A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Based on Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11

To read the texts, go here http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Luke+24:44-53&vnum=yes&version=nrsv and here http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Acts+1:1-11&vnum=yes&version=nrsv:

This Spring one of the clergy at Williamsburg Church and I led Disciple, a 34 week intensive and demanding Bible study; trust me, it’s not for sissies. We finished the Old Testament last month and in August we’ll start taking on the New Testament.

I can always count on at least one in the group asking tough questions about what’s been read, how scripture all fits together, noticing contradictions or other problems, dealing with faith issues raised by their careful wrestling with the Word of God.

When we read Luke and Acts this fall, I know someone’s going to have questions about today’s stories of Jesus’ final time with his disciples. They’ll notice that they don’t exactly match. In Luke’s gospel story, that final time with his friends is Easter evening, but in Acts 40 days have passed. In Luke Jesus departs from Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, but in Acts he leaves from the Mount of Olives, just a small valley from Jerusalem. In Luke only disciples are there; Acts’ two men in heavenly white are not. At least one of my folks is going to read carefully and thoughtfully, see the easily missed differences, and want to know what’s what.

And I’ll say what I often say: “Take this seriously, but not literally. Don’t get lost in the detail weeds but pay attention to what Luke really wants us to see.” And I’ll remind them that what we see one time may differ from what God shows us the next.

Today, in either report, what I see clearly is that Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was with his disciples long ago. Those days are over and done. As much as I’d like to see his face, or watch him heal the sick, or hear him tell a story, or slide a pillow under his weary head in a boat, such things are not for me. We’ve been given something better. Then the Lord Jesus could only be one place at one time. He could only do one thing at a time, only have one conversation at a time, only help one person at a time.

But now the Risen Christ is up and above such limitations; he’s no longer bound by time and space; wherever we are, he’s there with us. In a classroom or at work, at the kitchen table at dawn or in bed at day’s end, in the delivery room or by a hospice bed, in wide open spaces or a prison cell, at a picnic shelter or one for the homeless, the Risen Christ is with us, praise the Lord.

Scripture tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39); there’s nowhere I can go from God’s Spirit (cf. Psalm 139:1-12). There’ve been times when I thought I needed to hide or run from God; I grew up fearing a god out to get me and ready to zap me when I took a misstep. But as a long ago saint said, “I no longer fear God, but love God (St. Anthony, a 3 century monk).”

When I see Jesus, I’m not filled with fear, but love. I see kindness and mercy, compassion for the broken and beaten down, I see a welcome for us who know we’re a hot mess or who hunger and thirst for a better way; I see God in the flesh with arms widely welcoming all who would draw near; I see loving arms stretched out on the cross embracing our suffering and sadness and hurtful ways, and somehow transforming our deadly ways into living way.

By his stripes we are healed, and by his wounds we are made whole; so says scripture (Isaiah 53:4-5). And today, I see that Christ’s suffering, sacrificing, wounded love is really God’s suffering, sacrificing, wounded love; God has taken this Risen Christ up into the very heights of heaven, into the very heart of God. We have God’s word on it: now we have an ally and advocate (see Hebrews 4; 1 John 2) in God’s very presence praying for us, speaking up for us, calling to God’s mind how weak and frail and stupid we sometimes are; and how precious and beautiful and beloved we are. So God shows us patience and mercy and kindness and grace beyond our deserving. Christ is near to the heart of God, making room for us as well.

This is such joyful good news! How sad that often the world sees us as grumpy, frumpy, self-righteous pains. What joyful news; how can I not share it with others? We get to continue the beautiful new thing Christ began; it’s not a burden, but a blessing and a gift. We know Christ is raised from the dead and has been given God’s power and authority; we know that what he says about life is true and real; we get to bear witness to what we’ve seen and know to be true, and to carry it forward everywhere. We get to offer people life and hope, mercy and joy, invite them to go a new way and to experience forgiveness and healing. W are given permission and power to bear witness that “Christ has opened a new and better way to people of all ages, races and nations;” as told in our baptism joy we are privileged and powered “to reject and repent from spiritual forces of wickedness and evil, to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” (see the Baptismal liturgy of The United Methodist Church). We simply say and show what we know: the joy of Christ alive in us; serving him gladly, knowing his goodness and grace; Christ and Christ only first in my heart (a lyric line from the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”).

Last week I taught a Sunday School class at Williamsburg Church on Romans 12. There Paul urges us not to be conformed to the ways of the world but to be transformed by Christ; as one translation puts it, “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold you from within…(J. B. Phillips, The New Testament: A Modern Translation). I asked where we need to let God remold our lives. It’s a pretty quiet group; they usually don’t talk much, so I was surprised by their quick and deep answers: “We’re too cruel and unkind to each other.” “The world’s molding us to be mean-spirited, suspicious, hurtful, hateful, to love violence too much.” “We need to surrender ourselves to the deepest truth of scripture, not just what’s convenient or agreeable.” As Christ forms us, “We stop being so afraid of each other or those who are different;” “We become quiet and still, we slow down, pray and wait; “We listen more to each other and for God’s still small voice;” “We learn like Christ to love, no matter what.”

Sisters and brothers, the world needs us to be such witnesses because it’s lost its mind, its soul, its heart, its way. The world needs to see us living the Jesus way. We claim him as Lord and Savior; no one else. If the world’s going to see Christ alive, it’s our calling to bear witness to his life in ours. If we don’t, who will?

But we won’t do it on our own; we need power from above; we need the Holy Spirit to come and do in us what’s not possible for us. That’s why Jesus tells us in Acts we to wait, to be still. We need to worship each week to be filled again with joy, to be reminded and challenged and encouraged to stay open to God’s power and to be connected to it lest we burn out like a light no longer shining. It’s why we need to come to Christ’s Table, to be refreshed and renewed by the One who feeds and nourishes us to live his odd way.

The great good news is that power is available. It will be given, as we wait and pray with hope and faith and joy. We have Jesus’ word on it, and he’s never failed me yet. In the waiting and hoping, God makes room to speak and to act. The world rushes by and tells us to get a move on; Christ tells us to wait, to be open and ready.

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine was offered a terrific job. His first thought was this is a no brainer; of course he should take it, strike while the iron is hot. But he thought to wait and to listen. He’s a Quaker so he invited several people to form a clearness committee to help him. For a few hours they simply asked questions, and in the space of trust, waiting and listening they provided, he realized God was not calling him to that work (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. I had the opportunity to become acquainted with Parker Palmer in 1984 when he met with the doctoral students at Presbyterian School of Christian Education, now incorporated into Union Presbyterian Seminary).

I think about that a lot these days as our United Methodist Church in this terribly tough season after General Conference’s decisions about matters of sexuality and the place of LGBTQ persons in Christ’s family. We’re uncertain about which to go, how God might lead us in a new day or a new direction. Some of us are tempted to act now, to step boldly and quickly when we may not yet know the best way to go. Perhaps especially now we’re called to wait, to listen, to receive power from above, to trust that we’re not alone, on our own. Christ’s healing, helping, joyful, extravagant love and power can yet live in us; his powerful presence can yet shape and change and strengthen us. The world needs to see the Way of Jesus’ welcoming love for all, witness it, to know it’s true. The truth is, we need that life-giving power from on high, and it’s worth waiting.

Sometime in the last few years, a church acquaintance went off on how angry she was at a president. She was clearly angry, fed up, utterly done with him as a president and as a human being. I asked if she prayed for him, and she acted like that was the most ridiculous question ever. “Of course not; I can’t; I won’t. It’s impossible.” She blew off my reminder that what’s impossible for us is possible for God. Hard as it is, we’re commanded to pray for our enemies, for leaders and persons in authority, even a president who, like us is also a sinner and beloved child of God. She’d have none of it; I was struck by how much she needed Christ alive in her to shape and remold her life with that power from above; how much good it would do her to ask for that promised gift to move her from death life, and to wait for it in confident faith and hope. What’s impossible for us is possible for God.

In 2006 I marveled at that truth in the lives of Pennsylvania Amish parents whose children were slaughtered at school. In their awful grief they went to the home of their children’s murderer, to speak and act in mercy, grace and forgiveness. They didn’t go because it was easy, but because it’s the Way of Jesus. They’d spent a lifetime being formed to wait and listen and learn the Jesus Way by heart, and trust Christ alive in them with power to live a better way, a way of life, not death. And the world mocked and ridiculed; but some also marveled and wondered. That Jesus Way lies open to us. Wait for it. Pray for it. Expect it. Rejoice in it. Such power will be given, thanks be to God.

-2019, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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Easter Day and the Death of Optimism

Today is not a day for optimism. Especially not this Easter Day, as hundreds of dead and damaged bodies in the Body of Christ are removed from church tombs that are not empty but filled with wails and moans and blood and body parts scattered like seed in a field.

Optimism dies on a day like this. On an Easter day filled with alleluias and ambulance sirens, insipid and silly mantras like “Always look on the bright side,” or “When life gives you lemons make lemonade,” or “Tomorrow is another day” cleave to the roof of my mouth where they must stay sealed up in a tomb of silence lest such shallowness become a stumbling block to faith and an outrageously silly insult to the wounds inflicted today on Christ’s bloodied Body.

What happened on Easter today is real and raw; we dare not trivialize or demean the suffering pain of the Body inflicted today in Sri Lanka – not only on Christians gathered in hope and joy, but also on guests and workers in hotels, and travelers on a road leading not to Emmaus, but to a morgue.

Evil is real. Fierce. Determined. Resilient. Devastating. Cruel. Horrible. Everywhere. It has a home in hands of dedicated detonators of explosives; in feet of us when we step around or over others to advance or pass by on the other side; in mouths silent before racism, sexism, or any other ism that diminishes another; in eyes that will not see the plight of immigrants or the privileges that come with white skin or penises; in ears deaf to the weeping of the despondent and the cries of the poor or the complaint of the LGBTQA! excluded from the Anointing of ordination and the altar of marriage.

Easter is a reminder of the persistent power of evil, which is borne on Christ’s brow and embedded in his ripped hands, feet and side. No denying it there; he is forever marked by those wicked wounds. There is not enough optimism in all this broken, battered world to make them all better.

But there is hope. Hope that transcends human optimism, that whispers a divine “Nevertheless” in the silence of the tomb, that brings light in the midst of darkness, that raises life where death dwells. Hope is God’s gift to us this Easter when Sri Lankans shriek in shock and sorrow; it is the Holy One’s gift when we have nothing but our emptiness, despair, sorrow, fear and sadness. Hope greets us as we make our way to every tomb that landscapes our lives, stunning and surprising us with something new, and more than our empty hands and hearts can bring. It brings us a scarred and Risen Christ with the great good news that death does not have the final word. Evil will not triumph. The One who spoke the first Word in the midst of darkness and chaos will have the last as well, and that word is still the same – Love.

We do not yet see the end of suffering and sadness, evil and grief, destruction and death. But we do see Jesus, crucified and Risen, our true Help and our final Hope. Because he is alive, triumphant over the worst we could do, we are given holy courage and energy to contend against all opposition, however invincible it may seem, for the new world and the new humanity that are surely coming – even to Sri Lanka; even to us and to all.

On this Easter, we still dare to proclaim:

Jesus is Lord!

He has been Lord from the beginning.

He will be Lord at the end.

Even now he is Lord.

This is our hope this Easter, so even at the graves of those slaughtered in Sri Lanka, we make our song:

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Unexpected Abundance

To read the text, go here:
     The woman calls upstairs, “Get up! It’s time for you to get ready for church.” The reply is quick, “I’m not going!” A few minutes later she tries again, “You need to get up and get going.” And just as fast is the answer, “I told you I’m not going to church!” After awhile, she tries once more, “This is the last time; get up and start getting ready,” and from upstairs a complaining voice says, “Why do I have to go!?” To which she says, “First, I’m your mother; second, you’re 43 years old, and third, you’re the preacher.”
     So why’d you get up this morning? Most of our family, friends or neighbors choose to stay in bed, or to do something else instead of gathering in Christian worship. There was a time in Virginia when it literally was a crime not to attend worship; in the lifetime of some of us it was still a social expectation. The question wasn’t whether you went to church but which one you attended, and not always for the best reasons.
     Growing up in Virginia, I suspect some went to church so the neighbors wouldn’t talk. Blue Laws prohibited most businesses from being open, so Jesus was the only show in town. At my first appointment in the mid-1970s to Westhampton United Methodist Church, I especially remember one visitor. He was a new dentist looking to join a large church in hopes he’d get lots of new patients that way. He was interested in growing his practice and his finances more than growing his faith and discipleship. Those days are long gone; personally I’m glad they’re gone.
     If you’re here, it’s largely your choice. Whatever the reason, I applaud you for being counter-cultural rebels.
     But why? What drew you, and what did you hope would result?
     I confess that it doesn’t always come easily or automatically to me. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be known as a Christian because of the actions and attitudes of some of Christ’s followers. More folks than ever don’t want anything to do with us because we’re seen as judgmental, hypocrites, homophobic, too aligned with conservative politics and too in love with power, naïve dreamers living in a Christian bubble with simple answers to hard questions. And sometimes in worship I wonder, “Why am I here? This is a waste of time and I could be doing something more important and interesting. As John Milton put it, “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,”*
     So what drew 5000 men (plus women and children) to Jesus? Clearly this is something big; it’s the only miracle reported in all four gospels. Actually, John calls it a sign: something that points to a larger reality, a greater truth. What leads so many people to spend a day doing nothing but listening to him? Don’t they have better things to do? Shouldn’t they be working, especially when so many people then always lived on the edge of poverty, starvation and ruin?
     Maybe some are there out of desperation. They already want to make Jesus a king to kick out their oppressors, and tomorrow they’ll show up again hoping for another handout. They don’t get it; the bread Jesus gives does more than build bodies 12 ways. Whoever he is, he’s not a magician making life easy, or zapping enemies, or giving us whatever we want.
     John gets it right; this isn’t just a miracle; it’s a sign pointing to who Jesus really is. It seems odd that John tells the crowd sits on the green grass. Then I remember the 23rd Psalm, “He leads me in green pastures…he prepares a table before me; my cup overflows.” And so do those 12 baskets of leftovers. This isn’t an ordinary meal but an abundant feast of holiness.
     John tells us the meal happens at Passover. It’s the feast when Jews remember Moses, God’s right hand man, and how God used him to bring them from slavery to freedom, from death to life, and abundantly give them their daily bread. Now Jesus asks his disciple Philip, “How are we going to feed all these people?” Moses asked God that very same question when the people made his life miserable by whining and complaining about not having food to eat.
     But in today’s story, it’s a trick question. Jesus already knows God’s power will work through him. And that power’s extravagantly generous, kind and good. Everyone has their fill and there’s still more: perfect abundance. Five loaves and two fish: seven food items, the number of perfect completeness; 12 baskets of leftovers, like Israel’s 12 tribes, to remind us that there’s still more than enough for all, available to all who are hungry for more.
     The Gospels tell us that the people heard Jesus gladly because he didn’t speak like other faith leaders, but as one who had authority. The Greek word’s dunamis; it doesn’t just mean authority but power; like dynamic and dynamite. Something’s definitely dynamic and powerful here; Someone’s here with the power to blow up our world and our lives in altogether beautiful ways. No wonder the crowd’s response is, “Surely this is the Prophet who was to come into the world, promised long ago by Moses.”
     But this is something more than a prophet; when the crowd tries to make Jesus king, he’ll have none of it. They just don’t get it. He’s too big for the world’s ways. You can’t put new wine into old wine-skins. This Jesus bursts all expectations of power. He’ll be a king like the world’s never known; he won’t rule over others but wash their feet; he’ll be crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. But that’s getting ahead of the story…
     Who is this guy?
     Later that night, the disciples are in a boat on their own when a storm starts brewing; and Jesus comes walking on the waves. Of course they’re terrified; who does such things? Our translation seems rather tame, “Don’t be afraid; it is I;” like your partner coming into the house calling, “It’s me; I’m home!”
     But this is so much more. In scripture, darkness is the realm of fear and evil, and the sea is a symbol of chaos and destruction. But in the Psalms and the prophets, it is God who walks on the waves, God comes on the waters to save, God tramples the sea to bring peace. Jesus doesn’t say, “It is I;” actually he says, I AM;” that’s the name God gives to Moses at the burning bush. This is no ordinary food provider or potential king or prophet to come. Jesus gets in the boat, and faster than warp speed they’re where they’re supposed to be.
     Who is this? Someone in whom God’s Word is seen and heard, active and alive; someone who can play fast and loose with the stuff of creation because he’s been present in the creation from Day One. As John writes, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot put it out.” **
     If you’re here today hungry for something more, you’ve come to the right place. The Jesus who fed thousands long ago has abundant baskets of blessing left over for you, whatever the gnawing ache in your soul: for faith, hope, love; for forgiveness, a fresh start, freedom from whatever’s eating you or weighing you down or binding in chains of addiction; for mercy, healing, acceptance; for a world better than today’s hot mess; for knowledge that you are beloved and precious just as you are. This Jesus will richly feed your soul.
     Someone said that as you take Christ into your life, you will become what you eat***, as you chew on him for the rest of your life****. In Christ we find real food and ever-new ways of following him by loving and serving others in his name.
     And if you’re here today because the darkness is overwhelming and storm winds are stirring, take heart. He is near. Do not be afraid. We are the people who trust and believe that he will get us where we most need to be, safe and secure from all alarm. We may not fully know how, but he will not leave us or forsake us. Whatever darkness or fear is eating at our soul and our world, we can trust he’s at our side, and that’s enough to see us through to a new day, even to a new world, thanks be to God.
– 2018, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
*John Milton, Lycidas
**John 1:1-5
***Augustine’s message to the newly baptized, Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis, is often translated as “Be what you see, and receive what you are,” see Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272
****(I am indebted to Richard Rohr for this image; see his daily meditation, reflection, “Eucharist: Real Presence, https://cac.org/real-presence-2018-07-24/).

Camino Musings

          On the Camino, you meet interesting people who share stories and themselves in the most intimate of ways, so as to take each of us to new depths of understanding, insight, faith and life. Such an encounter with an Irishman led to this.
          Frank (not his real name) crossed paths with us as we waited for a bus to take us to the Santiago airport to fly to Dublin. We would continue the next day to home in the US; Frank would arrive in his own land and take a several hour bus ride to his home in another Irish county.
          Since we had several hours to wait at the airport we spent the afternoon together, talking about why we had done the Camino and sharing our lives, ever so briefly. Frank described himself as Catholic but not practicing. He hadn’t been to Mass since he was nine, and he was now in his 60s. Oddly enough, he got into trouble with the church the one time he confessed honestly and truly, but that’s another story for another time. Nevertheless, there was much of Christ in him.
          A story or two or three (and one hilarious joke) stand out from our time together. In one he told of his sister’s grief of a mother, whose son was struck down one day by an aneurysm. He was rushed to hospital and while at first there was hope and expectation that all would be well, it was not to be. The aneurysm had sufficiently damaged her son’s brain that there was little or no activity and no prospect of change. A doctor came to visit her and confessed, “This is the hardest conversation you and I can ever have…” and initiated an invitation for her to give permission to donate her son’s organs to bring hope and life to others. Because he had a history of alcohol abuse, his liver could not be used, but there were other, more promising possibilities.
          “How long do I have to make such a decision?” the mother asked. “Not long,” came the reply. The mother, Frank’s sister, needed a day, and Frank and his other sister accompanied her on the deciding path, although it was hers alone to walk. As Frank told the story, there was such tenderness and love for his sister, and the awful choice laid on her. He did not tell her what to do, but helped her to see that her son was gone. There would be no more stories or conversations. No more shared memories or asking about each other’s day. What was, was what would be, now and always. To let him go was to let go of what had already departed, and to open a better possibility for others.
          It was not an easy conversation then, and the telling to us was still somber, quiet, reflective, alive with the memory of a mother’s grief and loss and generosity; and perhaps a hint of question about how he had done a good thing and if he had done it well enough.
          That called to mind a story I also could tell, of a friend who received a new heart from another son not unlike Frank’s nephew. Amber Donald (not her real name) had been living with her new heart for a year or more when circumstances brought her together with the mother of the dead son who was now making life possible for her. They met in a hotel gathering of donors and recipients, if I remember the story right,and when that mother met Amber, her first action was to draw close to Amber to lean her head against Amber’s chest and listen to the steady, strong beat of her son’s heart, pulsing with life in the body of another. The image is beautiful; the mother leaning in, ear pressed to chest, quiet, attentive and attuned, connected to her son once more in the life of another.
          That story seemed to be a gift to Frank, who found himself unexpectedly moved by the beauty of the generous unity of those lives entwined as one. Irishmen may not weep, but that afternoon one did. And because he was so struck by it, I was led to take another, deeper, metaphorical step.
          Our Catholic brothers and sisters are drawn to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a devotional path. And now I find myself imagining another Parent whose Son’s death has brought life to me and to many, drawing close and leaning into my chest to listen if that Son’s living heart can be heard and felt in me, throbbing with His life in mine. Does His sacred heart send his life-giving flow of compassion and kindness, mercy and grace throughout and through me? Through His sacrificial death, does His life now live in me? Is His hospitality and care for the least and the last taking form in me? Will the steady beat of His commitment to the hungry poor, the stranger and imprisoned, the sick and the thirsty and the very heart of God be known and felt and heard as God leans in to listen? Has His life been transplanted into me, strong and resistant to sin’s infection, thriving and strong?
          O God, may it be so; may it be so.
          When that mother leaned into Amber and listened, there was joy, gratitude, wonder, awe, even holiness. May that be true for all, blessed to have received the heart of Christ.
There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.
-Cleland Boyd McAfee (1903)

God Sightings in Williamsburg and Bournemouth

There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing.  An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ.  I suspect she was unnoticed  because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.

Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary.  Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University.  What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table.  There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing.  These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.

I.

She creeps

Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible

By drivers passing on their way

Like a vine she moves toward the Light

She grasps

Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign

Aptly marking the privileged place for her

Who no longer moves so fast or far

As others do and once she did

But blesses and is grateful for a place

Reserved for her

She steps

Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up

Wondering not if it can bear her up

But if she can bear herself to that low height

Rocking back and up once twice thrice

The small swell of success waving her on

She processes

A one-woman band gliding toward the parade

Others also drawn toward that Light

Just inside the door

Where she expects to meet The Door

The Shepherd True Gate Way of Life

She follows

The path paved every first day of life

A lifetime lifelong journey

She cannot think not going

Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits

Thirsty to bless and he blessed

To feed and be fed

Welcomed Home once more grateful

II.

Call sounded

Invitation sent

Table set and prayer ended

Bread fractured Cup filled

They come

Hungry hearts anticipating

Empty hands filled with hope

The pastor stands

Dispensing grace

Ordinary ways ordinary folk

Mundane ho-hum

Nothing new as always

Until he comes they come as one

Mystery on the move

An ancient man

Armed with two women

Who stand him guide him on

Lest he fall or fail

To reach the goal of God

No rush ever patient

They have eternity

Slowly shuffling

Feet sliding on holy ground

Once young guarding shore

Ludicrously armed with battle axe

Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed

He comes as two stand guard and lead

The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless

A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore

Ancient soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard

At peace and fed and blessed

By two by all by One

And blessings he because I saw

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

A Prayer for the Dying

O God who knows and sees all:

She died this morning.  We do not know the ins and outs of how it came to be, but one she bore bore no interest in her passing.  Papers signed and legalities addressed and niceties tended, the child said good-bye to others, swore she would not return and cared neither to know when the mother died or how her mortal remains were disposed, and stepped away into an unknown future.

O God who knows and sees all:

We do no know what failings brought such fracture of family; we cannot know the deep seas of anger, pain, rejection, abuse or guilt that roil the lives of others; or overwhelm the connections of kin; or drown fragile cargoes of faith or hope, love or mercy, kindness or forgiveness.  But you know, O God, and so knowing nothing of these your children, we simply and humbly pray for mercy and healing, forgiveness and grace, tenderness toward wounds, and peace beyond all knowing.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  You were there at her final breath as at her first; you knew her before she was born and now know her in ways we cannot know.  For that we give you thanks.  And we give thanks for nurses and volunteers who tended her with compassion and care simply because she was in need, and that was what could be offered.  Blessings and glory to you for goodness given and received without regard.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  She was in the company of countless others among your beloved who died today; again we do not know them or their stories, and mostly most do not notice.  The grief would be beyond bearing and so we cease caring; there will be more tomorrow joining those of yesterday and today: refugees on high seas or behind high walls, street children or old folks who simply lived too long, the addicted or victims of violence not in our backyard, homeless folks or immigrants in a desert, people who were a pain and hard to endure and whose passing is sadly but honestly, a relief.

O God who knows and sees all:

Daily your great heart is battered and broken; your tenderness toward your own knows no bounds; your sadness before suffering does not know limits.  Soften our hearts; open our eyes; inspire us to notice even the least of these; and in whatever way we can, great or small, enable us to companion and befriend those most in need, and trust that at our end, you will know and see and stay with us, who also are your precious and beloved.

Amen.

That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Rejoice!? Always!? Seriously!? Sermon Based on Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
          Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!
          That Vacation Bible School song sung as a round came to mind when I read this week’s scripture. Especially when sung the customary four times by four groups you’re surrounded with the demand: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
          That first came to mind, but then came, really? Rejoice always? How’s that even possible? Isn’t that more than we can bear? Maybe such sweetness and light’s possible in a make believe place where purple dinosaurs named Barney live singing, If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops? Oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide. Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.
          But we don’t live there. Telling someone to rejoice always can be cruel. Who’d say rejoice always to families of Las Vegas’ dead and wounded? Or our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes, or Houston folks destroyed by three 500-year floods in three years?
          I couldn’t say rejoice always several years ago when my to friend’s son committed suicide; I can’t say that you now you after unexpected deaths of two church pillars in a week. Our land’s divided over race or politics in deeply unsettling ways; we seem closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in 55 years. Rejoice always? Seriously? That call seems, well, nuts, and unhinged from reality.
          Except, we’re those people who stand under the cross. There, instead of seeing weakness, failure, foolishness and death there, we experience God’s power, victory, wisdom and life. We’re those odd people who hear an odd scripture word and trust it’s still true for us.
          And today’s word comes oddly from prison, not from some keys to happiness book written in a cozy study with a warm hearth-side fire. Paul’s life hangs in the balance; he expects he’ll be executed and isn’t sure he’ll ever see the light of day again or his friends’ faces. On top of that, some so-called friends and co-workers are making his life as wretched as possible. This Paul says rejoice always; maybe we should pay attention. He knows something good for us.
          When I think about Paul in prison, two other prisons come to mind. One is in 1945 Germany. A young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. A prison cell’s been his home for three years because of his part in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Soon the Third Reich will collapse in blood and fire. But on this April morning, direct orders have come from Hitler. This 39 year-old pacifist Christian is ordered from his cell one final time; Bonhoeffer’s stripped of his dignity and clothes, and he’s hanged in a prison courtyard. His final words are simple. “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” And I imagine him going to the gallows singing quietly, Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice!
          The other prison’s closer to home; Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, a medium-security prison that’s home to 3,000 souls. For nearly 15 years I’ve had the honor and privilege occasionally to worship there; each time I’ve been stunned and humbled on a Sunday evening by the sheer joy in the Lord expressed by 150 or so brothers in Christ, especially when a song like this is sung: I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. When they sing in surrender with delight, Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen!; when they bow in prayer or receive the Lord’s Supper; it’s a holy time and place. Those so-called prisoners are more free in Christ than many of us. We’re locked up by custom or tradition or being proper, afraid to let our guard down or let someone see our weakness or wounds, our fears or failures.
          How can they rejoice? How can we? Paul can help. The first thing he says today is, “Therefore.” Our lesson begins as another part of the conversation is ending. A few verses earlier Paul’s written wonderful words of life: our true home is with God; for the baptized our real and full allegiance is not to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the commonwealth of heaven. That’s how young Pastor Bonhoeffer can go to the scaffold rejoicing; he trusts he’s entering in a new way that commonwealth that death cannot defeat. That commonwealth’s governor is not Terry McAullife; the one who presides and rules that realm is not Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump; our Governor and Lord is Jesus; no one else. Our first and final loyalty is to him; our true home isn’t a prison, but in Christ alone. On the way Paul promises that Christ will transform our lives so they look like Christ’s and mirror his ways, and in the end, all will be well; all creation will be healed and made new; and Christ will be all in all.
          We have God’s word on it so now Paul says, “Therefore, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” You know where the world’s going and God’s grand vision for you, so stand firm; build your life on Christ’s life so he is seen in you, in ways both great and small. For example, here Paul urges two women to stop feuding for Christ’s sake; instead of seeking their own way they’re to seek Christ’s way and to make up their minds to be of the same mind in the Lord, to have his attitude and go his way. And all those receiving this letter have a part to play. They’re not to stand idly by or enjoy the fight; they’re to help heal. When we are in Christ, we live in him together; if we live in Christ, we submit to him as head of the household and stay close to one another to stay close to him, even when it’s hard. But with Christ, nothing is impossible.
          That’s how we rejoice: we rejoice in the Lord. We don’t rejoice in all that life brings, but in the Lord’s goodness and mercy and grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and life-giving healing power and a thousand other wonders; we rejoice in God’s nearness and promise never to leave us or forsake us, not even behind prison walls. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus, nothing. Even when terribly awful things happen, God is still at work for our good. So worry and anxiety don’t have to be the final word for us; they don’t have to rule our lives. We can be gentle and generous toward others because God has given us those same good gifts. We trust this same God loves us so fiercely that we can share anything and everything with God and pray for help and guidance and for others with grateful hearts. That’s how we can rejoice, in the Lord, always, always.
          Then Paul takes it a step further. We’re promised peace that surpasses understanding as we stand firm in the Lord on a foundation that endures. Paul urges us, “Whatever is true or honorable, whatever is just or pure, whatever is pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, fill your mind with those things: not with bitterness or fear or always being right or getting into someone’s business; not with what’s hurtful or mean or glittery or passing away. Focus and frame life on what honors God to draw closer to God’s ways in Christ, and the God of peace will be with you. That’s the promise and the good news.
          Bill was so focused; a college student with cancer, he took classes to the end. When he died one of those courses was on Death. He wrote in a textbook, “I don’t know why I’m suffering, or what good can come of my death. But I know God is not my enemy; God loves me and wants only good for me.” And as he died I imagine him singing, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. In our living and dying may we learn to sing that song, too.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 

In All Things, Charity: A Sermon Based on Romans 14:1-12

One of my colleagues in campus ministry knows his faith is weak.  He’s not ashamed to confess that he doesn’t watch R-rated movies without checking with some of his soul friends or accountability partners.  Watching some such movies takes him to a place that’s not good for him as a disciple, and so he counts on friends giving him good advice.  They don’t judge him; they don’t think they’re better Christians than he because they don’t have such problems.  Every Christian needs to have such folks in our lives, who we can trust to watch over us in love and not judge or mock the ways we believe are best and faithful for us and to keep us company on Christ’s Way.

Paul knew about Christians with weak faith as well as strong, and he writes about them in today’s reading from his letter to the Christians in Rome. The weak eat only vegetables while the strong are meat and potatoes kind of folk; the weak put a priority on one day of the week as more sacred while the strong treat every day the same.  It might not sound like a big deal to us, but my friend who wonders about R-rated movies gets it.  What may not be a big deal for one can challenge another.

Being true to Christ in 1st century Rome’s more complicated than you think.  You don’t get your meat at the local grocer but from the local pagan temple, where it’s been sacrificed to a pagan god or to honor the emperor who’s honored like a god.  So the weak in faith don’t eat meat to show their utter loyalty to Christ; the strong eat whatever’s put in front of them because they know the gods aren’t real and Caesar only thinks he’s in charge.  In the same way the weak especially setting aside one day for God are perhaps honoring the Sabbath; or they know that pagans pay special attention to the moon’s cycle and particular days as having magical power or mystical importance. Again, they want to show their complete loyalty to Christ. And those with strong faith don’t fret it; they know all power comes from God, not the moon or the stars.

We don’t fuss and fume over those things, but we have real conflicts in the church over what does matter to us: drop down screens; contemporary vs. traditional worship; baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; monthly or weekly Communion; meeting local needs or over there; how we interpret scripture; how we think and act on social issues as disciples; whether the flag should be allowed in an embassy of heaven and a sanctuary devoted to the Lord of all nations.

So how do we live together when faith leads us different ways?  Paul gives some very helpful advice.  First, don’t judge each other.  It’s not our place, or our job.  As Pope Francis responded when asked about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge another?” Paul reminds us that God has already accepted the person with whom we differ; they’re part of God’s posse, so who are we to question God’s commitment to them?  If you live your faith and life in Christ differently from me, what’s that to me?  You’re not my slave, but Christ’s.  I’m not your master; Christ is.  Whatever happens with your faith and life is Christ’s business, not mine, and Christ has the power to raise both of us to life.

Paul’s not saying anything goes.  How we live and trust in Christ matters.  My friend with weak faith clearly knows that. But we’re to think deeply and carefully and prayerfully about it means to be true to God’s will and purpose, and to act on our own convictions, in line with what we discern to be Christ’s Way.  I’m not at the center of your life; I’m not even at the center of my own life, to decide on my own all by myself how to live for Christ.  We both live to the Lord, for the Lord; we both belong to the Lord; our actions and attitudes are to please and honor Christ alone, not ourselves nor anyone else.  How I experience God’s work and will in my life may not be yours; my life doesn’t have to be the mirror image of yours.  But both our lives are to reflect the love and mercy and grace and healing power and light of Christ.  We’re not to judge one another but to love and honor each other in Christ.  In one translation of these verses, Paul seems to call out folks individually: “You then, why do you pass judgment on your fellow-Christian?  And you, why do you look down on your fellow-Christian?  We shall all stand before God’s tribunal; each of us will be answerable to God.”

I have enough trouble living faithfully myself without judging your discipleship.  Later in this chapter Paul advises, “Let’s make up our minds never to put a stumbling block or obstacle in a fellow-Christian’s way.  All I know is that the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing is impure in itself.  The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  All who show themselves servants of Christ in this way are acceptable to God and receive human approval.”

Why does this matter?  We’re the only Bible some people will read; we’re the face of Christ some will most remember.  We convince the world the gospel’s true, or they decide it’s a lie, based on the evidence seen in our us. At the funeral of a dead relative, one of my cousins said, “She was the meanest Christian woman I know.”  Sadly there was some truth there.  Our relative was quite ready to be judge and jury to let you know where you’d gone wrong.  But that wasn’t her job, and her scowl was the face of Jesus some turned from.  Truth is, many folks won’t go near a church because we’re so judgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Why does this matter?  When we judge others and build barriers there’s little room for love.  John Wesley knew that Christians sometimes were unable or unwilling to live in communion with one another and he said, “The pretenses and excuses for separation may be innumerable, but the lack of love is always the real cause.”

Why does this matter? When we lose our focus and misplace our priorities as disciples in Christ’s community, we fall into following the world’s familiar ways.  Can’t get along? Move to another neighborhood, go your separate ways, unfriend her, stop talking to him, get a divorce; demonize your opponent to win at all costs.  But that’s not Christ’s Way: he welcomed all, made room for a tax collector and a terrorist among his disciples, he was the friend of sinners, which includes me, and you.  Christian community reflects the life of the Triune God who is one in three and three in one, united but not identical. Such life together is an act of subversive resistance to the world and to those who conquer us by dividing us into parties and factions.  Wouldn’t it be great if our words of welcome in worship were to saints and sinners, regular pew sitters, those here for the first time or after a long time; married, single, divorced, young, old, straight, gay, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Green Tea Party – more mellow, less irked: all welcomed by the Christ who died and rose for all; all welcomed because above all else we honor and serve the Christ who holds us together and meets us at his Table.  That’s Gospel truth, for sure.

Why does this matter?  Today we United Methodists are more at risk of giving up on each other than at any time since the Civil War when we could not find a way forward over slavery.  Those were not our best or more faithful days, but eventually the Spirit in love made us one once more.  Today we risk doing something similar with regard to sexuality.  In my entire ministry life, matters related to homosexuality have been debated, even fought over. Last year, our General Conference stepped back from the edge of division to establish the Commission on the Way Forward to discern if and how we might live together in mission and ministry, even in our differences.  The truth is, good and faithful friends of Jesus can deeply disagree and be deeply convicted that their understanding of faith and life is still valid.  Can we live together in Christ in that tension and diversity?  Can we trust and respect each other’s deepest convictions and commitments in Christ, even if yours is different from mine?  Can I admit I might be wrong or honor the truth you profess; can I see that there’s more to God than I know; that God’s ways are beyond my small ways; and we’re both accepted by God and Christ can make us both stand?

My friend Kara is a University Chaplain in the British Methodist Church.  This summer she visited an artist’s glassworks studio in a small English town and struck up a conversation with the owner, Jill.  Jill asked Kara what she does for a living.  Preachers can often be pegged, so Kara chose to say she works at a university in student welfare.  Jill asked about issues students face, and Kara said that in addition to typical ones like homesickness or relationships, students wrestle with some very complex issues around sexuality and gender identity.  That’s when Kara remembered she wasn’t in a particularly progressive part of England; Jill’s body language seemed to shift to a more aggressive position as she asked “And what do you think about that?”  Kara took a deep breath, looked at Jill and said, “Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ So I think that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and painful for someone else.”  Jill stared at Kara for a very long time and then her demeanor softened as she said, ‘You must be very good at your job.’”  There was open grace and truth there, and humility and love, too.

John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand;” he also gave us this wisdom for life together in Christ’s church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.  Paul could live with that.  May we do the same, thanks be to God.

  • David M, Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.