Sunday, December 29, 2013

Setting the Scene

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:13-23:

Today is one of those days when I don’t like the lectionary, because we have to take stories out of order.  Next week we will hear of the arrival of the magi or the wise-men, because next Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men.  But today’s passage tells us what happens after the wise men have already left, and there is so much going on in today’s passage that we could actually cover this for several weeks and still not plumb all the way to the bottom of its depths.  Matthew is doing something very specific in these stories, which are commonly referred to as the flight to Egypt and also as the slaughter of the innocents, that is crucial to understand for the entirety of the telling of his particular gospel message, and since we will be working our way through Matthew’s gospel this year, it’s important to know what Matthew is doing, how he is setting the scene not only for the rest of his gospel but also for who he is saying that Jesus is.

The only two gospels which tell a birth narrative are Matthew and Luke, and their stories are very different from each other because they have different things about Jesus they want to emphasize.  Matthew begins his story with a genealogy.  Compare that to Luke who’s genealogy doesn’t come until the third chapter.  In addition, Luke’s genealogy begins with Joseph, whose father he says was Heli, and he works backward to Adam.  In Matthew, on the other hand, he begins with Abraham, who it should be noted comes from the East, just like the wise men, and works down to Jacob, who is the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  Now think back, why are Joseph and Jacob significant?  That’s right; Jacob is the father of Joseph back in the story of the patriarchs in Genesis.  And what do we know about Joseph?  He was sold into slavery in Egypt and rises in power there, and what did Joseph become known for?  For interpreting dreams? And then what happens?  He saves his family by bringing them down to Egypt during a famine in Canaan, where they live; they are saved by Joseph, the son of Jacob, who interprets dreams which allows him to save his family by bringing them to Egypt.  And so what has Matthew just told us about this Joseph?  I see some light bulbs going off in your heads.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, has an angel appear to him in a dream, which he then follows, and first marries Mary, then he has another dream, leading his family into Egypt in order to save them, and later a third dream that tells him that it is safe to go back to Israel.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Anonymous In A Crowd

Here is my sermon from Christmas Eve.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

As we just added Jesus to our nativity, we completed the typical scene found in nearly every nativity, not matter what the material or the subject matter.  There was a list making its way around Facebook this year that purported to list the 50 worst or weirdest nativity sets, which some of you may have seen.  There were the typical weird ones, the dog or cat nativity, ones with frogs and ducks; I think the dragons and the one carved out of spam were the worst, although nothing really says Christmas to me like Jesus made from a shotgun shell.  But as I was thinking about nativity sets, and what sort of spurred the idea for this message, I was thinking of the figures who sort of play critical and important roles in the Christmas story.

If we were to tell the story, or to create a set, without the shepherds, you might ask what was going on where they were, after all they are the ones that the angels make the announcement to as we just heard from Luke.  Likewise if we were to have a nativity scene with the shepherds, but without the magi, also known as the three wise-men, you might also wonder where they were.  We need them because they are the ones who bring the gifts, one of the reasons we share gifts at Christmas.  Now the fact that this combines two different stories, one from Matthew and one from Luke, and that the shepherds and the magi never would have been there at the same time doesn’t matter, we need them in the scene together.  So we need the shepherds, we need the wise-men, of course we need Mary, nothing happens with the mother, and obviously Jesus must be there, they all play critical roles.  But that leaves Joseph.  Is Joseph necessary for this story?  What role does he play?  While he certainly does things, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, he never says a mumbling word.  His role in the scene seems to be to simply be there to look adoringly at a child that is not even his own.  If Joseph wasn’t to be there would it matter?  He is truly anonymous in a crowd.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Love All

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This was the concluding message on the Advent Conspiracy.

Several years ago there was a survey done of parents of teenage children who were attending church.  There were asked a series of questions, but one of those was what events in the lives of their children might make it likely that they would stop attending church.  The number one answer of parents of teenage girls, was for their daughter to become pregnant, and the number one answer for parents of teenage boys, was for their son to be arrested.  I can understand the sentiment behind those answers as they are both less than ideal situations, ones that leave at least a hint of embarrassment and shame.  I can remember that what most struck me about those poll results was how incongruous those results were with the God we worship.  I know that there are churches in which if that was to happen, that many members of the church would turn on those parents or shun them, because that’s just not what happens in the church, but what they have forgotten was that Mary was maybe no older than13-14 when she became pregnant and married Joseph, in other words she was a teenage mother.  I am sure that was shame and embarrassment in Mary’s family, and perhaps some shunning as well.  For a young girl to become pregnant outside of marriage, or for any girl, was a violation of Jewish law, punishable by death.  We are told that when Joseph found out she was pregnant that he wanted to put her away quietly, that is not bring her to public shame, but instead married her after being told what to do by an angel.

So we worship Jesus the son of a teenager mother, and we also worship Jesus who was arrested, tried, found guilty and executed by the state, that is he was a criminal in the eyes of the state and all those who were concerned with upholding law and order.  And so it makes me really wonder about us as a church, about us a Christians, about us as disciples, especially at this time of the year, that parents of teenage children might not feel welcome if their daughter were to become pregnant or their son was to be arrested  Have we so boxed in and constrained the gospel message that it’s become too safe, too palatable?  Have we made Jesus like this this bendable figure, lovely to look at and delightful to play with, but no longer dangerous or radical?  The very symbol we use, that we look at every Sunday, that we wear around our necks, is the means of execution.  Have we sanitized the cross, or lost the scandal of the cross, as Paul said?  And then I wonder, what is the gospel, the good news that we are proclaiming if that is the case?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Give More

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part three in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Advent Conspiracy and its four pillars of worshipping fully, spending less, giving more and loving all.  I went out looking for this program, or at least something like it, because of a comment that was made after the Thanksgiving sermon I gave five years ago.  I can remember that I said one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving is that we give thanks for what we have, give thanks for God’s blessings in our lives, to basically say that what we have is good, and then we go out the next day to get all the things we just said we didn’t need.  I even made an accurate prediction that it was only a matter of time before stores were open on Thanksgiving, and lo it came to pass.  But in that message I said that there are really only two ways we can look at what we have.

The first is to say that we are not satisfied, that we need more stuff, and if that’s the case then we need to go get more stuff, and we should also try and examine why we feel that way, what purpose is the stuff serving in our lives, what is it trying to fill.  Or, we can say that we are satisfied with what we have, that we don’t need anything else, and if that is the case then we should stop accumulating, stop buying things we don’t truly need.  We need food, but we don’t need a bigger television, we need to put gas in the car, but we don’t need to buy a new car.  The problem is that while we might be able to stop getting more stuff for a little while, sooner or later we would go out and start accumulating again.  It’s somehow ingrained in us, and it’s certainly pushed on us, we are the most marketed to people in the history of the world, and as much as we might like to claim that we are immune to it, the simple truth is we are not.  We proved that last week when you all completed Alka Selzter’s famous commercial “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” which was broadcast in 1972.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spend Less

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part two in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

I want you to think of your favorite Christmas memories.  Do you have something in mind?  I’m willing to bet that most of them have nothing to do with a gift you received, even if you think back to when you were a child.  There may have been a bike you received, or some other special gift stood out, but most of our favorite memories are about times we have spent with family and friends doing things together.  In fact, if I asked you to write down 5-10 things you received for Christmas last year, I bet that few of us would actually be able to complete the list.  According to a recent poll, 62% of people claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, compared with only 2% who said it was about receiving presents, and yet what do our Christmas celebrations seem to be about, what does a large portion of our time at Christmas seem to be about?  To presents.  We are constantly told that Christmas is all about the gift giving, that it’s all about the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t really be happy, and they won’t think we love them, and our children end up in counseling because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year, and it will all be our fault.  Even though we know these things are not true, year after year we keep doing the same things.

I have been talking about the Advent Conspiracy in churches now for four years and their four pillars which are to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.  Next week I’ll tell the story of why and how I can across this program, but every year I get one of three responses.  The first is that I don’t understand Christmas or have negative feelings about Christmas and because of that I want to ruin it for everyone else; I am a Grinch who wants to kill Christmas.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas.  I listen to Christmas music in July, we have special sheets and dishes and glassware for Christmas, and last year our house was named best decorated house in Melrose, more than 5200 lights, yes I am that neighbor.  This is not about saying no to Christmas, but instead about saying yes to a doing Christmas differently.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Worship Fully

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is the first in a series on the Advent Conspiracy.

Several years ago I was at the bank on the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the two people in line in front of me where talking about their Thanksgiving holiday.  They were both talking about how much they enjoyed it, and how relaxing it was, and then one asked the other if they were ready for Christmas, and as if it was totally scripted,  the woman said no.  She said she dreaded the whole season, and just couldn’t wait to get through it and be done with the whole thing.  It reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in which we are told that “the Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, oh don’t ask why, no one quite knows the reason.”  I’m sure that many of us can identify not just with the woman in the bank, but also even with the Grinch sometimes, although most of us could probably articulate the reasons: busy schedules, crazy shopping, trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, finding the perfect gifts, the kids having two weeks off from school.  Our wishes, like the woman, are often not to enjoy this time of the year, but instead a desire for it all to be done and just to make it through.  Is this how Christmas is supposed to be?  Is this really what Christmas is about?  As you might imagine, I don’t think it is.  I think there is another way to do Christmas.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent means to prepare, and so we take this time to prepare for the coming of the Christ child, and as our candle lighting liturgy said this morning, that is language that we use that Christ is coming, Christ is always coming, and yet Christ is already here as well.  It’s an already and a not quite yet.  Christ is present in the world, and yet we are preparing for Christ to come into the world, as we will say later when we gather for communion: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”  Christmas is like that as well, because Christmas is not just a day, but really a season.  One month, of 1/12 of the year, is set aside to make preparation for and then celebrating Christmas.  While within the church there are other seasons, such as the 40 days of Lent, and Easter is also 50 days, most of us don’t really think of those times, nor do we have up decorations for Easter for 50 days, although I’d be happy with 50 more days of Cadbury cream eggs.  Christmas is already here, we are inundated with it, and Christmas is not yet here as well because we are preparing the way for the coming of the Christ child, and so how do we do that?  How do we prepare for Christmas while approaching Christmas in a fundamentally different way?  That is what we are going to be talking about for the next four weeks, and it begins with worship, as we are called to worship fully.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Let the Word Go Forth

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 23:33-43:

I’m sure the passage we just heard from Luke was probably not what most of you expected to be hearing this morning.  It doesn’t exactly scream out Happy Thanksgiving, nor does it serve to move us into Advent and Christmas.  Instead, this is one of the passages we normally only think of hearing during Holy Week, in preparation for our Easter Celebration.  But we heard this passage today because today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian year, and typically on Christ the King Sunday we will hear one of the eschatological passages from the gospels, of passages dealing with the end of times in preparation for Advent.  In some ways today’s passage does that because one of the criminals, given the name Dismas in the 4th century, the other criminals was named Gestas, asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, an eschatological claim.  We also have this passage because it is the moment on the cross, and then more importantly Easter morning which makes us who we are as Christians.  Even though Christmas appears to be a bigger and more important holiday, we are not a Christmas people, we are an Easter people. And so this text also serves as our jumping off point for today’s message which is about proclaiming Jesus to the world, because, as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, we are to proclaim Christ, and him crucified.

In the United Methodist Church we vow to support this congregation with what?  Prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness.  We have been talking about each of those things to talk about the expectations that the church has for you, that we have for each other, and that we have for the church and its leaders as well. And we conclude by talking about the great commission to go make disciples, an emphasis found in all four of  the gospels, after all they are Matthew, Marketing, Luke and John.  Once we have become disciples of Christ ourselves, we are called to go out and make new disciples, to tell others about Christ.  And it is that issue that makes people nervous.  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.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Laborer's In The Vineyards

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:

In 1937 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a book, titled in English, The Cost of Discipleship.  Written against the rise of the Nazis, and Bonhoeffer’s observations of the German church capitulating to the Nazis, the book is an exposition on what discipleship looks like.  One of the most talked about aspects of the work was Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.  “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer said, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace with discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  Bonhoeffer said that it was not enough to ask and receive forgiveness but then to go on living your life exactly as you did before, that was cheap grace.  Instead, he said, “costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and contrite heart.  It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden light.’”

As Methodists we understand this through John Wesley’s means of grace, which are prevenient grace, the grace that goes before, God’s grace which is extended to us before we even know of its presence or even of our need, followed by justifying grace, which is when we except Jesus grace and savings acts on our behalf, but then we are moving on to sanctifying grace, we are moving on to perfection.  It’s not enough to simply accept Christ’s actions, and ask for forgiveness, but then never seek to change anything in our lives, to never seek to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily, and move on to perfection.

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, and the expectations that we should have for each other.  We vow to support this congregation with what?  Our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  You’re getting pretty good at that, and if you get nothing else out of this at least you’ll be able to remember that.  We started with prayer, and the expectation that we will all be praying every day, and that will include praying for this church, for its leaders and for its mission.  Last week we talked about presence and I said that it is my expectation that we will be present for worship every week unless we are out of town, sick or are scheduled to work, and presence will also include attendance in Christian formation activities including small groups and education classes, which we will be working on and talking about in the spring.  We should also have expectations for worship.  We should expect that we will all be here, that we will be giving our best to God; we should expect that we will encounter God and we should expect that we will be transformed by our worship experience together.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Here I Am To Worship

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 145:1-13, 21:

At the end of the book of Genesis we are told that after Joseph’s death, and Joseph of course looked amazingly just like Donny Osmond with his amazing Technicolor dream coat, after his death that the Pharaohs forgot about him and what he had done and as a result what did they do to the Israelites? They got made slaves, which then brings Moses onto the scene, who looks just like Charlton Heston. God then calls Moses and tells him that he is to go to Egypt and to petition the Pharaoh to set the people free. When Moses appears before Yul Brenner, as the Pharaoh, he asks a rather peculiar thing of him. Moses does not simply say, and is commonly thought, let my people go. Instead he asks Pharaoh to allow them to go out into the wilderness, to do a particular thing. What does Moses ask the Pharaoh to let them do? Worship. Let the people go into the wilderness so that they can worship. That is how the exodus story begins, and of course the Pharaoh refuses to allow them to go worship God. Why would the Pharaoh be so concerned about that? Of course there is the possibility that perhaps he thought that if he let them go out into the wilderness that they would never come back.

But I think an even better interpretation, and one presented by Lovett Weems, is that while they are in Egypt the people belong to him, but if they are to go out to worship God, they now belong to God, because that is who they are giving their allegiance to and who they will be listening to. For as it turns out we really belong to whatever it is that we worship. Last month we kept coming back to Jesus’ statement that you cannot serve both God and mammon because you will love one and hate the other, which is really to say that you will worship one and not the other, and you can only ultimately worship one thing, because everything else will subtract or interfere with that worship. The root meaning of the Hebrew word that we translate as worship means to bow down, or to prostrate oneself. When we worship something or someone we enter into a fundamentally different relationship, it’s about much more than just being a follower. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, the devil does not say come follow me and I will give you whatever you desire. Instead what does he say? “worship me.” Worship is important. Two of the Ten Commandments, that would be 20% for those not good at math, deal with worship issues.

Last week I quoted the Rev. Zan Holmes who said that churches are guilty of the sin of low expectations, mainly because we don’t have any expectations, and people will, I believe raise or lower themselves to what is expected. If expectations are high people will rise to meet them, and if there are low expectations people meet them as well. In studies of churches that are growing or are vibrant and healthy, there are lots of commonalities that are found, and one of those is that they have high expectations for their members. I have high expectations for this congregation, and hopefully you also have high expectations for me, and so that is what we are talking about for the month of November. As United Methodists we vow to support this congregation by what? Our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Last week we began by talking about prayer, which is first on the list for the simple reason that prayer creates the foundation upon which we build our faith lives, and it is my expectation that we will be praying every day, and praying for this church and its members every day, and today we talk about the second, which is presence.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Protecting Capitalism

I’m a little puzzled by one thing in the current kerfuffle with Paul Ryan about his using material without giving proper attribution, more commonly called plagiarism.  Isn’t Paul Ryan a capitalist?  Isn’t one of his common refrains about how great capitalism is and how it can solve all problems?  If so, why does it appear that he is opposed to intellectual property rights?

Shouldn’t he be strenuously defending intellectual property, which includes the written word, as one of the key tenants of capitalism?  Some people have even claimed that the creation and protection of intellectual property rights is what has made capitalism possible. Indeed, without intellectual property rights few of some of the major corporations could exist, from publishers, to software, to big-pharm, even the financial industry giants use proprietary algorithms, and all that is protected under intellectual property rights.

I just started reading Average is Over by economist Tyler Cowen, and he says that “In today’s global economy here is what is scarce: 1. Quality land and natural resources 2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced 3. Quality labor with unique skills” (Emphasis mine, p 19.)  What Cowen then argues is that people will chase after these things that are scarce, and that is where “most of the benefits will go.”

As a pastor, every week I work at delivering a message and sometimes in delivery I will slip up and not say who said something I am quoting, although it’s almost always in my manuscript, so I can understand the occasional slip of the tongue and will give him some leeway there.  But when you quote more than 1300 words in a book without noting it, that’s way past a slip-up.  That, in fact, is a violation of federal copy right law, which are set up to protect intellectual property rights. (That would also get you a failing grade in any school in the country)

According to a Washington Post article, Ryan wants to make a distinction between “sloppiness” and “dishonesty,” claiming that he is practicing the first and not the second.  There are two problems here.  The first is that his sloppiness is leading to dishonesty, intentional or not, although I think its the former.  And the second is that it doesn’t matter; one supports capitalism and intellectual property rights, and the second ignores them.

So rather than attacking the “haters” and “footnote police” shouldn’t Paul Ryan instead be apologizing and talking about how important protecting intellectual property rights are for capitalism?  If Paul Ryan is a capitalist, and wants to support capitalism, it would appear that he is on the wrong side of this argument, and I think it’s time that someone pointed that out to him.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Power of Prayer

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 18:9-14:

Rev. Zan Holmes once said that most churches are guilty of the sin of low expectations.  That we are happy to welcome people and to offer God’s grace, but we expect nothing in return.  We are guilty of the sin of low expectation he said.  So what are the expectations that we should have as members of any congregation, let alone this one?  I think they are found for us in the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, whether we are members or not, and that is that we pledge to support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. I believe that these membership vows not only should mean something, but they do mean something, and so we are going to spend the month of November looking at and talking about these vows, what they mean, why we have them and what the expectations are for us as a congregation, and we begin today with the first item in the list, prayer.

I think prayer is first in the list for a very good reason, because of its importance.  We begin and end in prayer.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that “God does nothing without prayer and everything with it.”  Wesley would begin his day with one hour of prayer before he began to do anything else.  Prayer is foundational, it gives us the roots of our faith.  Prayer is one of the primary ways that we engage and interact with God, and by which we come into deeper relationship with God.  To be able to say that we are in relationship with God means that we must be in conversation with God through prayer.  But what we also have to remember is that a conversation requires both parties to be participating, that is one person talks and the other listens, and then the other person talks and the first person listens.  So prayer is just as much about listening to God as it is talking to God.

Luke in particular emphasizes prayer.  His gospel talks about prayer more than any of the other gospels, and so just following the example of Jesus we know that would should be praying, and yet many of us don’t, and the reason I hear most often from people is that they don’t know how to pray, they feel uncomfortable doing it, they’re not sure they are doing it right, it doesn’t seem to do anything, that is they don’t see any results, and so they stop, or they see or hear others praying and feel inadequate, that their prayers don’t sound anything like that, reinforcing the idea that they must be doing it wrong.  Unfortunately, the church has not done much to assist in this problem.  I suspect that few of us have ever received any training, besides for watching others, in how to pray.  Even in seminary there was not a class offered on prayer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fit To Be Tithed

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 19:1-10:

One Sunday a minister was working on getting his congregation fired up about doing God’s work in the world.  “If this church is going to serve God it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl.”  And the congregation, being actively engaged in the sermon, yelled back “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”  And then the minister yelled “and once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and learn to walk.”  And the congregation yelled back “make it walk preacher, make it walk.”  And then the minister said “and once this church has learned how to walk, then it’s got to learn how to run.” And the congregation yelled back “make it run preacher, make it run.” And then he concluded with “and in order for this church to run, it’s got to reach deep down into its pockets and learn to give.” And then there was a pause, and someone yelled out “make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”

Today we complete our sermon series on money, with the one topic I know you all have been looking forward to giving.  But even though many people, including preachers dread these messages, as you’ve already learned, I don’t particularly have a problem talking about money or about stewardship, and in fact I think some of my best sermons have been on giving.  Those who think of messages on giving as me begging for money, or asking you to pay my salary for another year, I believe fundamentally don’t understand giving or stewardship, which is about a lot more than just giving.  The Bible has a lot to say about money, including the passage we just heard from Luke about Zacchaeus, and really only a portion of that is about giving, although it is a part.  And that’s because even if you were to be giving a tithe, which means giving 10%, which is biblical, and we’ll get to that in a moment, you would still have 90% of your money to deal with, and the Bible has something to say about this.  This stuff matters to us.

I also want to talk about it to bring it out into the open, because most people relate to their money more out of fear than any other emotion, and when we hide our money concerns, issues and questions, that fear only becomes worse.  Darkness increases those emotions, but light will dispel them, and so I want to bring light to our financial situation.  I want you to have your financial life in order.  I want you to know where you money is going, and I want you to be controlling your money, rather than your money controlling you, not only because we are called by God to be diligent with our money, to be good stewards, but also because I know that if you don’t know how you are going to pay your bills this month that you will not be able to be giving at the level that is appropriate, not just through the church, but to all the charities that you might support, and  probably the number one fundamental misunderstanding about money and finances, and its committed not just by us, but also by the churches is what it means to be a steward.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Save All You Can

Here is my sermon from Sunday:

We continue today in our sermon series entitled Faith, Hope and Money, which is roughly based on a series created by Dave Ramsey, and for those who are ready for me to be done talking about money, you’re in luck because we’re almost through.  But we ignore money in the church, and in our own personal lives, at our own peril. Rev. Jim Wallace, who is one of the co-founders of the sojourners movement, who are commonly referred to as Red Letter Christians, said that he once took a bible and cut out all of the passages that dealt with money, wealth, or possessions, and there wasn’t a lot left to it.  It was pretty holy, and not in the sense we normally think of the scriptures being holy. And sometimes our checking accounts can feel just as holy.

Now I know that most of us feel like this (dropping money straight through piggy bank) that our money comes in and goes right back out, and we hope that somehow, somewhere, that something will get caught, but normally it doesn’t.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had a lot to say about money and possessions.  But perhaps his most famous statement begins by telling us to make all we can. While we can look in the Bible and see that money can be a problem, it is not a sin.  Remember that the passage from 1 Timothy does not say, as is commonly attributed, that money is the root of all evil, instead it says that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Nowhere in scripture are we told that people who make a lot of money are bad, and those who only make a little money are good.  We might believe that, but it’s not scriptural, because it’s all in how we approach our money.

You can be generous and loving with a million dollars just as easily as with $1, and you can be greedy and stingy and a hoarder with a million dollars, just as easily as with $1.  It’s all in the attitude we have towards money and what we do with it.  So first we are to make all we can.  Second, Wesley says we are to save all we can, which is what we will be talking about today, and third we are to give all we can, which is where we conclude next week.  Now it’s pretty rare to encounter someone who says, “saving is a bad thing, don’t do it.”  There are lots of debates about how much we should be saving, and where we should put those savings, but very few people say that saving, in and of itself is bad, evil or unnecessary, and yet we don’t save.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Act Your Wage

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 2:3-15:

“Hi, my name’s John and I like stuff.”   I like stuff a lot.  I like it enough that I have done stupid stuff with my money, and my stuff, and I have also proved the point that you cannot out earn stupidity.  Making more money will not solve your problems, they will only exacerbate them.  If you can’t handle $100 you won’t somehow suddenly figure it out once you have a lot more money, and the fact that more than 80% of people who win large lottery prizes declare bankruptcy within 5 years proves that.  Today we continue in our sermon series entitled faith, hope and money, which is roughly based on a series of the same name created by Dave Ramsey. This week at one of the meet and greets someone thanked me for talking about money, and I was grateful to hear that, at least from one person, because most people don’t always feel that way.

I was talking with clergy colleague this week about our sermons for today, and I told him what I was doing, and he said that one time he preached on money he was told by someone on the way out that they came to church to hear about God, and that’s what they expected to hear about, not about their wallet.  To say that we can talk about God without talking about our wallets, would be the same as to say we can talk about God and not talk about relationships, or helping others, or reaching out, or even about prayer.  Our financial lives are intimately tied to our spiritual lives, not only because scripture has a lot to say about money, but also because just about every part of our lives is impacted by money, and so how we relate to our money and our possessions will impact our spiritual lives and our relationship with God.  In the passage we just heard, we are told that athletes compete by the rules of the sport, so what are the rules that God sets down about money?

In your bulletin you have a little slip of green paper.  I want you to take it out, and then hold it up in front of you.  Look at it.  Feel it.  Now I want you to tear it in half.  Anyone have any problems doing that?  Okay, now it gets a little harder.  Now I want you to take out a dollar bill, or whatever you might have.  I want you to take it and feel it, and then hold it up and then here comes the hard part, and I’m guessing that most of your know what’s coming, now I want you to tear it in half.  How did that feel? (notice that it took people longer than it did to tear the paper)  Did anyone get a little upset stomach, or maybe got goose bumps?  Anyone not want to do it or didn’t do it?  Anyone who made excuses, such as knowing that you could tape it back together?  Anyone not have any bills to tear? Now what was the difference between tearing just the sheet of paper, which was really easy to do, and tearing the bill?  Tearing money is somehow inherently different than tearing another piece of paper although really they are both just pieces of paper.  Why is that?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Gift From God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 1:1-14:

Today we being a new sermon series roughly based on a series created by Dave Ramsey, entitled Faith, Hope and Money, but even though this series coincides with our stewardship campaign, this will be a series on money unlike you have ever probably heard before, because it won’t only be about how we should be giving, or giving more, to the church.  Unfortunately the church has reduced the idea of stewardship simply to this idea, but that is not what stewardship is really about, and in reducing stewardship to that understanding, the church has done a disservice to itself, and more importantly it has done a disservice to you, because even if you were to be tithing to the church, which means to give 10% of your income, and that is the Biblical witness, you would still have 90% of your money with which to deal, with which to figure out what to do, how to handle it, what to save, what to spend, and where and on what, and the Bible has something to say about that.

There are more than 800 passages that deal with money or possessions. Jesus talks more about money than just about anything else.  Money impacts nearly every area of our life, including our spiritual life, after all money is the root of all evil right?  Isn’t that what the Bible says?  Actually it doesn’t, and we just heard that passage from 1 Timothy last week, in which we are told that it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil.  Money in and of itself is morally neutral.  It is neither good nor bad, it just is.  We are the ones who give any attributes to our money. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, also had a lot to say about money, its benefits and its perils, with perhaps his most famous statement being “Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can.”

Now I know most of you don’t want to talk about money, especially your own.  Money is one of those topics which if I was to ask you how much money you make, or how much debt you have, that you would kindly tell me what I could go do with myself, and so when the topic of money comes up we get a little uneasy, maybe some of us are wondering if there was still time to duck out the back without anymore noticing.  And so let’s just recognize and name this giant elephant that’s in the room.

Financial planner Karen Ramsey, who is not related to Dave Ramsey, begins each of her lectures by asking by a show of hands, “How many of you feel that everyone else besides for you has money figured out?”  By another show of hands, and this question comes from Dave Ramsey, “who here has ever done anything stupid with their money?”  Good, now we’re being honest, and being honest about our financial lives is the only way we can begin to control our financial lives.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A New Hope

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15:

Three weeks after September 11 occurred the passage we just heard from Jeremiah came up as one of the readings.  There are times in which I think that God cannot be found in the lectionary, which are the recommended readings selected for each week, and are compiled by a committee made up of the major protestant denominations along with the Roman Catholics.  And then there are times like that Sunday where it seems as if God is right there the whole time.  This reading from Jeremiah was perfect for that week because we were still trying to deal with the aftermath of that terrible event.  We were still looking for bodies in the rubble.  We thought we knew who did it, but were still pondering the whys.  There was talk of war, but against whom?  The markets were still depressed, as was the population.  There was a sense of coming together as a country in the midst of tragedy, but there was not a lot of sense of hope or optimism, and then we heard from Jeremiah who is writing in the midst of another national tragedy.

Jeremiah is one of those people who is not talked about a lot in church, and in fact I bet if I was to ask you the only thing that some of you could tell me about Jeremiah was that he was a bullfrog.  Jeremiah is one the Major Prophets, major in this sense not referring to importance, but instead length of the book, and the book of Jeremiah is indeed long.  In page numbers it is second in length only to the Book of Psalms, and it should be as Jeremiah had a more than 40 year prophetic career.  The Book of Lamentations is also commonly attributed to Jeremiah, and if Jeremiah did indeed write Lamentations than we have more of his writings in the Bible than from any other source.  And then there is the tradition that Jeremiah might have also written, or compiled together, 1st and 2nd Kings, a less likely scenario, and yet we don’t really deal with Jeremiah all that much.  Just as a quick survey, by a show of hands, who here remembers ever hearing a sermon preached on Jeremiah or Lamentations.

We don’t hear a lot from Jeremiah for several reasons.  The first is that there are not a lot of readings chosen from Jeremiah in the lectionary.  The lectionary covers three years, and in that Jeremiah is found 11 times, out of 156 Sundays, and then that doesn’t count other special days which have reading throughout the year like during Holy Week.  Lamentations is even worse.  Taking out Holy Saturday, which is the day before Easter, in the entire three year cycle there is only one reading from Lamentations, and it appears next week.  So we don’t hear from them because they are not read, and they are not read because they are difficult to read. Jeremiah is known as the crying or weeping prophet, and we don’t deal well with lamenting in the church.  We might do it in sometimes in our personal lives, and in set apart times like funerals, but even in funerals the idea of lamenting is going away.

Friday, September 27, 2013

One Mo Time

Last night the greatest closer of all time made his final appearance at the big ballpark in the Bronx, Yankee Stadium.  If there is one thing that the Yankees do well it is celebrations and grand spectacles.  They can't assembly a very good line-up lately, but celebrations we do very very well, and last night was absolutely perfect.

Mariano Rivera came out, surprisingly and appropriately, to the voice of Yankee Stadium, Bob Sheppard, who passed away several years ago, and then he ran in with the now very familiar strains of  Enter Sandman playing.  Credit to the Tampa Bay Rays for not only coming out to cheer Mariano, but later also waiting to take the field so that Andy Pettitte could come out and receive the fans ovation, very classy act on their part.

Rivera was then his usual efficient self in retiring his first four batters.  Mo has not been vintage Mo this year, but this was, and then Joe Girardi sent Andy Petite and Derek Jeter out with only two outs in the ninth so that the crowd could truly give Mo their appreciation, and the waterworks began.  Not just on the field, but in my house as well.

I have trouble saying that the only reason that the Yankees won 5 championships over the past 19 years in because of Mo, I think lots of other players, like Jeter and Andy, played significant roles and cannot be underestimated, but Mo is certainly one of the primary reasons.  He will be impossible to replace.  Closers have come and again during his time.  MLB is litered with them, some of them blazing across the sky and then disappearing in a couple of seasons.  And yet Mo has always been there, and now he is not, or at least he won't be after Sunday.

Some day I am going to write a book about baseball (just what the world really needs), and my final chapter will be about Mariano and in particular the way he responded to reporters and the world after blowing a save in the bottom of the ninth of game seven of the 2001 World Series.  Truly a class act all around and I will miss him.

I tried to embed the videos, but for some reason they are not working. You can see them by going here and here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Who's Your Doggy?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 1 Timothy 2:1-7:

There are basically three different ways that preachers can approach a piece of scripture when delivering the sermon.  The first is to stay very close to the text, sometimes even going line by line, or even word by word, looking at what the text is saying, and then, hopefully, making some connection to what we can learn from it.  The big word for this is exegesis, which is a Greek word meaning to explain or interpret.  The second way is to exegete the text, but then jump away from it to make a point, sometimes coming back to it, and sometimes not.  And the third way is to read the preaching text, and then proceed as if that text never existed.  I do all three of them, but today is going to be the third type, where the text really doesn’t really apply to the message, and that is because today is just one of those messages that I need to give regardless of what the lectionary calls for because of what just happened before the scripture passage was read, and that was my “official” installation as pastor of this congregation.

Traditionally the minister has been seen and talked about as being the shepherd to the flock.  I’m the shepherd and you’re the flock.  The term pastor even comes from the Latin word for shepherd.  Ministers are supposed to be the shepherd guiding and keeping the flock safe.   This has been the symbolism both metaphorically and literally for a long time.  However, this is an image that has always bugged me, and it stands in contrast to what scripture has to say, even today’s passage in which we are told “there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”  See now there I didn’t totally ignore the passage.

There are lots of references to being a shepherd in scripture, but in almost every case, it is not a minister, or even another person, but instead it is God who is the shepherd, the most famous being the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  There is a passage in Acts in which Paul tells people that they are to shepherd the church of God, but this usage is largely the exception to the rule.  A better illustration comes in the 21st chapter of the gospel of John, in which Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection and he asks Peter three times if he loves him, and Peter says that of course he does, and then after each answer Jesus tells him to first “feed my lambs,” then Jesus tells him “tend my sheep,” and finally again to “feed my sheep.”  Notice that Jesus does not say, tend your sheep, keep your flock, but instead tend my sheep.  Peter is not the shepherd, Jesus is the shepherd, in fact in John Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”  I am not the shepherd, nor is the district superintendent, the bishop or even the Pope the shepherd.  God is the shepherd.  So first of all we need to remove the idea of the minister as shepherd from our thinking.  But, if the minister is not the shepherd then what are we?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Realities of New Freshmen

Each year, Beloit College publishes a list of what incoming freshmen have always known, and each year I feel older. Prior year lists can be found here. Here is this year's list.

The Mindset List for the Class of 2017

For this generation of entering college students, born in 1995, Dean Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Jerry Garcia have always been dead.

1. Eminem and LL Cool J could show up at parents’ weekend.
2. They are the sharing generation, having shown tendencies to share everything, including possessions, no          matter how personal.
3. GM means food that is Genetically Modified.
4. As they started to crawl, so did the news across the bottom of the television screen.
5. “Dude” has never had a negative tone.
6. As their parents held them as infants, they may have wondered whether it was the baby or Windows 95         that had them more excited.
7. As kids they may well have seen Chicken Run but probably never got chicken pox.
8. Having a chat has seldom involved talking.
9. Gaga has never been baby talk.
10. They could always get rid of their outdated toys on eBay.
11. They have known only two presidents.
12. Their TV screens keep getting smaller as their parents’ screens grow ever larger.
13. PayPal has replaced a pen pal as a best friend on line.
14. Rites of passage have more to do with having their own cell phone and Skype accounts than with getting       a driver’s license and car.
15. The U.S. has always been trying to figure out which side to back in Middle East conflicts.
16. A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning.
17. Threatening to shut down the government during Federal budget negotiations has always been an                    anticipated tactic.
18. Growing up with the family dog, one of them has worn an electronic collar, while the other has toted an
       electronic lifeline.
19. Plasma has never been just a bodily fluid.
20. The Pentagon and Congress have always been shocked, absolutely shocked, by reports of sexual
       harassment and assault in the military.
21. Spray paint has never been legally sold in Chicago.
22. Captain Janeway has always taken the USS Voyager where no woman or man has ever gone before.
23. While they've grown up with a World Trade Organization, they have never known an Interstate
      Commerce Commission.
24. Courts have always been ordering computer network wiretaps.
25. Planes have never landed at Stapleton Airport in Denver.
26. Jurassic Park has always had rides and snack bars, not free-range triceratops and velociraptors.
27. Thanks to Megan's Law and Amber Alerts, parents have always had community support in keeping
      children safe.
28. With GPS, they have never needed directions to get someplace, just an address.
29. Java has never been just a cup of coffee.
30. Americans and Russians have always cooperated better in orbit than on earth.
31. Olympic fever has always erupted every two years.
32. Their parents have always bemoaned the passing of precocious little Calvin and sarcastic stuffy Hobbes.
33. In their first 18 years, they have watched the rise and fall of Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez.
34. Yahoo has always been looking over its shoulder for the rise of "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious
35. Congress has always been burdened by the requirement that they comply with the anti-discrimination and       safety laws they passed for everybody else to follow.
36. The U.S. has always imposed economic sanctions against Iran.
37. The Celestine Prophecy has always been bringing forth a new age of spiritual insights.
38. Smokers in California have always been searching for their special areas, which have been harder to find       each year.
39. They aren’t surprised to learn that the position of Top Spook at the CIA is an equal opportunity post.
40. They have never attended a concert in a smoke-filled arena.
41. As they slept safely in their cribs, the Oklahoma City bomber and the Unabomber were doing their
      deadly work.
42. There has never been a national maximum speed on U.S. highways.
43. Don Shula has always been a fine steak house.
44. Their favorite feature films have always been largely, if not totally, computer generated.
45. They have never really needed to go to their friend’s house so they could study together.
46. They have never seen the Bruins at Boston Garden, the Trailblazers at Memorial Coliseum, the
      Supersonics in Key Arena, or the Canucks at the Pacific Coliseum.
47. Dayton, Ohio, has always been critical to international peace accords.
48. Kevin Bacon has always maintained six degrees of separation in the cinematic universe.
49. They may have been introduced to video games with a new Sony PlayStation left in their cribs by their
50. A Wiki has always been a cooperative web application rather than a shuttle bus in Hawaii.
51. The Canadian Football League Stallions have always sung Alouette in Montreal after bidding adieu to
52. They have always been able to plug into USB ports
53. Olestra has always had consumers worried about side effects.
54. Washington, D.C., tour buses have never been able to drive in front of the White House.
55. Being selected by Oprah’s Book Club has always read “success.”
56. There has never been a Barings Bank in England.
57. Their parents’ car CD player is soooooo ancient and embarrassing.
58. New York’s Times Square has always had a splash of the Magic Kingdom in it.
59. Bill Maher has always been politically incorrect.
60. They have always known that there are “five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes" in a

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rule Three: Stay In Love With God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 14:25-33:

Two weeks ago we began a sermon series based on three rules created by John Wesley, the founder of  Methodism.  These rules came about because people wanted to know what it meant to be a Methodist, what were they supposed to believe and what were they supposed to do to being Methodists, and they are still foundation for us today.

The first rule is to do no harm, which we covered two weeks ago.  This rule causes us to have to pause and evaluate everything we are doing, everything we are thinking, and everything we are saying, and even what we are not saying or doing.  We have to pay attention to how we live, including how we spend our money and our time, what we are watching or listening to, even what we are wearing.  Doing no harm requires us to take a step backwards, to pause and evaluate what is going on in our lives.

The second rule, which was discussed last week, is to do good.  In some ways this is the opposite of doing no harm, because where we step back to do no harm, doing good requires us to step forward, to be engaged with the world, encountering people and meeting them were they are, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting and caring for the sick and those in prison.  This is an engaged faith, it is a faith active in following Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves.  First do no harm, take a step back, and second, do good, take a step forward.  Now the pessimists amongst us might say that having to take a step back after taking a step forward, but the optimists will point out that we are just doing the cha-cha.

Doing no harm and doing good are both important rules.  They guide us and lead us in our faith.   But the problem that can arise with these first two rules is that you can do them without being in relationship with God, which, as it turns out, this was also one of John Wesley’s major concerns. Wesley wrote “a [person may] both abstain from outward evil and do good and still have no religion.  Yea, two persons may do the same outward works… and…, one of these may be truly religious, and the other have no religion at all: for the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise.”  Wesley called doing good and doing no harm, works of mercy, or prudential means of grace, that is things that are prudent to do.  These represent our horizontal relationships, our relationship with others.  But, Wesley said that if this all that we are doing then we are “almost Christian.”  We are certainly fulfilling one of the great commandments, to love our neighbor as ourselves, but “the great question of all, then, still remains,” Wesley says.  “Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?  Can you cry out, ‘My God and my All?’  Do you desire nothing but God?  Are you happy in God?  Is God your glory, your delight and your rejoicing?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Respecting Our Volunteers Time

Yesterday I went to a training that was a complete waste of my time.  Although there was supposed to be one person leading it, there were really three who would talk over each other, and the "lead" could not control them.  Nor was he good at listening to people's questions, controlling comments from the floor, or even controlling random talking.  The room was set for at least 50, but they only had materials for 25.  The leader did have a sort of agenda on the board, and tried to follow it, but did not do a good job.  And they included information that they did not need to include that only added more confusion.  In addition, we were told it would be from 1:30-2:30, but I finally walked out at 2:50 and so have no idea how long beyond that it went.  It was clear that they were just totally unprepared and were just sort of winging it.

It was the type of meeting that would not take place in a business environment because businesses don't want to pay for people to sit in a meeting like that.  That is not to say that businesses don't hold worthless meetings, because I've sat in them, but usually they are at least somewhat well run.  So if businesses wouldn't do that because they don't want to pay their employees for it, why do we subject our volunteers to it?  Do we think their time is worth less than businesses do?

I think exactly the opposite should be the case.  We should respect our volunteers time more than do businesses, because they are volunteering.  We shouldn't think that because they are doing it for "free" that it is without cost, and therefore it doesn't need to be done well.  These should be the best run meetings that people attend, and if you give people an ending time you better keep it or recognize that you are going long and give me a reason to stay.

Now I would guess that the person leading yesterday's session has probably never been trained in how to lead a meeting, or perhaps he's never seen a good meeting run, and that blame lies with the church and its leadership.  Either we train our people to run meetings, and if they prove unable to effectively do it, which will often be the case, then we don't allow them to run those meetings, we put someone else in charge.

As churches we are dependent on our volunteers.  We couldn't do the work that we do without them.  So at the very least what we owe them in return is first to say thank you, which was never done yesterday, and second to respect their time and make meetings as short as they can be, run as well as they can be, and conveying the information that needs to be conveyed in as concise and clear a way as possible.  And if we can't do that then we either need to be trained or we need to be doing something else and let someone else who can do it.

There have been many meetings I have attended at the church, which really seems to excel at this, where I have said "well there's two hours I'm never getting back," and on a couple of occasions have even said "we'll there's a couple days I'm never getting back."  Wesley had a lot to say about being diligent with our time, and it's time that we began paying attention to that in the church again and respecting the time and the work of our volunteers.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Is This The End Of Football As We Know It

I have written a lot about football and concussions in the past (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and finally here).  The subject is beginning to be taken more seriously by many, although not by all.  There is still a lot of chatter on ESPN and other sports shows about how you "can't take these hits out of football", and how "getting hurt is just part of the game."  But we're not talking about a torn ACL or a broken finger, this is the brain.  These injuries are a lot different because of the significant long-term impact they have on people's lives, and the vast majority of people playing football and sustaining these injuries are not million-dollar athletes, but children and youth.

Last week the NFL settled a class-action suit regarding concussions.  This was a win for the NFL.  First because it allowed them to be done with it, and not face a much, much bigger penalty had they lost the case. Second they didn't have to divulge what they knew and when they knew it about concussions.  Third they can say they are doing something about concussions because part of the money goes into a research fund. And finally, and most importantly for the NFL, they won because they didn't have to divulge in court, under oath, what their financial statements really look like, and that is truly the holy grail, just ask the MLB and everything it does to protect the true financials of the teams.

Some of the players also won because rather than having to wait a long time for money they need know for medical bills, that money will be forthcoming.  But it won't really help most of the players, and I don't necessarily think it will have a long-term impact on the NFL or their behavior because they didn't have to admit wrong doing and the judge even said that this is unique case and does not  establish a precedent for other cases. Other judges can disagree with that, but the NFL lawyers have to be partying.

But the case doesn't really end there, because few people ever make it to the NFL, even those who play college football are a fraction of those who play high school football and Pop Warner (or its ilk) football. When Junior Seau's family joined the lawsuit against the NFL following his suicide, and later detection that he had CTE, even though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion, I wrote that while the NFL suit had legs, what was really going to change the game was when suits came against other groups.

Then this past week Gregg Easterbrook wrote a great piece on this very issue (and if you like football and aren't reading Tuesday Morning Quarterback, you are missing out).  He points out the number of individual lawsuits that have already been settled for megabucks, with the expectation that many more will be coming.  This week, three former players began a class-action suit against the NCAA asking what they knew and when they knew it about concussions.  This follows up on a similar suit filed last year.  This only has bad consequences for the NCAA, and it is just a matter of time before others join this suit, and similar suits are brought against other groups.

The NFL has deep pockets, as do some of the large football factory universities, and perhaps the NCAA. They can afford to fight these lawsuits for a while, but smaller schools, high schools and pee wee football leagues do not, and soon it is simply going to be too expensive to get insurance coverage to allow football to be played.  And when groups can't get insurance, football will stop being played because no one can risk the lawsuits any more, and written disclaimers and waivers are not deterents of lawsuits, no matter how much groups say they are.

It's not going to happen overnight, as these things take time, but as more cases are filed and more are settled, things will change.  Insurance companies are not in the business of losing money and so they are going to charge premiums in line with the risk they are taking, and local pop warner groups and school districts simply don't have the resources to pay the obscene premiums that will be charged.  And when they don't either parents will have to pay it, unlikely, it will have to be raised another way, and you can't hold enough car washes and bake sales to do that, business will have to foot the bill, and how many business will want to be associated with causing brain damage to 13 year olds, football will have to dramatically change, or it will simply go away.  It's happened before.  How many high school boxing teams are there?

Football has faced challenges like this is the past, and it made radical, for the time, rule changes.  Can they do it again?  The verdict is still out.

And if you haven't already, you must read this article on concussions and football by Malcom Gladwell, most especially if you have a child who plays football, know someone who plays, or even heard of someone you think you might know who plays.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rule Two, Do Good

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16:

On the night before clergy are ordained in the United Methodist Church, we are asked a series of questions by the bishop, and one of those questions is whether we know the general rules of the church, and what those rules are?  The General Rules were created by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, as the Methodist movement began to spread across England and people began to ask what it meant to be a Methodist?  What was it that we were supposed to believe, what were we supposed to be doing, that made us different from other Protestant groups, and the rules were to first, do no harm, second to do good, and third to stay in love with God.

These rules are found right at the beginning of the Book of Discipline and are still foundational for us as Methodists.  But if you look at these rules you might notice a peculiar thing.  They are not about beliefs, they are about actions.  They don’t say these are the things you need to know and accept to be a Methodist, they say these are the things you need to do to be a Methodist, and that’s because John Wesley was always much more concerned about orthopraxy, that is right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief.  Wesley was concerned not only with what the Gospel says to people, but what the Gospel does to people.  It was not enough to accept the gospel message, or even to proclaim it to others.  We have to be working to bring the kingdom of God here and now, and that’s what these rules help us to do.  Last week we looked at rule one, to do no harm, today we look at what it means to do good, and next week we will look at the third rule to stay in love with God.

To help illustrate each rule, Wesley gave a brief list of things to he understood them to mean.  For doing good, Wesley began with what we would probably think of immediately of what it means to do good, namely giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting and helping those who are sick or in prison, which is given to us directly by Jesus in Matthew 25.  The second rule, and one that was very important in the early movement, was to prefer to do business with those who were members of the Methodist movement or were “groaning to be so” in Wesley’s words.  And finally, we do good, Wesley says, by running the race that is before us, a quote we heard a few weeks ago from Hebrews, and then by taking up our cross daily, with everything that that entails.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Reflecting on Seminary 10 Years Later

10 years ago tomorrow, I went to Boston University for orientation which officially began my seminary journey.  I have been thinking about that and wondering where the time has gone, and then Adam Hamilton said that he was meeting with the pastors of the 100 largest churches and the deans of all 13 United Methodist seminars, and he wanted to know what people thought should be passed on to both groups that our seminaries should be doing.  So here are some of my thoughts:

Business administration:  I was fortunate enough to have been a manager for some Fortune 500 companies. I had handled budgets over $1 million dollars, with the largest being $34 million, although I was not ultimately responsible for that one I just helped track the money.  I had overseen a staff of 25 for a business open 24-7-365.  I had hired, trained and fired people.  Unfortunately most of my classmates had never had this experience, and when they got out into churches didn't know what to do, or even where to begin.  Now there is no doubt they had other experiences and gifts that I lacked, but this one hurts the local church, and I have yet to hear of a seminary that requires a class like this.  BU has a business school, and others are close enough to schools that have similar departments to make this a reality.

Medical knowledge:  BU has also a medical school, but we had nothing to do with them.  Since a large portion of what pastors do is dealing with people with medical issues, and not just those in the hospital (and we can debate whether this is what pastors should be doing), a lack of anything regarding medical knowledge, procedures, etc., is obviously lacking.  I would recommend that everyone who is seeking to enter the pastorate be required to take a semester class on medical stuff, (types of cancers, treatment, side effects, what different things mean) which would include insurance, as well as how to tap into the social services programs available to people.

Pastoral Care:  Yes I know that pastoral care is required, but my pastoral care class was so absolutely terrible that it caused me a crisis that put me into counseling.  I don't think that's the purpose.  In talking with others in the Boston area about pastoral care at the other schools I didn't hear any glowing remarks about them either.  It appeared, at least in Boston, that pastoral care was clearly the one place where the old adage that those who can't do, teach, actually was true.  I don't know how to solve this problem, and requiring CPE isn't the answer as those who have had terrible CPE experiences (which is a significant percentage) can attest.  Perhaps CPE supervisors have the same problem that those who are teaching it have.

Internship:  I loved my internship and the church, and even stayed there for three years, but the biggest problem is where seminarians are doing their internships.  Bishop Willimon has said that he thinks one of the biggest problems in the training of clergy is what we train them to do.  He says we send them to small churches to do their internships (which is true), then their first appointments, and sometimes second and third appointments are to small churches (also true), and then they make their way up to larger churches and we are amazed that they don't know what to do.  Why would they, he asks, when all we've taught them how to do is to run small churches?  Is it any wonder that small churches dominate the conference when that's all our clergy know how to run?  I was greatly blessed to have my first appointment be at a large church, and I had some experiences and gained knowledge there that I never would have gotten at a small church, and it would have had to have been learned the hard way in moving up church sizes in my appointments.  If the largest churches in the denomination want to help create a new future, they need to be taking on interns by the dozens to teach them how to run a large church.  Large church skills can transfer down to the small church, and I believe if you run a church like it is bigger than it is that it will grow, but it's very hard, and in some instances impossible, to transfer small church skills to a large church.

Church Connection:  The faculty I got the most out of and learned the most from where those who were actively engaged in their local churches and were willing and wanted to talk about that experience.  There is always the pull in academia towards being academic, and the church wants to pull in the opposite direction, and there is a pendulum that tends to swing at most seminaries moving from extreme to extreme.  I don't know how you reach a medium between those two, because they are both important, but that should be the goal.

Disconnect:  Someone once asked me how I tried to bridge the chasm that exists between academia and the church in what is taught in both places.  My reply was not that there is a chasm between academia and the church but that he chasm is between clergy and the church.  The clergy know all the information that is taught in academia, and most of them agree with it, but they refuse to teach it or even acknowledge it to their congregations.  So it is not that the academy is off doing there own thing and refusing to interact, it's that the clergy are the ones refusing to interact.  They take what they know, put it on a bookshelf, and move on as if nothing has changed, and the problem is that our congregations then don't know how to interact with the Bible or with fundamentalists churches in any meaningful way, and we don't interact with them in any meaningful ways, which allows those churches to have voice within this culture.

I loved my time at BU, and then later at Harvard, and I am greatful for the experience and what I learned.  Could things have been better, of course they could, but in any professional field there is going to be a disconnect between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world, and if you don't believe me go ask a teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc.  As the military says no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

There is really only so much that can be taught in seminaries to prepare us for the ministry, much of the rest has to be learned on the ground, in the experience of it.  But here is where I would fault the annual conferences and the Board of Ordination, which is that once you are out the experience stops.  I know that we are supposed to be doing continuing education, and there are requirements for that, but I have yet to see a BOOM actually follow up on that, and if they did I would tell them that I have now served two churches which could not afford to send me to continuing education.  This is where there has to be leadership and resources at the annual conference level to provide these things.  Just say that this year we are going to target this area, and work on that, and set the expectation that clergy are going to participate and that we are going to be teaching each other.  I would love to take another preaching class now that I have been doing it for awhile, I would love to know what other creative things people are doing with their sermons, how they are using technology in sermons (and in worship) but good luck finding such a thing.  We are supposed to be connectional and yet we let all these resources rot on the branch because we are too busy running our churches.  If we are moving on to perfection, as Wesley says, then we need to be doing a much better job in helping ourselves to improve and get better at what we do.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rule One: Do No Harm

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 13:10-17:

In the Gospel of Matthew there is an interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and they ask him what is the greatest commandment, and Jesus says, “’You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)  This, or something similar was a question that Jesus got quite often.  Now in this particular instance the Pharisees are trying to get him to say something blasphemous, but in most of the other times the questioner is genuine in their desire to know what it is they are supposed to be doing.  They are saying, I’m at point A and you want me to go to point X, so tell me what I need to do to get there, draw a map for me so I’m sure I’m doing the right things.  That’s something all of us like.  We want direction, we want to know what is expected of us, we want to know that we’re on the right path.  There’s a reason why we have GPS’s in our cars and on our phones, so that we know where we are going and we don’t get lost when we’re driving.  People are looking for the same things in their relationships with God.

As Methodism began to grow and spread throughout England, people began approaching John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, asking him to explain what they were supposed to be doing.  Was their some set of rules, or a road map, that could be followed?  To answer these questions, John Wesley created what became known as the “The Nature, Design and General Rules of Our United Societies.”  The General Rules, which are still foundational to us as Methodists, served to encapsulate a simple set of principles to follow.  Just like Jesus answer to the Pharisees, the General Rues did not tell the whole story of the faith, but they give us a foothold for letting us know where to start in our lives as Christians and where to come back when we have gone astray, and the rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to attend upon all the ordinances of God.  In 2007, Bishop Reuben Job took Wesley’s general rules and updated them a little for a book he entitled Three Simple Rules. Over the next three weeks we’re going to be looking at these three simple rules, and we begin, appropriately enough, today with rule one, which is to do no harm.

Wesley’s original list was certainly geared for its time.  Here is a partial list of some of the things he thought we should not be doing in order to avoid doing harm: 
Buying, selling or drinking alcohol. 
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, returning evil for evil
The giving or taking things on usury
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.

In the early Methodist movement, it was expected that you would abide by these rules and if you were not willing to, or if you failed to obey them then you could and usually would be removed from the society until you repented of your ways and pledged again to abide by the rules.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Passing the Baton

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 11:29-12:2:

On September 21, 2008, the New York Yankees played their last game in historic Yankee Stadium.  Home to the Yankees since 1923, the stadium had played witness to some of the greatest players, some of the greatest moments in baseball history, as well as home to 26 World Series titles.  And for that last game, my family was there.  Linda and I bundled up the girls and drove down to New York City, to 161st and River Avenue, home to the big ballpark in the Bronx, We watched as Derek Jeter became the last Yankee to ever come to bat, and the great Mariano Rivera recording the final out at 11:43 pm, with the Yankees wining 7-3.  And then with tears streaming down my face, I held my oldest daughter who was then 2, and my youngest, who was 5 months, and told them that although they wouldn’t remember this that it was important, and I told them tales of the Yankees and of our trips to Yankee Stadium

Perhaps the moment was best summed up by Derek Jeter who was given the microphone after the game to try and give words to the moment, and said, “There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history, a lot of memories.  Not the great thing about memories is you’re able to pass it along from generation to generation… and we are relying on you to take the memories of this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the New Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation.”  And of course the Yankees christened the new stadium by winning their 27th World Series title.  But one of the things that makes baseball great and unique is that it is about remembering and passing on stories and traditions of the game from generation to generation.  A love of baseball isn’t so much taught, as it is caught, no pun intended, and the same is true with Christianity.

People are always shocked when I say this, but no one is born a Christian.  This is not true of some other religions.  In Judaism, if your mother is Jewish then by tradition you are considered Jewish.  Not so in Christianity.  Your parents being Christian does not make you a Christian, and Garrison Keilor famously said, even attending church does not make you a Christian, any more than sleeping in your garage makes you a car.  To become a Christian is a choice that is made by each individual, recognized in the act of baptism, and like a love of baseball, Christianity is caught more than it is taught.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Pop Quiz

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 12:32-48:

I want everyone to put everything away, all you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, everything else should be put away under your chairs, because we’re going to have a pop quiz on what I have preached on so far.  Did that make you nervous? Maybe a little scared?  I’m sure it brought back some unpleasant memories regardless of how long it’s been since we’ve been in school, because I don’t know anyone who likes surprise tests.  And if that didn’t make you scared, try this. When Jesus fed the five thousand, Matthew took five times as many fish as Luke, and Peter had one fish less than Luke.  The total number of fish between them is 20.  How many fish does each disciple have?  (x equals Luke’s fish, 5x equals Matthew’s fish, and x-1 equals Peter’s fish, so X plus 5x plus X-1=20 so x equals 3)  That certainly left some of you with chills, because very few people like word problems, and I’m guessing none of you have every faced a word problem in worship before either.  But none of us really like these situations.

We don’t like being put on the spot, we don’t like being surprised, and we don’t like having to do things we don’t like, like word problems.  And yet this is a reality of life, and there is really only one way to prepare for situations like that, and that is to be prepared for them.  Rather than waiting until the last minute to study for tests, cramming and spending all nighters, if we are working at it every single day, then we don’t have to cram at the end because we are already prepared, and we don’t have to worry about the pop quiz that comes up, that gets thrown at us, we don’t have to worry about the last minute project that the boss puts on our desks, because we are preparing every single day, bit by bit, we are doing what we are called to do so that we are ready for these surprises.  And that’s not just good advice for school or for work; it’s also good advice for living a Christian life.

This passage is about being prepared for the second coming of Christ at a time that is yet unknown.  Normally when we think about the second coming, we also talk about the end of time, and typically this is referred to as the apocalypse, but that is actually incorrect.  Apocalypse means unveiling or revealing, thus the apocalypse of John is called Revelation, because it reveals something to us.  But there were lots of apocalypses that didn’t have anything to do with what Revelations is about.  One of the most popular apocalypses in the early church, and one that was included on many lists of books that might become part of the Bible, is known as the Apocalypse of Peter, although Peter didn’t write it, and it is a guided tour of heaven and hell, sort of like Dante’s Divine Comedy.  So although we think of end of time issues being apocalyptic, that is actually incorrect use of that term.  Instead, stories that deal with the end of time are eschatological, or dealing with eschatology, which means something like study of the last things.  It also deals with the parousia, which is the second coming.  And I know some of you are thinking, “there he goes again with the big words,” but this time it’s about more than justifying my education, because it’s important to understand these issues, especially in consideration of how some portions of the church view and talk about these subjects.  In addition, the church really likes big, technical words, and in fact the longest real word in the English language, antidisestablishmentarianism, is a church word.  Next pop quiz, does anyone know what antidisestablishmentarianism means?