people in America, they were asked how likely they would be to attend a new church if they were invited, and 25% said they would attend a church if they were simply invited. 25% of unchurched people said they would attend if only someone would invite them.

Now the problem with this is that we obviously don’t know in advance who those people will be in advance, so we need to invite more than just one, but we know that the odds are that for every four we invite one of them will probably attend. But we also have to be ready for them, ready to greet them, ready to introduce them to others, and ready to have the best worship service we can for them to participate in, and you also have to be committed to whatever it is that you are inviting them to. If you say, “would you like to come to church with me?” What do you think the response is going to be? Versus if you say, “I am attending the best church and it’s made a difference in my life, and I would love it if you would come with me sometime so you can experience it as well.” What do you think the response to that would be?

Like just about everything in our faith, evangelism begins with prayer. To be effective evangelists we need to be praying to God for those who do not yet have a relationship with Christ and are not also attending church, and as you’ve already heard me say the two are related. Now the two easiest times to invite people to church are Christmas and Easter, and this is true for several reasons. First is that most people have some experience at some point in their lives of having attended these services so there is something familiar for them there, they know what to expect. Second, these are also the two times of the year in which our culture gets caught up in the pattern of the church. Third is that non-churchgoers know there will be others there who don’t usually attend. And finally, and these relates to all of the above, but most directly to us, at these times of the year the number of people who are thinking they should attend church and would go if they were invited is even higher than 25%.

So as we progress towards Advent and Christmas, I invite you to make a list of 4 or 5 people you want to be in relationship with Christ and a church and then begin praying for them every single day. But we should be praying selflessly for them. This is not just about getting them into this church, because this church might not be where they are being called to be, or obviously might not be even where they live. Instead we simply pray for them to be attending church, any church.

As methodists we believe in prevenient grace, the grace that goes before, so we know that God has already invited them into relationship, we are merely being conduits for the work that God is already doing in the world, because here is the easiest part of evangelism, it is not about us. It is about God and allowing God’s grace to flow through us. When we try to spread the word of Christ without trusting in God and the Holy Spirit we are bound to fail. Can I get an amen? When we try and tell people about our faith in Christ but don’t live that faith out in the world, we are bound to fail. Amen? When we try and send out the word on our own without being filled with the Holy Spirit then we are bound to fail. Amen?

John Wesley once said that he didn’t do anything special in order to have Methodism spread, he simply set himself on fire and others came to watch him burn, but it was so much more than that. If people had only watched him burn we would not be here today. Instead in coming to watch him burn, he caused other people to catch fire because fire wants to spread and envelope everything it sees, and that is how the spirit works. Once it is set loose it cannot be contained.

The Christian movement grew from several hundred followers after Jesus death to around 6 million followers just 300 years later, and Methodism grew from just a handful of students at Oxford in the 1720s to more than 25 million people today, and all of those converts came because someone was willing to go out and share the good news of Jesus Christ with someone else. People come to Christ and people come to churches because they are invited to come, and in seeing other people burn with the Holy Spirit they too want to burn. Can I get an amen? But we too must burn in order to be proper evangelists.

Two years ago I attended the annual Congress on Evangelism, which that year was held in New Orleans. Now as it happens the hotel was less than a block from Bourbon Street, which is, of course, known for a lot of things, but one of them is for the music. And so after the evening speaker, I headed down hoping to find some live jazz music. It’s New Orleans after all, surely I can find at least one jazz club. But as it turned out, everyone was playing rock music. Even the “country” bar had a rock band on the stage, and then I found a little hole in the wall with a blues band playing and they sounded pretty good and so I went in, and they were awesome.

At many times during the night there seemed to be more people on stage then in the bar, because in addition to the house band there were two other lead guitarists and another vocalist who cycled in and out, and other local musicians kept coming in, and you know they are good when other musicians are coming to see them, and they would be invited up to perform one song, and they were blowing the roof of the place.

I kept saying that I was only going to be staying for one more set, and then it was just one more set, until finally I ended up closing down the place with them. So I was committed to them with my time. I also bought the CDs of two of the musicians, so I was committed to them financially. The next day all I could think about was being able to get back down there to hear them play again. I was looking forward to it all day, and I was telling everyone I met that I had found the best blues bar and they should go. In other words, I had also become an evangelist for them.

I’m sure that all of us have had similar experiences, things that we just could not hold in, that we had to invite other people to or tell them about, and I hope that your faith and your church are one of those things. If they are not then changes can and must be made to make sure that they are. People don’t want to be a part of something that is mediocre or dying. People want to be involved in something that is alive, that is full of spirit and life, something that will change their lives and will set them on fire.

We are enjoined by Christ to go make disciples of all the nations, and I hope that you want to share your faith with others who are important to you, and it doesn’t need to be you walking up and asking people if they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their savior or if they know where they would go if they died tonight. In fact, I would implore you not do such a thing, because that is, in my opinion, not good or effective evangelism, nor is to true to the Gospel message. It is not the good news, it is not euangelion, it is not evangelism. Instead tell them the difference that Christ and the church have made in your lives, and invite them to be a part of it, and then allow them to make their own decisions because then we are trusting God as the primary actor in bringing people into relationship.

Through this simple act of telling people about your relationship with Christ and about your church then people can begin to see the fire that is burning inside of you, and once you feel the fire burning you’ll find that it cannot be contained. What is burning in your heart will also burn on your tongue because that is what fire does. In the words of three preachers from the last several generations, “Nothing but fire kindles fire,” “if you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.” Say that with me, “Nothing but fire kindles fire,” “if you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.”

As the story of Pentecost shows us, the church has always relied upon the tongues of fire of its members proclaiming the gospel to the world, and it still does, it requires each and everyone us of because “nothing but fire kindles fire, “if you want to set someone on fire, you have to burn a little yourself,” and “a burning heart will soon find for itself a burning tongue.” Thanks be to God sisters and brothers for the fire that burns in our hearts and on our tongues, and for the gift of the Holy Spirit which gives us the words to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. So go into the world, and make disciples. Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

To Lectionary Or Not To Lectionary

In the church where I did my internship (and spent 3 years) we used the lectionary. In my last church, where I served for 4 years, we also used the lectionary. I like the lectionary and understand its strengths, of which there are many. I considered it a spiritual discipline to have to think about different texts that I might normally not use to preach on and think about what I would say.

Now I know that one of the arguments for why the lectionary should be used is that it forces us to have to cover texts we otherwise would not preach on. But, since there are always at least four selections, most of the time I could avoid some troublesome texts, and have found that most preachers do as well. As an example, in the three churches I have now preached to, I have used the Jacob stories found during the summer in year A. But, in all of those churches most people said they had never heard a sermon preached on Jacob, so I know other ministers are just skipping over those passages they would rather not cover.
In my newest church, I was told that past ministers have used the lectionary but the preference would be not to be glued to it, and so for the first time in my ministry I have gone "off lectionary." I have to say it is completely refreshing and reinvigorating for me, and the congregation seems to be liking it as well. I am now into my second sermon series and it's done a lot to allow me to sort of set down my own theology and thinking at the beginning of my ministry here.
In addition, I find that I am doing a lot more independent research and reading for each sermon than I ever did using the lectionary. As someone who loves to read and study, this has been a huge strength and can see the benefits in my own spiritual life and disciples. While I still use different commentaries they are coming at the very end just to make sure I didn't miss anything that might be important, rather than being what I sort of start my thinking around.
I also find that my sermons are longer (and then are cut down) as I have a lot more to say then I did with the lectionary readings. This is then generating ideas for new sermon series. For example, on September 11, I did use the lectionary readings for that day on forgiveness, and after sitting down to write that sermon came up with at least 4-5 different sermons that could be preached about forgiveness. Now I know you could also do this with the lectionary, but it would take you a long time to accomplish and would be a little disjointed because, unless you are using the Hebrew scripture or the epistle, the themes tend to change too often.
As I am building out ideas into the future I still reference the lectionary readings to see if they match, and will obviously keep themes matching the seasons of the church, in particular for Advent and Lent, but not using it all the time, for the moment, has made a huge difference in not only what I am preaching on and how I am preaching, but even how I am approaching my sermons, and I like the difference.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Here is my sermon from Sunday, part 3 of our 8-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. The text was Luke 10:25-37.

We continue today in our eight-part series on the challenges of being a disciple of Christ. Last week as we remembered the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, a date which changed how we understood ourselves and our place in the world, we looked at Christ’s command to forgive as we are forgiven. This week as we move on to the question of who is our neighbor, we will begin by remembering another tragic event which had its anniversary this past week.

Forty-nine years ago, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The church had become a focal point of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, seeking to combat the segregationist policies of the state, especially those of Governor George Wallace, who during his inaugural address earlier that year had famously decreed, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When the Southern Leadership Conference began using the church as a headquarters to begin the registration of black voters, some people had had enough.

Early on the morning of the 15th, a group of four men, led by Robert Chambliss, and all members of the KKK, placed a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, and at 10:22 am, as a group of youth were making their way down the steps into the basement to hear a sermon entitled “The Love that Forgives” when the bomb went off, killing Addie May Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. An additional 22 children were injured in the attack. The church itself sustained significant damage, and the bomb destroyed all but one of the stained-glass windows. The one that survived showed Christ leading a group of children.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, combined with footage of peaceful demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and water from fire hoses, shocked the conscience of the nation. Indeed, many people believe that the bombing was one of the precipitating events that led directly to the advancement of the civil rights movement and in particular of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even people who might not necessarily have agreed with what the protestors were asking for, felt that the treatment they were receiving was inappropriate, and they had to reframe their thinking as they began to question, as we all must, who is my neighbor?

The story of the Good Samaritan is one I am sure with which most of us are familiar, even if we didn’t know the details. The Good Samaritan has become synonymous with anyone who helps someone in need. But, because it is so popular, it is also probably one of the most clichéd and least understood stories. Whenever I cover this parable in bible studies, people don’t really want to talk about the details of what is going on, but instead quickly begin talking about Good Samaritan laws and the dangers of helping those in need because of potential litigation. But to reduce the Good Samaritan to a touchy-feely, happy-go-lucky guy that we all admire because he helps others misses the truly radical and confrontational nature of this story. For you see, Samaritans and Jews hated each other. It’s not that there was a mutual dislike, although there certainly was, but it went much further than just dislike.

Samaria was an area of land between Judea, which is the southern part of Israel, which includes Jerusalem, and Galilee, where Jesus spent much of his ministry which had both Jewish and gentile inhabitants. So the first issue of conflict was over land. The land that the Samaritans occupied was land formerly held by the northern tribes of Israel. The Jews said that the Samaritans were a group who were brought in by the Assyrians after they had destroyed the tribes of the northern kingdom and the Jews there were taken into exile. They were foreigners who usurped the land and didn’t belong. Samaritans, however, claim that they were the remnant of those tribes and thus the land rightfully belonged to them. But regardless of where they came from, the real differences and animosities came over religion.

The Samaritans, who still exist today, are also monotheists. They have their own version of the Bible, although they differ from Jewish and Christian texts. They worshipped and had their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, which was destroyed by the Jews around 128 BCE following the Maccabean revolt. The Jews claimed they destroyed the temple because it was idolatrous worship, but it probably also had to do with the fact that the Samaritans had supported the Greek’s invasion and occupation of Israel. Both groups said that they were the true keepers of the law. The Samaritans claimed that the religion practiced by the Jews had been corrupted during the Jewish exile in the Babylon, and that the Samaritans were the ones following the laws as handed down by Moses. As you might imagine, the Jews disagreed with this assessment and said that the Samaritans were the ones who were wrong. Jews and the Samaritans simply did not like each other, and this was not limited to just a small group, this was felt across the board.

Amy Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar, who is also Jewish, says that in order to understand this story, “we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask ‘is there anyone about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘she offered help’ or ‘he showed compassion’?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan. To recognize the shock and possibility of the parable in practical, political and pastoral terms…” So let’s take a look at this from a modern perspective.

A certain Christian is on a trip, when he is mugged, beaten, stripped and left for dead. Now by chance Mother Theresa was passing by, but when she saw the man, she passed by without doing anything. Likewise, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he came to the place also passed by without doing anything. But, a member of Al Qaeda came near, and when he saw him, had pity on him, and went to him bandaged his wounds, took care of him, took him to a doctor to be seen and promised the doctor to pay whatever it cost to get the man healthy again.

How would you feel then if I was to ask you who was the better neighbor, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. or a member of Al Qaeda? Is that shocking or upsetting? Is it a sort of a kick in the gut or a slap in the face? Does it make you want to walk out the door or throw things at me? It should, but that is what it would have been like for the people who first heard Jesus tell this parable.

Notice that the lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the Samaritan to answer Jesus’ question about who was the neighbor. Instead he can only say, “The one who showed him mercy.” Now what is also true of this story is that if Jesus was to tell it to a group of Al Qaeda members he would have said, the good Samaritan was an American, and if he told it to the KKK, he would have said it was the head of the NAACP, and if was told to the NAACP he would have said it was a member of the KKK. Do you understand what we are supposed to be hearing, seeing and feeling about this story?

What must I do to inherit eternal life? the lawyer asks Jesus. The lawyer is an expert on the law, and so Jesus turns to him and says what do you read there and so the lawyer quotes first from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” although the fourth statement about the mind is not in the original, and then he quotes from the book of Leviticus “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But then lawyer wants to know, who is our neighbor?

Laws set boundaries. They establish what is acceptable and what is not, they say who is good and who is bad, and so the lawyer wants to know that his boundaries are okay. He wants to be told that the people he is excluding, the people that his society is excluding are okay to be excluded, but that, of course is not what Jesus tells him. Instead, Jesus says through this parable that everyone is neighbor. The Jew is neighbor to the Samaritan and the Samaritan is neighbor to the Jew. To believe that the one person in the story that everyone hates is the one who turns out to be the good one is just unbelievable and totally shatters everyone’s understanding of the kingdom of God, and hopefully it continues to shatter our understanding even today.

Now something similar to this had already been told in Jewish history. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we are told about the efforts to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem following the return from exile, as well as the efforts to reinforce Torah law and to purify religious practices. One of the ways that Nehemiah sought to do this was by making inter-religious marriage illegal, and to try and force all Jewish men who had married foreign wives to leave them and marry Jewish women. In response to this movement to purify the people, the book of Ruth was written.

Ruth was a Moabite woman who went back to Israel with her mother-in-law following the death of her husband, where she ends up marrying Boaz, who is Jewish, and through this relationship Ruth gives birth to Obed, who is the grandfather of King David. The greatest of Jewish king comes from a relationship between a Jewish man and a foreign woman. And then through that lineage she is also an ancestor of Jesus. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the Moabites and the Israelites also did not like each other. This was truly slanderous and radical stuff.

Doing good for those in need is certainly a piece of this story, after all the lawyer is told to go and do likewise, but the story of the Good Samaritan is a story about love of neighbor and how that is defined, and notice that Jesus does not say that we are simply to coexist with our neighbor, that’s what the fences we construct, both literally and figuratively, allow us to do is coexist. We can say, you stay over there, and I will stay over here, and that way everything will be fine. That is not loving your neighbor.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself meant, and still means, rejecting societal standards of who belongs and who doesn’t, of who is okay and who is not, of who is acceptable and who is not, it is to live in the most direct terms into the kingdom of God, it is in fact to see the world as God sees the world – a world without distinction, without borders and without boundaries. As God’s people, as children of God, we are to love without regard and to act through that love to the entire world to all of our neighbors. It may be one of the hardest things we are called to do for it is just as radical and difficult in our day as it was when Jesus first said it; it is one of the challenges of being a disciple.

Let me give you an example of how we can be neighbor or not be neighbor. The Islamic community in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, bought a plot of land and were planning to build a cultural center. The plan was approved by the city council, but when the plan became better known, the community was, shall we say, less than supportive. The sign that they put up announcing the future location was vandalized with “not welcome here” and was eventually destroyed all together. When the construction equipment showed up to begin excavation, someone came and set all the equipment on fire, and a petition was signed by more than 20,000 people asking the city council to reconsider their decision. That is one response.

In Cordova, Tennessee, which is just outside of Memphis, a similar thing was taking place. The Islamic community had purchased land and were planning on building a new community center, only in Cordova the land happened to be located right across the street from Heartsong Church, which is actually a United Methodist Church. But in Cordova, when the sign went up announcing the future site of the community center, Heartsong Church put out a sign that said “welcome to the neighborhood,” and the response of the community was radically different. There was no vandalism, there was no arson taking place late at night, and there was no petition being signed in opposition. Why? Because the church welcomed them as their neighbor.

Now that did not mean that the church did not meet opposition, because they did, but Rev. Steve Stone told his congregation that if anyone asked why they had done that, they should say “We are loving our neighbors, for Christ’s sake!” But what he has also said is, “How are we ever to reach anyone with the good news of Jesus if we only associate with those who already follow him? Our call from the Lord is to go everywhere and be his witnesses. And he said people would know we are his disciples by our love.”

Now I am sure that many of you have your own feelings about Islam, and that’s fine because we don’t have the time to cover them, but the lawyer had his own thoughts about the Samaritans as well, and Jesus told him that he was wrong. They were still neighbor.

In the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters says, “one can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it’s nearly impossible.” I’ve always been struck by that quote, and for a long time I thought it was true, but I’m beginning to think that the opposite might be the case. That it is easier to love in the reality than in the abstract. Because in the abstract it is much easier to use stereotypes and other ways of distancing ourselves from the other. But when they are in close quarters than we need to take them for who they truly are, not for who we think they are. Now does this mean that there won’t be people we don’t like up close, certainly not. There are lots of people it would be easier to love in the abstract because loving them in person is hard, but that’s not how it always is, and so let me close with this story.

In my last community we were blessed with a very strong and diverse clergy group that included not only the standard protestants and Catholics, but also three rabbis. One of those rabbis, who was an Israeli citizen, whose parents lived in Israel, and who had a family member killed in a Palestinian bombing, had been quite vocal in the past in regards to Israel and the Palestinian question. Each year we held a community Thanksgiving service which included all of the houses of worship, and one year it was suggested we also invite the Islamic community, as the Islamic Center of Boston was located in the town immediately to the south of us. But we did not know what the response of the rabbis would be. We did not want to destroy one sense of community and relationship in order to open up another set, but it turned out they were open to the possibility. But when the day arrived, we still did not know what to expect, but not only did this rabbi go over and great them, but he greeted them with the traditional Hebrew greeting of “shalom Aleichem” or “peace be upon you.”

When we let fear dominate our lives and we construct fences, both literally and figuratively, to keep out the other, when we construct boundaries and constraints, when we create insiders and outsiders, then we have violated God’s understanding of loving our neighbor. Love here is also not described as a feeling we have for another person, but instead as action. Love is something that is demonstrated by acting in the world. Blasé Pascal once said, “never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian. Why? Because if they were truly a Christian, they wouldn’t have to tell you.” Every act of genocide from the holocaust to Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur, would never have happened if we all saw the other as neighbor. Wars would never take place if we all saw the other as neighbor. Every act of social injustice would never take place if we only saw the other as neighbor. Anytime that we try and put restrictions on whom we will love and whom we will not, we have violated God’s message. Anytime that we say that I know God does not love that person then we have missed the gospel message entirely. Anytime that we limit people and try to make them less than human we have violated God’s commandments. Anytime that we see anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom then we have violated God’s love.

God calls us to live lives open to God’s love, which means to live lives without fences or boundaries, to live lives without fear. 1st John, chapter 4, verses 18 and 19 say “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts our fear… we love because he first loved us.” Indeed, the first message delivered by the angels about the coming Christ child is “fear not.” We are called to live cross centered lives. And how do we do that? We love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, that is the vertical, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, that is the horizontal. That is how we live cross centered lives. You cannot love God without loving neighbor, and you cannot love neighbor without loving God. Go and do likewise. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Greatest Ever

Congratulations go to Mariano Rivera who recorded his 602 career save, and is now the all-time leader (he has an additional 42 post-season saves). I have seen many of those saves in person, and of course even more on television. While I think the save statistic is overblown, to be able to do what he has done for as long as he has done is simply remarkable. I doubt we will see the likes of him again.

Sometime I plan on writing a book about what we can learn from baseball, and I know how the bottom of the ninth will end, it will be about Mariano Rivera. After he gave up the hit in the bottom of the ninth that lost the 2001 World Series, Rivera stood at his locker for more than an hour and answered the same question over and over again. He didn't get angry or short, he simply took responsibility for what had happened and displayed the same degree of grace that he shows even when he wins. He doesn't show hitters up, he simply goes out and does his job.

I do have to add, however, that those who are claiming that Rivera is the greatest pitcher ever are out of their minds. He is not even the greatest pitcher of his generation. But, he is, without a doubt, the greatest closer and reliever of all time.

Special recognition goes out to the Minnesota Twins who stayed in the dugout and applauded Rivera as well. True class.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Carrying Stones

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 18:21-35. I am indebted to Adam Hamilton for inspiration for parts of this sermon, especially RAP and the questions people ask.

Last week we began an eight-part sermon series on the challenges of being a disciple of Christ. The first challenge was to accept Christ’s call to be a disciple. In the examples of what it means to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship in scriptures, we are shown that we are to stop whatever it is we are doing and go, there can be no excuses and no interruptions. Today we deal with something that is just as difficult, forgiveness. We are told time and time again by Jesus that we cannot draw a line in the sand and say we will forgive up to this point, but anything beyond that is unforgiveable. Instead we are told that we are to forgive, and forgive all, just as we are forgiven. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday, we ask for forgiveness and in return also offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. Forgiveness is a significant part of what makes us Christians, but it is events like those that we remember today which test our understanding and willingness to forgive.

All of us have been hurt or injured in some way over the course of our lives and most of us carry some significant wounds as well. Maybe it’s that we were abused, or there has been a significant betrayal, or we or a family member were the victim of a serious crime, all of us carry at least one of these around with us, and many of us will have more than one. This hurt is represented by this large stone, which I’m going to put in our backpack. Then we have smaller wounds and injuries. Times in which people have sinned against us. These are not nearly as significant as our major wounds. Maybe it’s a time we were cheated, or maybe a betrayal, sometime we were lied to, or someone betrayed a confidence. We probably have a lot more of these smaller hurts, and so these are represented by these smaller stones. And then we have the everyday sorts of things that occurs, someone is rude to us, or we get yelled at at work, or someone cuts us off in traffic. Some days will collect a lot of these hurts, and other days they’ll just seem to wash off our backs, but if we don’t let them go, over our lifetimes we will collect a lot of these hurts and they will weigh us down, literally and figuratively.

In order to rectify these hurts we try and seek some justice. There are two types of justice. There is retributive justice and there is restorative justice. Much of what we hear about and almost all that is practiced is retributive justice. We want retribution for what has wronged us. We want vengeance. We want something bad to happen to the other person. This is a natural part coming from the base part of our feelings. Even people who are opposed to this, still feel it, as maybe perhaps summed up by an essay written by Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin in response to September 11, called “Vengeance is the Lord’s (but something inside me wants to ‘bomb the hell out of them’).”

But here’s the problem with retributive justice. While it might make us feel good in the short-term it does nothing for us in the long-term because we are still carrying all this weight around with us. It does nothing to loosen our load. In fact, sometimes it even makes it worse, because we want more than an eye for an eye, we want to hurt them to the degree that we think we’ve been hurt. I’m sure all of us who have known people who are filled with anger and animosity, who take on the role of perpetual victim and can never move past whatever happened to them, they become bogged down in that moment. Uness we let go and forgive, then the more and more wounds we accumulate and the heavier and heavier our load gets.

And here’s the worst problem, hanging onto these hurts, never letting them go, has been compared to drinking a jar of poison yourself in order to hurt the other person. The other person is rarely ever hurt by our refusal to forgive; instead we are the ones who are hurt. We are hurt spiritually, we are hurt emotionally, we are hurt psychologically and we are hurt physically. We are literally winded, just as I am about now, by having to carry this baggage around with us all the time. In recent studies that have been conducted, it has been found that those who are unable to forgive have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, incidences of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, stress related illnesses, and anxiety. Not forgiving can literally kill us. Of course knowing this doesn’t make forgiveness any easier.

Following the shooting at the West Nickel Mines School in 2006, in which five Amish girls were killed, many people were surprised by the community’s response. They immediately began offering support to the widow and children of the shooter, including setting up a charitable fund in their name. One of the children’s fathers hugged the shooter’s father for more than an hour while he cried over what his son had done. There was a killing at the high school where I last served and I can tell you the community response in that situation was very different. In witnessing this, people began to ask how could they forgive this most evil of actions? In his book, Think No Evil, Jonas Beiler, who is a former member of the Amish community, said they could respond the way they did because forgiveness is part of who they are. Forgiveness is something they work on every day, and so they know what it takes, what to do, and what forgiveness looks and feels like. But most importantly, as the title of Beiler’s book implies, they know that if they don’t forgive then they will carry that evil forward with them. The evil gets perpetuated rather dieing along with the children who died.

Jesus tells us we must forgive to be forgiven, that we must love and pray for our enemies. Paul tells us, in a passage we read a couple of weeks ago, not to overcome evil with evil, but instead to overcome evil with good, but it is so hard. Peter asks Jesus, how many times must I forgive someone who has wronged me? Is seven times enough he asks? And Jesus responds, not just seven times, but seventy seven times, or in some manuscripts seventy times seven times. It becomes an infinite amount of forgiveness, and then Jesus tells this parable, in which a man is forgiven by his King, who we are to understand as God, his debt of 10,000 talents, but is unwilling to forgive the debt owed to him of 100 denarri. A denarri is equal to one day’s wages. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes about $102 a day (this is down from a few years ago). That means that a debt of 100 denarri is $10,200. That is what the servant was unwilling to forgive. A talent is equal to 6,000 denarri, or 16 and a half years worth of wages, so a debt of 10,000 denarri is equal to 6.24 billion dollars. I don’t know about you, but it would take me a long time to pay off a debt of 6 billion.

God is willing to forgive an infinite amount on our behalf, but the expectation is that we will also forgive, and not only are we told that we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive, the simple fact is we cannot. If we have our fist clenched in anger, an almost universal sign of displeasure, then we cannot receive anything in return, in order to receive forgiveness we have to loosen our hand and let go of that which we are clinging and holding on to.

So how do we do this, how do we work on getting rid of this weight we are carrying around? We rap about it, and no that does not mean we start making beat box sounds with our mouths. Instead, RAP is an acronym. The first step is to remember our own shortcomings. In trying to release a wrong that someone else has done, think or write down five things that you have done wrong to others. It is much harder to remain indignant, when we remember our own imperfections and times we have done wrong. We open ourselves up to new possibilities when we remove ourselves from the role of victim. So, first step is to remember our own shortcomings.

The second is to assume the best intentions of others. We usually assume the worst, we think that the person who just cut us off in traffic is just a jerk, but what if instead of thinking that we instead think, their wife has just gone into labor and they're in a hurry to get to the hospital, or their children are at home sick and they want to get home quickly to see them. It doesn’t change the reality of the situation, we still got cut off, but it changes our perception of it because now instead of thinking they are a jerk we are worried for them, and we might offer up a prayer, which is the third step. Now I feel I must note that this will not always work. If you were physically or sexually abused, for example, I don’t think there is a way to assume the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Step one, remember our own shortcomings, step two assume the best of intentions not the worst, and step three is to pray for those who have wronged us.

Jesus tells us to offer prayers for our enemies, and when we do this, the prayer is not something like “Dear God, please help them to see what a jerk they are, and how wrong they are and how right I am.” That is not what we are called to do. Instead we should be asking for God to bless them just as we pray for blessings on those we love. We should be praying for God to help us to love them, just as God loves them. Pray for a change in our heart, not a change in their heart, so that we can begin to see them again as a child of God and to treat them as such. And finally, we pray that God will help us to let go of the hurt they have caused us. Remember your own shortcomings, assume the best, pray for them.

A fourth step, which can also be helpful, is to seek to understand what shaped them. What caused them to do what they did? Why did they act this way? Most abusers were also abused themselves. Now does that justify her behavior? Absolutely not. That is often one of the questions people will ask is whether forgiveness condones the actions. I think we all know the answer is no, but we still worry about it. A good definition of forgiveness, is to let go of the right to retaliate. It does not say that the action was okay, it merely says that we are no longer going to carry that weight with us. We are not going to be doubly harmed by continuing to carry the baggage of the injury with us. We are going to let it go.

Forgiveness also does not remove the possibility of punishment. When Samantha and Abigail get in trouble, I don’t take away their time out, or lessen whatever the punishment they receive merely because they say they are sorry and I forgive them and tell them that I love them. The punishment is still in place because they still have to learn that what they did has negative ramifications. Forgiveness is not about enabling the perpetrator. I think this is often misunderstood. I have heard horrible stories from domestic abuse victims who have been told, often by their ministers, that they should forgive their abuser and because they have forgiven them should stay in the abusive relationship.

Forgiveness, as a form of restorative justice, seeks to restore and repair broken relationships. That is why God forgives us because God wants to be restored into relationship with us. Sin is literally a breaking of relationship, and so God offers forgiveness to restore relationship. While we try to do the same when we forgive others, some relationships cannot and should not be restored, but that doesn’t mean that forgiveness cannot take place. If you are being abused, you need to get out of that relationship, and that has nothing to do with forgiveness. If you have been betrayed by someone you might not be able to continue in relationship with that person, but that does not stop you from being able to forgive. Forgiveness is not about enabling the other person to continue to hurt us, and it does not mean that no punishment can happen. Forgiveness is about stopping us from perpetuating the pain that has already been caused to us, but that does not mean that we have to allow it to happen again.

The final question most people ask is whether forgiveness can be given if the person who has harmed us never asks for it. The simple answer is yes, because, again, while forgiveness at its heart seek to reconcile broken relationships, it does not always result in that. Forgiveness is often more about us than it is about those who hurt us, and the best example of that is Jesus. When he is hanging on the cross, he said “forgive them father for they know not what they do.” The Romans did not ask for forgiveness, but Jesus offered it in return. Forgiveness is about letting go of the right to satisfaction or redress for a wrong done to us, and in that we can be the person who acts first. Sometimes we may be giving forgiveness for something the other person is never sorry about, but for us to stop the hurt we need to begin this process.

Do not expect the process to bring immediate results. For some the little things, it might be almost instantaneous, but other things are going to take a lot longer. For these large stones, and for the stones that are even too big for us to carry, doing you rap is not going to remove the pain and the hurt in one shot. It just won’t. Instead it is something that we have to chip away at and the more we work at it the smaller it gets, and the smaller it gets the easier it gets. But, I think what today’s passage also reminds us, is that even when we think we have processed everything, that we have forgiven, that it will raise its ugly head, and we have to begin all over again. How many times must I forgive? Peter asks, and Jesus says not just seven times, but 77 times. As forgiven people we are called to forgive, and in order to receive forgiveness for the hurts we have caused we must be willing to let go, to open our hand and let go of the hurts we have received.

Let me close with two quotes and then I am going to tell you what to do with the rock you were given this morning when you came into worship. After having spent twenty-five years in prison, Nelson Mandela was asked about his feelings toward his jailers and those who imprisoned him, to which he responded: “I hated my jailers when I left, but I realized I had to leave it all behind. Otherwise I would still be in prison – a prison of my own making.” We must forgive. There is no boundary line, there is no line in the sand we can draw, that says we only forgive up to this point, that everything beyond that is unforgivable. That is the responsibility of loving and being loved by God and that is the challenge of being a disciple of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Our love to the world begins with first accepting Christ and through him God’s forgiveness, and then offering that forgiveness to the world, and today we are going to make just one small start. The stone you received represents a hurt in your life. Either a hurt you have received or a hurt you caused that you want to let go of either through beginning the process of offering forgiveness or of seeking forgiveness. We are going to pray together, and then Tracy is going to play “Where were you when the world stopped turning” by Alan Jackson and then I invite you to come forward and to place your stone on one of the two tables up front as the first step, and then light a candle as a means of breaking the darkness with the power of light and love. Then you may come to kneeling rail for prayer or you may return to your seats. We are offered forgiveness and in return we must forgive. Overcoming the hate and darkness of the world begins with us, but this cannot be accomplished with hate and darkness, but only with light and love and forgiveness.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Is The Purpose of Education?

This is a post recently made by Seth Godin, which I found very intriguing: (Seth's blog, on which this appeared, can be found here. Also, "intriguing" does not mean I agree with everything.)

A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

Sure, there was some moral outrage at seven-year olds losing fingers and being abused at work, but the economic rationale was paramount. Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries and fought hard to keep the kids at work--they said they couldn't afford to hire adults. It wasn't until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale to sell this major transformation to industrialists was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn't a coincidence--it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they're told.

Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

Nobel-prize winning economist Michael Spence makes this really clear: there are tradable jobs (making things that could be made somewhere else, like building cars, designing chairs and answering the phone) and non-tradable jobs (like mowing the lawn or cooking burgers). Is there any question that the first kind of job is worth keeping in our economy?

Alas, Spence reports that from 1990 to 2008, the US economy added only 600,000 tradable jobs.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

Do you see the disconnect here? Every year, we churn out millions of of worker who are trained to do 1925 labor.

The bargain (take kids out of work so we can teach them to become better factory workers) has set us on a race to the bottom. Some argue we ought to become the cheaper, easier country for sourcing cheap, compliant workers who do what they're told. We will lose that race whether we win it or not. The bottom is not a good place to be, even if you're capable of getting there.

As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble.

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Statement From Council of Bishops on 9/11

The following is a statement from Bishop Goodpastor regarding September 11:

On behalf of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church I greet you in the name of Jesus the Christ in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven….” (Colossians 1:19-20, NRSV)

On this, the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I call upon United Methodists and all people of faith to a renewed commitment to ministry of reconciliation, and to being witnesses of God’s love and grace for and in the whole world. As people of faith, we approach this anniversary with the gift of both memory and hope.

None of us who watched in shock and horror as the events unfolded on that fateful day in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC will ever forget the images. We remember the innocent lives that were lost on that day. We remember the first responders who put their lives on the line to provide assistance in the midst of the devastation. We remember the ways in which the world reached out to embrace us in our pain and grief. And we remember the generous outpouring of more than $20 million through the United Methodist Committee on Relief and our “Love in the Midst of Tragedy” special offerings.

Even as we recall all of these events of a decade ago, we are also a people whose faith and hope in Christ Jesus turn our hearts and lives toward the future. We proclaim the Resurrection message that the future belongs to God’s reconciled new creation, and we live toward that time when the dividing walls of hostility will come down and God will wipe away every tear, and death will be no more. In a world of violence and revenge, of suspicion and fear, of mistrust and hatred, we dare to proclaim an alternative vision known throughout Scriptures as God’s Shalom. We believe that God works for good in all things, and that the goodness and mercy of God can overcome even the most tragic events and experiences in this world.

In the days and weeks ahead, communities will be marking this anniversary in a variety of ways, and we urge our churches to lead in planning for and providing services of worship and prayer. Let us build bridges of trust and reconciliation through these services by inviting and encouraging people of all faiths to come together for prayer. Let us work for personal and social holiness by practicing John Wesley’s General Rules for the people called Methodist, especially to do no harm and to do good. Let us seek to restore a sense of hope for the future by praying for and working for the healing of broken relationships. Let us remember that day of pain, suffering, and grief; but let us also seek to bind up the wounds and renew our efforts to work for peace with justice.

Above all else let us live as faithful followers of the Prince of Peace and, in the words of the author of the Letter to the Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other….” (Colossians 3:12-13, NRSV) May our memory and our hope unite to move all of us toward peace and inspire us to live with compassion, confidence and courage.

Larry M. Goodpaster
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sports Rant

Football season is finally upon us, and I'm sure the NCAA could not be happier because finally there are other things to report on other than the scandals. But the scandals continue. There are now stories out that the NCAA knows someone paid Cam Newton's family for him to attend Auburn, although they cannot as of yet compel this individual to testify. Miami is in serious jeopardy of having the death penalty imposed (and if the NCAA wants to get tough that is what they need to do), Ohio State continues their problems and on and on it goes.

Now, just like last spring, it appears that the Big 12 might be on it's last legs. I'm not sure that anything else so well demonstrates the absurdity of big time college football than this. We have a conference of ten teams called the Big 12, and a conference of 12 teams called the Big 10. The reason they ended up with this is because each added or subtracted teams, and as a result it turns out that the college administrators cannot do simple math either. Rename the darn conferences, don't keep pretending that you are something you are not.

We also have to stop paying attention to anything that Jim Tressel says. We were first told that he "volunteered" to be suspended one game, and then multiple games when he was still with Ohio State as a result of his actions. He didn't volunteer for anything, they were simply hoping that the NCAA wouldn't issue stricter punishment if the university did it itself. Then when he joined the NFL he wasn't going to be suspended any games, even though Terrelle Pryor is going to have to sit out for what he did in college, and this is totally ridiculous as well (and he is now going to appeal). But then when the commissioners office called and expressed some concern, then Tressel again "volunteered" to be suspended some games.

Please, let's get over the idea that Tressel is a good guy. I think SI totally proved the opposite to be the case. He has a track record everywhere he has been of having serious allegations raised against the program, with the people pointing fingers at him, but he's always tried to place the blame elsewhere and said "I didn't know." Well this time we do know he knew, so let's stop the charade and call a spade a spade. The only thing Jim Tressel cares about is winning, and rules don't mean anything. The part of him that is concerned with ethics is gone. He is, in other words, an ethical eunic. Let's deal with him as such.

Finally, this is a screenshot from ESPN from last spring, which again shows the sorry state of NCAA sports, and football in particular:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Someone Finally Listened

Our youngest daughter was slow to begin speaking. This is not all that unusual in second children, but as it progressed we began to be concerned. At a routine appointment with our pediatrician she told us she thought she might be about 6 months behind and we should have her evaluated, and so we did.

The results of that first evaluation were that she was about 4 months behind overall and therefore did not qualify for assistance. She was making improvements at the time, and so we hoped that it was just a temporary set back. As her language capabilities increased, she was way above in putting sentences together and also in vocabulary, her pronunciation was still behind, and so we had her evaluated again when we could.

This time we were told by the evaluator that she wished all of her kids were at the stage that our daughter was. Now we know that most of the time the kids that the evaluator is dealing with are way behind where they should be, but we continually felt like our concerns were being dismissed outright. As my wife said, "that's great, but I want to be able to understand what my daughter is saying to me."

When we raise our concerns about her speech, we continually hear, "well I can understand her just fine", as if somehow it's our problem. We hear that even when we have told them that if she is talking about something and it's in context she can be understood because our minds will process something that makes sense out of what she is saying in context. The problem arises when there is no context. When she just walks up and starts talking is when we have problems.

Yesterday, she again went for another evaluation (and I had an incident in the morning in which I had to have her repeat herself 4 times for me to understand what she was asking). As it was going on and she seemed to be doing very well, I was concerned that we were again going to be told that everything was fine and that we should just basically stop being overly concerned parents.

But this time we were finally listened to. Although she knew the words, the evaluator paid attention to what she was saying and how she was saying it and said that she is behind and should be getting some assistance. She actually took the time to hear what we were saying, that it's not about her sentence structure, our how many words she knows, or if she can hear us, all of which she excels at, but instead it was that we don't often know what she is saying and we want to.

We want to understand our daughter when she talks to us all the time, not just some of them time. This time the evaluator took the time to put the entire picture into context and understood that while it's great that she knows what a pig is and can even say pig, that there were annunciation issues that in combination with other words would make it hard to interpret.

It was so nice to finally not be thought of as helicopter parents who are making a mountain out of a mole hill, but was people who had legitimate concerns about their daughter. That has not happened since we first went to the pediatrician and I am so grateful, and even more grateful that she is getting the help she needs.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Power of Thank You

I recently sent out thank you notes to all of the leaders in our congregation and others who are volunteering. It is quite obvious that this has never been done in this congregation. I also know it was never done in my prior church. I wanted to but didn't have the authority to make that happen and so it never did. The feedback has been amazing. It may turn out to be one of the most important things I have done in my first two months here in building relationships.

Now the reason I did it was not to garner acclaim, but to truly thank those who give of themselves to the church. We are primarily a volunteer organization and yet few of us ever take the time to actually thank our volunteers in a formal and personal way. Printing names in the bulletin is great, but taking the time to actually individually thank everyone should be a requirement of all pastors.

If you have not taken the time to individually thank your volunteers then you should. As pastors we are only successful because of those who do all the work that keeps the church going.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Putting Down Our Nets

Here is my sermon from Sunday. We have begun an eight-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. The text was Matthew 4:12-23.

This morning we begin an eight-part series in which we will explore some of the challenges of being a disciple of Christ. Challenges like forgiveness and money and servant leadership and having and feeling joy. But today we start, maybe appropriately enough at the beginning with accepting the call to be a disciple, and it is, of course, a fishing story. I’m sure that all of us have heard at least one fish story in our lives, and most of us have probably even told one or two ourselves, about the one that got away or about how big the fish we did bring home, which the person hearing the story never saw, really was.

For some reason, fishing tends to bring out these stories, more than most other activities in which we engage. That most famous of all authors, anonymous, once wrote “An answer to this question, is greatly what I wish; does fishing make men liars, or do only liars fish?”[1] Fortunately for everyone, most fishing stories tend to be short. The fish are always long, but the stories are short. But, I’m going to be honest, I don’t like fishing. No offense to those of you who do, but to me, fishing is about as exciting as watching paint dry. A friend of mine and I have a running argument about this. She will spend hours sitting in a boat or on the shore fishing and think it’s the greatest day she’s had, but then will complain that spending three hours watching baseball is boring as all get out. We have simply learned to agree to disagree. But the Bible is full of fish stories, and today we have one of the most well known. Of all of the fish stories we know, today’s is one of the biggest. In fact, this passage, or at least the line about making the disciples “fishers of men”, is probable one of the most famous in the New Testament.

There is an enormous amount going on in this short passage. First we have the announcement of John the Baptist’s arrest, which will lead to his execution and serves as the first example of what discipleship looks like, the arrest leads to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Next we are told that Jesus began to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” which is at the core of Jesus’ message, then we have the calling of the first disciples, followed by a summary of Jesus’ activities in proclaiming the reign of God which he will follow throughout the remainder of his ministry. We could spend a considerable amount of time discussing just this short scripture passage, but since I only have 45 minutes to talk to you this morning, I’m going to have to limit myself. (That was a joke; I’ll keep it to a half hour).

As I already said, this morning we are going to focus on the calling of the disciples. Matthew says that Jesus finds the disciples at the Sea of Galilee preparing their nets and fishing. Because today most people fish only as a hobby, as something we do in order to unwind, we often wrongly put our understanding of fishing on to the stories we hear in the Bible. It’s like the story of the minister who approached the young boy fishing in the pond at a park. “Do you know any stories from the Bible” the minister asked. “Yes, sir” the boy quickly replied. “Which do you like the best?” The boy looked up and said “The one where everybody loafs and fishes.” For most of us fishing is something we do on vacation, so we create a rather tranquil pastoral picture of what fishing entails. But that is nothing of what is going on in this story.

Fishing, especially the way they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee is incredibly hard and backbreaking work. The Sea of Galilee is a major body of water, about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide. Because the lake is currently shrinking, they are doing archaeological digs and are discovering things about the activities in and around the lake during Jesus' time that have been unknown for more than 1500 years. They have currently discovered the pylons for more than 100 commercial fishing piers from the Roman period. These are not little docks that would only take one boat, but instead large piers that would have been accommodating several very large boats at a time. Fishing was one of the commercial activities for the area, and it was big business. This is not the quaint little fishing scene that we so often imagine in our minds, or at least I do. As Rev. Sarah Breur has remarked “we imagine a kind of idealized, peaceful, pastoral version of these activities. And then we’re puzzled and disappointed when our walk with Christ doesn’t match up to the tranquility of these scenes we imagined.”[2][3] And so it is with God. Grace is available to us, not because we seek it out, but because it is already offered to us to find. Discipleship is not for us to seek out, but for us to answer when we have properly taken the time to listen for Christ to say “come follow me.”

But, in order to truly understand our call to be a disciple, I think we need to broaden our understanding of being called even more than we do. We talk about the ministry being a calling, but Linda is called to teaching just as much as I am called to the ministry. Merely because we are serving God in different ways does not make one more important than the other. It does not make one more significant in the eyes of God. Each and every one of us are called by God to a specific ministry. A ministry which God has already given us the graces and skills to accomplish. Just as Simon, Andrew, James and John were not called to be carpenters, but instead to be fishers of people, so too are each and every one of us called to utilize the skills that God has given us in order to work toward the kingdom of God. God does not call us to do anything that we are not already gifted to do.

Now does this mean it is easy? Of course not. It takes patience and perseverance, it takes work and dedication, it takes overcoming obstacles and it takes practice. Simon and Andrew did not become fishermen overnight. They had to learn the skills, they had to practice the craft, and they had to apply what they had learned in order to be the best fishermen they could be. Jesus also does not tell them that he is going to do all the work. He does not say, come follow me and I will throw out a net, and I will pull it back into the boat, and I will sail into port, and I will unload all the fish and you can sit back and take all the credit. Instead, he says “come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” There is a clear expectation that they will have to do all of the hard work that comes with fishing, they will have to do all the hard work of being a disciple.

If we expect that being is disciple will be easy, that God will do everything for us, that everything will be provided for, and all we need to do is sit back and relax, it is no wonder that we are so often disappointed in our walk with God. As Dietrich Bonheoffer said, there is no cheap grace, being a disciple is a difficult thing. Just answering the call can be one of the hardest things we will even do, believe me, I speak from personal experience. But God does not call us to be or to do anything that God has not already equipped us to do

As the tremendous success of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life has shown, people are trying to seek a purpose and meaning in their lives. While I have many problems with Rick Warren’s theology, as well as his belief that there is only one purpose for us, I do agree that we need to find the gifts and graces that God has given to us and seek ways that we can use those in order to further God’s work here in the world. Jesus is calling to each and every one of us to come and follow, and each and every one of us gets a different invitation based on who we are and what we can offer to the world. But, and here is the hard part, we must be willing to listen for the call, and we must be willing to cast down our nets and to follow Christ in order to be a disciple.

The invitation to discipleship comes from God. The request to be a disciple has already been made. The summons has already come, and we have all already been given the skills necessary to undertake whatever it is that we are called to do. Now it is up to us to answer that call, to put down our nets and to become a disciple. The path will not be easy, the trip will not be trouble-free and the job will not be undemanding, but in the end it is all worth it, because that is what being a disciple of Christ entails. So let us cast down our nets and follow Christ, for with Christ all things are possible, and we are being called to be fishers of people for the Kingdom of God. Thanks be to God sisters and brothers. Amen.

[1] Samra, Cal and Rose. More Holy Humor. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997. P. 114.

[2] Sarah Dylan Breur, “Dylan’s lectionary blog: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, year A”

[3] Ralls, Mark “What about Zebedee?”