19 June 2017

Narrative Preaching

Yesterday morning I tweeted this, reflecting on the style of sermon I was offering:
This was somewhat confusing to some, so I'll clarify its meaning. And share the experience of trying out a new format for sermons: Narrative preaching. Yesterday was the first Sunday of a new sermon series on Genesis. I am a Lectionary preacher, so I am following the outline of the texts listed there, for the most part. The Sunday before last, June 11, was Trinity Sunday. Genesis 1:1-2:4 was the assigned Old Testament reading for the day, but Pastor Leon preferred to preach from the Matthew and 2 Corinthians texts. The next Sunday, June 18, the Lectionary jumped to Genesis 18:1-15. Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood... skipped. And several vital interactions with Abraham, specifically Chapters 12-17, were skipped. So we jumped from Creation to Sarah laughing from her tent in one week. Okay.

After June 18, the sermon series based on Lectionary texts goes to:

  • Abraham and Sarah sending Hagar and Ishmael away (who are these people? Their origins aren't included.) Genesis 21
  • The choosing of Isaac's bride (who is Isaac? Not included.) Genesis 24
  • The birth of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons Genesis 25
  • Jacob's dream of a ladder between earth and heaven Genesis 28
  • Break from the Lectionary to address sexual violence in Genesis 34 & 38
  • Introduction of the Joseph cycle Genesis 37
  • End of the Joseph cycle Genesis 45
The Lectionary texts this summer do not introduce Abraham, one of the key characters of the Old Testament; instead it relays one story and moves on to his sons, grandsons, and great grandsons. I can't deal with that. In a conventional sermon on Genesis 18 I would have to introduce Abraham and Sarah and the Promise which made both of them laugh. The Promise of an heir to Abraham is one of the central tenets of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Skipping those stories, as the Lectionary does, robs Genesis of one of its underlying pillars-- the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah. Then moving on to an adult Isaac's marriage to Rebekah skips the horrendous tale of Genesis 22, the completion of all the talk of the Promise in the previous ten chapters of Genesis. No, No, No.

For sermon planning, I was stuck in a difficult place: many church goers know the Abraham story. But many do not. Or they know only the highlights: Abraham followed God, Sarah went with them, they had a baby when they were both in their 90s, Abraham believed in God, God is faithful to God's promises. It's all good stuff, but it misses so much. Thankfully last week I pulled off the bookshelf a book I hadn't read in a while: Preaching Old Testament, by my former preaching professor and colleague in ministry Dr John Holbert. Here's one of the advantages of narrative preaching Holbert shares:

All ears prick up when the advent of a story is announced. Just say, 'Once upon a time,' and watch your hearers' anticipation play across their faces and surface in their eager movement toward you. If the first aim of preaching is to be heard, then a narrative, almost inevitably, will gain a hearing. If a second aim of preaching is to involve the hearers, then a narrative wins high marks on this score as well. 

Based on my own observations of the congregation during the sermon, plus the feedback following worship, I absolutely agree with John. People were engaged and listening, including many who normally become distracted during a traditional exposition/teaching sermon. Here are some of the comments I heard from people after worship:
"I loved that story."
"What a great way to share the whole story."
"I loved the narration approach."
"I really enjoyed that today."

Holbert even offered a sample narrative sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac story (Genesis 22) in Chapter 4 of his book. He used a metaphor of laughter throughout his sermon. In mine, I used a metaphor of a "well-worn leather suitcase," since Sarah and Abraham were life-long travelers. I brought my father-in-law's old leather suitcase, which I pulled out at the beginning of the sermon:

As I planned the sermon, I felt it was important to give a full context to Genesis 18. I briefly told the stories from:
  • Genesis 12: Abram's original calling to follow God and his plan to trick Pharaoh into believing Sarai was his sister
  • Genesis 15: The original covenant between Abram and God
  • Genesis 16: Sarai's plan for Abram to have a child with Hagar
  • Genesis 17: Circumcision and Abraham's laughter at the renewed Promise (God changed their names in this text)
  • Genesis 18: The assigned text of the day; Abraham and Sarah welcome guests, plus Sarah laughs at the Promise renewed
  • Genesis 21: They name their son Isaac, which means "laughter"
  • Genesis 22: Abraham nearly offers Isaac as a sacrifice
I began and ended the sermon with some exposition, so it was not 100% narrative; there was one takeaway for the congregation. I don't know how often I will use narrative preaching, but it is perfect for books like Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, which are almost entirely narratives. I know those stories well, and I was comfortable preaching in this way. Honestly, it was the best sleep on a Saturday night before preaching in a long, long time. 

So preachers: give it a shot! It's fun. Buy John's book: $18 on Amazon. Layfolk: encourage your preachers to try a new method. Summer is a fun time to take a risk in worship. Take a listen to the sermon and let me know what you think:

03 June 2017

Wonder Woman

The days between Mother's Day and my wife Christy's birthday are called "Christymas" in our home. It's a time to celebrate her. According to the calendar, that range of days can be anywhere from two to eight days. I buy her little trinkets for each day. This year since I was traveling I lined out the gifts for her to open each day. One of the days included a Wonder Woman plastic water cup, some WW car fresheners, and... five tickets to take the boyos to see the new film on opening day at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite places on earth! We went yesterday. The whole experience was incredible.

Christy has loved Wonder Woman since she was a little girl. She wore her WW t-shirt. She posed front of the Metropolis background flying the invisible jet while wearing WW's crown and bracelets. I have great pictures but she banned me from sharing on social media.

Wonder Woman is not our first exposure to Gal Godot. She appeared in last year's otherwise disastrous Batman vs Superman movie (read my theological review here). She was by far the best part of that movie. Here's I said about her fifteen months ago:

And in a nod to the future JUSTICE LEAGUE movies coming soon, they partner with Wonder Woman, who is all kinds of awesome. She is a strong woman not defined by her looks or the men around her. Her powers to deflect Bruce Wayne's flirting are just as strong as the tools she uses against Doomsday. She'll get her own solo film next year.

And that solo film is a smash hit, one of the best of 2017. Debate is already happening online as to whether WW is the best DC, or any comic book, film of all time. I'll reserve comment on that; The Dark Knight has a solid hold somewhere in my top 5 all time.

This movie takes place (at least the prologue and epilogue; the actual setting of the film is during WWI) after the events of BvS. Bruce Wayne obviously knows her. Her first words (narration) are, "I used to want to save the world." And I thought: oh no, DC has gone and done it again. They've already made two depressing Superman movies, where he reluctantly identifies as a hero. His own father would rather die in a tornado than have his son reveal his powers to the world (what???). But the sentiment about saving the world doesn't mean that Wonder Woman has become jaded. It refers to the mindset she had when she first left Paradise Island to fight the battle she believed would end war forever. By the end of the movie (she repeats the same line again) she understands her place in the world differently. Here are a couple of lines that speak to her mission:

I loved this movie. It has all the action you want in a summer blockbuster/tent pole movie. It is hopeful and optimistic. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana Prince is not afraid to own her power. When it is time for battle, her focus in not where the others aim. She wants to save the hungry and the lost. When everyone else gives up on the innocent because the risks are too big or the outcome is not guaranteed, she leaps into action-- not needing the approval of the men or the experts around her. In fact, she publicly shames their laziness, cowardice, and complicity in the killing. Likewise, when they act justly she lauds them. Her example and bravery inspires the same in others. I wanted to jump out of the cinema and into battle alongside her as well.

There are also many sweet, funny moments in Wonder Woman. One of her companions, talking about his life before the war, says he wanted to be an actor, but was unable to because of the color of his skin. Another, an American Indian, says his people lost all they had to the ancestors of the Chris Pine character. The fifth member of the group is a Scotsman who was once a sure shot with a long range rifle. After years of war and violence he has lost this gift. But one night after a victory he's heard playing the piano and singing in a local pub-- the first time in years. The next morning, Wonder Woman encourages him to remain part of the group despite his doubts in himself: "You can sing for us."

The central theme of the movie is about the human character-- or the human condition, as we say in the church. Are we inherently good or evil? Are war and violence the result of the actions of a few individuals or is there something imperfect in all of us that leads to destruction-- the opposite of which could be our redemption? I would love for Justice League to pause the fighting (it's not going to happen, but roll with me for a second) and have its heroes and shero sit around a Thanksgiving table and debate their understanding of the human story: Batman, whose parents were murdered when he was a child and who grew up seeking vengeance; Superman, whose home planet was destroyed, growing up here as an alien in every sense of the word; and Wonder Woman, whose understanding of the world evolved with each step she took away from her insulated home.

But enough about Batman and Superman. There have been so many films about those guys, some good, some transcendent, some dubious. Today is the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman. It's her day. #WonderWomanDay is trending on Twitter. I tweeted this out a coupe of hours ago-- check out the number of favorites and retweets vs. the tweet I listed above:

That's a ton of social media interactions! Go see the movie this weekend if you can. Boost the numbers. It's important. Take your girls, obviously. Also take your boys. I have three (15, 12, 9). We all loved it. We went as a gift for Christy (she was blown away, BTW). It turned out to be a gift for everyone. Have fun, share your experiences on social media, and embrace a more positive view of the human condition in these difficult days. We all need it.

31 May 2017

Three Invitations

Dear Grace Family:
We have lots to celebrate around Grace! I just returned from a volunteer appreciation luncheon where nine Grace members were honored for serving at Wakefield Elementary: Tom and Vicki Busby, Le Lange, Ron Woodworth, Rodney Ward and Sue Ann Spencer, Rhonda Luckett, and Christy and me. It was a very moving occasion. The Wakefield Blitz has been a tremendous success for the school and us. Thank you to everyone who supported it. School starts again August 16!


Speaking of celebrating, we have several receptions happening at Grace in the next ten days: Joan Douglass, who has taught children's Sunday school here for 37 years, is retiring from teaching. We're honoring her with a reception June 4 during the Sunday school hour. There is a memory book and cards near the Celebration Center if you'd like to leave a note or well wishes.

That same day is Confirmation Sunday. You’ll have a chance to hear from our three confirmands: Erika, Miles, and Amanda, at both services this week. Following 11:00 worship we’ll have Confirmation SUNDAEs (get it?) for our confirmands. Stay after for a few moments, enjoy some ice cream, and hang out with these amazing kids and their mentors.

The following Sunday June 11 at 9:45 you are invited to an appreciation reception for Pastor Leon and Dee Ann Veazey. We'll enjoy light breakfast food and contribute to a love offering. Please make plans to join in the celebration of this great couple as we thank both of them for their ministry at Grace. It has been a privilege to serve alongside both Dee Ann and Leon this past year.

Saying thank you is an important part of ministry. Serving is a joy and we do it as a response to God’s grace, not for the attention. Sure. But it’s important to recognize folk who make an impact on the lives of others. At Grace UMC we are privileged to have so many who serve in so many various places. Thank you for exercising your faith in the community!

15 May 2017

A Prayer to Welcome the Sabbath

I concluded my sermon yesterday with this prayer, found in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Only $6 on Amazon! What a steal for an amazing daily devotional.

Lord of Creation,
create in us a new rhythm of life
composed of hours that sustain rather than stress,
of days that deliver rather than destroy,
of time that tickles rather than tackles.

Lord of Liberation,
by the rhythm of your truth, set us free
from the bondage and baggage that break us,
from the Pharaohs and fellows who fail us,
from the plans and pursuits that prey upon us.

Lord of Resurrection,
may we be raised into the rhythm of your new life,
dead to deceitful calendars,
dead to fleeting friend requests,
dead to the empty peace of our accomplishments.

To our packed-full planners, we bid, "Peace!"
To our over-caffeinated consciences, we say, "Cease!"
To our suffering selves, Lord, grant release.

Drowning in a sea of deadlines and death chimes,
we rest in you, our lifeline.

By your ever-restful grace,
allow us to enter your Sabbath rest
as your Sabbath rest enters into us.

In the name of our Creator,
our Liberator,
our Resurrection and Life,
we pray.

12 May 2017

Progress in the Healthy Church Initiative

Grace UMC recently decided to continue in the Healthy Church Initiative. If that doesn't ring a church bell for you, click here. It's been a very exciting process. The layfolk at Grace leading us through the Healthy Church Initiative are Tom Busby, Janet Chester, Stephen Clayton, Frank Holcomb, Carol Kennedy, John Murphy, Carolyn and Jim Nicholson, Cindy Pressley, and Jim Williams. These are amazing, dedicated people who love Grace. It's been wonderful just to listen and learn from their various perspectives. We've read six books together and met once a month to discuss how they apply to Grace. The lay team meets monthly with a similar team from Leonard UMC. Likewise, I meet monthly with a clergy group of pastors of several churches, each with very different histories and experiences. Both of those groups are led by a trained Healthy Church Initiative facilitator.

How can you get involved? Thanks for asking! Join in the conversation. Ask questions of the people named above. They are eager to share. Buy one of the books we read and form your own thoughts of how the ideas there may impact Grace UMC. Here's the reading list:

Renovate or Die- Bob Farr
Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church- Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth
The Externally Focused Church – Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson
Get Their Name -Doug Anderson, Bob Farr, Kay Kotan
Simple Church
 -Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results– Lovett H.Weems, Jr. & Tom Berlin

You can also join the prayer team we are forming for the Healthy Church Initiative. You can email Carolyn Nicholson to sign up! (I think she's the contact person; if not, she'll point you in the correct direction.) 🙂

To get an idea for where the process may lead us (it's not set in stone; who knows where the Holy Spirit will move Grace?), here are some sample guidelines for the prayer team to pray over:

  • The congregation embraces an outward-focused mission that puts the spiritual needs of those in the community above the need of the congregation.
  • For a compelling vision that will motivate and drive the congregation to great acts of ministry.
  • That the congregation sees the urgency for such a mission and vision.
  • The pastor and one or two key lay leaders should communicate this type of purpose each time the team meets.
  • Pray for the community needs and officials. Be specific if there are clear issues that are part of the community conversation or agenda. Pray for the community leaders by name (i.e. Fire Chief so and so, Chief of Police so and so, etc.). List as many officials as possible.
  • Pray for the changes that are needed, that we might “embrace” them and be willing and able to make these changes. Pray for the community to be impacted by the church like never.
  • Pray for unchurched. Pray in general that unchurched people in your community can find Christ through this church. Pray specifically for unchristian friends you know. Pray that you and your church will find ways to invite these people and to make it comfortable for them to explore what Jesus and God and church are all about.

I am very excited about where this process will lead us as a church. I have already seen changes in how these leaders are engaged with the congregation. Multiply that by everyone who worships here and we will be much more effective in reaching a new generation with the love of Jesus Christ!

11 May 2017

Put Your $$ Where Your Faith Is

I want to take a moment to brag on Grace UMC. Our church is known as a missions-oriented place. There are abundant opportunities here to serve God's people in our local community and around the world. It is one thing to say we believe serving others is important; it's a better thing to do it. One of my favorite verses is James 1:25: "But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-- they will be blessed in their doing." So thank you to the folk here who serve in a hands-on way: Share: Taking It to the Streets brings food directly to those in our area who are hungry. We have members who volunteer with organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and Grand Central Station. Our monthly Legal Clinic will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. And as we come near to the end of a school year we received a note from the Wakefield Elementary staff thanking us for partnering with them through mentoring, reading, and donated supplies.

We also give money to support vital missions. Last Sunday for our communion/Bean Pot offering we received over $1000 for Blue Sunday, supporting kids in foster care in Grayson County. Check out our other Bean Pot offerings this year:

  • January: Grayson County Habitat for Humanity $435
  • February: Child and Family Guidance Center $405
  • March: United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR; disaster relief): $860
  • April: Sherman Interdenominational Ministers Alliance (SIMA): $413. This money is used for Thanksgiving baskets, scholarships for local kids, and emergency needs

On Christmas Eve we received an offering to benefit Syrian refugees through the global ministries of the United Methodist Church. We raised over $800. None of these funds are provided through the budget. This is extra giving, beyond what we contribute in the plates or online each week. Thank you for your generosity.

Our annual church budget has funds built into it to help others. Recently I have used money in my Pastor's Discretionary Fund to help three Grace households with rent (about $1200 total, some of which was helped by a family contribution and a gift from one of our Sunday school classes). Our Missions Board has dispensed two $1500 gifts to support local efforts. Family Promise of Grayson County is a new ministry to homeless people, which allows families to stay for a week at a time in various partner churches (four times a year) while they seek permanent housing. The other gift was for Wakefield Elementary, for their new playground. And of course through the connectional nature of our denomination a portion of our giving (roughly 8-10%) is distributed to various regional and international ministries. Thank you.

All of these gifts, and so many more, are possible because Grace families see real needs, hear the call to respond, and do so with generous hearts. This should make you feel proud. The good kind of pride, the one exhibited through humility. Following worship one of our members pulled me aside. He had a $2 bill he planned to contribute to the communion offering. But after hearing the sermon, seeing a video for Blue Sunday, and hearing Christy's words encouraging folk to give, he put away the $2 bill and gave a $10 bill. I suspect many others gave more than they planned at the beginning of the day.

Talking about money in the church can be uncomfortable for some. We'll have families who will consciously decide to worship elsewhere or remain home during our stewardship campaign this Fall. But when we do not discuss Christian approaches to giving we give in to to the overly materialistic nature of our society, which says what we have should only be used for ourselves. We also rob ourselves of an opportunity to say "thank you" to God, who provides all we have to live a full life.  When we join a church, we pledge to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Thank you for the many ways you fulfill all of those commitments-- especially your giving!

07 May 2017

Finding Meaning in Suffering

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is a timeless question, one that most or all of us has asked before. I know I have. One of my first experiences in ministry was working as a chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas while I was in seminary. Most of the time I was on-call, the only chaplain on the overnight shift in one of the busiest trauma-1 hospitals in the country. My pager would buzz and I wouldn't know where I was needed: the ER? The burn unit? The neo-natal unit? I would call the nurse station, rush to the elevator, then silently pray: "God, the odds are good I will not be able to deal with the situation I am about to enter. At least not without your help." Invariably I found myself in the hospital chapel asking myself, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In North Texas this week, there were several opportunities to ask that question. A fifteen year old black student named Jordan Edwards was killed by a police officer in Balch Springs. The officer was subsequently fired and arrested for murder. A standoff in East Dallas ended with a murder/suicide and a paramedic in the hospital. A worker was killed and another seriously injured at an apartment complex just a few minutes from here. Tornadoes ripped through East Texas, killing five people. Congress voted to change the health care system, potentially jeopardizing the well being of millions of Americans, particularly the poorest among us. "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

And today is Blue Sunday at Grace, where we will receive an offering to support victims of child abuse in our area through the Grayson County Child Welfare Board. The statistics are staggering:

  • Over 1600 children die annually because of abuse
  • Most are under age 3. 
  • Most were victims of neglect.
  • Most were boys.
  • Most deaths were caused by family members.
  • There are 6 million new cases of abuse every year.
  • 2/3 of those in drug treatment were victims of abuse.
  • 80% of the prison population were once in foster care.
  • 2/3 of those in foster care die, are homeless, or are in jail within a year of aging out
These statistics do not have to be the final story. I printed off some activities for families to do together; you'll find them on a table in the hallway. They're printed on bright pink paper; only after copying did I think to put them on blue paper for blue Sunday! There was a disclaimer after those harrowing stats on the Blue Sunday materials: "Do not let these statistics discourage you. Use the information to empower you to pray and seek God in these kids' behalf." And we can also do our best to develop an understanding of suffering that expresses the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than trying to blame God or rationalize human suffering. I often say, "The best answer to bad theology is good theology."

On first reading, the 1 Peter text assigned for today text doesn't help: 

For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 
‘He committed no sin,
   and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ 
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

It sounds like the text is legitimizing suffering: "If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval." Does that mean God is causing this suffering? Or is God looking the way when a child is abused or a spouse is beaten or a natural disaster destroys a home? Does the insurance industry still classify those things as acts of God? People who attend the Wednesday Bible study can tell you: I really struggled with this text this week! How can we read such a thing on the same day as we're supporting child abuse prevention? 

For help I especially leaned on the wisdom of scholars from historically oppressed communities: a women's commentary and a commentary from the African American experience. I learned that 1 Peter has been used across the centuries to justify the oppression of others. But the text does not endorse human suffering. It does not say God causes suffering. In fact, the text isn't even about suffering. It's about faithful endurance.

First Peter was not written by the apostle Peter; Peter is believed to have been martyred around the year 62 or 64. 1 Peter was written closer to the year 90, and named in honor of the apostle. It was not written in Jerusalem or Rome, but modern day Turkey: it's a letter, or more accurately a sermon, addressed to Christians in "Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bythnia." It's a word of encouragement to Christians, former pagans, who are suffering for their faith-- not necessarily tortured like the namesake Peter himself, but more likely dismissed or shamed or cast away from friends and family. See, this context helps us understand the passage better: these Christians are hurting because of their faith: "For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly... But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval." The text does not dismiss human suffering. It embraces Christian hope in the midst of suffering. 

One of my favorite Christian thinkers, William Sloane Coffin, said this about hope: "Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. And if Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, clearly we as Christians shouldn't either." 

Yesterday our confirmation class participated in an amazing ministry called Bed Start. We traveled to Plano to serve alongside members of my former church, Custer Road UMC, and others to deliver beds and furniture to those in need. Our crew arrived at a home in East McKinney with a trailer full of donated beds, couches, chairs, and bedding. We walked inside the house to see a woman, her mother in law, and two daughters who had just relocated to Texas from Ohio. Fleeing an abusive situation, they came here to be near family carrying only two suitcases. The only furniture in the home was a couch they had pulled out of a dumpster a couple of days before. When we left, they had four beds, a new couch, a recliner, books shelves, dressers... and the love of Jesus Christ. The woman told me she had just been placed with a full time job. Hope has nothing to do with optimism. It's about overcoming despair. 

In her classic book Suffering, Dorothee Soelle reminded me this week that the Bible speaks of God as the "lover of life" (Wisdom of Solomon 11:26)-- not the cause of suffering. God loves life. So Jesus, Soelle says, 

...drew himself precisely to those who lived on the fringes or were cast out, like women and children, prostitutes and collaborators. He affirmed those who were everywhere rejected and compelled to reject themselves. It is from the background of this affirmation of life, even the life of those who were sick, disabled, or too weak to accomplish much, that one must see the understanding of the acceptance of suffering as it developed in Christianity. It is an attempt to see life as a whole as meaningful and to shape it as happiness. The God who is the lover of life does not desire the suffering of people... but instead their happiness.

First Peter encourages the suffering Christians to find comfort in the example of Christ, who endured the cross, but by accepting it forever changed its meaning. The cross is no longer an instrument of death and shame; it is a symbol of hope and endurance for those who have faith. Through the cross, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, brings us to a place of comfort and peace. "You lead me besides still waters. You restore my soul. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all of my days, and I will walk in the house of the Lord forever." Jesus said, "I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly."

It's been a very challenging week. There is injustice, the threat of war, the loss of life and resources. But in the midst of that and more is the message of the gospel. May we all find hope and meaning in the sufferings of others and in whatever challenges we face. May we find comfort and strength in God, the lover of life. And may Christ's example of accepting his cross fill us with righteousness, that we may return with confidence to the green pastures of our Good Shepherd. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

04 May 2017

Life Long Learning

Several years ago I saw an advertisement in a church magazine for an event called the Festival of Homiletics. It was a gathering of hundreds of preachers from around the country for a week of worship and learning from leading pastors of mainline denomination churches (Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans, etc). I had some continuing education funds to spend, so I signed up. I think the conference that year was in Atlanta. I loved it. It was great to sit in gigantic, beautiful churches, like Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, and listen and learn without having to do any of the difficult work of planning. It was a rare opportunity to be a participant in worship, not a leader.

That was probably the year 2000 or so. Since then I have attended the Festival of Homiletics (homiletics is the study/art of preaching) in cities across the country: Minneapolis, Denver, Atlanta again, Nashville, Washington, DC. I took a few years off while I was working on my doctorate in preaching (2007-2009), and the last few years I have not attended; the speakers, while still great, are mostly the same every year. When I was exploring opportunities for continuing education this year I discovered the Festival would be in our own backyard: the Riverwalk in San Antonio. So I'll be there May 15-19.

One of the featured speakers is Rob Bell, who produced the wonderful Nooma DVD series a decade or so ago, as well as several very thought provoking books, like Velvet Elvis and Love Wins. Another presenter this year, whom I know well because we did our doctoral work together, is Dr Amy Butler, senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. Another voice I am excited to hear is Nadia Bolz-Weber, lead pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints in the Denver area. And there will be the usual suspects who speak at the Festival every year: legends like Barbara Brown Talyor and Walter Brueggemann. I would invite you to remember me and the thousand or so other preachers in attendance, that this would be a week of renewal of energy and spirit. While it is an amazing privilege to be a preacher, it is exhausting and stressful work. Thanks for listening every week!

Speaking of listening, we're trying to share the good things happening here at Grace with more people in our community. There are several ways you can participate in this effort. They are easy and cost nothing. What's to lose?

  1. Facebook has more than a billion daily users. If it was a country it would be the world's third largest, trailing only China and India. If you are on Facebook, like Grace's Facebook page (click on the link to go there now). Liking the Facebook page will keep you up to date on events, like this Sunday's Grillin Chillin and Fun church picnic. Then you just click share to invite others. Easy!
  2. Write a Google or Facebook review of the church. Share what you like: music, a sermon, Bible study lesson, service opportunity, whatever. People are looking for a place to learn, grow, and help others. Help them find us!
  3. Check in on Facebook when you come to worship. Open up Facebook, click check-in, then click Grace UMC. Say something like, "I love my church family!" or "Excited to be here today!"
You'll hear more about these and other tips to tell others about Grace in the coming weeks.You are the most effective tool we have to reach others for Christ! If you invite, they will come. So join the effort! Go Grace Team!

Peace and Joy,
Pastor Frank

28 April 2017

May Events and a New Bible Study Opportunity

May is always a very busy month, from Mother's Day to graduations. And it seems like half of the population has a birthday, including Christy and James in our household! Here's a quick look at some of the upcoming Sundays at Grace, so you can stay ahead of your schedule:

April 30: Women's Sunday. Our guest preacher will be Dr. Sheron Patterson, an Elder in the North Texas Conference. After serving for many years as a local church pastor, Dr. Patterson became the Communications Officer for the NTC five or six years ago. She travels around the country giving lectures, seminars, and sermons on a variety of topics. She'll also lead a program for everyone during the Sunday school hour. You will not forget this Sunday!
May 7: Grillin', Chillin', and Fun! Following the 11:00 service, stick around for a picnic on the church lawn. Dress casually for worship! Hot dogs and burgers will be provided; bring a dessert or side to share.
May 14: Mother's Day. Always one of the largest Sundays of the year, this year will extra special: at 11:00 Erika Bass, one of our confirmands, will be baptized. Expect many guests! Be on the lookout and practice hospitality!
May 21: Youth Sunday. Our youth will lead both hours of worship. We'll also honor our 2017 graduates, Michael Gardner and Amanda Garrett.
June 4: Pentecost Sunday/Confirmation Sunday. Erika Bass, Miles Drenner, and Amanda Wiggins will be confirmed and become members of Grace.
June 18: A new summer sermon series on Genesis begins, continuing through August 6.

Switching gears: Going into the summer months, we'll make a change to our Bible study offering. The Wednesday night Pastor's Bible study has mostly discussed the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday's sermon. It's a very informal, discussion based format- no curriculum. I'd like to change that and offer more in depth studies. The timeframe will be Wednesdays, 5:30-7:00, beginning June 14. Childcare is available. Our first study will be a 10-week Disciple Bible study: Introduction to Genesis. Books are $16. Here's an outline:

1. The Beginning...and What Went Wrong
2. Another Beginning: The Flood...and What Went Wrong
3. Another Beginning: Abraham and the Patriarchs
4. Abraham and a Glimpse to the Future
5. The Promise Fulfilled: Isaac
6. Another Beginning: Jacob and the Uneasy Birth of a People
7. Jacob: The Struggle Continues
8. Another New Beginning: Joseph and the Family of Israel
9. The Trek Into Egypt
10. An End and Another Beginning: Israel's Story

The current format for the Pastor's Bible study will continue through June 7. The Disciple study is a sort of bridge between study formats, since we are preaching on Genesis all summer. If there is interest in continuing a sermon-based discussion group after Genesis, maybe we can meet for an early morning discussion at a local coffee shop starting in September. The next Wednesday night Bible study following Genesis will be Christian Believer, a 24-week study of Christian doctrine, beginning in September. Why is this change in Bible study important? Check out this survey regarding believers' knowledge of the Bible:

Offering more in-depth, high commitment studies will help our members grow into stronger and more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

All Grace is Amazing! Enjoy the wonderful Spring weather while you can- you know summer heat is coming!

26 April 2017

"Is He the One Who..."

My wife Christy and I have three boys. We live in the Dallas area, and only make a handful of trips down here each year, so the boys aren't as acquainted with extended members of our family. And sometimes names overlap, so it can be difficult to keep everyone straight. For example, I have two Kellys in my family, although they spell their names differently. Of course Christy also has aunts and uncles and cousins on her side of the family; in fact we both have Uncle Ronnies! All this is to say when we're sharing stories of relatives with the boys, it can be confusing. So a common response from them is, "Is that the one who..." When we told them my Uncle Donald died, one kid said, "Is that the one who had a part of his ear bitten off by a Marine?" Yup- that's my Uncle Donald, or as we called him, and he called us, "Chuck." Don't know where that came from.

Years from now you might remember snippets from today's service and think, "Was he the one with the memorial service at a Little League Ballpark?" Yup- that's my Uncle Donald. He loved baseball- especially kids' baseball. I'll admit when Kelli mentioned this idea to me I was taken back a bit.. but I quickly warmed up to it. I love baseball too. One of the most unique things about the game Uncle Donald and I loved is how the field is formed. You have the outfield- the grassy area out there- and the infield- this dirt in the middle. Around the infield are bases: 1st, 2nd, 3rd. I decided to speak to Uncle Donald's life in terms of phases, as a runner makes her way around the bases during a game.

1st Base: Early years
Uncle Donald grew up here in Wharton. He was the oldest of four kids in the house, preceded in death by his sister Leoda and brother Ted. He was ten years older than my father, Frank. He grew up in a very difficult home setting, and when he was old enough he left home to join the Navy. This is where the unfortunate interchange between his ear and a Marine happened.

2nd Base: Early adulthood
When his naval service ended, Uncle Donald returned home and married Aunt Geneva. He died just days before what would have been their 55th wedding anniversary. They had three children, Kelli, Michelle, and Donnie. Geneva would often say to him, "You're a rascal, but by grace you're my rascal." Uncle Donald had a long career as an electrician. During this phase of his life, barely short of 30 years ago, Uncle Donald quit drinking. Geneva and Kelli remembered Uncle Donald almost in terms of Jekyll and Hyde: when he was sober he was warm and affable. When he drank he could be mean. When Uncle Donald quit drinking, the ugliness went away, forgiveness became possible within the family, and several lives were changed because of his strength to change. The cycle of dysfunction was broken, making the 3rd Base of his life much, much different.

3rd Base: Twilight years
These are the years I mostly fondly remember my uncle. I remember Thanksgiving dinners at the Wharton house, watching football games one after the other, making constant trips to the refrigerator for his unlimited stash of Dr Pepper. I remember his politically incorrect sense of humor, jokes I thought hilarious when I was a kid, but which made me more and more uncomfortable as I grew older. Chuck: in his recliner, in the corner of the room, wearing a Texas Longhorns or Houston Oilers hat, sipping a never ending stream of Dr Peppers, telling off color jokes. That's the Uncle Donald I will always remember.

He was particularly proud of his grandkids: Megan, Morgan, Trey, and Dylan. They called him "Pap," and there are some wonderful tributes written by them on Facebook. Uncle Donald was a grandfatherly figure to other kids as well: like the kids he coached in Little League, some of whom did not have proper equipment or uniforms so he took them to Denn Bros and paid for their stuff. Or the neighborhood kids who lived across the streets in the apartments who would come to the door and ask, "Can he come out?" He would then spend time "fixing their bikes," which really meant spending time with them.

 We've visited 1st Base, 2nd Base, 3rd Base. But there is no 4th base on the baseball diamond. It's called home plate. And it's even shaped like a house. When a runner scores in baseball, we say he's come home. Friends, Uncle Donald, Pap, whatever you called him, has come home. Jesus said, "In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also."

Uncle Donald had a great faith. He believed the words I just read to you. He had witnessed in his own life and the lives of others the transformation possible in a person by God's grace. Geneva and Donald regularly participated in their church home, Grace Community Fellowship, even after he began to experience health concerns. His faith never wavered throughout his declining health, and the second half of his life was a witness to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He is now in the presence of the Resurrected Lord, at peace, worshipping in glory as one of the saints of light. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." I texted Dad the other day after hearing of Uncle Donald's death: "The legend!" I said. Dad replied, "Yeah, he was one of a kind." For all that he was to us: husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, coach, mentor, friend, we give thanks to God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. Join me again in prayer.

19 April 2017

The Holy Week That Was

There is a popular meme that runs through Facebook every week following Easter, shared by pastors or church staff. It says, "Jesus is risen!" and "The clergy is dead!"

It's very true. There is no tired like Easter tired (it's like jet lag, lasting for several days), and no nap like Easter Sunday naps! Reflecting on all of Holy Week, I am filled with a combination of exhaustion, gratitude, and joy. Here's a recap:

Monday night: Great worship with the Sherman Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Joyful music and great preaching.

Thursday night: Holy Thursday. About 40 people gathered to remember the institution of the Lord's Supper. My favorite moment of this service was Linus reading the Gospel text.

Friday night: Good Friday. 100 people or so in attendance. The music was incredibly moving, and sixteen readers read the Passion of Jesus Christ. Very emotional.

Saturday afternoon: Egg hunt and walk through Holy Week. A great turnout of kids and families from the neighborhood. The scramble for the eggs was a major competition! Janet did a great job organizing this. Thanks for the adults and youth who served.

Sunday morning: Wow. The service at the park was tremendous-- more people than chairs! Probably a 60/40 split between church folk and not. The youth did a great job re-telling the Passion and Easter story. James participated in the drama. We thought there would be rain, but thankfully that held off until Monday.

We had great energy on campus too: the kids bells were sweet, we played an Easter version of the classic playground game "Statues," the Grace Bells and choir were amazing, and the praise team at 11:00 was great as always. Congratulations to Lori and Anthony Hartman on the birth of Baby Owen-- he was born just after midnight Monday morning. Thanks to Lori, who started feeling contractions during Easter worship, for holding out until the service was over! Also we owe many thanks to Vicki and Tom Busby, who provided snacks at the sunrise service and between services on campus. Vicki had surgery a couple of weeks ago on her foot so getting around was a bit of challenge, but did you really think that would stop her? Of course not.

We also welcomed lots of new faces to Grace! 341 total faces on Easter Sunday. Thanks to everyone who has provided positive feedback on the whole experience. Our family had a great time sharing our first Easter with you. All Grace is Amazing!
- Pastor Frank

16 April 2017

Hidden. With Christ. In God.

The other day I went for my annual pre-Easter haircut. The days before Easter go at roughly 124 miles per hour, so I do not have time to think about setting appointments or anything else. So when I realized I needed my hair cut for today I visited several barber shops around town-- four, in fact. I couldn't get in to any of them. I finally settled on one-- two days ago, inbetween services on Thursday and Friday.

Barber shops are known for their conversations, and in this one the topic of the minute was the sorry state of education today (truthfully, there are only a handful of barbershop conversation subjects; they rotate round and round like a carousel. Education is one of them). They hit all the hits:

  • Teachers only teach to the test
  • Teachers who don't teach to the test get fired
  • Students are learning
  • Kids don't want to work hard enough
  • Parents aren't supporting the kids
  • No one cares about the school board
(And no, the school bond issue didn't come up.)

But then the conversation shifted in a strange direction. One of the guys waiting either works for or runs a local funeral home. So he started sharing stories. This guy died in this place... The body was there this long... The smell was this bad... I couldn't believe it. This was not on the barbershop play list. Plus it was Good Friday, and I was already thinking about Jesus' death on the cross. By the time I was finished I paid my bill quickly and bolted out the door. I had had enough of death.

Which, of course, leads us to today. It is true that death is smelly and messy and gross. It is true that death is one of the things we fear the most. It is true that we spend lots of time, energy, and money to avoid death. And it's also true that try as we do we cannot avoid it. The good news of Easter is that God's story does not end with Jesus' death on Good Friday. His resurrection, which we celebrate today, liberates us from our fear of death and gives us hope for our lives.

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, a holy day for Christians, who celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Here at Grace, and at just about every other church, we waved palm branches and yelled, "Hosanna! Lord save us!" Christians in Egypt joined in that celebration as they have since the 5th century. Then two suicide bombers attacked churches, killing 44 people. ISIS claimed responsibility. What began as a day of celebration ended with profound grief, anger, and horror. The Coptic Church in Egypt has been persecuted for many years. Christians in Egypt comprise only 10% of the country. The government has promised better protection for them. But here's the thing: those same changes are open today. Christians are gathered to worship the Risen Christ on Easter just as we do. They are doing this despite their fear and grief, witnessing to their faith. How is such a thing possible?

Two Marys went to the place where Jesus' body was placed following his crucifixion. It had been two days. We aren't told why they went there; only that they did. As they approached an earthquake shook the place, caused by an angel descending from heaven. He moved the stone from its place at the tomb and sat down on it-- no big deal. The powerful guards, placed there by the religious leaders, fell to the ground, unable to move. To the women, the angel said, "Don't be afraid. You're looking for Jesus; you won't find him here. Check it out for yourself. He's gone ahead to Galilee." As they were leaving the cemetery, they saw Jesus: "Greetings!," he said. "Don't be afraid. Tell the others I will see them in Galilee." And they run away to share what they had seen. They leave behind their fear, grief, and brokenness. How is such a thing possible?

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. - Colossians 3:1-4

If you have been raised with  Christ, your focus changes: you set your mind on things that are above, where Christ is, not on the things that are below. In other words, you are a new person in faith, and when this change happens your life has a new direction. The things of the earth are behaviors like fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Setting your life on things above doesn't mean turning away from bad things like injustice or human suffering on earth-- it's individual, destructive behaviors. If our lives are set on Christ, then we are hidden with Christ in God. Meaning only God, and only godly things, are visible in our lives.

So the Coptic Christians can worship on Easter Sunday without fear, even though they have been persecuted. I read a couple of very brave quotes yesterday: "Egypt's Copts put their trust in God, not in security measures." One woman said, "We do not fear terrorism." Jesus promised: "I will turn your sorrow into joy, and no one will take your joy from you." They can live in to the hope of their faith because their lives are hidden with Christ in God. The two Marys leave the graveyard with hope and joy to share their experiences of seeing the angel and the rock and the statuefied men and seeing Jesus himself resurrected from the dead because their lives are hidden with Christ in God.

This way of living is possible for the one who believes Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. This is the heart of the Easter message.

All of that may sound crazy and impossible. I get it. In a way we are all the women of the story. It's Sunday morning. We've come to see Jesus. But we're not in Jerusalem; we're in Sherman, Texas. We're in a church building, not a cemetery. Where will we find him? This is what he said:
  • "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there amongst them." We find Jesus in the community of believers, not on our own.
  • "Whenever you feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome someone, visit the sick and imprisoned, and clothe the naked, you do it to me." We find Jesus by sharing his love with those in need.
  • "This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, poured out for you." We find Jesus at his table, where he invites us to share communion with him and each other.
May you live your life in such a way that your focus is above-- where Christ is; not below, where you've thrown off your fears and superstitions and prejudices and worries. May you live your life in such a way that your life is hidden with Christ in God. So that all people see is your witness-- what you believe-- as you serve the needs of others in the name of the Resurrected Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

06 April 2017

Easter 2017

This afternoon I was reading through Easter liturgies and I came across this prayer:

Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your Son overcame the old order of death and sin to make all things new in him: grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory; to whom with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit be praise and honor, glory and might, now and in all eternity. Amen.

That prayer sums up powerfully the whole point of Easter. It isn’t just about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but ours. And not only at the end of our earthly lives; through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are raised to new life and hope today. In this life. Death and sin no longer have dominion over us, and we are free to live in joy. This is good news for all of us, but particularly for those outside the walls of the church. Folk you know. You work with them, go to Bearcats football games with them, attend special events like the recent Celtic Festival with them. These friends and acquaintances without a church home are part of Jesus’ flock, but they are waiting for invitation. They might come to the celebration with you April 16.

Easter Day has always been the pinnacle of Christian worship; in fact, the earliest Christians celebrated Easter long before Christmas. New believers were baptized on Easter. They were dressed in white robes for their baptized, and given new clothes to symbolize their new life in Christ. Some people like to think of Easter as the Church’s Super Bowl, our big event. For me, Easter Day is more like Game Seven of the World Series. It’s the culmination of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise, and other special observances.

This will be our first Easter together, and I am already excited. All of our focus on that most holy of days needs to be on the people we do not know. We need to be positive, welcoming, joyful, and excited. You know, we need to be Grace UMC! But on that day let’s place all of our focus on new people, not our regular church friends. This is our best chance to show the community what we believe and why. Will you join me in praying for Easter? Pray for one person. One person who doesn’t know Christ. That one person will worship that day and experience Christ’s resurrection for themselves. Pray that God will reveal to you one person to invite. Pray that God will use you on that morning to make that one person feel welcome and loved. Who’s your one person?

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Spring Black Friday

Yesterday I was driving around town listening to a local radio station when my mind started to drift. When I refocused, I discovered I was in the middle of a commercial. Just as I was about to change the station I heard a term that was new to me:

Spring Black Friday.

My first thought was about Good Friday-- the day Jesus died on the cross (April 14). But no, this wasn't an ad for Holy Week services at a local church. This was an ad for one of the large home improvement stores in town, the orange one, and I was really taken aback. Just in time for Easter (not mentioned), you can get great deals today on mulch, lawn mowers, patio furniture, etc. It's an ongoing sales event for the first couple weeks of April, not necessarily tied to a specific date, like, you know, Good Friday.

I don't know what your outdoor needs are-- I have several myself-- but I do not have the time or energy to pursue them between today and April 16, Easter Sunday. It's another unnecessary layer of distraction. Since the beginning of March, we've journeyed through Lent, 40 days of devotion and spiritual discipline, only to get a great discount on a leaf blower?? Please. No thank you.

Instead, I invite you to devote your time and energy to the events of Holy Week. We'll have several opportunities here at Grace to fully experience the events of the last week of Jesus' life:

  • This Sunday, 8:30 and 11:00: Palm/Passion Sunday. Our kids will wave palm branches and lead a procession through the Celebration Center. We'll quickly move to a reflection on the message of the cross.
  • Monday night, 7:30: Sherman Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance service. Celebrate our unity in Christ with brothers and sisters of other Sherman area churches.
  • Wednesday night, 5:30: The final installment of the "Death of the Messiah" study. We'll examine a couple of classical depictions of Jesus' Passion, then experience the powerful Farewell Discourse, four chapters in the Gospel of John when Jesus prays for and says goodbye to his disciples.
  • Holy Thursday, 7:00: A commemoration of the institution of the Lord's Supper. We'll celebrate communion together.
  • Good Friday, 7:00: Powerful music, prayers, and readings from the Gospel of John create an emotional remembrance of Christ's sacrificial love.
  • Holy Saturday, 2:00-4:00: Walk Through Holy Week and Easter Egg Hunt. Great fun for the kiddos.
  • Easter Day: Sunrise service at Pecan Grove Park West, 7:00; services here at the church at 8:30 and 11:00. Snacks and coffee will be served before and after each service. Be on the lookout for new people!

And after all of that, the highs and lows of the most important week in human history, you may be exhausted-- I will be for sure-- but hopefully the good news will fill you with so much joy that you'll be able to devote every ounce of that energy to... yard work? Decorating? No-- it still doesn't work.

A quick word of thanks to our office and program staff here at Grace-- they really are wonderful. David and Lynda lead the music with such enthusiasm, in addition to planning services and recruiting worship participants. The choir is great. Anthony, Lori, Matt, William, and Laura make for a wonderful experience of praise music. Janet is gearing up for the Walk Through Holy Week and the sunrise service, led by youth. Rhonda handles all the logistics of the church. Jan runs the calendar, maintains the schedules, prints and designs newsletters, emails, and bulletins. Jack keeps everything inside and outside the building looking great. Gerri keeps us current on our bills. Pastor Leon cares for people. I really appreciate the gifts of our talented staff team. And thanks as well for our lay volunteers, who helped clean in and around the building last Saturday, and those who will do everything in their power to make folk feel welcome Easter morning. This includes all of us. There will be much to do! I am excited to join in the celebration April 16!

23 March 2017

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Last Friday Christy and I pulled in to Termini Train Station in Rome, the last city we would visit on our 20th anniversary trip to Italy. I was very excited. I have wanted to see and walk through ancient Rome since I was a kid. The Colosseum, The Forum, pagan temples, ruins, etc. But as we arrived I confronted another emotion: paranoia. I had heard so much about pickpockets before we left. Any time we were around people I felt like someone was targeting me, the giant American tourist.

This sensation was in the back of my mind the entire trip. Throughout the week I wore a small pouch, I called it my "Joey," like I was a momma kangaroo, under my shirt. It housed our cash, passports, credit card, bank card. Now in the swarm at the train station, rumored to be Pickpocket Danger Area #1, I found myself checking out everyone in the place. Christy needed to make a pit stop, so I found the most secure place to wait: against a wall, our two rolling bags, a camera bag, and a backpack close to me. I was a secure fort in the middle of the chaos. I suspected everyone who stopped to look at the map next to me was trying to rip me off.

Then I had a random thought.

I was reminded of our country's evolving immigration and foreign travel policy. Twice now efforts to limit who can travel to America from a handful of countries have been ruled unconstitutional. I've been critical of these efforts from the beginning from a faith perspective. The Bible is very clear that the foreigner should be welcome and cared for. But now in this busy train station I found myself somehow synched to the underlying fears of the travel/immigration bans: when we assume everyone is a threat in effort to ensure our own safety, we make ourselves crazy.

Yesterday the area around Parliament in London was attacked by a terrorist. He was not a refugee, and he was not from a predominantly Muslim country. He was a Muslim born in Britain and radicalized there. Several people have died and others are injured. I have an emotional connection to England as Christy and I lived there seventeen years ago and have many dear friends. Plus a couple from Grace was visiting London very close to where the attack happened and I was concerned for them and others. I spent much of yesterday refreshing my social media feeds to learn more information. I tweeted out my own thoughts and I re-tweeted a prayer from the London District of the Methodist Church:

Twitter being what Twitter is, it became a place of immediate response, assigning blame everywhere, wanting to go to war, to repay evil for evil. As much as terrorism is a part of our lives, so is our need to express our outrage. I feel it too. When expressed in a mature way it can even be healthy (not being hateful, stereotyping.. and yes, paranoid). The British are actually great models for this. Today Parliament is back in session. London is not on lockdown. New policies are not being enacted as a response to terror. We move forward. Unafraid.

Last night at Bible study we discussed the "Cleansing of the Temple," one of the few stories remembered in all four gospels. Mark sandwiched that story with another one about a fig tree Jesus passes as he walks from Bethany to Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, but the tree has no figs-- it's out of season. Jesus curses it (Mark 11:12-14), and after returning from the Temple Peter notices that the tree is withered (verses 20-25). Peter asks about the tree. Here's what Jesus says: "Have faith in God. If you say to the mountain, 'Go into the sea,' it will happen. If you have faith and not doubt." The fig tree withers because it is not performing its function when needed-- no figs for a hungry traveler. If we spend our days doubting, worrying, fearful, paranoid... we are not living out what we believe.

Of course there are pickpockets at Termini and other major hubs where people gather. People have their cash, phones, bags, etc. stolen every day. But just because there are a few pickpockets doesn't mean everyone there is a pickpocket, right? That's irrational thinking. It's also illogical to assume everyone traveling from a predominantly Muslim country is a threat. It's paranoia to assume every refugee fleeing terror or civil war in Syria or other places is a danger. Maybe there are a few. But not most; and certainly not all.

When I made the connection between my fear and the reality in the train station, I breathed a little easier. I still protected my things and was cautious, but did so in a way that allowed me to enjoy myself in a place I had always dreamed of visiting. What's the first thing Jesus says about the fig tree: "Have faith in God." Our world is no more or less crazy than what we read about in the story. What might we become if we put aside our immediate, often negative responses to scary realities and embrace faith?

22 March 2017

The Death of the Messiah

Several years ago Mel Gibson directed a film called The Passion of the Christ. It was very popular, but I didn't care for it-it focused too much on the violence of Jesus' suffering (the word "passion" comes from the Latin word for suffering), and not enough of the grace revealed by his death. I'd like to invite you to a Lenten Bible study starting tonight: "The Death of the Messiah." We offered a similar study during Advent. We will explore each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus' passion: his betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion, noting their similarities and differences. 

Studying the different gospel accounts of the Passion always brings up great questions:
Who is the naked guy in Mark 14:51-52?
Why does John include the detail of lanterns and torches in 18:3?
Where exactly is the Garden of Gethsemane?
Did Jesus or Simon of Cyrene carry the cross-and what difference does it make?
Who was Pontius Pilate-and why do we remember him in the Apostle's Creed?
What is significant about the name Barabbas?

Tonight we'll explore Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem, the Cleansing of the Temple, Passover, and the Institution of the Lord's Supper.
Mark 11:1-26; 14:12-25
Matthew 21:1-22; 26:17-30
Luke 19:28-40, 45-48; 22:7-30
John 13:1-38

In addition to the gospel texts, at the beginning of each  session we will explore an artistic depiction of Jesus' passion as it relates to that evening's gospel material. Four Wednesdays: March 22 and 29, April 5 and 12, 5:30-7:00 p.m., upstairs.

I hope to see you!

26 February 2017

Down from the Mountain

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

You'll probably think I am obsessed with mountains; we just finished examining the Sermon on the Mount the last four Sundays, and here we are again. Firstly, I am not a mountain guy, so I have no particular obsession with them. Secondly, we're following the Lectionary, the assigned readings for churches, and I don't pick those. But since we are on the subject of mountains, I do remember one trip we took with friends when Christy and I lived in England:

That's Mount Snowdon in Wales. It's the highest peak in the British Aisles, south of Scotland. None of us are climbers, but there is a fun option there: a rack and pinion train, built in 1896. It takes an hour to make the 4.7 mile trip to the summit. Wales is a stunningly beautiful country, and the views from Snowdon were breathtaking. But here's the thing: you ride up the train, you check out the scenery, walk around. But eventually, you have to get on the train. There's only so much to do. No one lives there.

The mountain in the Gospel of Matthew is better understood as a metaphor than a specific place. When Jesus goes to the mountain, it's to teach. The mountain is his platform, his pulpit. He brings folk up to the mountain to listen and learn. Or experience. So the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapters 5-7, is a summary of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Christ meets the disciples again on the mountain to bless them and send them into the world in ministry. And in the middle of the Gospel we have this story of Jesus' Transfiguration on the mountain.

The Transfiguration is all about mystery, and awe, and wonder, and glory. Jesus' clothes are changed to a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, appear and speak to Jesus. The three disciples Jesus brought with him, Peter, James, and John, absolutely freak out. They didn't expect this-- no one could have! They may have thought this would be a spiritual retreat, or prayer time, or a private lesson. Not a powerful vision of glory. Their teacher is transformed. Heroes of their faith, whose stories they heard as kids in Sunday school, appear with Jesus and talk to him. How amazing is that? Peter just can't stand it. He interrupts the conversation: "Jesus! This is incredible! How about I pitch some tents-- one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses-- so we can all camp out together?

As soon as the words exit his mouth, Moses and Elijah disappear. A terrifying sight, a cloud from heaven filled with lightning and fire, descends around them, and a voice shouts from the cloud: "This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!" Scared to death, the disciples hide. But then everything changes. All the noise, the commotion, the confusion... is gone. They're left alone with Jesus, who:

  • touches them
  • calls them to stand
  • encourages them not to be afraid
All while leading them down the mountain.

Here's the deal: as beautiful and awe-inspiring as the mountains are, nobody lives there. Sooner or later, and it's almost always sooner, folk board the train to go back down. The mountain is not a retreat center, somewhere to hang out for several days. It's a place to experience the word of God, be transformed, and sent out. Sometimes people think about the church as a place to come that is isolated and insulated from the outside world. A place where no one disagrees and there is no messiness. Nope! The church is full of messiness. The church is not a retreat center. We don't live in churches. We come, bringing all of our messiness with us, to experience the praise and worship of God: through music, prayers, fellowship, sermon... but then we go out into the world. And that's a messy place too!

The Old Testament reading also took place on a mountain: Moses went there to receive the stone tablets inscribed with God's covenant with the people. While Moses was there, the same cloud Peter James and John witnessed enfolded the mountain. There were flashes of lightning and fire. It was terrifying to the Hebrews below in the valley. For Moses, it was a moment of intimacy and communion with God. And he probably would have liked to stay there. But the mission wasn't to the mountain-- it was to the people. What did he find when he finally returned to the people? During his absence they fashioned a god of gold and worshiped it. Yup, ministry is messy. 

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John descended the mountain they were immediately approached by a man whose child was ill. "Your disciples couldn't help him," the father said. Jesus felt the same rage as Moses did when he saw the golden calf: "How long must I be with you?" Yup, ministry is messy. After he cured the child, the disciples asked why they couldn't do it. "Because of your weak faith," Jesus said. "But if your faith is just the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, 'Go into the sea,' and it would do it."

We have a cookbook at home, sort of a comfort food type book, and over and over again: meatloaf, anything that involves mixing stuff together, it uses the same phrase: "Using your hands..." Not a spatula, not a utensil. Your hands. I guess there is something about getting one's hands dirty that makes the recipe so much better. And ministry is like that. Church is like that. People are like that. There are no perfect people or places. If we find ourselves there we can see God face to face, but only for a moment; we have to descend the mountain and find the people Jesus loves and wants to save.

Before and after the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection. Messy. People are messy. We get sick, we lose loved ones, we vote one way or another. But we're called to be with them and love them anyway. No one lives on the mountain! You may encounter God's presence there, but briefly; and you will be transformed. So get on the train, and follow Jesus down to where he always is: in the messiness of people. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.