Thanksgiving is Good News

t is gn.jpgThere’s this funny thing about being United Methodist in the 21st century. Do you remember 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? The pop culture version of our connected world. Back in the 50s (pretty soon we’re going to have to say “1950s”, someone did a study of how many connections it would take to link a person randomly picked from a phone book in one city to another person randomly licked from a phone book in another city. 6 was all it took.

And the big takeaway from that is really, “when was the last time you used a phone book?”

Anyway, the funny thing about being a United Methodist in the 21st century is that number is, I’d say, 3 or 4 at the most.

We are more connected than ever as a society, and United Methodists even moreso!

Geoff and I went to highschool together. We were also in UMYF and Boy Scouts together. Then we went off to school – me to Southwestern and him to A&M.

I saw him once after that – he happened to be passing near Wilmore, Ky., when I was in seminary there, so we had a visit. In the late 80s. Next time I heard from Geoff was following 9-11. He had been at the pentagon when the plane hit it. He was safe.

Then, another decade or so, now we’re connected on social media. You know how that goes, a flurry of interaction, then pleasantries, then back into regular life.

Then Geoff messages me. He’s retired Navy, settled in Georgia. I said we had been in scouts together. Well, the message was that his son’s troop had sent a team to Philmont scout ranch in northern NM, and one of the kids had sickle cell anemia, which doesn’t react well with high altitudes. So that boy, half a continent from home and family, had been rushed to a hospital in Albuquerque.

Did I know someone who could check on him?

Why, yes; my mind went quickly to several United Methodist clergy friends in Albuquerque. And also, as it happens, to my mother in law. A deeply committed, lifelong United Methodist, and certified Spiritual Director.

Donna Berry, Rachel’s mother, my mother-in-law, visited the scout in the hospital.

Thank God for connections and connectedness!  Thank God for opportunities to do small things with great love for people you haven’t seen in 2 decades and for people you never have and never will meet!

I have no doubt you have some similar story; We live in such a connected world that if we simply pay attention, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God can work in us and through us to bless and encourage and comfort others.

And, of course, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God works in others to bless and encourage and comfort us.

But this is 2017. Almost 2018. We travel without a thought. Few of us have lived here all our lives, and those who have have likely visited lots of other places. And met many other people.

So, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was quite a traveller, but he didn’t have social media. To be fair, he did, but his social media was letters and couriers.

At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. He has travelled much of the empire, and he has planted churches.

He has travelled to Jerusalem – headquarters – to argue for accepting the gentiles into a faith that started entirely Jewish. His argument won the day, we learned last week, against those who said new gentiles Jesus-followers had to obey the law of Moses. “They and we are saved the same way; by the grace of Jesus.”

So, now, in the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, why does he thank God for the Romans? He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know them.

As you know if you have spent any time in this letter to the Romans, Paul has some things he wants to teach them. He is committed to helping them clear up some misunderstandings.

But before correcting them, or even beginning to teach them, he gives thanks for them.

Do we give thanks for people we have never met? Do we give thanks for people we feel obligated to teach, to correct and direct and educate?

Today, we do. If we want the gospel to be good news for us, we do. If we want the Gospel to be good news for others through us, we do. We give thanks!

Our willingness to give thanks helps make the gospel good news.

And let me be clear, because giving thanks too easily degenerates into listing the stuff or benefits we have.

Giving thanks is not just being able to list stuff – as though our relationship with God, or our mental or spiritual health rises and falls with what we have.

In another of Paul’s letter, Philippians, he thanks for Philippians for their support:

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.)

Then he expands upon his thankfulness:

11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

Paul isn’t grateful simply for the collection the Philippians have taken up and sent on. He is grateful for the connection with them; the encouragement he received from knowing them and spending time with them.

He is, in fact, thankful whether in need or having more than enough, whether hungry or full, whether having plenty or being poor.

Is that how thankfulness works?

Yes. Yes it is.

If we can learn to, and practice, being thankful and expressing thankfulness, no matter our situation, thankfulness works on our behalf.

Learning to be thankful people makes us better people. Learning to be thankful people brings us closer to God.

Did you catch what Paul said here? He is responsible to Jews and Greeks, to the wise and the foolish.

It’s like Paul has really, truly learned to be thankful in everything. He may or may not know that he’ll end up in Rome because, after his arrest, he appeals to Caesar to get his trial moved there.

This is the man who wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He has learned how to rejoice in the Lord always.

He has learned the power of giving thanks.

Like Tina Kennedy. Tina’s story comes from Christian Smith’s The Paradox of Generosity. Tina lives on welfare, having suffered a spinal injury in childbirth, and so lost her job as a cosmetologist. After giving birth to one of her children, the child’s father left her for another woman, one of her good friends. She recalls that time as a particularly dark chapter in life. It was not easy, but she did find a way to move past the pain and forgive her boyfriend, her good female friend, and the doctors responsible for her injury. Instead of letting bitterness take root, she remains thankful for what she has. “I had to regroup, regroup, re-evaluate things, where you put your priorities and things of life. But overall, TIna says, I’m blessed, and that’s why I keep my strength. I have life to be thankful for, you know?” Even though she could easily be overwhelmed by her health, financial, and romantic setbacks, she still generously reaches out to other people, by providing aid to extended family members and volunteering much of her time to local schools.

Smith tells us that “It is difficult to be angry, resentful, depressed, or fearful when one is showing selfless love toward another person. Such loving acts neutralize negative emotions that stimulate physiological responses known to adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.”

Learning to live thanksgiving isn’t just good for your physical body; It’s also good for your soul.

Learning to live thankfully, developing an attitude of gratitude, is good for body and soul – and thus, also – for the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Church!

Learning to live thankfully is good for the church!

Paul began this section giving thanks for people he’d never met. He closes this section with these words – right after he mentions his responsibility to jews and Greeks, wise and foolish, he says:

That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

He’s ready! Ready to preach the Gospel. The Gospel which is, by the way, God’s own power for salvation!

That’s some good news! The Good news of Jesus Christ, which is good news for all of us, is God’s power for salvation – for everyone!

And God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, is revealed in the gospel: that people are to live by faith.

Part of living by faith is learning to live thankfully. Give thanks this week. May this week be a step for you in the direction of living thankfully year around.

When we learn to live thankfully year around, it is good for our bodies, and our souls, and our church.

Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One….

 

 

 

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

2017 version of Community Bathrooms

community bath 1 (2).jpgIn 1982, I made a conscious decision to move away from a dorm with semi-private bathrooms to a dorm with community bathrooms on each floor.

And I never looked back.  Ok; the bathroom set up wasn’t the reason I chose the other dorm (It helped they had installed air-conditioning over the summer).

Community was different in dorms with community baths.  Not in a creepy way, but in a way that comes sui generis from sharing tiolet, shower, shaving, washing space with a larger number of people.

We had challenges from time to time. I don’t actually remember having my stuff stolen while I was in the shower, but it may have happened. I also don’t remember stealing anyone else’s stuff while they showered. That may have happened, too.

But what I do remember happening was the shared vulnerability of such common spaces had the effect of each of us treating one another with at least a modicum of respect.

So, as a few of us chatted over coffee this morning, and remembered the days of community-bathroomed dorms, someone said, “I bet they don’t have those any more.”

Oh, but we do.

I don’t know if colleges do, but I contend that social media is the community bathroom of 2017. Except that, not realizing it, many of us have not yet learned to treat others with the modicum of respect deserved when an eclectic and random (you might have chosen your roommate, but you didn’t chose who got to live on the floor)

It took us some time to adapt to sharing the space of the community bathroom.

But not as long as you’ve been on social media!

Yes, Caesar, whatever you say, Caesar

veterans-dayWithin limits, of course.

If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:

Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.

I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.

The State doesn’t tell the church what to do!  How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.

As the speaker concluded, she shared that this description of the history of Veteran’s Day came from The United Methodist Church.

My thoughts took an abrupt turn, but not full 180.

Promoting and enduring peace and honoring those who offered themselves to the cause of freedom and justice were certainly worthy values that I could encourage, even lead, my church to uphold.

I’m still nonconstantinian, but I have realized that maybe there is more left to render to Caesar than I thought before yesterday.

Does God agree with you? with me?

20160617_144150In the face of all the many disagreements, and further, in the face of what seems to be a lack of ability to communicate in civil and well-intentioned ways, I thought this morning of these words from Isaiah 55:8-9
My plans aren’t your plans,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways,
    and my plans than your plans. (CEB)
Do you suppose that when God says, in Isaiah 55, that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, God is referring to everyone? I have to admit that my usual first read of that passage is that God is referring to my enemy/opponent/anyone who disagrees with me.
 
To be fair, though, I have to admit, though it sometimes takes me a while, that God is, in fact, saying this to ALL of us.
 
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not have a second thought on my agenda for which this is the setup. Not that I never operate that way, but I am not this time)

UNwilling

aldersgate

On this day in 1738 John Wesley found his way to a gathering on Aldersgate street. Remembering it, he wrote this in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street….”

Unwillingly.

At Aldersgate, following a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Romans, Wesley wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.” He continued that he did, in that moment – from that moment on- trusted “in Christ, and Christ alone,” for his salvation.

And he went unwillingly.

The salvation for which Wesley trusted Christ from that day forward wasn’t just a warmed heart.  He rarely referred again to that specific event or day or moment, but the life he went on to live changed the world.

Wesley organized small groups to disciple one another.  The practices and disciplined life he had already been living, coupled with the warmed heart, brought many others into the fold of Christ. The small groups, the mutual accountability work done therein, would grow the members into people who followed Wesley’s example and followed Jesus.

Schools and hospitals were founded. Prisoners were ministered to. Some have gone so far as to allege that the Wesleyan revival helped England avoid the kind of bloody revolution France would face.

And Wesley went unwillingly.

In these days following #UMCGC, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, we have a lot of unwillingness.

In response to much and loud and bitter dissension regarding, primarily, our church’s stance on LGBTQI matters, our bishops have called for a special commission to study the issue and present possible resolutions.

Many of us are not holding our breaths waiting for the conclusions reached by this commission. I, for one, am incredibly skeptical that resolution can be reached between the extremes within our denomination.

But then today I was struck by the word unwillingly.

My skepticism rests mostly on my presumption that many are resistant -no, beyond resistant – dead set against any compromise of their position.

But maybe, at least on this Aldersgate Day, that’s exactly the Wesleyan place to be.

Unwilling.

May all we United Methodists approach our future as unwillingly as Wesley approached the meeting on Aldersgate Street.

Look what happened that time!

Can we at least…?

I know, #UMCGC has decided not to decide anything about sexuality for the remainder of this session.  We’ll all be here whenever the special commission reports.

In the meantime, is it too late for a civil rights move?  I don’t know why it just struck me today, but can we at least affirm the civil right to same sex marriage in the United States?

It doesn’t mean we have to perform said ceremonies.  But we do, and have for more than 40 years, affirmed that all persons, regardless of orientation (or anything else) are “of sacred worth.”

One of you is probably pretty good at writing up such a resolution. Maybe we still have time.

What is our product?

weekfive.jpgSermon #5 in our Branded Series. This sermon concludes the series.

Branded

“If I only had a brain….” That’s the earworm that Lee Swann stuck me with last Sunday. Thank you!

Maybe now you’ve got it playing over and over, too. If so, you’re welcome!

I remember growing up watching “The Wizard of Oz,” by Frank Baum, every year when it came on TV. I am young enough to be not really too impressed that some of it was done in color, but we all loved the story.  Though, I admit, for several years I was scared of those flying monkeys!

Not long before I first saw the movie, in 1964, that Henry Littlefield unlocked the secrets of the story.  It was a populist allegory, he claimed, and was written as a commentary on turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th century) monetary policy. The yellow brick road was the gold standard, Emerald City represented the fraudulent greenback, or us currency without the gold standard. The Strawman was the american farmer, the tin man industrial workers, and the cowardly lion William Jennings Bryan.

Littlefield explanation of the story has since been discounted, but that, of course, doesn’t mean there aren’t other versions.

Like the religious version: the yellow brick road is the “way to enlightenment.” The emerald city represents heaven, and each of the main characters a particular version of human temptation or frailty.  The wicked witch of the west, being killed with water that represents baptism.

At least as plausible is the atheist allegorical explanation. There is no real wizard, just a human behind a curtain.

Some of you might like the feminist version. Frank Baum, the author, was son-in-law of a leading suffragist. All the characters who actually have any power in the movie are women.

You might have your own version of what the Wizard of Oz means. You might not – maybe you have never even seen the movie.

We are story-driven people, and our brains are meaning-making machines!  If there isn’t a story, we’ll make one. Where there isn’t meaning, we will make it up and overlay it.

No one tells a story for no reason, do they?  It might not be the most obvious reason, but there is a reason.

Today we remember the story of Pentecost.  You might wonder why we haven’t read the story of Pentecost from the scriptures.  You might not.  The story is in Acts 2.  I could tell you the reason I didn’t have it read is that I love our liturgists and didn’t want to make them read verses 9-11, which read:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!         (Acts 2:9-11)

So, here is the story.  You can read the official version in Acts 2.  In fact, please read it sometime today.  Let me know what you think!

The disciples, having recently watched Jesus ascend into heaven, are meeting on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, a Feast Day on which God’s people gathered to celebrate the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While waiting, the Holy Spirit shows up and fills them!

Filled with the Spirit, they step before the crowds and start speaking in tongues – languages – so that everyone, all those Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, etc., can understand them!

When you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, a lot less is lost in translation!

When we let the Holy Spirit speak, people will be able to hear us in their own language!

Having never heard anything like this, some of the crowds guessed the disciples were drunk – speaking out of their minds!  

Peter stood up to preach.  He preached; told them the story of Jesus in terms of some of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.

“God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.”

This is the final message of our Branded series.  The premise is that Jesus is, or would be, branded. Branding, you recall, is not just a logo or a jingle, but an image or video or song that connects people (customers) with a story.

On that first day of Pentecost, the telling of God’s story brought 3,000 into the community of faith.

What will you do with this story?

For four weeks we have summarized God’s story. For four weeks we have talked about being made in God’s image – that we ALL bear the brand of God and God’s story, and that God’s story is one of hope and forgiveness and healing and reconciliation. Thus branded, we are, with God, in the business of making disciples; followers of Jesus. To make disciples, we have to be disciples. Last week we talked about getting to know what other people, people who don’t know Jesus and aren’t followers of Jesus, value. I claimed last Sunday, and still firmly believe, that when we practice the patience of listening to other people’s stories, we will learn what they value. By listening to others, we will also earn the right to be heard when we tell God’s story and how it has impacted us; changed us.

So, today, the finale.

Has God’s story changed us?

We are, you see, the product we have to offer.

As Christians, we ought to be inviting others to follow Jesus. To do so with integrity means we have to be following Jesus. We have to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “watch what I do, follow my example, follow Jesus the way I follow Jesus.”

Otherwise we are just making up a meaning to someone else’s story.

Pentecost is a grand point in the story where we learn, as Peter says, how to make God’s story our own story. After his sermon, the people ask, “What should we do? Peter answered:

“Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

This IS the meaning to God’s story!  And the promise is “for you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord God invites”

Our lives, lived as evidence, with evidence, of the Holy Spirit’s work in us IS the product we have to offer!

Flannery O’Connor wrote many beautiful stories.  Most of them are haunting, too. One of my favorites, one that haunts me, is “The River.”

In this story, Mrs. Connin comes to pick up young Harry from his parents, as his babysitter for the day.  Harry’s mom is sick – we learn a little later she is hungover. Mrs. Connin is a committed Christian woman and is excited to take Harry down to the river, where an evangelist named Bevel is healing and preaching.  Mrs. Connin hadn’t known Harry’s name, and asks him what it is, after telling him about this preacher. “Bevel,” Harry tells her.

He wants to please this Christian woman. He wants to find a place in her story.

At the river, she identifies him to the Preacher has having not been baptized. So Harry, or Bevel, is baptized.  It sounds good, too; the life that the preacher describes following baptism is far different from the drab, bleak, miserable life that is Harry’s, or Bevel’s, up to this point in the story.

Alas, he comes up out of the water the same. He is taken home, and sent off to bed, life is the same.

The story ends the next morning, Harry, or Bevel, having taken himself back to the river, and determined to hold himself under the water until he finds that wonderful life the preacher was talking about.

I read “The River” for the first time about 25 years ago. I cried as I finished it. Then I got up and went into my first child, Robbie’s room, where she lay napping. I cried quietly, and prayed. I hope and prayed that she would know God’s story in a way that gave her hope, not in a way that left her so disillusioned that she would drown herself looking for some great, good, place I had promised.

The Christian Hope you and I have to offer is the hope that others can see in our lives.  If it is a hope we tell them about, we had better be willing to live it, too!

This morning’s scripture readings – both shorter than the Acts passage, and both noticeably absent of difficult-to-pronounce Bible names, remind us of the goodness of God’s story, and of the promise of OUR place in it, and our role in sharing it with others.

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.     (Romans 8:14-17)

and

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replied, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I have spoken to you I don’t speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me does his works. Trust me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on account of the works themselves. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father can be glorified in the Son. When you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”   (John 14:8-17, 25-27)

We are baptizing one young woman and welcoming her, another young woman and two young men into membership in the Church this morning.  Not just “our” church, but THE Church.  The church that represents Jesus Christ. The Church in which the Holy Spirit lives and is active.

The Church where God’s story is lived out and lived into.

The Church where our lives are changed as we actually follow Jesus day by day.

Will  you join me in committing to these young people that we WILL “surround them with a community of love and forgiveness ”? Will you pray for them, “that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to faith”?

And you know, don’t you, that really the way THEY will be true disciples is as the see and experience US being true disciples.

We are the product. Our lives, moved and changed by the Holy Spirit are what we have to offer!