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February 22, 2017, 7:50 AM

Holy ~ Complete

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Lord said to Moses, Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. 10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.
11 You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other. 12 You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. 13 You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. 14 You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord.
15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people.[a] Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed;[b] I am the Lord. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for their sin.[c] 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
Matthew 5:38-48
38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.[a] 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
“Holy ~ Complete”
Here we are once again, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ great teaching from Matthew’s Gospel, spanning three full chapters-chapters five, six, and seven. Whether Jesus delivered these teachings all at once or Matthew compiled several sermons into one place, Jesus instructed God’s people with some tough teachings. Gathered around Jesus on this mountain are his disciples and a large, mixed crowd—peasants, day  laborers, beggars, villagers, shepherds, the ill and infirm…even some scribes, Pharisees, legal experts, and perhaps a few ruling Saducees and some Roman Gentiles. Jesus begins this great instruction by declaring happy and blessed those who are normally NOT considered happy and blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, the mournful, peacemakers. He does Not declare blessed the usual suspects—the wealthy, the powerful, the strong, the self-confident. From there, as we heard last week, Jesus declares that those who truly follow his way of life, God’s way of life, are the spice of life—salt. They are the light of life—the lamp on the stand.
Then, Jesus begins to interpret the holy Law of God, the Torah, in ways that must have blown the people’s minds. How I wish I could have been a fly on that mountainside and see the reaction of that mixed crowd. I imagine that for a rare moment, that mixed crowd was united in their shock at Jesus’ teaching. “Keeping God’s law is about more than not killing someone? It is about more than not committing adultery or coveting my neighbor’s donkey?” As we heard last week, Jesus says it is about how we live with our anger for another person. It is about how we wrestle with lust and desire in our hearts. It is about the tiny little pieces of our everyday lives, not just the great, big actions that most everyone agrees are wrong.
In today’s reading, as continue to hear his sermon, Jesus pushes the Law even further. The crowd’s shock must have turned a bit to horror, and even anger, as Jesus moves from the ten commandments into the Holiness Codes of Leviticus—‘eye for an eye’ and ‘loving one’s neighbor.’ Leviticus declares that God’s people must embody holiness because their God is holy, and then the codebook spends a great deal of time outlining how one lives with the people one encounters in their daily lives: leaving food for the poor, being a person of truth and integrity, a person who seeks goodness and fairness. Jesus knows his listeners are intimately familiar with the Torah, the commandments and the codes. So, first, he negates a popular code, and then he completely refocus a beloved command. No more will you punish, an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. No more violent response at all. Respond in love. Jesus is not saying we stand by and let someone beat us up. This is not a code given to individuals, but codes to be lived out in a community. Leviticus is clear that we stand up for one another. We care for one another. We don’t just stand by when someone is being mistreated. But Jesus is serious about what that response looks like, and it is love, not violence. Generosity, not legalism.
And then Jesus takes a beloved code, a command that Jesus and many other teachers see as part of the summation of the Law, the Torah—you must love your neighbor as yourself—and he tells them they must do the same and more for their enemies! Leviticus commands—be holy for your God is holy. Jesus demands==love completely for your God loves everyone completely. Holy? Complete? How?
This is a teaching that we ALL must confess sounds pretty impossible and outrageous. If we are honest, our response is probably not all that different from the crowd on the mountainside. Love our enemies? Pray for our persecutors? Really? That is ridiculous!
In response to our belief we cannot live this way, I simply want to tell you about a community that is seeking to do just that, and about the response of the hundreds of thousands of people to their example. Let me tell you about Brother Roger and the brothers and sisters of Taize.
Roger Schutz, a Reformed Protestant from Switzerland, questioned and wrestled with these same hard teachings of Jesus as he watched the Nazi invasion in neighboring France during World War II. He could see the poverty and the suffering of those now occupied by the German forces. So Roger decided to do something. He moved from his neutral and safe homeland and purchased a tiny house in the remote village of Taize in the Burgundy region of France, just a short distance outside of the occupied zone. He purchased the house in September of 1940 and began offering sanctuary to war refugees fleeing for their life, most of whom were Jewish. Other men began to hear of his work and came to join his cause. On Easter Sunday in 1949, Roger became Brother Roger and was joined by seven other men in a new form of monastery life—a monastery of people from different Christian traditions—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. They committed together to live life as salt and light, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, returning violence with love, offering forgiveness and love to all. They sought to create a place of discipleship and true Christian unity.
Like any monastic order, they developed a rule of life and a daily schedule. Their rules were centered on devotion and service, and their days ordered around the same. The brothers developed a very special form a worship—simple, with long periods of silence, lots of candles and visuals, and unique music that was part hymn, part chant. We know today many of those songs—“Ubi Caritas (Live in Charity),” “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” “Jesus, Remember Me.” Three times every day, more on Friday nights and Sundays, the brothers gathered in this time of worship to center their devotion on God, to feed their souls, and to prepare themselves to return to serving the world. The Taize brothers dedicated themselves to living side-by-side with the poor and marginalized. They traveled the world in service, to areas of great need. They attracted more brothers. The order grew, and they started satellite monasteries in regions of need around the world, including Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, New York City. They grew large enough that they had to vacate their little house in the village and build a new church and monastery—the Church of Reconciliation, with a simple bell tower that calls the monastery to worship.
In the midst of all this, something amazing began to happen. Youth and young adults began to show up at the monastery in Taize to spend time worshiping and learning with the brothers. This was no small feat in the beginning because public transit in France did not go to Taize. These young people from across the world would journey to Taize, even hiking the last few miles to reach the monastery. Holy pilgrimage like the church of ancient days, in 20th and 21st century France! So, the brothers welcomed these pilgrims and accommodated to their needs, including these visitors in their daily work and prayers. And it grew, and it grew, and it grew. Now, around 100,000 young people journey to Taize every year to spend time in retreat with the brothers, and now, the Taize sisters. At any given time, Five Thousand young people are camped at Taize to worship, study, and serve alongside the brothers and sisters!
The Taize monastics built bunkhouses and facilities to accommodate these numbers. Three times each day they feed 5,000 hungry souls. They organized the visitors into small groups for bible study and discussion, and for work teams to feed, care for, and house these thousands of visitors. Everyone serves the community. Young people from all over the world journey to Taize because they are hungry to see these teachings of Jesus lived out and to learn how to embody this themselves. They travel to Taize and camp in bunkhouses or tents with strangers, most of whom do not speak their language, and they worship on the floor in the Church of Reconciliation, whose back wall was taken down so the space could be extended with a circus tent.
And then, as if the embodiment of salt-hood and light-hood wasn’t wondrous enough in this community and its pilgrims, something heart-wrenching and amazing happened in Taize in August of 2005. While in their evening worship, a homeless and mentally ill woman who was being cared for by the brothers and sisters, murdered Brother Roger as he led the prayers, stabbing him to death before the worshipers could react. Despite their horror and grief, the brothers and sisters advocated for the woman, worked with police and the legal courts to ensure she received treatment, and prayed forgiveness upon her at Brother Roger’s funeral. Brother Roger’s funeral was attended by 10,000 mourners. And, as he dreamed would be possible, his funeral was officiated by a Catholic Cardinal, an Anglican Bishop, a Bishop from the German Evangelical Church, and the President of the European Conference of Churches. Church of Reconciliation indeed.
In community, these men and women in the remote village of Taize, France, and scattered throughout the world in places of great need, embody Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and they teach others to return to their homes and to do the same. The hundreds of thousands of young people who journey to Taize, and to the other monastic locations around the world, do not become monks or nuns of this new order. But they do learn, day-by-day, to embody these same teachings in the communities to which they belong. They promise to walk with their communities as those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and strive to be peacemakers in their corner of the world. They promise to live as salt and light. They promise to release anger, to embrace integrity, and to not respond to violence with violence. Within a supportive community, they pray for their enemies, offer forgiveness, certainly walk the extra mile, and seek to demonstrate God’s love for everyone. Their lives are holy, and their love grows more complete each day. May we, as the wonderful community of First United Methodist Church, promise and commit to the same. To be holy, to be complete in our love. Amen.

February 15, 2017, 8:26 AM

Law is Life!

Deuteronomy 30:14-20
Matthew 5:21-26
Psalm 119:1-8
Law is Life!
Our Psalm reading for this sixth Sunday of Epiphany is a small portion of the longest psalm, the longest chapter in any book of the Bible…176 verses long! Pretty impressive! Our wonderful poet-composer wrote for God’s people a tribute centered around the Hebrew alphabet in praise of God’s Law.
Happy are those whose way is blameless,
    who walk in the law of the Lord.
2 Happy are those who keep God’s decrees,
    who seek the Lord with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
    but walk in God’s ways.
4 You have commanded your precepts
    to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
    in keeping your statutes!
Our poet then goes on for 171 more verses in praising the Law, using an incredible thesaurus to bring up about every possible way to refer to the Law, and using every possible admiring and devotional adjective to describe the Law. Reading all the way through this psalm is an act of faith and discipline in and of itself. So, your homework for this week is to read through the entire psalm each and every day… (allow a moment for response). Doesn’t sound very ‘spiritually fulfilling,’ does it?
The problem, I believe, is that we hear this psalm as a chant, or even a dirge, to legalism, and it sounds foreign to our ears. But in fact, this is a celebration of joy for the beloved gift from God. This song writer is bursting with delight and love, and cannot help but erupt into song. We need to hear this with new ears, sing it to a new tune.  Do you remember the popular song, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams that we sang in worship one Sunday?
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
(Because I'm happy)
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
(Because I'm happy)…
Do you remember? That is the tone of Psalm 119—Joy, Celebration, that feeling of being blessed.
            You are happy…
            clap along if you are blameless in the Law.
            You are happy…
            clap along all of those who keep God’s decrees.
            You are happy…
            clap along all of you who delight in God’s commands…
What a difference, right? That certainly sounds more celebratory…but why? Why does this composer spend 176 verses celebrating the Law?
We 21st century children of the Reformation have a very negative reaction to legalism within our spiritual life, and that is how we see The Law. First, early Christians broke away from Judaism—for many reasons—and embraced the way of Jesus. Paul calls us to be free of legalism—the letter of the Law—in Galatians and Romans (and a few other places), declaring that following Christ is to follow the embodiment of the Law. At least, that is the popular reading of Paul. We are children of these early Christians and of Paul’s teachings. Second, Martin Luther nailed his objections to the legalism of the Catholicism of his day to the door of the Church, and charted a different course, a course John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s founders, built upon in their life and teaching. We are certainly children of Luther, John, and Charles; children of the reformers, of those people called Methodist.
Along with this, over the generations, our understanding of The Law found in the Hebrew Scriptures has been colored by our life within the laws of our world, especially our own nation. Laws in the United States are created by our legislative branch, interpreted by our judicial branch, and overseen by our executive branch—good ole 5th grade social studies. Laws are imposed, enforced, debated, petitioned, protested, overruled, rewritten, defeated…the verbs go on. We see laws as necessary for an ordered life, but we have varying views as to how many laws there should be and what they should address. The way we wrestle with national, state, or even local laws affects our understanding of God’s Law.
That is not how our psalmist views God’s Law. It is not how Moses views it. It is not how Jesus views it. Perhaps the problem is this word, ‘law.’ So, let’s see if we can differentiate by using the Hebrew word for this gift of which the psalmist sings—Torah. “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Torah of the Lord.” Or using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from “The Message:”
Psalm 119
You’re blessed when you stay on course,
    walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
u’re blessed when you follow God’s directions,
    doing your best to find the Lord.
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
    you walk straight along the road God set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
    now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
    keeping to the course you set;
Rev. Peterson wanted to make the scriptures fresh for the eyes of God’s people, for our ears to hear. He returned to the ancient Hebrew and Greek and delved deep; researching, listening, discerning the heart of God’s message. And then he used our contemporary language to speak the deep meaning of the text, often lost a bit by the language differences across the generations. Torah is the road, the path of God. It is the way God calls us to live in the world. Torah is a gift of love given to a community, so that this holy community could live in deep relationship with God and model this Way for the world to see.
That is why Moses is so confrontational in today’s reading. This is a matter of life and death. For 29 chapters, the book of Deuteronomy reviews God’s Torah, God’s way of life for the people. And now, at the close, Moses implores the people to embody the Torah, to let it be their way of life. Because that’s what Torah is…it is life, life with God in all its fullness. Though the book of Deuteronomy takes place on the cusp of the Promised Land, as the Israelites are about to enter the land and seek to live Torah as a settled community, the book of Deuteronomy is being preserved onto papyri centuries later, as the Israelites lose the Promised Land and are dragged into exile. They chose poorly. They chose to follow their own ways, to chase after false gods, to chart their own course. Now they dwell in death and destruction, and Moses’ words challenge them afresh—“Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving God, by obeying God’s voice, by clinging to God.” After all, there is nothing else left to cling to.
Many generations later, Jesus sits on a mountainside teaching his followers and a large crowd of Israelites descended from those who were exiled, and returned, descended from those who first entered the land and settled with Moses’ words fresh in their hearts. In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the Torah of God, and the legalistic way it has been followed in recent years. Jesus addresses this misconception that if they haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t lied much, haven’t committed adultery or been overly covetous, they have kept Torah. He proclaims, as we heard last week, that God’s people must excel at living Torah, their righteousness—which is also the word for justice in Greek—is to be greater than the experts of Torah. Jesus begins to address certain lines of the great 10 commandments—our reading today being one excerpt of this larger teaching. Jesus says, “You think you have kept Torah if you haven’t killed anyone? Torah goes to the heart of your living and being. It addresses your anger, how you let it lash out at friend and stranger. It addresses how you use your words and actions. It is not just reading the lines of text, it is hearing the depth behind it, the heart of it. God’s Torah is about your whole life, in all its tiny details, not just the big actions. It is about the integrity of our being. Whew!
“You’re blessed when you stay on course,
    walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow God’s directions,

    doing your best to find the Lord.
”sings the psalmist. Jesus echoes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And behind the words of Jesus, behind the ancient song to Torah, Moses implores, “Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving God, by obeying God’s voice, by clinging to God.” Do we begin to see the difference between the laws of our nation and our community, and the Torah of God? The Torah is gifted to us by God as an act of love and as a desire to live in deep relationship with us. The Torah is gifted to us as a community to strengthen us in embodying God’s way together as a model for the world. The Torah is gifted to us to remind us that we are responsible for that world; for friend and stranger alike. All are created in the wondrous image of God.
And though the beautiful word, ‘Torah,’ helps us to make those distinctions, it is still good to call Torah God’s Law. It reminds us that ultimately this is our Law, the Torah. Human laws come and go, transform, are modified, dismantled and built. God’s Torah, God’s Law, is forever. God’s way is the way of life always—to love the Lord your God with all that you are in your entirety and to love your neighbor as yourself, the summation of the Law, the Torah. It is the Law against which all other laws are tested and measured. God’s Law, God’s Torah, comes first—to love God and to love our neighbor. That is our real homework day in and day out, it is our life work; to ‘walk steadily on the road revealed by God.” Together! We seek to live together as a community, studying and embodying God’s holy Torah, as witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as a testimony to the world of what God desires from all humankind, and all creation.
You are happy
when you stay on course, on the road revealed by God.
You are happy
 when you follow God’s way, doing your best to find the Lord.
You are happy
                        when you walk straight along the road that God has set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
    now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that our steps might be steady,
    keeping to the course you set.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

February 7, 2017, 10:52 AM

And You Shall Be Called...Mender, Restorer, Salt, Light

One of my favorite songs by Mark Miller (United Methodist singer, song writer, organist, and justice worker) is “Christ has Broken Down the Wall.” It is a simple song, with each verse basically consisting of a line that is repeated several times. Here are the verse…
            Christ has broken down the wall…
            We’re accepted as we are…
            Cast aside your doubts and fears…
            We will tear down the walls!
So it brought me up short when I read the end of our Isaiah passage from the lectionary for this Sunday: “They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.” Talk about changing up your metaphors. Here we are, reconciling United Methodists, dedicating much of our work for the past 26+ years to tearing down walls and Isaiah promises us, if we make sure our worship is connected deeply with our daily living, that we become menders of twalls. Wait one minute, we do not want to be about the business of building walls. No walls. We want circles of inclusion. We want open arms of grace. We want bridges that connect us to God and one another. Christ has broken down the wall, right?
But then, I encountered Thursday night, a woman whose walls were crumbling and broken. But these walls were not the walls that seek to divide and keep apart. They were not the walls of exclusion. Her walls were those that defined who she is. Her walls were the ones that helped her stand firm in the world and feel some semblance of safety and protection. They are the walls of protection from those things the world will sling at us. The walls that allows us to survive. Those are exactly the walls that Isaiah is speaking about. Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites who have returned from exile to their beloved Jerusalem and found it in ruins. Streets full of rubble. Homes and businesses in shambles. The holy temple flattened—the place where God dwelt among them, where God reached down and touched God’s creation. And Jerusalem’s walls were broken and crumbling, no protection against marauders or attacking armies. The people were defenseless and vulnerable…and so was this woman.
This young woman is new to our area, a transfer student this school year, from a school in a large urban area. She is African American and she wears a beautiful, twisted turban upon her head. Though her walls of identity are still solidly in place, her walls that protect her and keep her from feeling exposed and vulnerable were crumbling around her. She is reeling from the shock of entering a world where she rarely encounters anyone who looks like her, or identifies with her ethnicity and heritage. On top of that, she perceives around her a world that is hostile to her—trucks driving by waving the Dixie flag, signs in windows that show support for executive orders that label her as unwanted, unwelcome, outsider. She shared that she doesn’t know who she can turn to for support. She has no idea how to tell if someone is safe.
She shared this in a gathering of students of color from her university. These students had gathered with city leaders to try to build some bridges between the city and the university, especially for minority students who mostly come from urban centers. After she bravely shared her story, others spoke up about instances where they felt unsafe, unwelcome, and unwanted. As the stories were shared, I was brought up short once again, and I heard Isaiah’s words echo through me. Here were the broken and crumbling walls Isaiah spoke of, here were the unlivable streets in need of repair and restoration. And the question that echoed through me, “Am I up for the work? Can I be a mender of broken walls, a restore of livable streets?” It is hard and dangerous work.
I share this young woman’s story here today, and with her story, the similar stories from many other students, because Jesus goes further than Isaiah. Isaiah declares that IF we are willing to put our faith into action—for it really isn’t faith at all if there isn’t fruit visible and abundant—THEN we will be called menders and restorers. IF we are willing…THEN we will be, or might become. Jesus doesn’t give us any if…then… statements. There is no way out. We dared to sit down in this beautiful sanctuary for Sunday worship. We dared to listen in on the mount as Jesus teaches and preaches, so we have declared ourselves to be his followers, his disciples. Therefore, we ARE salt of the earth. We ARE light of the world. We are commanded to preserve, to flavor, to shine, to illumine. This is a ‘Yoda moment—Do or do not, there is no try. There is no “will be,” or “might become.” We ARE… or we are NOT. The world around us tastes the goodness and mercy of God in us or it does not. The world around us sees more clearly when we are present for we shine with the light of Christ, or it does not. We are menders of the broken walls, restorers of the community streets…or we are not. The truth in who we follow, who we believe in, who we profess is proven by our actions.
Near the end of this gospel of Matthew that we journey with this lectionary year, Jesus will share a parable of sorts that lays it all on the line—‘when you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25). Our discipleship is evident if our worship and our profession is made manifest in our daily actions. Are the hungry fed? Are the thirsty given fresh, clean water? Are the naked clothed? Are the sick and imprisoned visited and cared for? Are the strangers and foreigners welcomed? Do you hear the echoes of Isaiah in his teaching? There are broken walls in our community. Some of our neighbors dwell on unlivable streets. They are in need of preservation and light. They yearn to taste and see the goodness of God. Who are we? It is not just these vulnerable neighbors who ask the question, it is Jesus himself? We are still in the season of Epiphany, the season where Jesus is revealed to the world in wondrous ways. The question that today’s scripture passages ask us, “Is Jesus being revealed to the world in us?”
Let us pray.
Jesus, we would follow you. We would be your disciple. But then you say such things, like our righteousness needs to surpass the legal experts and the Pharisees, people who gave all of their lives to living God’s law. People who poured over the scriptures and sought to put everything into practice. You ask so much of us…but so much is at stake. The current climate in our nation has left so many with crumbling walls and unlivable streets. Too many cry out for preservation and light. How can we not be the menders and restorers you call us to be? How can we not be salt and light? Give us courage. Give us guidance. Send us forth. Make us shine. Amen.

January 17, 2017, 8:37 AM


Matthew 3:13-17  CEB
13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
Dearly loved…Beloved. God calls Jesus ‘the dearly loved,’ or ‘the Beloved’ twice in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is here, at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he stands in the Jordan River with the water of his washing still dripping from him. The second time is toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, close to his crucifixion, as he stands on Transfiguration mountain with the light of glory radiating off of him. Beloved—dearly loved, precious, adored, cherished, treasured. Beloved is a rare word. It speaks of an intimate relationship. It isn’t a word we use much. It’s special. Beloved is a term of endearment we reserve for those who are closest to our hearts: parent, spouse, child, sibling, a friend who is more like family. Beloved is for those people we love and know well enough that we can use those loving names—sweetheart, honey, dear, love.
So, as God speaks ‘Beloved’ into this moment, it seems very, very intimate. At first glance it seems like we are listening in on a very intimate exchange of love within the Triune God as Jesus accepts his commission and is revealed as the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer. But look at what God says again, “This is my Son, the Beloved, my chosen delight.” That last little bit is hard to translate. In the Greek the words are trying to convey that emotion you feel when you gaze at your beloved and are filled with emotion. “This is my Son, the Beloved, my chosen delight.” It sounds like God is not speaking directly to Jesus, though Jesus certainly hears this loving words. No, God is speaking to John the Baptist, to the crowd, to the readers of Matthew, to us. “This is my Son, the Beloved…for you.”
In this intimate and holy moment in the waters of the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, God offers Jesus to us as the ultimate grace, the ultimate unconditional gift. “This is my Son, the Beloved, for you.” And in that understanding, of God offering God’s Beloved, God’s Son, God’s Self, to us, we begin to see that this word—beloved—is meant for us as well. “This,” God says, “this is how much I adore you, how much I cherish you. This is my Son, my Beloved, for you, my dearest loves.” Sometimes I can catch a glimpse of this holy and sacred truth, this holy and sacred good news, this love that God has for me, for you, for all the lovely earth creatures fashioned in God’s holy image. I catch a glimpse when I look at my beloveds, at Doug or Devyn or Aidan, and am filled with such incredible love for them. And in that moment it occurs to me that what I’m feeling is just a trickle of the love that God has for us. It can take your breath away.
However, when I catch this glimpse and then catch my breath, I am also left struggling with my own response to such love. I know up here (taps head) that I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind, and all my strength. But I have to ask myself, can I in turn call God my Beloved? Love among us earth creatures can be tricky. My beloveds are physically present in my life. I can see them, touch them, talk with them and hear their responses. I can interact with them daily in a very tangible way. They are part of the fabric of my day-to-day life, a part of my identity, almost part of my DNA. But God is not so tangible. God is often known in a much more abstract way, which can make it hard to view God as Beloved. That reality seems even more real in this season of Epiphany.
Epiphany is this season we celebrate between Christmas and Lent in which we hear some amazing stories of Jesus appearing and being revealed to God’s people and all creation. The season begins with the story we heard last week of the visiting magi and an amazing star in the sky that revealed to the scientists that a king had been born. Today we hear the story of the heavens opening up, the Spirit of God descending, and God’s voice booming from the heavens. Next week Jesus will appear on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and walk right up to some fishermen and call them into a new life. We will spend time on the mountain with Jesus as he preaches his famous sermon that begins with beatitudes. The Epiphany season ends with that Transfiguration mountain and another “Beloved.” We will be surrounded with all of these stories of tangible, intimate moments where Jesus reveals himself to his disciples and the crowds. Perhaps if I, if we, could experience just one of these moments for ourselves we too could gaze heavenward and cry out “Beloved” to our God.
I was mulling such thoughts in my head when I encountered a beautiful and powerful blog by Debie Thomas on the Journey with Jesus site entitled “This Places, Deep Water.” Thin places is a term coined by the Celtic church for those moments when the separation between earth and heaven seems to thin and we can touch, for a moment, the divine. In the blog, Debie challenged this tendency to want to wait for an experience of epiphany to hit us, for in this waiting we often get distracted by worldly things and miss any chance of epiphany. Debie challenged that Epiphany is not something we wait to experience, it is something we practice. We practice opening ourselves to an encounter with the divine, and this very practice opens us and makes us more receptive. Practice focuses our attention and our lives so that we are more aware of God’s work already happening around us, those thin places already in our midst. How very Wesleyan this is. Our founder, John Wesley, had three simple rules for those who wish to follow Jesus: Do no harm, do good, practice—stay in love with God—attend to the means of grace. Wesley taught that we stay in love with God through engaging in practices that helped us to connect and focus on God—worship, prayer, study, fasting, service.
Last week we spoke about the fact that the church is a living entity—the Body of Christ—and we are all parts of that amazing Body. And as a living organism, the Body of Christ, the Church, has a life cycle. One hundred and eighty six years ago, First United Methodist Church was born as First Methodist Episcopal. We had some toddler years, and then elementary years. We grew into adolescents and then in to adulthood. We reached a full maturity and a peak of physical activity, but now we find ourselves in decline. But we are the Body of Christ, the Easter Christ. Resurrection is a part of who we are, and rebirth, and new life, and new creation. We can infuse our DNA, the blueprint of who we are, with that new life and new vision that Christ has for us. A vital part of that DNA is the A, for Affection—a passion and devotion for our God and for one another—Beloved. We must practice staying in love with God. We must practice calling God our Beloved. And we must do this through more than worship and prayer together. We must come together in study and small groups. We must learn again the spiritual practice of fasting—giving something up to make more room for God. We must be actively engaged in serving one another and the larger community and world. We must practice through ordering our lives to purposefully make time to build our relationship with God. As we journey through Epiphany and into Lent, let us commit to embrace service, study, prayer, worship, and fasting together, as the Body of Christ.
In just a few moments, we have the wonderful joy of coming to the waters of baptism. As we come I hope and pray we will hear God whispering ‘Beloved!”—of Jesus, to us. As we touch the waters may we encounter one of those thin places where God’s kingdom becomes real and we are kissed by grace. And in response, may we commit ourselves to a more intentional practicing of staying in love with God, of calling God our Beloved in return. Amen.

January 10, 2017, 10:36 AM

Tag! We're It!

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Tag! We’re It!
Each generation of youth ministry has its signature game to play in the church in the dark. Our youth have had the joy of playing Aliens and Manhunt, loudly, here in the dark. But for my generation, there was just one game…Sardines! Sardines is a reverse Hide-and-Seek. One person is designated as the one to hide, the hider. Everyone else plays the part of seeker. A home base is chosen and everyone gathers there and counts to the designated number while the hider does his or her thing, hides. When the count is up, everyone heads out to find the hider. Here is the fun catch. When you find the hider, you join them in hiding. So as the hunt ensues, the number seeking get smaller and smaller, the number hiding gets larger and larger, and the hiding place gets more and more crowded. Hence the name, Sardines. By the time the last person finds the group, everyone feels like a bunch of sardines packed into a can. It is fun to listen to the game being played in a dark church. If the hider was especially proficient in selecting the hiding place, and the seekers slow to find, the hider starts making some noise to guide them, to attract their attention. If the hiders are particularly eager to end the round, some of those sound effects can become rather amusing.
As I spent time with the familiar and beloved story of Matthew 2 this week, the crazy game of Sardines kept popping int0 my mind. This story of the star of Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi has been layered with so many myths and traditions over the years that it is hard to peer through to the original scripture. We listen to it read every Epiphany, this original story, but we hear the Christmas pageant version. Three kings see a star, pack up their camels with their three gifts, and travel at warp speed so as to arrive at the manger right after the shepherds who were abiding in nearby fields.  The scripture is read word for word from the bible, but our imaginations see that lovely silhouette of the nativity story. The quaint stable stands in the center with Mary, Joseph and the Babe in the manger. Shepherds and sheep trail out on one side and the kings with their camels trail out on the other. It is a holy Sardine game. Everyone is searching for the Messiah and when they find him, they climb on into the stable with him—a cramped animal shelter, indeed.
Not only is this image of Christmas and the visit of the Magi part of some wonderful memories for many of us, it has become a practice of being church that, let’s face it, we prefer. It is a nice and comfortable model for discipleship. We search for Jesus, and when we find him, we snuggle up with him and wait for other seekers to join us. If the seekers are slow, we will do some things to draw their attention, to attract them to the right location. If the number of seekers slows down, or even seems to halt, we will become more and more creative with our actions of attraction, or perhaps we should say, more desperate. Certainly if we have something new and cool, something shiny and sparkly, the seekers will pick back up again. We play our own version of holy Sardines. The problem is it isn’t crowded in our comfy hiding space anymore, and this model isn’t biblical.
The Nativity Story and the Epiphany Story are not even remotely a holy game of Sardines. After all, they don’t even reside together in the same gospel. Luke and Matthew’s stories of God shedding transcendent divinity and taking up form in human vulnerability are more like a wild and startling game of Tag. You remember Tag. One person is selected as “it.”  And then we’re off! Kids running everywhere giggling and squealing. The one who is “it” chasing after them trying to tag them. And if you are tagged, you become it as well. And then you are the one running everywhere trying to tag people. Tag involves a lot more movement than Sardines. It is much messier and it leaves you gasping for breath. It is much more what God was about in Matthew 2.
Just consider this wild and wonderful story. An unnumbered group of scientist pagans from another country, maybe even a few borders over, are tagged by God through the science they love, and they are “it.” They gather gifts and begin what appears to be a two year journey across unknown wilderness in response to that tag. They try to tag the religious and government leaders in Jerusalem along the way, unaware of how threatened those powers would be. This is the biblical model of discipleship. We get tagged, more than once…a lot, actually. And the purpose of that tagging is to make us “It” as well, and to send us out to tag others with God’s grace and love and acceptance. This is the model of discipleship that occurs over and over and over again, across Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is in the Book of Acts and throughout the letters of the New Testament. We can see it in the Hebrew Scriptures. God seeks to send us out, with good news, to invite others into relationship with God and with other followers. So what happened? How did we get from Tag to Sardines?
We are human. We mature and age and grow and change. The game of Tag requires us to stay energized, passionate, and focused. But in the busy world we live in, we lose the excitement and vision. Even Sardines can become stale. The games haven’t change, but we have lost the zest and excitement and love. This happens to us as individuals, and as a congregation. Churches have life cycles too.
Over 175 years ago, a group of people in Oneonta had a vision. They saw the need for a congregation here at the corner of Church and Chestnut Streets. They came together and developed a plan around that shared vision to start a congregation. There was excitement and passion and love. First Methodist Episcopal Society was born. Because our founders were filled with passion and excitement, they eagerly ran out and tagged others; shared their vision and passion, connected new people with that vision, implemented missions and ministries to see that vision realized. Their love and passion was contagious and the church grew.
As the church grew, it developed more and more ministries, more and more activities. People were busy in the church together. But with this increased busy-ness, came a little less excitement. The sharing of the vision became overshadowed with the planning for the next event. We were doing lots of ministry, lots of activities, but we began to lose the connection to why we were doing these lovely things. And as that connection dwindled, growth slowed, and then attendance and participation plateaued. I think First UMC hung out on that plateau for quite a bit. Our busy activities were fun and they kept our congregation together for quite a while. But those who had the original vision were long gone. Those who knew the why of many activities passed away, and the excitement was gone.
Our congregation is in decline. This is not news to anyone, I hope, but we haven’t been saying it out loud. Not only are we not playing Tag, Sardines is getting old for us. But here is the good news, we are a people of the Resurrection! We are a people of life everlasting and new creation! God’s dream for us is still here, waiting for us to dream it again. God’s vision for who we can be together is ready for us to see it and embrace it. We can dream the dream, cast the vision, reclaim our passion, rekindle our love.  But we have to do it together. A word of warning, we have to be willing to listen to some mad-seeming wandering scientists whom God may be tagging without all our awesome worship and liturgy and music and ministry. And we have to be willing to go out that door (points to main sanctuary entrance) with passion, intentionality, and purpose. Not the courtyard or church street doors—those are the Sardine game doors; safe and comfortable and home. No, that big main door that so few of us enter by, that’s the guest door for most, isn’t it? Visitors come in that door because they are certain it leads to the sanctuary. They have no clue where the other doors lead.
It is a New Year. It is Epiphany. It is time to admit where our church is in its lifecycle and seek that rebirth. Next Sunday, as we splash again in the waters of baptism, as Jesus rises from the Jordan, we will seek to breath some new life into our congregational DNA and spark our love and passion. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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