Monday, September 27, 2010

Sermon Scraps: I am the Gate, John 10: 1 – 10

What can I say about Jesus as the Gate? I think I’ll start with closed doors. I wonder if, for too long, when people came to the church, the body of Christ, they have found a closed door. It seems to me that once we got through the door, we decided to close it behind us. Once we got in, somehow we began to think that we had a say as to the others who would be invited in. And perhaps you are thinking, surely not Pastor. This cannot be.

Well, I think it is. We tell people all the time we don’t want them. When my favorite pink-haired lady (mentioning no names) started coming to church, how many comments did she receive about her hair? Or worse, how many times did she hear, “we’re so glad you’re coming to us?” In this comment, what I hear is, ‘we’re so glad you’re going to stop being yourself and maybe you’ll start being like us.” I can think of nothing worse than for my favorite pink-haired lady to give up who she is, who God created her to be to make feel more comfortable. Two Sundays ago, when we had a new visitor who didn’t look like us, some people came up to her, and conspicuously, there were some who ignored her. Was it the bald head? Was it the cane? Was it the color of her skin?

I’ve been trying to get baby changing stations in the bathrooms. My campaign is in full swing in one church and will begin in the other soon. And I have heard, ‘yes, but Pastor, we don’t have any babies here.’ I would like to point out that I had babies in both of my services yesterday, and, as usual, the grandchildren stole the show. But that’s not the point. That we don’t provide a place to change a baby’s diaper could be translated by some to say that we don’t have a place for young families with babies. Is that really the message we want to give others – there’s no room in the Body of Christ for your family?

I have to ask, do we really believe the kingdom is complete with us? Are we the sum total of who and what makes up the kingdom of God?

It seems to me that the gate remains open behind us on purpose, not just to let others in, but for us to go out as well. John 10: 9 reads, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (NRSV). Jesus is the gate, the way by which we come in and go out and find pasture. I don’t think we come in and hang out. I believe we are meant to go out and show others and tell others about this wonderful gate we’ve found. I’ve shared this before, but the best definition of evangelism I’ve ever heard was this, ‘one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” It’s not like there’s not enough bread for us to share, and I am beginning to believe that if we try to keep all the bread for ourselves, it becomes like manna – it goes bad if you hoard it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon Scraps: I am the Way the Truth and the Life, John 14: 1- 14

Are you ready to get philosophical? I hope so. I mentioned yesterday in my sermon that this text makes me uncomfortable. Let me begin by saying that we should admit that more often than we do. The Gospel is scandalous and, in places, it should make us uncomfortable. Anyway, I made reference to interpretations of this verse (John 14: 6) being exclusionary and it has. Jesus said, I am the way the truth and the life. No one goes to the Father except through me (or some version of that). It seems to exclude others from going to the Father. Only we get to go to the Father.

I’m not sure this is true for most of Christianity. Christians get it wrong more often than we get it right. True, I believe that the best way to live, the way that leads to eternal life in God is the way of Jesus. I believe that we should all follow Jesus, because it’s the closest to the Truth I have found. If I didn’t, you should all ask me, why I am following Jesus (trying my best, anyway)? Why would I give my life for something I didn’t believe in? But how do I, or we, reconcile this belief in a pluralistic society?

If I were to ask Br Scot (Bontraeger), I believe this would lead to a conversation about Truth, and whether or not Truth is zero-sum. Just because I am right does not mean that another is not also right. And I have to say, that surely our God is big enough that Truth does not have to be zero-sum. To say that I am right (in believing that following Jesus is the best way), does that necessarily mean that another way is not also right? Grammatically speaking, that is an illogical question – there can only be one best, but is God bounded by our grammar?

Shubert Ogden said that we can agree there is Truth (that’s a pretty big first step, philosophically speaking). We can agree that I believe I am following the Truth (or have the Truth, but not in a possessive way), and we can agree that another believes she is following the Truth (or has the Truth). Ogden would say that one of us is right. If that paragraph confused you, you should try reading On Theology. Dr. Ogden is a precise writer, and one must read him slowly, with a straight-edge, a pencil, and a dictionary nearby.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, I believe that Br Scot (who is my constant theological arguing partner) would say that one or both of us is right (from the paragraph above), that Truth is not zero-sum. Just because I have stumbled on the truth, does not mean that another, taking an entirely different path, did not also do the same thing. Moreover, who is to say that the Truth onto which I have stumbled is the totality of Truth? Surely God is bigger than any one religion.

In seminary I studied (very briefly) with several Sikhs as part of my World Religions class. These Sikhs believed that the collected writings of the Five Gurus, including Guru Nanek, was the wisdom of God come down from heaven. They called this collection the Guru Granth Sahib. It was not God but the Wisdom of God. They believe that the Jesus was a prophet, like one of the five Gurus, who taught the Wisdom of God. I will tell you, in the brief time I studied with them, there was a lot of overlap in that wisdom; there was a lot of truth in their teachings.

But our faith traditions are not equal; they are not the same. And they are not even pointed toward the same horizon. These Sikhs believe that if they lived the right way, following the teachings of God, they would eventually escape the death-and-rebirth cycle. The Christian horizon is pointed toward full communion with God (which some call heaven). These are not the same, nor are they equal. But still isn’t possible there is Truth in Sikhism? Further, to put the question back within the frame of John’s Gospel, let me ask this. If the logos (the wisdom of God) was from the beginning, was with God and was God, and came to dwell among us in Jesus, and Jesus is the Way, wasn’t that Way from beginning? That particular dwelling of the wisdom is no longer dwelling with us (in the same way). So was it the historical Jesus, the one who walked on the earth, that is the Way, or is the Wisdom of God that was from the beginning, the Wisdom that is, and the Wisdom that is to come, is that Wisdom the Way?

I think I jumped around a bit here, so I hope you can follow my flow. I also made a lot of assumptions – like the assumption that there is Truth. That is an entirely different discussion – Is there one Truth, what is it, how do we know when we have found it? Maybe someday, I’ll post that blog.

Sermon Scraps: I am the True Vine. John 15: 1 - 11

I realize I didn’t blog last week for my sermon on “I am the True Vine,” so here it is. I talked quite a bit about grape growing. The truth is I don’t know much about grapes. I know I like them. I enjoy the occasional visit to a vineyard, even the occasional wine tasting. But if you put me to work in a vineyard, I would be lost. Here’s what I do know, there’s a lot of work involved.

In my sermon, I focused on the role of the branches in growing grapes. I said that the branches grow from the vine around each other; they wrap around each other, twisting and turning, supporting and being supported. Here’s what I didn’t say, the branches aren’t responsible for creating fruit. They bear the fruit, but they do not create it; the vine does. The branches are there to hold the fruit, even to help nourish it, you might say, but it is the vine’s responsibility or scope to create it. It takes the whole plant and the vinegrower working together to get good fruit.

What does this mean for us, who are the branches? What is our job in fruit production?

1) We are supposed to stay connected to vine, not grow out on our own. Those branches that grow out of the bundle, they fall to the ground, get dirty, and are susceptible to all kinds of fungi and diseases. And I think, if we leave the metaphor for a minute, it takes work to stay in the bundle. Sometimes other branches poke us, maybe even it feels like they’re choking us, and we have to decide over and over again to honor our vows, that these people are our church. We have to decide over and over again that we will remain faithful to these people of our church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. It is a choice.

2) We are supposed to help support other branches, in the way they need to be supported. So often we feel like we know the right way to help people, and so our help comes with strings. I’ll pay this bill, if you’ll just do what I tell you. I’ll pray for you, if you will completely change your life for me. I’ll help you but you have to start coming to church, my church. I think this may be human nature. We really do want to help, and we think we have the answers, the right answer. If you’ll just do it my way, things will be better. The truth is that I am not you and you are not me, and my answer may or may not work for you. My job is not to fix you, but to support you, the way you need to be supported. This does not mean that we need to let other branches demand so much support that we are broken. In the famous serenity prayer we ask for courage to change what we can, serenity to accept what we can’t change and wisdom to know the difference. Again, we are not responsible for the creating the fruit, but bearing it.

3) We have to remain open to receive sunlight and water. There are times when we would rather not let any light shine on us, when the dark seems more comfortable. But the truth is that the dark will kill us. We need light. In this metaphor, I think the darkness is shame, sin, depression, etc. The thing about sin and shame is that they lie to us. They tell us that the light doesn’t want us. If we are branches with a wound, and we let that wound hide in the dark, it will fester. Other germs and fungi will get in there. We need sunlight and water, and the vinegrower knows how to ensure we get just the right amount of each. We have to be willing to let the vinegrower see that wound, bring it out in the sunlight. That’s the only way it gets healed.

Anyway, these are just a few scraps that didn’t make it into my sermon. They weren’t any less important, but I always have choices to make about what I include and what it left out. Enjoy my thoughts with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sermon Scraps: I am the Bread of Life

Well, we’re now on a new journey through John’s gospel together. I’m so glad we’ve finished with that nasty sin business, and we’re onto brighter topics. I will confess to you all that I have my difficulties with John’s gospel. I’ve never understood those fundamentalist who would give the Gospel of John to a new Christian, and say, just read this. It’s what you need to know. I don’t always get John, but I do understand that there is usually more happening than just the surface level of the text. It’s a definitely a polyvalent text.

So about Sunday’s service . . .

I think, for the most part, everything went as I had planned. I loved that so many people asked about the baptismal fonts. Why were they there? Hmm. I suppose that it’s partially my fault that I have never done that with them before – that is place a font in the isle. To answer why they were there, let me say this. In many churches, as you enter the sanctuary, there is a baptismal font. I had someone say to me yesterday, “yes, but it’s all just a symbol, pastor.” That’s true, to some extent, but what we do in worship is more than merely symbolism, right? If it’s only a symbol, then why bother? Because it’s more than a symbol. A service of Word and Table are, like John’s gospel, polyvalent. There is more happening than just what we see on the surface. We practicing our worship; we’re reliving the story of salvation; we’re even communing with all the saints of the church.

Baptism is our entry into the Church, so why would we not try to remember our baptism every time we entered into our church building, into worship with the Body of Christ? Also, in our history as the Church, baptism has come before participating in Holy Communion. Br Mark Stamm reminded our Word and Worship class that our UM rubrics indicate that the Eucharist is open to all baptized Christians. I’ve been trying to find that rubric this morning, but to no avail. If I search my memory, I believe I read something similar in THIS HOLY MYSTERY, with the addendum, that the pastor should not refuse service to those who wish to receive, but they should counsel about the importance of baptism. Moreover, our BOOK OF WORSHIP says, “We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive,” (BOW, 29).

This discussion reminds me of a movie I saw a few years ago, AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (Good bye little children). It’s a depressing semi-autobiographical movie about a French boarding school run by priests during the German occupation of France. The school hides several Jewish boys from the Germans in with the Catholic boys. There is one scene when the parents are visiting the children, during mass when one of the Jewish boys comes up to receive the Host. The priest does not serve him. The scene bothered me for many reasons, at the same time, the priest (re-presenting Christ) later gave his life for hiding this boy. I’m still puzzled that the priest would not serve him the Host, but would give his very life for him. Is that not (sort of) the same thing? In the Great Thanksgiving, we retell and, in fact, relive the narrative of salvation – in fancy terms, we call this anamnesis. What did this priest do but relive and re-present Christ to this boy?

So, why did I place the baptismal font in the isle? Because we approach the table of our Lord through our baptism. Why didn’t I make a big deal of them? Because I don’t know that everyone in my congregation has participated in the sacrament of baptism, and I refuse to set a stumbling block before those who would come to the Lord.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sermon Scraps: No More Deadly Sins

I realize this blog is late. I know; I know. There’s no excuse, except that on Monday I was at Mt. Wesley for RIM. I was occupied the entire time I was there, seriously.

Anywho . . .

At my pastors’ breakfast group this morning, I was asked what I learned from my series on the 7 deadly sins. Here are my take-aways.

1) It will be a long time until I write a sermon using an acrostic.

2) I can see myself in every sin – I am prideful, envious, greedy, gluttonous, lustful, slothful, and even wrathful at times. I think most of us can say this about ourselves, or we should be able to admit it about ourselves.

3) We have to want salvation. The primary book I read to prepare for this series was written by a Roman Catholic theologian, and the RC doctrine of salvation differs from the UMC doctrine. In RC soteriology, there is an element of works – penance, keeping of the 10 commandments, etc. Whereas in the UMC, we profess that we are saved by grace though faith. Good works are the fruit of the work God does in us. Regardless, the difference, as I saw it, was that DeYoung emphasized the forming of virtuous habits. In response to lust, we should practice chastity, for instance. This morning as I ate and discussed with my group, it occurred to me that regardless of your church doctrine, you have to want salvation.

If I truly wish to live without sin, I have to want to do it – not just say that I do, but really want it. You have to want to live differently, to be a different person. When we UMs talk about sanctification, we tend to use passive language – we talk about what God is doing in us. But there is something we are doing as well.

In VELVET ELVIS, Rob Bell spends some time talking about living like we are forgiven. He tells a story about having his bill paid at restaurant by an anonymous diner. He said, I could sit there, trying to pay the bill, or I could get up and leave, living my life as if what I had been told was true – my bill was already paid. To make the point more scholarly, I remember in his book, WALKING BETWEEN THE TIMES, J Paul Sampley says that the Apostle Paul tells us (or his original audience) that they are Christians, so they should act like it. They (read: we) are no longer slaves to the lordship of Sin, and so we should live like it. We are under the lordship of Christ, and so we should live like it.

Said another way, I am no longer under the power of pride (or insert whatever sin you’d like), so I should live like it. I believe DeYoung would say that means forming virtuous habits. If I am no longer prideful because of Christ, then I practice living with humility. And in so practicing, I become humble. This is all a discussion of imputed and imparted righteousnessm, to which I say boo.

This blog really comes from an email I received this week and conversation I had today. A dear, beloved friend sent me an email telling me her husband (an alcoholic) asked to go to rehab. He’s there now. Another dear beloved friend presided at a funeral of a friend’s son whose alcoholism finally killed him. One man is in rehab, and the other with our Lord. And I believe that God’s grace was there for both of them – equally (as if grace could be quantified). God’s grace was always enough for them to be redeemed from the lordship of alcohol, but one of them is trying to live as if this is true and the other could not. Paul says that the wages of sin are death. It’s not judgment – at least not in the way we might think. It’s not that God will kill us for sinning; it’s that sin kills us. We have to want salvation. We have to be willing to live as if it’s true, as if God’s grace is real, as if because of the life death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we are forgiven and freed from sin, and that takes faith.

Next week begins a new series – the 7 I am statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. In case you were wondering, I don’t have any particular affinity for the number 7, but the early church did, and the gospel writers did because they came out of the Jewish tradition, which did have an affinity for the number 7. That I have chosen 2 series of 7 has more to do with the number of Sundays in ordinary time and wanting to help my congregations move through the Christian year together.