Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Losing Your Head

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18:

As I was preparing for this last sermon in our series on Paul this week, Linda said to me that she didn’t want me to be finalizing the writing on Saturday night like I normally do, since Saturday is technically my only day off.  She said she wanted me to have it done by Thursday and so I set that as my goal, and I came pretty close.  I had six pages written, and normally I’m around 8, so I thought I would finish it off and Friday morning and everything would be great.  And then I woke up Friday and turned on my computer to hear of the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and watched with horror not only at the scene but at the sort of uncontained glee with which the news, all of the news reported it.  As they say “if it bleeds it leads”, and this one certainly bled, and I realized I couldn’t preach exactly what I had been planning on and so scrapped what I had written and began all over again.

But it wasn’t just the shooting in Aurora, it was also the news on Friday from the Los Angeles Police Department reporting that they have someone who is stabbing homeless men and then leaving death warrants with their bodies, an act that is very similar to another series of murders of homeless men in LA in which the accused murderer said that he wanted to kill them because they were worthless, because they were taking from society without giving anything, that they were a blight to the community, and so they should all die.  It is the continuing fallout from the scandal at Penn State with the release of the investigation conducted by Louis Freeh indicting the administration, including football coach Joe Paterno, whose motto of victory with honor came crashing down with the realization that he and others covered up for a known sexual predator allowing his reign of terror to continue for at least 11 more years

But it wasn’t just Friday.  Stories like this seem to surround us on a daily basis. Nor are we surprised at the posturing being done by some about the shooting: it’s the videogames, or violent movies, or objectional music, or the lack of gun control.  Everyone has some reason, based solely on what they believe, for why things like this happen, and I haven’t even begun to discuss what’s going on in the political world and the vicious, demeaning, derogatory attacks that surround us on an everyday basis and are only going to continue to get worse as we get closer to November.  It seems that in this country we no longer can actually sit down and approach anything in a wholistic way because we can never admit that another group might be right about something, or even budge just a little bit from our own position.  You’re either with us, or you’re against us.  Either good or evil.  Either red or blue. Either this or that.  We want to try and make everything black or white, right or wrong, and of course we are the ones who are right and everyone else is wrong, after all, we can’t be wrong can we?

Recently the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization for catholic nuns, was rebuked by the Vatican for their positions. In an interview on NPR this week, Sister Pat Farrell, who is head of the group, said “there are issues about which we think there is need for genuine dialogue and there does not seem to be a climate of that in the church right now.”  What she could just as easily have said is that the level of intolerance, the inability or unwillingness to listen to other opinions and beliefs with which we differ, makes genuine conversation and dialogue in the church impossible, and if we can’t get along in the church how could we possibly ever imagine that things would be different in society in general?

In today’s passage from 2 Timothy, Paul is reportedly writing from prison while awaiting his death, a death which is caused by and then comes at the hands of an angry mob who believe they are right and that Paul is wrong.  This really brings us full circle to where we began with Paul who as a zealous persecutor of Christians oversaw the stoning of Stephen who becomes the first Martyr of the church.  Paul was righteous before the law, righteous before God because, after all, he was absolutely convinced beyond even the shadow of a doubt that he was right that he was killing someone God would want killed, because God had to be just as opposed to the followers of Christ as Paul was, it had to be so because if it wasn’t then Paul would be wrong, and Paul simply couldn’t be wrong, after all he could find all of his justification in the scriptures, so it had to be true, Paul had to be right.  Except that he wasn’t. “Paul, Paul, why are you persecuting me,” Jesus asks?

Last week we left with Paul completing his third missionary journey ending in Corinth from where he writes his letter to the Romans, which is Paul’s theological masterpiece, to let the Christian community in Rome know, among many things, that he is intending to come to Rome before traveling on to Spain to proclaim the gospel message there.  But before he can go to Rome he must return to Jerusalem in order to deliver the offering that he has collected from other churches to help support them because they were a poor community.  Notice that they didn’t claim that the Jerusalem community should support themselves, that if they couldn’t it was because they were too lzay or undeserving, I think there’s a sermon in there somewhere.  So Paul traveled back to Jerusalem with this offering where he was met by James, the brother of Jesus who was also the bishop of Jerusalem who told him that some Jews had been railing against Paul claiming that he was abandoning Moses, and worse encouraging others to abandon Moses, and so he, along with five other men, should go through a purification rite to prove his fidelity to the faith.

At the end of that time, Paul and the men make their way to Temple where Paul is spotted by some of his opponents from Ephesus who see him with the other men and assume that they are Greek converts to the faith and by having brought them into the court of the Israelites that he has defiled the Temple and broken the law, which was punishable by death, and so they seize Paul and are preparing to kill him when Paul is rescued by Roman soldiers who take him into captivity, and very long story short, several plots against Paul’s life are made, he is transferred to Caesarea which is the Roman capital of Palestine where he spends two years, before he appeals to be presented to the emperor for trail, as is his right as a Roman citizen, and then he is transferred to Rome where he lives under house arrest for another two years.  That is a very abbreviated story and if you have been following the daily Bible readings for this week you’ve covered a portion of it and will finish this week, but if not you can find it all contained in the book of Acts, chapters 21-28.

What happened after Paul’s two years in Rome we don’t know for sure, as that is where Acts ends.  Some speculate that he was killed in the year 62 at the end of that imprisonment, but others believe that was released and in fact made another missionary journey.  Around the year 96, Clement who was either the second or third bishop of Rome wrote a letter in which he said that Paul “reached the farthest limits of the west,” which would mean that he had made his trip to Spain as he planned to do when he wrote his letter to the Romans.  Sometime after that he returned to Rome and was again arrested and executed under the persecutions of the emperor Nero who blamed the Christians for starting the fire that burned Rome to the ground.  Few people actually believed that the Christians had started the fire, but they sure made for good scapegoats and the people were just as happy to see them eaten by lions, burned, or tortured in other ways and tradition holds that Paul was beheaded by Nero as part of this persecution probably around the year 66.

I’ve always wondered if Paul appreciated the irony that surrounds the end of his life.  Paul was absolutely convinced that he was right and justified in his persecution of Christians and in the killing of Stephen.  Those in the Temple were absolutely convinced that they were right in seizing Paul and trying to kill him.  The Emperor Nero, and his followers, were absolutely convinced that they were justified in scapegoating the Christians because after all who cares about them, no one is going to defend them or protect them, they were evil, they were the other, they are not like us.  How easy it is to justify our own beliefs and actions, after all if we are doing it or thinking it then it must be right, because we would never believe anything that was wrong would we?

A few years ago, Mitch Albom, who wrote Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, wrote about Abigail, who at the time was a five-year-old who had recently been kicked out of her kindergarten class at the Capital Christian School in Sacramento, California.  Now we might think that for a five-year-old to be kicked out of kindergarten that she had to have done something pretty bad, but as it turns out Abigail did nothing wrong.  Instead it was something her mother had done, or more correctly was doing, because Abigail’s mom worked as a topless dancer.  Christina, who was twenty-four and a single mom, said dancing was the only way she could make enough money to support her and Abigail, and most importantly to be able to afford to send her to a private Christian school.  When Albom called Pastor Rick Cole about what was happening, pastor Cole said “God’s word instructs me what my responsibility is.  We can’t let [Abigail or her mother] adversely affect the morale of the church.”  He can’t be wrong, after all scripture tells him what he has to do, he says, and so Abigail was expelled from the school.  When Albom asked about other parents and what they may do, such as maybe those who lie, or who don’t honor their mothers or fathers, or who covet their neighbor’s belongings, or worse their spouses, all violations of the ten commandments, Pastor Cole said “We don’t get into everyone’s life.”

Now we might certainly understand where Pastor Cole is coming from.  He doesn’t want this woman’s profession to be held up as acceptable, we can get that, but shouldn’t she at least be  praised and supported in the fact that she wants her daughter to receive a Christian education?  Why not counsel her, help her find another job, give her free tuition so she doesn’t need as much money to support her family, help her get an education so she can get a better job?  Instead they kicked Abigail out.  What do you think Abigail, let alone her mother, now think about the church and about Jesus Christ?  I really doubt that when Jesus sat down with prostitutes and tax collected that he was worried that others would enter into prostitution or tax collection because of that, or that people would suddenly think that these professions were acceptable.

Certainly others worried about it, others complained about it, others railed and attacked him for it, but what did he say, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repenance” (Luke 5:31-32)  Jesus associated with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, fishermen because those are who needed what Jesus had to offer.  The simple truth is we are all sinners in need of redemption, we all fall short in the eyes of God each and every one of us, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from looking at others and judging them, of making claims and statements that we are right and they are wrong.  It is the belief that makes us wonder if you can be a republican and still be a Christian?  I know that’s not many of you, but it’s the same for those who wonder, can you be a democrat and be a Christian?  Can you drive a BMW and be a Christian, or a Honda or a Ford?  Can you really belong to that church and still be a Christian?

Jesus says go out and make disciples, not go out go out and brutalize your neighbors and the world, either physically, emotionally or verbally because they are not like you. He does not say go out and tell everyone how wrong they are, that if only they lived exactly like us, thought exactly like us, acted exactly like us, dressed exactly like us, and looked exactly like us then everything would be okay.  He did not say go use the scripture as a tool of violence to attack and demonize, to assault and scapegoat.  Jesus did not say go out and attack your opponents because you know you are right and they are wrong so anything you do therefore is justified.

Instead, what does he say?  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the meek.  Turn the other cheek.  Give to everyone who begs from you.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Let those without sin cast the first stone.  Before you remove the log from your neighbor’s eye remove the splinter from your own.  Forgive others as your Lord forgives you.

It was intolerance, scapegoating, fear, ignorance, it was an ability to see the humanity in others, an unwillingness to take a step back and say “what if I am wrong?” that lead to the death of Stephen, and of Paul and of Jesus.  (Frankie Schaeffer) what if I am wrong?  We have become so polarized in this country that that is a position which neither side is willing to even consider let alone recognize.  I am not blaming anyone in particular, I am blaming everyone, because we are all guilty of the sins of commission and the sin of omission.

Now one of the biggest problems when we talk about something like this is that we know it’s a problem, we know we want to do something about it, but we don’t know where to start.  But the solution begins with us.  Twice this year I gave out these baptismal reminder tags to hang in your shower to pray.  It’s one I pray every day, it says “Lord as I enter the water to bathe I remember my baptism.  Wash me by your grace.  Fill me with your spirit.  Renew my soul.” And then what I think is the most important part, “I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.”  If all of us, everyone one of us, went through every day asking all the time, “is this honoring God” what difference would that make in the world?  If all of us were to ask ourselves when we feel justified about something, “what if I’m wrong?” what difference might that make in the world?

It is time for the church to begin to set a new example, and it begins with us.  It is time for us to say that we are not going to accept this intolerance anymore.  That we can sit down with others, even those with whom we disagree and we can disagree without being disagreeable.  That we are going to turn off the hate that’s spewed at us every day, whether from the right or the left.  That we are not going to support candidates who demonize their opponents or make scapegoats of groups of people.  That we are going to show to the world a different way of being.  How is the world changed?  It’s changed one person at a time through simple actions that we undertake.  St. Francis famously prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love.  Where there is injury, pardon.  Where there is doubt, faith.  Where there is despair, hope.  Where there is darkness, light.  Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive.  It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

If we want the world to change, we have to change.  If we want the world to be better, we have to be better.  If we want the world to be at peace, we must be at peace.  If we want the world not to hate, we must not hate.  If we want the world not to be violent, we must not be violent.  If we want to be heard, we must listen.  If we want to be understood, we must understand.  If we want to be respected, we must respect.  If we want to be loved, we must love.  If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive.  If we want the world to accept Jesus, then we must be like Jesus to the world.

Since this concludes, at least for the moment, our look at Paul, let me give him the last words from his 1 letter to the Corinthians, which as you may remember is largely a rebuke of the community for all the things they are doing wrong Paul tells them “If I speak in the tongues of morals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”  If we want the world to be a better place it begins with us and we are called to love the world as God has loved us.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's Been Four Days, Get Over It Already

We as a culture are hooked on the quick fix.  Not only do we want our food fast, and our cars fast, and our news fast, we want healing and recovery fast as well, and this has become apparent again after Friday's tragedy in Colorado.

On Saturday they were running stories from victims who were saying that they wanted to forgive the accused shooter but they weren't able to.  Really?  It's already been 24 hours, what's taking you so long? (That's sarcasm by the way.)  Why would we ever possibly even believe that something like this could be forgiven over night?  They have not even had time to process their most immediate thoughts let alone everything else that will go along with it, and therefore cannot forgive the attacker. They can certainly start, but it is a process, not an instantaneous event this soon.

I've actually thought that Jesus statement that we need to forgive someone 77 times, or 70x7 times, is the realization that as soon as we think we are there and have forgiven that something else will come up and we have to start again.  In other words it's a process that we have to work through, although the more we work at forgiveness the easier it becomes.

Then another story tells us about the event being "a nightmare they can't shake."  One of the people who fled the theater without injury, who is also dealing with survivor's guilt, said in a story on Monday "I'm still feeling scared, like stuff that I see everywhere reminds me of his figure or the theater and like exit signs." I was once in an auto accident, which does not even compare to what took place in the theater, and I was still have flashbacks six months later.  Of course he, and everyone else, are not over these events.  More than likely they will be having flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety over it for years, if not the rest of their lives.

This is an opportunity for the news to actually do some good.  To do some actual reporting.  To talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, to talk about symptoms and warning signs, to talk about treatment, to tell people they are not alone.  Hey, it might even be a good time to talk about all of our soldiers coming home who are dealing exactly with this issue and are having a hard time readjusting to society and what we can and should be doing about it.

Instead, the media are making ridiculous stories with ridiculous headlines so that we can say, "get over it," and move on in the news cycle.  It is going to take a long time for many of these victims to process their thoughts and feelings on this, and some will never get over it.  As a victim of Columbine recently said in reaching out "it will get better, but it will never go away."

For once, let's be honest that there are no quick fixes for emotional or physical trauma.  Let's talk honestly about what happened and what will happen so we can help them, and victims of other crimes, deal with their emotions and reactions in real ways, rather than being amazed that they are not over it, forcing them to want to get a quick fix or worse to shove the emotions down so they never deal with them.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Age of Bishops - Does It Reflect Our Church?

The United Methodist Church is currently approaching the end of electing a new group of bishops.  They have so far elected nine with one more to go.  But a pattern that is very similar to what has gone before has also repeated itself, which is that the church seems to have a problem with electing anyone under the age of 50.

Going into this weeks elections, the average age of a United Methodist bishop was 63.  The median age was also 63.  Of those who have been elected the average age is 53 and the median is 54.  The average is brought down because of two under the age of 50.  But that also means that of the 48 active bishops in the United States, only two will be under 50.  (I am missing one new bishop in these tabulations because his biographical information says he was born in 1900, which I really doubt, but he is clearly at least in his 50s.)

With the new bishops and retirements the average age will drop to 60 and the median age drops to 61.  That means that our bishops' average and median ages will be older than the average and median for both our congregations and clergy, which seems close to impossible since those are also just south of 60.

Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with these candidates.  What I am pointing out is the fact that it seems to be that being 50 seems to be a qualification point.  There are clergy younger than 50 who have been in the ministry for more than 15-20 years and yet almost be default they are excluded. If this was another demographic, such as only 4% of bishops were women, or Asian, or African-American, then this would be pointed out. (Now one of the problems with age is that it changes every year, and by the next election all of our bishops will be four years older, all the averages and medians will increase, and we will no longer have any bishops under 50).

The church is continuing to say that they want to attract and retain the best and brightest young clergy, but they also clearly demonstrate at each episcopal election that they don't trust us in leadership positions.  The way the church currently operates, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, the first two bishops of the church, could never ever be elected because they were 37 and 38 respectively when they were made bishops, and they had already been playing significant leadership roles before it was recognized in their titles.

I have hope that as the church continues to "rethink church" and as our delegates to general and jurisdictional conference reflect younger clergy that things will change, although I am not holding my breath.  I am not arguing that those older than 50 should be disqualified, because that is obviously not true, but I am arguing that those younger than 50 should not be disqualified either.  Let us try and locate and chose the best candidates for the position regardless of their age.

I know that many of these bishops are amazingly qualified and will be excellent leaders of the church.  But I am a little tired of people twenty years older than me telling me what my generation and those younger than me need and want in our churches.  On the positive, I only have 11 more years before I will be qualified to be a bishop

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Grace and Leadership

Yesterday I wrote about the Episcopacy Committee's decision to place Bishop Earl Bledsoe on involuntary retirement, effectively firing him from his position, although with this decision he will still remain a bishop, just not active.  There have been lots of comments expressed throughout the process, including by the Rev. Zan Holmes, who wondered where the grace was, or how someone who the committee says has "spiritual graces" could also be accused of being a poor administrator.

It is comments like this which make me reaffirm my belief that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of spiritual graces.  People can clearly be blessed by God with lots of things, and not have leadership or administration as two of them.  I think we also believe that being a good administrator also makes you a good leader, and nothing could be further from the truth there either.

I believe that a significant portion of our problem, and I can only speak for the UMC here, is that we have a "one call fits all" philosophy.  If you are called to ministry then you are called to do all things, including, possibly, being a bishop, when nothing could be further from the truth.  I firmly believe that some people are called to be in ministry to small churches and some to large churches and some to everything, and yet we don't think that way.

There is an inherent belief, and one I must admit that I have harbored, that if after being in ministry for 20 years if you are not serving a larger congregation then there must be something wrong with you that you haven't "climbed the ladder."  Instead we should give thanks that they have found their calling and are successful in what they do in making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  (Of course what success is is currently being debated.)

I think one of the reason the church is doing so badly is because of this belief.  Rather than truly studying people's calls, and making them truly understand them, we simply run them through the system ready to place them wherever.  The only exception to this is if you should possibly say that you might be being called to ministry outside the local church, heaven forbid, in which case you will then spend an inordinate amount of time justifying your call to be in ordained ministry, since that paradigm simply does not fit the model the church operates in.

You can be a wonderful local pastor, but be a terrible DS or Bishop.  Those two things do not lead into each other.  The private sector has the same problem in that they assume if someone is fantastic at what they do that they will be even better in the next position up.  Sometimes that's true, but often it's not.  As the Peter Principle says people are raised to the level of their incompetence because they are promoted beyond the level where they can truly excel.

It is entirely possible, and indeed likely, that Bishop Bledsoe does have remarkable spiritual gifts and that he is a terrible leader and administrator because those things are not the same.  He might have even been a gifted DS, which is normally the stepping stone, and still be a terrible bishop.  Those two offices require very different gifts and graces from each other, and yet we often get them confused and believe they are the same thing.

In my brief time in the church I have served under one Bishop whom I thought was truly a gifted leader and administrator, and unfortunately he is retiring, but all the others have been terrible leaders.  Some were good administrators, but to turn things around the church does not need good administrators, as important as they are, we need good leaders.

All this makes me really wonder about the vetting process for bishops.  I honestly don't know how the full process works but do know that candidates come to the jurisdictional conferences with various endorsements, but I would really expect that the annual conference they are coming from would endorse them but the question is does that mean anything?  Most people who have served on the Board of Ordination, or even more on the district committee on ordination, will tell you that they receive candidates all the time who have been endorsed by their local congregation who clearly are not cut out for the ministry, or at least not the path they are seeking.

I met several people in seminary who I clearly questioned how they could ever function in the local church.  Some of them made it out, most didn't, but all of them were supported by the local church.  All of them were endorsed as candidates by their churches not because people necessarily believed that they would be good but because they loved them and sometimes they don't want to be the ones to tell them no and sometimes because they are blind to the gifts and graces needed for ministry and think that if someone says they are called that must be it.

How much do we really know about our clergy colleagues and what goes on in their churches? Next to nothing really.  Unless we have immediately followed someone it's just too hard to know, but we do get to know them outside of that and get feelings about who we like and who we don't, who we think will be a good leader and who we don't, but does that actually mean those things are true?

Again, just because you are an incredible minister in the local church, even leading one of the biggest, does not mean you will be a good leader or administrator higher up. It doesn't even really mean that you are a good administrator or leader where you are, and I can say that from personal experience.  I think Adam Hamilton is incredibly gifted as the minister of the church he serves, but would he be a good Bishop?  I really wonder.

If the church is going to change to move into the future, I think we need to fundamentally rethink what the bishops do, how they operate, who they are and how they are chosen.  It is time for us to fundamentally understand that having a call to ministry, having spiritual graces, does not mean that therefore you will be a good administrator or leader and we can't simply fall back and say that we will pray that God will give them the gifts necessary.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Firing A Bishop

Yesterday the Episcopacy Committee of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church voted to involuntarily retire Bishop Earl Bledsoe who has been serving the North Texas Annual Conference. This is somewhat of an unprecedented move and what it means for the church and the future is still not entirely clear.

The committee had already voted once on this issue and told Bishop Bledsoe earlier in the year that he should either retire or would be involuntarily retired.  At that time he agreed to retire and even released a statement and video announcing that retirement.  But then at the end of his Annual Conference he changed his mind, told the conference he was being forced out and that he would "fight like the devil" to remain a Bishop.

From that point, the committee then released all the reasons why they had done what they had done and what it was based upon.  They said that while he clearly had spiritual gifts, they questioned his ability to be an effective leader.  As part of their vote they also asked if there was any other annual conference which would be willing to take Bishop Bledsoe as their bishop, and none of them were.

For the past two days, the committee again met with Bishop Bledsoe, then spent considerable time in deliberation before letting him know last night that they had voted 24 in favor or removing him, 4 opposed and 2 abstained.  This was more than the 2/3 required to move him to involuntary retirement. Bishop Bledsoe said before this that if he lost that he would appeal the decision to the Supreme Judicial Council which has the right to do by Discipline. It has not yet been announced if he will in fact appeal or not.

If he does challenge he will remain as a bishop until the Judicial Council can hear the appeal, which would be October at the absolute earliest.  That means that some conference, probably North Texas, is going to be served by a Bishop whom few are going to want to follow or even listen to.  In addition, the jurisdictional conferences are meeting this week to elect new bishops which means that his position could not be replaced.  If the judicial council upholds the committees decision, which I would guess would be likely, a special jurisdictional conference would have to be held costing the church an additional $50-$100,000.  Finally, if he were to win at the judicial council I don't know how he could be effective in his leadership role.  I certainly would not want him to be appointed to New Mexico, and in conversations with my colleagues here I know that he would have little support or respect.  How can you be an effective leader or Bishop if few people respect you?

The church has been talking a lot about effectiveness lately, including the possibility of removing guaranteed appointments for clergy (this is awaiting a judicial council decision as well).  If you want to prove that you're serious about effectiveness, you don't go after those at the bottom, you go after those at the top.  Firing a janitor does not send nearly as big of a message as firing the CEO, and I think the same is true in the church. Now let me say that I do not believe in any way shape or form that that is why the committee made this decision, but it certainly sends a message.

But, it should also be made clear, and I know it isn't to some, that no formal charges were brought against Bishop Bledsoe and so he is not being defrocked.  If his retirement is upheld, he will still be a bishop of the church, with everything that comes with that, it's simply that he will be retired rather than active.  He could still serve as a bishop in residence someplace.  In addition, it should be noted that I really doubt that elders who are charged with ineffectiveness will be given the same appeal time or possibilities that he received.
I know nothing about Bishop Bledsoe except what I have read in the news stories that have come out about this issue.  But I do know three of the people on the committee and trust them to have done what they think is right and appropriate for everyone involved.  I truly pray that Bishop Bledsoe takes the committees recommendation and simply retires rather than challenging this.  I, and many others, will be praying for the church over this situation knowing that God can bring wonderful outcomes even out of the worst situations.

As a church historian I just have to add that this is not the first time that a bishop has been significantly challenged.  Bishop Coke, one of the first bishops in the church, had has hand slapped and his power significantly limited by the conference of the church.  In light of the decision about Bishop Bledsoe I am seriously considering writing an article for the Methodist history journal on this subject.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Failure, Follower, Success

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 13:1-5:

Today is going to be one of those messages in which I am going to be dumping some knowledge on you all. If there was another way to tell you about Paul’s missionary journeys I would do that, but I couldn’t think of why, but I’m going to try and make it interesting, or at least hope to make it interesting. What we just heard in today’s passage from Acts was how Luke recounts Paul being set apart for what is commonly referred to as Paul’s first missionary journey. But, as we’ll find out in just a moment, it was actually Paul’s second missionary journey.

There are two ways we know of Paul and his travels.  The first is from his own letters.  They certainly tell us about the communities he visited but they don’t tell us a lot about how or when he went to those cities.  We would be able to piece together some things from his letters, but there would simply be a lot that we would not know.  We get more information from the book of Acts which tells us a lot about Paul’s travels.  But one of the problems with Acts, which is written by Luke, is that there are some discrepencies between what Luke tells us about Paul and what Paul says about himself.  Now when these discrepancies appear we have to try and decide who is telling us the truth.  In these situation we assume, as you might guess, that we should trust Paul’s accounts of his own life over those of Luke, and one of those discrepancies relates to what Paul does immediately after his Damascus road experience.

If you were here when we begin this series on Paul, you might remember that he is a pharisaic Jew who is persecuting the earliest followers of Jesus, including overseeing the stoning of Stephen who is the first martyr of the church.  But after that event, according to Luke, as Paul is making his way back to Damascus, the risen Christ appears and asks Paul why he is persecuting him.  Paul is struck blind and then escorted to Damascus, where he spends three days.  In Acts, Luke says that after Paul regains his sight he goes to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples.  But that stands in stark contrast to what Paul himself writes, “When God… called me through his grace, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.  Then after three years did I go up to Jerusalem...” And then Paul, as if predicting what Luke will later write, concludes “in what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie.”  (Gal. 1:15-20)  So it’s generally assumed that Luke’s account is wrong, and that Paul is correct, after all Paul should know, but that is where the extent of our knowledge ends.  We are then left with the question where exactly is Arabia for Paul and what did Paul do there? 

Some say that Paul went out into the desert in order to study, some speculating that Jesus himself taught him, some say that he went out to sort of meditate and ponder what he was being called to do, and others have claimed that Paul running away from his call, sort of like Jonah.  Based on my understanding of who Paul is, I don’t think any of those are accurate.  Paul is not really a person of contemplation, he was a man of action.  He wants to be out doing, not sitting around waiting for something to happen.  I am persuaded by the argument of some scholars that when Paul says he went to Arabia that he went to become a missionary to Nabateans who lived immediately to the east of Israel in the Roman province of Petraea, which the Romans considered Arabia.

Paul would have had some good reason for going to the Nabateans, one of them being their proximity.  In addition, if you remember the old saying that all roads lead to Rome, roman roads were incredibly important not only for the success of the empire, but also for the success of Paul’s missionary activities, and there was a roman road in Patraea. But it just so happened that Paul went to evangelize this group at the wrong time, and the events of history worked against him dooming his missionary activities to failure.

Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, had married Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV, who was ruler of the Nabateans, but the marriage wasn’t to last very long.  Herod divorced Phasaelis in order to marry Herodias, which did not make King Aretas very happy.  To give just a little more biblical context to connect some dots.  Herodias’ daughter was Salome, who then went on to ask Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Anyway, Aretas bided his time to retaliate, and then in 36 CE, just at the time that Paul was in Arabia, Aretas attacked Israel, taking all the territories east of the Jordan River, and sometime after this Aretas also took Damascus.  Just at the time that Paul was doing his work among the Nabateans was also the time that being a Jewish evangelist in this territory would not have been a good thing, and in fact put Paul’s life in danger, and this we know because of a story from both Paul and Luke.

“In Damascus,” Paul says, “the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.” (2 Cor. 11:32-33)  So at the end of his first missionary journey Paul escapes from Damascus and Aretas, a little embarrasingly, and then he goes back to Cilicia, presumably to Tarsus, with his tail between his legs and licking his wounds.  His first missionary journey was done and it was an absolute failure.  Luke does not even record this first trip, and all we know from Paul is that it took place.  Paul the greatest evangelist in the history of Christianity was an absolute failure in his first attempt, and depending on what dating of Paul’s life you use he may have spent as much as the next eight years back at home in Tarsus, not doing anything that we are aware of.  This is not the image of the great apostle that we normally imagine.

Just before the passage we heard today, Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement,” had gone up to Tarsus and encouraged Paul  to come back to work with him in Antioch, where the Christian community was booming, and we are even told it is Antioch that followers of Jesus are first referred to as Christians.  Several times in the past few months we have talked about the importance of where a name occurs in a list in scripture.  In today’s passage, Paul’s name is not listed first, as we might expect, but instead he is listed last.  Barnabas is named first, and he is to be the head of this missionary activity that they are to embark upon.  We know this again not only because Barnabas is listed first but also because of an encounter they have in Lystra.

While there, Paul heals a man who cannot walk, and then we are told “when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.”  (Acts 14:11-12)  Now who is greater, Zeus or Hermes?  So the Lycaonians understood that Barnabas, not Paul, was in control.  While on this missionary journey, Barnabas’ strategy is to city hop along the major roads.  They travel to Seleucia, Cyrpus, Salamis, Paphos, Perga, Pamphylia, Antioch of Pisidia, and then Iconium, where they encounter difficulties and flee to Lystra and Derbe, where even though they are called gods, they are later stoned, and again leave, returning by their prior route to strengthen the communities they worked with before, and then return to Antioch of Syria, where they report on their activities to the church, before moving on to Jerusalem to participate in the first council of the church.

After returning from Jerusalem, Barnabas and Paul intend to set out on another journey, but Barnabas and Paul argue over whether to have John Mark accompany them.  John Mark had been with them on the first journey, but had left in the middle, and so Paul is opposed to having him join them again, and Paul decides to set out on his own.  Although others like, timothy and Silas travel with him, Paul is now clearly in charge, and he is going to do things differently than how Barnabas had done it.  Whereas Barnabas focused on going through the towns along trade routes, Paul wanted to go to the towns that had never before had missionaries, and also those towns that were capital cities.  He may have down this out of personal preference or comfort, after all his is from Tarsus, the capital city of Cilicia, and then had lived in Antioch, the capital city of Syria, but it’s also possible that he needs to be in large towns in order to make a living as a tent-maker.

So Paul sets out from Antioch on what is called his second missionary journey, although really it’s his third, and goes through Asia, which is modern day Turkey, and then based on a dream, crosses over into Macedonia, stepping foot for the first time in what today we consider Europe, traveling to Philippi.  He then moves on to Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, founding a community.  He preaches unsuccessfully in Athens, then moves on to Corinth, the capital city of Achaia, then to Ephesus, the capital of Lycia in Asia Minor, and then back into Palestine, with stops in Caesarea Maritima then to Jerusalem.

Now I just covered three years of Paul’s life in about five seconds, and didn’t really mention, as we tend to forget, that these were not easy journeys for Paul.  Paul and his companions were continually met with opposition wherever they went.  Sometimes they were successful, and sometimes they were not.  They were imprisoned, beaten, kicked out of cities, and were even in constant turmoil with the communities they established as we see so often in Paul’s letters.  Paul’s famous phrase from 1 Corinthians 13, in which he says “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love,” is not some beautiful phrase that Paul was writing for the Corinthians to use in wedding ceremonies, it was instead a rebuke to the community over what was going on.

After spending some time in Jerusalem, Paul sets out again, traveling through Syria and Cilicia and then into Asia Minor returning to Ephesus where he stays for more than two years.  After Paul’s preaching causes a riot occurs in Ephesus, which you can read more about, as well as Paul’s travels in Acts chapters 13-20, Paul travels through Macedonia and Greece visiting the communities he had already established, including visiting Corinth where it is believed that he wrote his letter to the Romans in preparation for what he hopes will be his fourth missionary journey.  But before moving onto Rome and then to Spain, Paul needs to return to Jerusalem in order to deliver an offering he has collected for the community there.  It while Paul is in Jerusalem for this visit that he is arrested and then sent to Rome, possibly to his death, which we will cover that next week.

As I have said before, it is widely agreed that Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity besides for Jesus.  He is perhaps the most successful missionary and evangelist in the history of the church.  He is a giant of the faith, the super-apostle, and yet what I hope you just heard in this brief history of his journies, and there will be a test next week in which I’ll ask you to name all the cities Paul went to and in which order, is that this was not an easy thing for Paul.  His first missionary activity was such an absolute disaster, that Paul had to flee for his life by being lowered in a basket out a window in the town wall in order to escape and then he disappears for maybe up to eight years.  The greatest evangelist of all time failed utterly in his first undertaking at doing what he knew that God had called him to do.  How often has the same thing happened to us?  How often has our first attempt at something been such an utter failure that we have retreated with our tail between our legs and never attempted to do it again?

It is said that Thomas Edison failed at least 1000 times before he finally found an effective filament for a light bulb.  When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail that many times, Edison said “I didn’t fail a thousand times, I simply found a thousand ways not to do,” or according to other reports he said, “The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.”  WH Macy had seven stores fail under him, before he was successful.  Henry Ford went bankrupt five times, before he was successful.  One of the reasons I love baseball is because it is much more about failure and overcoming adversity than it is about winning and being successful.  The best hitters in the game fail nearly seventy percent of the time, and even the best teams will lose nearly 1/3 of their games.  But what baseball also shows us is that you have to keep playing because tomorrow is another day, with a clean record, and a new start, and what we find when we have failed in some endeavor is that when we finally succeed that the accomplishment is that much greater because of what we went through in order to get there.

Paul was an utter failure his first time out, and then his second time, rather than fighting and saying that he had to be in charge and that Barnabas had to do things his way, instead Paul took a secondary position to such a degree that the residents of Lystra said that Barnabas was like Zeus, the one truly in charge, while Paul was like Hermes, the spokesman.Now there are a lot of things wrong with seniority systems in which things are often based on how long you have been there, rather than competence, and we’ve certainly seen that in the church, but there are also strengths as well in that sometimes we have to learn our skills and crafts, no matter how talented we are, or think we are, by studying them at the feet of others who are wiser, older and who have more experience."We learn by taking a backseat and allowing others to show us the way, even if it is a way with which we disagree.

Once Paul had separated from Barnabas he did things differently, he followed his own path, but to a large degree he was able to do this because he had failed, because he had followed others, because he had been willing to make mistakes and was willing to learn from those who took the time to teach him, show him, and encourage him.  And this is a two-way street.  Just as we must be willing to learn from others, we must also be willing to teach others, to pass on the wisdom and knowledge that we have accumulated, knowledge often learned from our own mistakes and failures, and once we have passed on that knowledge, done what we can, we must also be willing to let others go their own way and follow their own path recognizing that our way is not the only way.

In the end Paul’s missionary efforts were hugely successful.  Without him the history of Chrsitianity would be very different, but that success did not come without pain, sacrifice and struggle.  Paul was constantly being opposed, he was in constant struggle seemingly everywhere he went, sometimes being imprisoned, sometimes being beaten literally within inches of his life, and sometimes being run out of town.  He was opposed not only by those who did not want him proclaiming the gospel message, but was also opposed by those who said that he was proclaiming it in the wrong way or to the wrong people.  But even though he failed, even though he was in constant conflict, even though he sometimes had to take a backseat to others, he never gave up.

What Paul’s missionary journeys show us is that even when what we have been called to do turns out in utter failure, if we trust in God, then the future is not over. We need to be willing to admit our mistakes, and learn from them, notice that Paul never goes back to Arabia, and we must also be humble enough to be able to learn from others, to learn from their mistakes, to take from them what can work for us and then to be strong enough and wise enough to know what won’t work and to make our own way.  And we must also know that even though we meet opposition, sometimes fierce opposition, it does not mean that we are wrong and or that we will never succeed.  Instead it means that we should trust in God knowing that God’s grace is sufficient, that because of the Holy Spirit that we are given what – power, and that, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Vacation

The past few months have been extremely brutal for me, and I am a little burned out and so today represents the first day of my vacation.  I know it will not be long enough, but it's a start.

My wife and I will be celebrating our 10 year anniversary tomorrow, and for only the second time in our marriage since we had children we will be going away without our children, and the first time it was for only one night.

I am hoping to spend a lot of time reading, and will be taking a lot more books than I can ever begin to read, and I'm going to try and not read anything related to the church, although that will be hard.  I hope to spend some time looking at art galleries and museums, which is very hard to do with small children.  I hope to spend some time just relaxing and trying to refresh and renew myself.  And most importantly I hope to spend some quality time with my wife without our children around.

So I will join you all again in the blogosphere next week after I return, hopefully with recharged batteries and ready to do God's work in the world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cost and Sacrifice in War

I have just recently finished several books on war and our military.  Flags of our Fathers tells the story of the flag raisers at Iwo Jima, Unbroken tells the remarkable story of survival of two members of a bomber crew who crashed in the Pacific Ocean, and Rachel Maddow's book Drift, discusses how the military has become disconnected from normal life in America.

What struck me in these books was the stories of sacrifice and support the country had for the war and the troops during WWII that does not exist today.  Immediately after Pearl Harbor was struck there were immediate calls for rationing, or planting your own gardens, of cutting back on other items, recycling as well as contributing financially to the war effort.  They did this not only to feel a part of the effort, to be patriotic, but they also knew that in order to win the war that there would be costs born by the entire country.

Compare that to what is going on today.  We have now been at war on two different fronts for more than 10 years, even if we are not at "war" they way we were in WWII.  But instead of supporting our troops, instead of understanding that we must make sacrifices, we were instead told not to do anything different and in fact to go out and shop.  Absolutely nothing was asked of the general populace to support these wars, except maybe to give up some personal liberties, which people were more than willing to do.

As the deficits have continued to explode because of the costs of these wars, which coincided with massive tax cuts for the rich, people have become concerned and wanted to address this issue and rightfully so.  However, want they want to point out is not the real culprit of the escalating deficits, which is the fact that it is extremely expensive to run an empire let alone fight on multiple fronts, but instead they want to say it's all about welfare and food stamps and all the "lazy" people who are "stealing" from us, or more appropriately from them.  All the while also strongly supporting our military efforts and ever increasing defense budgets, both those on the books and those not on the books, as all war expenditures are extra-budgetary items.

Today we celebrate the beginning of the revolutionary war (even though we will ignore the fact that they had already been fighting in New England for a while as well as the fact that the Declaration was voted on and passed on July 2 so that should be the true day of independence.)  And what was one of the major issues for the colonies?  Taxation without representation.

Of course the problem was that parliament was taxing the colonies because their treasury was running way low after having spent considerable sums in order to fight two different wars in America to protect the colonies.  As I said, running an empire and fighting wars is extremely expensive, and so they were trying to recoup some of those costs by taxing the colonies.

There are costs and sacrifices that come with war and with being an empire, and we are completely ignoring them.  We are constantly being bombarded with talk that taxes are too high and spending is too much, but until we come to terms with our defense costs, or more appropriately our war costs, and the shared sacrifices we must all take on to bear those costs then we are never going to solve the problem or even get to the root of the problem.

Let us change the heart of the argument.  Every time that a multi-millionaire or billionaire starts talking about how their taxes are too high and they shouldn't have to pay any more, let us call them unpatriotic, let us say that they are not willing to help pay to support our soldiers and their families in order to fight the battles that are being waged.  Food stamp requests in the military are up 25%.  While some of our military families are going hungry we have millionaires whining that they are paying too much in taxes.

The costs of these wars has been born by way too few people, including myself.  If we want to talk about the true war on the 1%, as Fox wants to, let's change it to what it truly is which is on the 1% who are fighting for us.  There are costs and sacrifices in war, and those costs and sacrifices are being born by way too few people.  It has not always been this way, it doesn't need to be this way, and that needs to change.

It can change in multiple ways.  First is that we can decide to bring our troops home.  Second we can begin to change the rhetoric and talk about the costs and sacrifices of war and begin to say that they have to be born by all of us, most especially those with the means to actually pay for them (and I'm talking the wealthy here) and that those who don't want to pay for them are unpatriotic.  Third, let's also begin a dialogue on the cost of operating an empire.

On this day in which we celebrate our independence and our freedom, let us remember the costs and sacrifices of war and say that that cost and that sacrifice is currently being paid for by too few people.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Cultivating Weakness

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:

A church was in the process of looking for a new minister, when they received a most intriguing letter of application, which one of the board members read to the congregation. It said, “Dear church members. I understand that your pulpit is vacant and I am writing to apply for the position as your pastor. Although I was not raised as a Christian, and in fact actively opposed Christians for many years, I am now devoted to my faith. I have never received any training, and in fact don’t have any degrees on my wall, or in fact any walls to call my own. My preaching generally receives positive results, although someone did once fall asleep during a sermon and then fell out the window where he was sitting to his death. I am also responsible for the death of at least one other person. A little timid in person, I am a prolific writer and have been said to be very bold in my pronouncements. Although I have had health issues, I am praying to God for help, and these have not stopped me from accomplishing a great deal. Most of the churches I have served have been very small by contemporary standards, and I have never stayed in any one place for longer than three years. In addition, I haven’t really gotten along well with other religious leaders in those communities. In fact some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically, and sometimes I have been forced to flee after my work has caused riots and other disturbances. Although I am well regarded as an organizer, I am not a good record keeper and have even been known to forget who I have baptized. Most of the churches I have been involved with think well of me, and have been willing to support me during my several imprisonments. But I have had several people convert to Christianity during my ministry, and am also responsible for a few healings as well. In addition, when the church has been unable to pay my salary I have been able to support myself, and my travels, through a trade. I thank you for considering my application, and if you can use me I promise to do my best for you.”

After the letter was read, the congregation was appalled, and someone even asked, “Why would we even consider hiring a sickly, trouble-making, absent-minded, ex-con?” But one of the board members said, perhaps you should consider who the applicant is, “the letter is signed the Apostle Paul.”

I’m sure we have all met someone who thought that they were, in the vernacular, “all that.” Who thought themselves superior, or better than everyone else. Who wanted to brag about who they were, or what they had done, what school they might have gone to, what car they drove, or how big their vacation home was. We are sometimes surrounded by people like this, even in the church. It wouldn’t take us very long in watching TV, or even doing a Google search, to find someone who claims special knowledge or a special relationship with God, and of course because of that also want to say, “I am great. I am important. Pay attention to me. Listen to me.” Something similar to that seems to have been happening in the Corinthian community. A group that Paul calls “super-apostles” have come into Corinth, proclaiming special knowledge and special revelations from God and are saying not to listen to Paul because he has been teaching them wrong, after all we just heard in that letter what Paul is like, so instead the Corinthians should be paying attention to them.

But Paul counters his attackers in a very unique way and probably not the way that most of us would undertake a defense of ourselves. First he tries to make himself their equal. “Are they Hebrews?” Paul asks, “So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.” These are the bonafides of Paul’s background. One of the problems in reading these letters, as we already discussed, is the fact that we are only hearing one side of the conversation, and so we have to make guesses about what the super-apostles may have been saying about Paul based on what Paul says to the Corinthians in response. So it is guessed that they were saying that they were more Jewish than Paul was, probably because Paul was telling them that they no longer had to follow Jewish law, but the super-apostles were saying he was wrong. So Paul wants to establish again, assuming the Corinthians already knew his story, that he is, or at least was, as Jewish as they come. At their base, they are the same.

But then Paul does his interesting twist and begins boasting, but not about any of the things we would boast about. Instead of talking about his importance, of all the great things he has done, of his encounters with Jesus and with God, he instead boasts about his weakness or boasts in ways that are really boastful, but without taking the claim, which is what we just heard in today’s passage. “I know a person in Christ,” Paul says, “who was caught up to the third heaven… and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” There is near universal agreement, including by me, that Paul is not talking about just some random “person” that he knows but that he is instead talking about himself.

Again it is suspected that these super-apostles are making proclamations that they have had a private spiritual event in their lives that make them better than others because they have received special knowledge that they want to pass on. But rather than bragging about his own experience in which he was carried up into heaven and also received special knowledge. Paul instead says it someone else, and says he will boast on their behalf, but of himself he will only boast of his weakness. Now it could be argued, and maybe rightly, that even if Paul doesn’t say his name he is still boasting since we can make the guess that it is him. But notice that he does not say what he encountered or what he learned, in opposition to what the super-apostles are doing, and then says that in order to keep him from being “too elated” in his words, or in giving him something to boast about and too make more of it than he should, he was giving a thorn in his side.

There has been lots and lots and lots of speculation about what this thorn might have been, and I am not going to add to it, except to emphasize what Paul learns from this. “I appealed to the Lord about this,” Paul says and the response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This is actually the lesson given to him directly by God that Paul is relaying on to the Corinthians here, but he discusses it, or really disguises it, in such a way that you might actually miss what he is saying. He discusses going up into the heavens, but he can’t say what he saw, found or was taught there, but instead his teaching relayed to him, directly by God is that “power is made perfect in weakness” but it is really the first part that is most important. Why is power made perfect in weakness? Because God’s grace is sufficient, and that is really what Paul wants us to understand, and I know this is going to be hard to hear, but God’s grace is sufficient because it’s not about us. Let me say that again. God’s grace is sufficient because it’s not about us.
I know in our culture in which we worship power, money and most importantly individualism that this is hard to take, but what Paul is saying is that it is not about us. We achieve power not because of ourselves, but because of God and when we stop worrying about ourselves, and what people think of us, and instead simply rely on God and God’s grace then we receive what? Power, which is made perfect in weakness.

Of what should Paul boast? How about the times he was whipped and beaten and stoned for the gospel; of the weakness in his body and his speech. Of the times he was imprisoned, or shipwrecked, or in danger from bandits, or from false accusations made by brothers and sisters. Of what should Paul boast? How about the times in which he was “hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” Or the time in Damascus when King Aretas sought to have him arrested, and so to escape he “was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.”

Are you beginning to get the idea? These are the things about which Paul wants to boast, these are the things which he is proud of, these are the things which not only make him the equal of the super-apostles, but indeed better than them because Paul wants us to understand that it is not Paul who makes his ministry successful, it is not Paul who causes word of Christ strike into people’s hearts, it is not Paul who has the redeems people, it is not Paul who saves the world, it is God who does all those things. It is the power of God’s grace, it is the power perfected in weakness, it is the power that God gives to us not because we are great, but because we are weak.

“We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul says, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” That is an image that Paul uses several times. We like to sometimes ooh and ahh about clay jars, and since we live in an area of the country in which people still make incredible pieces of pottery for which people pay lots of money perhaps we understand this even more, but really the importance of the jar, the importance of pottery, the importance of any container is not about the thing itself, but instead what can be held inside of it. We might admire the outside, but in reality it’s not about the outside, it’s the inside that is most important for it to be truly useful. Even the most beautiful pot ever created that cannot hold anything is worthless. We are clay jars so that we might understand that our extraordinary power, does not come from us, does not belong to us, does not originate with us, but instead belongs to, comes from and originates with God. It is God who gives us power, and that power is perfected in weakness.

At the end of the movie Patton, there is a voiceover in which George C. Scott, who plays the title role, says, “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

God makes us powerful not through strength, but through weakness. Before Paul encountered the risen Christ he probably did not believe that, and maybe couldn’t even believe it, but it was because of the cross, because of what Jesus did for us that Paul came to this radical conclusion. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” This is the scandal of the cross. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” 

Besides for Jesus, Paul is the most important person in the history of Christianity. He was the great apostle who spread the word throughout the Roman world, maybe to the ends of the known world which we will look at in two weeks, but does anyone want to make a guess as to what Paul might have looked like? In a work known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla which comes from the middle of the second century and which really has nothing to do with Paul but instead with Thecla, who is actually one of the saints of the church, we are told the following: “A man named Onaseferus who had heard that Paul had come to Iconium went with his children and his wife to meet Paul. Titus had told him what Paul looked like and he saw Paul coming. A man small of stature with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body with eyebrows meeting in between and a hooked nose, but he was full of friendliness for now he appeared like a man and now he had the face of an angel.”

That is an image that is not likely to appear on a bulletin cover, or in a painting on the wall of a church, but may have in fact been what Paul, the second most important person in the history of the church, looked like. It should give us all a little hope about God perfecting our weakness, especially those of us who are a little bow legged and with a lot less hair than we used to have.

Of what shall we boast? We shall boast of Jesus Christ who though God and finding himself in human form humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. Of course I say all these things like it’s easy to be humble, like it’s easy to lower ourselves or not to brag. Sometimes there are things we want to brag about, and maybe even should brag about, but what is it that keeps us grounded, what is it that keeps us humble, what is it that brings us back to earth so we don’t begin thinking too much of ourselves and begin to think it’s about us rather than God?

One day in May, two years ago, in the morning I graduated from Harvard University. That is my bragging, and something I am proud of, and maybe even too proud of. But you know what I did that afternoon? I spent two hours mowing the acre lawn with had, with our push mower. You want to be humbled, mowing your lawn in the heat of the day is something that will put you right back in your place.

But here’s an even easier solution, we all have access to the vaccination, and some of us have even used it, and it’s readily available to all of us right here and right now, because one of the best ways to inoculate yourself from the power of pride, which remember is one of the deadly sins, is to join in worship, because ultimately worship is not about us. Last week when talking about spiritual formation, which is to a large degree about us, but about us working with others, I said that I did not want to downplay the importance of worship because worship is important. What we do when we worship is to gather together to give praise and glory to God. Its purpose is not to fill us or refresh us or renew us, although hopefully all those things also happen, but the purpose is to honor God. To give thanks to God and to give praise to God, and when we do those things then we have to move outside of ourselves and recognize that it is not about us, that it not us who gives us power, but that it is God who gives us power. We are merely clay vessels, who are filled with God’s grace, God’s love and God’s power, power perfected in weakness.

There are no first class or second class Christians; we are all equal in god’s eyes. We are all sinners in need of redemption, and we find it through the foolishness of the cross. Of what should we boast? Let us boast of our weaknesses, not out of a sense of false humility, but instead in recognition that our power comes from God, our being comes from God. “Whenever I am weak, I am strong” Paul says, because our weaknesses are perfected and made powerful in God and by God. “MY grace is sufficient for you,” God says. My grace is sufficient. Of what should we boast? Let us boast about the only thing we can boast about, let us boast of Christ who though God humbled himself to the point of death – even death on a cross. May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Letter From St. Paul Applying For A Job

Dear Church Members:

I understand that your pulpit is vacant and I am writing to apply for the position as your pastor.  Although I was not raised as a Christian, and in fact actively opposed Christians for many years, I am now devoted to my faith.

I have never received any training, and in fact don’t have any degrees on my wall, or really any walls to call my own.  My preaching generally receives positive results, although a youth once fell asleep during a sermon and then fell out the window where he was sitting to his death.  A little timid in person, I am a prolific writer and have been said to be very bold in my pronouncements.

Although I have had health issues, I am praying to God for help, and these have not stopped me from accomplishing a great deal. Most of the churches I have served have been very small by contemporary standards, and I have never stayed in any one place for longer than three years.  In addition, I haven’t really gotten along well with other religious leaders in those communities.  In fact some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically, and sometimes I have been forced to flee after my work has caused riots and other disturbances.

Although I am well regarded as an organizer, I am not a good record keeper and have even been known to forget who I have baptized.  Most of the churches I have been involved with think well of me, and have been willing to support me during my several imprisonments.  And, I must also admit, that I am responsible for the violent death of at least one person.

But I have had several people convert to Christianity during my ministry, and am also responsible for a few healings as well.  In addition, when the church has been unable to pay my salary I have been able to support myself, and my travels, through a trade.

I thank you for considering my application, and if you can use me I promise to do my best for you.

Yours in Christ, Paul of Tarsus

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Magic Number and Day for the Yankees

July 1 marks a significant day for the Yankees. I believe the stat is that every time the Yankees are leading the division (or league) or July 1 that they have won the division (or league). But I couldn't find actual proof of that so it might simply be that every time they are leading on July 1 they have made the playoffs. Either way it's a good thing and we are not only in 1st place on July 1 but are 6 games up.