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July 3, 2016, 7:06 AM

Reconciling God

Genesis 32:22-31
22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel,[a] because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.
Matthew 5:17-20                         
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Reconciling God
It is July 4th weekend, the weekend that we celebrate our national independence. On July 4th in 1776 the first continental congress approved the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s birth was underway. Thomas Jefferson—the famous author of the Declaration and our third president—is less well known for his work developing his own bible. He entitled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He actually edited two bibles, but the first one has been lost in the annals of history. To create this second “bible,” Jefferson cut and pasted—literally—from original copies of the bible to create a document that was bereft of the supernatural—no miracles, no resurrection, no Acts or letters or other New Testament documents, and absolutely no Old Testament. From the early days of the church, the God depicted in what we call the Old Testament has often risen up as a problem for the followers of Jesus Christ.
As people joined the Way of Jesus, a way of love and humility and justice, they began to wrestle with the God who committed and sanctioned atrocities in the Hebrew Scriptures. How could one worship the God made flesh in Jesus Christ who forgave his crucifiers and offered mercy, to the God who killed all the firstborn of Egypt, drowned the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea, and ordered the destruction of the Canaanite people, including women and children? How can the followers of Jesus reconcile the God of wrath and violence found in the “Old Testament” with the God of grace and salvation found in the “New Testament?”
Before we tackle that question, we must first realize that we cannot boil down all of the Hebrew Scriptures to a God of wrath and violence, nor all of the New Testament to a God of grace and salvation. All the scriptures are rich and complex, and the scripture’s depiction of God is rich and complex. These summations are not fair representations of the complexities of these scriptures. The Old Testament is part of the New Testament.  The Hebrew Scriptures were beloved of Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the early church. Jesus followed the Law (for the most part). The gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, which connects Jesus with the rich past found in the Old Testament. Jesus quotes Old Testament Law as a summation of discipleship—to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength…and to love your neighbor as yourself”—Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. Our reading today shows us Jesus himself proclaiming that he didn’t come to tear down or loosen the Law, but to be the fulfillment of the Law. God comes among us as Jesus, carrying with him all the rich and complicated history of the people of Israel—the good, the bad, and even the violently ugly.
That being said, there are certain stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that leave us deeply troubled, stories that almost seem to celebrate horrible violence: the flood narrative of Noah, the atrocities of the Exodus, the Canaanite genocide, God’s declaration of death penalties for what seem minor infractions, and even some beloved Sunday School stories such as David and Goliath. Even as we admit there are many stories in the Old Testament that lift up a God of love and mercy, how do we reconcile these stories of violence?
This is not a new problem. Even the early church followers of Jesus were seeking ways to reconcile the way of Jesus with the God of these stories. Over the generations, different ‘solutions’ were offered to reach this reconciliation. The first ‘solution’ is the one Thomas Jefferson chose, to deny any connection between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the God of Jesus. In the early church, one well known proponent of this ‘solution’ was Marcion, and like Jefferson, he did some ‘cutting and pasting’ in order to remove the problem. What God’s people learned from those like Marcion and Jefferson is that avoidance and denial is not a solution. All that happens is a god is created in the author’s own image.
Another ‘solution’ offered through the years is to acknowledge the humanity of scripture and the evolution of thought. This school of thought sees the people of God evolving throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in their understanding of God and their experience of God. Human authors of our sacred texts espoused a vision of God that was popular in their culture and context—attributing to God thoughts and concepts that were human, such as God condoning genocide and slaughter. In this ‘solution,’ the people of God are challenged to read such scriptures as a warning of what happens when religion is coopted for political gains.
A third ‘solution’ sees these texts of liberation and land settling and war as mythic histories, ways of explaining in legendary terms how the people of God journeyed to be where they are today. The fantastic stories of the Old Testament are seen at times as these mythic histories, and at other times as metaphors for spiritual journeys and battles. This school of thought highlights the oral history of God’s people, that these stories were told around bonfires in the evening, at table on the Sabbath, to help people remember God’s presence with them at all times and in all places.
The final ‘solution’ is not really a solution at all, but a school of thought that simply accepts all scripture a literally true and not to be questioned.  This idea postulates that God does condone violence at times and we must accept it as God’s will.
So where do we stand? I believe it is helpful to see these four viewpoints as standing along a spectrum, with one extreme end consisting of the denial of the Old Testament as seen in Jefferson and Marcion (see diagram below). At the other extreme stands the literalist that upholds all Old Testament stories as literally true. Along the line between the two we find those who lean toward the idea of mythic histories (toward the Jefferson-Marcion side) and the concept of the humanity and evolution of scripture (closer to the literalists). As people journeying the path of faith, we may find ourselves moving back and forth along this line as we encounter these different difficult passages. We may even encounter new points and ‘solutions’ along the way.
       Jefferson                      Mythic                                                Human-                        Literalist
       Not true                       Histories                                           Evolution                       True
And as we journey, there are some points to keep before us as we wrestle. First, we are called to wrestle. Our reading from Genesis 32 proclaims that the children of Israel are those who wrestle with God, and we are children of Israel. This is our heritage as well.  Our God is one who will enter into humanity to meet us, who comes to us even in the darkness, and will empty God’s self of ultimate power to meet us in our humanity so that we many wrestle with faith. Second, God is so very, very much MORE than we can imagine or understand. Our God is too lively, too engaged, too full of dramatic power for easy systematic formulations. As CS Lewis attests in his fantasy novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, God is good, but not safe, not tame. We must resist every urge to put God in a box. Third, while we wrestle with God’s involvement in some of these horrific happenings, we acknowledge that these stories do attest that there is no human activity in which God is not present. Nothing is beyond the reach of the Divine. And finally, we are followers of Jesus, who is the ultimate fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. It is through the lens of the life, teachings, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that we view all scripture; not to diminish the importance of these teachings and stories from the Old Testament for the people to whom they were written, but in order to see the Law and Prophets, the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures through the One who comes as fulfillment and as God made flesh.
As I warned when announcing this sermon series, these difficult topics do not come with simple, clean and clear answers. In keeping to the tradition of Jesus, the rabbinical practice, many questions are ‘answered’ with deeper and more profound questions. But in the midst of our wrestling to reconcile God, we are called to be a people who do justice, who love mercy, and who walk humbly with our God. Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm you are invited to join me in the Embury Room to wrestle further with this topic, to bring your notes and your thoughts, as we openly discuss, questions, and wrestle on our journey of faith together. Thanks be to the God of Israel, the God who strives and wrestles.  Amen.
Personal Reflections for the Week:
  1. What are our favorite biblical passages and where are they found?
  1. What is your experience of the Old Testament? Is it in any way different from your experience of the New Testament?
  1. What is your understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? Are they equally important and authoritative?
  1. How do you respond to the characterization of the God of the Old Testament as a God of Wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of Grace?
  1. Does it matter anymore that Jesus was a Jew? Why or why not?

May 31, 2016, 8:52 AM

Disciples--Is It Well With My Soul?

Exodus 18:13-18  CEB
13 The next day Moses sat as a judge for the people, while the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?”
15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them. I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing isn’t good.18 You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone.
Luke 6:12-19 CEB
12 During that time, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. 13 At daybreak, he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter; his brother Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; 15 Matthew; Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus; Simon, who was called a zealot; 16 Judas the son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed.19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.
A few months ago I attended, with some church members, the “District Day” gathering of United Methodists in our Oneonta District. The keynote speaker that day was Rev. Colleen Preuninger, then chaplain at Syracuse University (now new chaplain at Shenandoah University). She came to talk with us about our Wesleyan Heritage—our inheritance as United Methodists from our founders, John and Charles Wesley. She began by talking about our connection to one another, a living and moving connection across our district, conference, country, and world. Then, she began to share about our beginning, the renewal movement started by the Wesley brothers. She asked us to pair up with someone we didn’t know and to ask each other one of the favorite questions John Wesley asked the leaders of the renewal movement regularly—“How is it with your soul?”
It was an awkward moment in the gathering. That is a really personal question. Can you imagine if I asked all us gathered here, people that most of you know rather well, to pair up and honestly answer that question with one another? But John Wesley felt it was intensely important to do just that. He gathered the leaders of the Methodist movement quarterly and asked them about the state of their soul. How has the last quarter been? Have you been practicing your devotion? Have you engaged in works of mercy? How is it with your soul?  Wesley was seeking to rekindle the fire in his beloved Church of England—to create a community of disciples across the church. And he believed that all people of God are called into intentional and authentic discipleship—a balance of acts of piety and acts of mercy. We are called into intentional and authentic discipleship.
“Disciple” is the churchiest of churchy words. We have several words that we use in church regularly—such a salvation or grace—but rarely define. And ‘disciple’ is the churchiest. We use and hear that word all over the place in the church and just assume we all have the same understanding and definition.  “Disciple” literally means ‘student,’ or ‘apprentice,’ or ‘follower.’ It is someone studying something or learning new skills and information. But God has a pretty clear definition of what it looks like, what it is to be a disciple.
Exodus! When we hear that word ‘disciple’ we usually think of the Jesus movement, the stories and letters from the New Testament. We see it as something Jesus started with his ministry, calling followers on his journey, students of Jesus’ Way. But God has been discipling people from the very beginning—calling people to live God’s way in contrast to the world’s way.  Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus is a beautiful story of being a disciple. Moses and the Israelites did it. They made it out of Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and into the wilderness. Now they are a brand new community, learning to live together and to live God’s way in the desert. News of their journey out of Egypt made its way to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. So Jethro packs up Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons, and makes his way to Moses in the wilderness. 
Upon their arrival, Moses happily welcomes them, and then invites Jethro—a priest from another peoples, another faith—into the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, the holy of holies, to share with him all that Moses has experienced since he left Jethro for Egypt. Jethro rejoices in hearing all that God has done to free Moses’ people, confesses his belief in Yahweh, and then engages in the most ancient form of worship—he makes an offering to God in the tent of meeting. Jethro dedicates himself to living God’s way in the world, enters into a life of discipleship. The next day he observes how Moses is dealing with the needs of this new community—sitting alone in a judgment tent from early morning until night, hearing about conflicts, issues and needs, and making decisions. It is tedious—thousands of people waiting in lines, Moses exhausted. Jethro sees instantly that Moses has missed a crucial element of discipleship—disciples always exist in community, working together, never alone. Disciples exist only  within a community of disciples, working together, supporting one another, traveling the way of God in community.
Luke! When we hear the world ‘disciple’ we often think of the twelve. We associate ‘disciple’ with the twelve that Jesus called and commissioned—Peter and Andrew, James and John—and we inadvertently exclude ourselves. This reading from Luke helps us see that Jesus had a crowd of disciples—students of the Way. These twelve, whose names we just heard in the reading, we commissioned to help in the journey—much like Moses’ need for leaders in the wilderness.  Consider the metaphor of mountain climbing—a team of climbers working together to reach the summit. One leads the way, setting the pace, guiding the team. Others fill in the middle, receiving support from the ones ahead of them, reaching back to give support to those behind. And another experienced climber brings up the rear, making sure no one is lost or left behind, calling out words of encouragement and support to the team. The twelve are called to be leaders on the climb, to model the life of Jesus. After the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost—an outpouring not on twelve but on 120—these leaders are sent out to create discipleship communities across the known world; communities where people live as disciples with intentionality, and invite others to join them.
Discipleship happens in community and it absolutely includes us. It is very much embodied in the image of the team of mountain climbers. The journey of discipleship can be tough. It is hard work. On the climb there are people at different places, but they are all working together. The more experienced climbers lead the way or bring up the rear, the newbies enter the climb with excitement and energy. Mountain climbing discipleship requires commitment and dedication. We don’t begin with Mount Everest. First, we commit to the work and all that entails. We build our stamina and endurance, the needed skills and muscles. We practice and train together as a team. We gather the needed tools. And most importantly, we build the trust in one another so we can truly rely on each other on the climb.
This is what John Wesley was trying to create in his beloved Church of England and in the Methodist renewal movement. He developed a covenant prayer—a prayer of commitment found on #607 in your UM Hymnal—to be prayed every year as a re-dedication to living as disciples of Jesus Christ. He shared disciplines (from the same root as disciple) of piety for people to engage in as individuals and even more in community: worship, bible study, prayer—shared in small groups. He required the small groups to engage in acts of mercy—caring for the widow and orphan, feeding the hungry, caring the ill. And he called together the leaders of this movement quarterly to ask some tough, personal, and vital questions—How is it with your soul? How has it gone the last quarter? Have you engaged in those acts of piety and mercy? These were the leads of the mountain climb. He needed to be sure of the commitment and dedication; their piety and mercy; their relationship with God and their team of climbers.
This is what it means to be a disciple—to be committed to the climb, to practice and train, to build the tools needed, to engage in authentic community where such questions can be safely asked and honestly answered. “Have we been truly convinced of God?” Most days, yes, but there have been times… “Have we truly turned our lives toward God?” Not all of my life—I am still easily distracted by worldly pressures. “Is all this evidenced by our life of service?” Better and better each day. “Does the world see Jesus in us?” That is the critical question. Does the world see Jesus in us? Discipleship.
How is it with my soul? How is it with your soul? Can we develop a community where we can ask each other that question without fear? Can we dedicate ourselves to the journey, to the climb, together? Can we practice and train together as disciples of Jesus Christ? And can we gather regularly and sing with boldness—“It is well, with my soul. It is well, with your soul. It is well, it is well, with our souls?” Thanks be to God. Amen.

May 24, 2016, 8:38 AM

Love Letters From Jesus

2 Corinthian 3:1-6
Does it sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our credentials, asserting our authority? Well, we’re not. Neither do we need letters of endorsement, either to you or from you. You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.
4-6 We couldn’t be more sure of ourselves in this—that you, written by Christ himself for God, are our letter of recommendation. We wouldn’t think of writing this kind of letter about ourselves. Only God can write such a letter. God’s letter authorizes us to help carry out this new plan of action. The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives! 
Mark 2:21-22        
21“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
“Love Letters from Jesus”
We stood nervously in a semicircle around her; six newly graduated ministry candidates about to be introduced to the gathered assembly of Wyoming Conference clergy, at Vestal United Methodist Church. (Their center aisle is even longer than ours)  We listened intently to our instructions, not wanting to do anything incorrectly, especially in the eyes of the registrar of the Board of Ordained Ministry—the Reverend Virginia O’Malley. I had only just met her and she was intimidating—former district superintendent of the Scranton District, senior pastor at Elm Park UMC in downtown Scranton, experienced theologian and liturgist, our shepherd and guide on this journey toward ordination, a stickler for worship rituals.  My new congregation in the Scranton District spoke of her with awe. Luckily, I moved past intimidation and into friendship with Ginny O’Malley, and cherished my ministry alongside her.
As the clergy session prepared to start, Ginny directed us to the opening hymn: #553 “And Are We Yet Alive.” “We sing this every year at the start of clergy session,” She informed us. She spoke of the joy of singing these words, all the clergy together, in four part harmony, of course—“And are we yet alive and see each other’s face? …What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past… Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love…” Her voice caught in her throat as she held back tears. “This hymn is our connection,” she smiled at us. “And you are now a part of the family.”
This hymn is our connection…and you are now part of the family.
I caught myself humming this song multiple times over the past two weeks as the global governing body of the United Methodist Church—the General Conference—met in Portland, OR.; over 860 delegates from across the globe. I caught myself humming it as delegates bickered for three days about whether we should allow special parliamentary procedures for especially contentious voting that would gather us in small groups for more intimate conversation. The body voted no. I caught myself humming it as tensions mounted when legislative committees met and members treated one another and members of the larger United Methodist Church poorly. I caught myself humming it when rumors whispered of splitting the church. I caught myself humming it when delegates pleaded with the bishops to not just preside at sessions, but to lead us forward into a new way. I caught myself humming it when a contentious debate erupted as the bishops came back with a response and a proposal. “And are we yet alive and see each other’s face?” (pause) “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past; fightings without, and fears within…” I watched General Conference and heard my friend, Ginny O’Malley, in my head. Is this our connection? Is this my family?
Yes. Yes, it is. Those 860+ bickering, hurting, angry, fearful, wounded delegates are my family. That council of bishops struggling with the same division and heartbreak is my family. If they weren’t my family these last two weeks wouldn’t have hurt so very much. They broke my heart because I love them; yes, even the ones who said harmful, un-Christ-like things. But, you see, they are my extended family. They are the cousins that you only see at family reunions, weddings, and funerals. I love them, and their angry, fearful words are hurtful, but I don’t live with them. They can’t poison me with their words on a daily basis. But neither can I disown them. I cannot pretend they don’t exist and leave them out there spreading those harmful words. Family is complicated.
But you, First United Methodist Church of Oneonta, you are my immediate family; the ones with whom I dwell. Your words and your actions impact my life every day. Your love, flowing out from the love of Christ, is my foundation, my comfort, my consolation, and my joy. You are also part of this broken and beautiful family called United Methodist. You are disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world! You give hope! You give love! You do justice, love mercy, and seek to walk humbly with our God! Oh, how the world, how our extended family, needs you! You are Christ’s love letter to the world!
This wonderful passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is rarely read in worship. It only appears in the lectionary in those rare years when Easter is very, very late and the season of Epiphany extra-long. What a blessing we are missing to have it read so rarely! Paul is still dealing with the divided and struggling church in Corinth, seeking to help them move beyond their differences and become that Body of Christ that he describes so beautifully in chapter twelve of the first letter, to be the community of love that he describes in 1 Corinthians 13—a patient love, a kind love, one that is not arrogant, or boastful, or rude—a love that endures forever.
In this second letter, Paul is also having to wrestle with the teachings of other traveling preachers who have tried to undermine Paul’s teaching. These preachers came to Corinth with some strong letters of recommendation, and have set the struggling church back in their healing and reconciliation. It seems that Corinth and/or these traveling preachers have even questioned Paul’s credentials, Paul’s letters of recommendation. Paul responds with such beautiful and radical words. Where are Paul’s letters of recommendation? Why living and breathing in Corinth! This little, struggling, divided community of Christ is a letter penned by Christ himself through the Holy Spirit onto their hearts, into their lives. They are all the endorsement Paul needs. They are living letters of love to the world of the good news of Jesus Christ for anyone to read just by looking at them! Wow! What a response!
Paul uses language that whispers the words of the prophet Jeremiah from chapter 31. Jeremiah promised and prophesied that a time was coming when God would do a new thing. God would write the covenant, not on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of God’s people. Here it is, Paul is saying. The new thing God promised is here, and God’s love and promise is written on the hearts, written into the lives, of God’s people! Here is the new wine, being poured into fresh, new wineskins—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—and it is glorious for the world to see!
You are Jesus’ love letter to the world! You are Jesus’ love letter to the United Methodist Church, our extended family! You are all the endorsement the Gospel needs! You!
Over the next few weeks (with the exception of Celebration Sunday on June 12th), we will embrace the call to be living letters of Good News through the practices embraced and taught by our founder, John Wesley. We will rekindle within our hearts the passion for our Wesleyan roots using some hymns of our church, old and new. Next Sunday we start with our life as disciples of Jesus Christ and what that means, asking ourselves “Is it well with my soul? Is it well with your soul? Is it well with our souls?” In the coming weeks, we will embrace our call to serve, our need for renewal and revival, and our commission to see the world as our parish. We will feel together our hearts strangely warmed—using some words from John Wesley—and embrace our lives as living letters of love.
My beloved, diverse family, we are yet alive! We see each other’s face! We have been through some troubles and conflicts! God’s love has brought us through thus far and will not abandon us now! Glory and thanks to Jesus for his almighty grace! Hallelujah! Amen!

April 17, 2016, 11:31 AM


Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30
Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday! The fourth Sunday in the Great 50 Days of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday with most readings featuring metaphors of sheep and shepherds. This year, year C in the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches, we are blessed with three scriptures featuring sheep/shepherd imagery. First we are gifted with the beloved psalm, Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters…” The Book of Revelation depicts John of Patmos’ vision of the multitude of martyrs from all nations, races, and languages gathered before the throne of God, worshiping day and night. The vision is clear that in the center of that throne, that center of worship, is the Lamb—the Lamb who is our Shepherd. And every Good Shepherd Sunday features the gospel of John, chapter 10, the Good Shepherd chapter. This year we are further along in the beautiful chapter, where Jesus speaks of his followers as his sheep, who hear their shepherd’s voice, belong to their shepherd, and follow there shepherd—Jesus.
So what in the world do we, 21st century Americans in Upper New York, do with these 1st century Middle Eastern images of sheep and shepherd? Let’s face it, Upper NY has fewer and fewer farms every year. What farms we do have tend to be dairy farms, or beef farms, or vegetable farms—growing corn or soy beans. We have more chickens and pigs and goats than we have sheep. And, what images come to mind when we think of sheep? How do we speak of sheep in our culture? (sheepish—shy, hesitant; smelly; blind followers; dumb) And we know that using metaphors is tricky. We don’t want to take a metaphor too far. They are intended to invoke an initial thought or image or feeling, as the conversation or teaching builds.  So on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s spend a few minutes exploring sheep and shepherds.
Let’s begin with the beginning of a sheep’s life—let’s look at lambs. I was blest in my life to have two significant people who were shepherds. The first was my Uncle Ronald. My grandfather’s sister, Mary Lou, was my caregiver in my early years while my mom and dad were working. She was a second mother to me, and her husband, Ronald, had a large sheep farm. I rarely visited his flocks, but I remember as if it were yesterday, Ronald coming to my family’s farm and bringing a newborn lamb. Each spring there were always a few lambs who could not flourish with their mothers, for various reasons. Ronald would bring one of those newborns to me (and my family) and let us bottle feed it and raise it until it was ready to return to the flock. I remember Ronald placing the trembling, frightened newborn lamb in my six-year-old arms, and  it was no bigger than my baby doll, with its scrawny legs all tucked in under its body. I remember begin struck with how tiny the little lamb was, how vulnerable, how fragile. I remember its first attempts to walk about on its tiny, toothpick legs; wobbly and unsteady. I remember the lambs devotion and affection, it’s desire to climb into my lap every time I sat down.
That is the image being invoked as John seeks to describe his vision of the heavenly throne room. The center of the image is the awe-inspiring throne of God, multi-colored and radiant. It is surrounded by this mysterious and terrifying living creatures, with many eyes and wings. The elders of the people of God, the multitude of martyrs in white, all surround and worship the One on the throne of heaven. And that One is…the Lamb—tiny, fragile, vulnerable, the epitome of weakness. The Lamb is our Shepherd, our Center, our Lord. We do not see the way the world sees. We do not live the way the world lives. We do not value what the world values. We turn our eyes upon the throne of God and behold the Lamb of God—perfect in weakness, embodying another way of living. “Glory and Power and Might and Authority to the Lamb!”
Though Revelation deals with the image of the Lamb for Jesus Christ, our other scriptures focus more on sheep, especially flocks of sheep. In my young adult life I became friends with Kathleen England and her husband, Robby. Kathleen is a shepherd, with a large flock of beautiful sheep. Many times I would go out to her farm to help her with the upkeep and care of her flock and pastures. When she was away for whatever reason, I would often stay on her farm and take care of the sheep in her absence. I loved to watch them from her deck and here are some things I would notice. Sheep are made for community. They are designed to be together. It is in their DNA. Sheep are made to flock. Within this community, this flock, smaller groups would form from time to time.  Older lambs formed what I liked to call the motorcycle gang. They would run and jump and kick and play as one large gang, moving around and around the larger flock, swarming here and there. Young mothers with nursing young would graze near the matriarchs of the herd, seeming to take comfort from those with experience.
The sheep would do a little shepherding of one another. When that motorcycle gang moved to far afield for comfort, one of the eldest sheep would call them back. The sheep would call back and forth to one another in the flock, clearly communicating with one another. They were smart, especially those elders, crafty in their problem solving. As John and Psalm 23 invoke the image of God’s people as sheep, they are referring to this people in community—it is part of our design as followers of Jesus to be in community. We are together for nurture and support, for comfort and protection, to hold one another accountable. We travel the Way of Jesus together, as a community. It is in our spiritual DNA.
But a flock, a community of sheep, is most secure and healthy when it is under the care of a shepherd. The shepherd is the caretaker and guide, the leader and protector. But more than anything else, the shepherd is beloved of the flock. When I took care of Kathleen’s sheep, they ignored me at best, and skittered away when feeling nervous. The only time they really took note of me is when I brought grain for their supper. And then I only had their attention for as long as it took me to pour out the grain. But when Kathleen came home… She would walk just inside the pasture and call out to her flock, “hellooooo.” As one they would spring to attention, all heads turning toward the sound of her voice. And then they would spring forward, sprinting toward her location, even the oldest among them jumping and bucking like a little lamb. And they would make this ‘blat’ sound—not the baaaas they would call to one another in the flock. It was this short sound of joy. They were overjoyed to see her, their fountain of life. They would encircle her, wiggling all over, bouncing and blatting. Their shepherd was here!
And when we were all working in the pasture, shoring up fence posts, securing barbed wire, making the pasture secure, one glance would tell you exactly where Kathleen was working, for where she went within the pasture, there was the flock, gathered around her. It was abundantly clear who the shepherd was.
That is what we do with sheep and shepherd imagery in the 21st century, we seek to understand and we live into it.  We are those who worship the Lamb! We look to the throne of God and glory in the vulnerable, fragile, tiny Lamb in the center of the throne and we commit to living as those who follow another way, a way vastly different than the world’s way. We embrace the truth that we are made for community. It is in our DNA. We come together as that beloved community and journey together on the Way of Jesus. And in all that we do, all that we say, day in and day out, the world knows with certainty who our shepherd is, for it shines through us to touch the world. We embody in our lives together the prayer we lift up at the beginning of our message time each week. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing and acceptable in the sight of our Shepherd, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

April 12, 2016, 11:57 AM

The Other Side of the Boat

John 21:1-19
Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus[a]), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” 11 Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”
“The Other Side of the Boat”
There is an art to storytelling. It is a work of art when a storyteller weaves a story that reaches out and captivates the audience, pulling them into the narrative. One of my favorite biblical storytellers is the Rev. Walter Wangerin, a Lutheran minister who has shared his passion for scripture through beautiful and faithful retellings of favorite biblical stories. I have two favorites. The first I can barely talk about without getting tearful, a telling of Jesus on the cross looking down and encountering his mother.  The second story is a rich weaving of the creation narrative, where God creates Adamah-earth creature—from the dust of the earth. Walter and his wife had recently welcomed a daughter into their family, a child of their heart but not of their bodies, when Walter created this retelling.  This beautiful young girl was having trouble adjusting as she looked nothing like her white, German parents; with her long dreadlocks, beautiful brown skin, and differently shaped nose, lips and eyes. Walter took this creation of Adamah story, and dwelt within it for a moment in order for his daughter to see the beauty of her own creation.
He told of God scooping the clay of the earth and lovely shaping her wonderful body. Walter described how God spent extra time molding her head and face so they would be perfect. God’s fingers smoothed out her full lips, nudged her beautiful nose into shape from the clay. God took God’s thumbs and smoothed and smoothed her eyes until they were perfect and shone brightly. God wove the braids of her beautiful hair. Finally, when all was just as God wanted it, God leaned in and pressed God’s lips to hers, breathing ruah-Spirit-into her to give her the spark of life.
As Walter told the story, the listeners were drawn into this beautiful, intimate moment. Not only could we visualize God’s creation of Walter’s daughter, in the story we could envision our own creation, the creation of someone we love, and even the creation of strangers we meet on the street. All lovingly sculpted by the hands of the great and loving Creator. There is an art to storytelling.
The author of the Gospel of John is such a storyteller. Throughout the gospel of John we are gifted with these wonderful narratives from Jesus’ life and ministry, long and rich in detail, designed to captivate the listener and draw them into the action of the story—to make the story about the listeners as much as the characters in the story. Chapter 21 of John is a wonderful example of this art of taking an event from Jesus’ ministry and calling us to dwell (a favorite word of John’s) within it.
The story begins with Peter’s declaration, “I’m going fishing!” Immediately we are invited to step into Peter’s sandals, or as Margaret Keyser would say, “to stand in his feet.” The last few weeks for Peter have been pretty crazy, haven’t they? The craziness basically began when they first arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover—the huge parade, complete with donkey, and crowds shouting “hosanna! (Save us)” as they waved branches and laid cloaks on the path. “This is it!” Peter thought, “All we have been waiting for is finally happening!” Jesus drove the money changers and those gouging the poor out of the temple. He confronted religious leaders. “Yes!” the disciples were so excited, “this is it!” And then the tone completely changed.
There was a dinner. Jesus knelt at their feet and washed their feet like a slave. He was subdued, even sad; talking about God’s glory and his own death.  There was the garden, Jesus’ anguished prayers. And a kiss…that changed everything. A betrayal by one of their own—Judas. Peter found himself in a courtyard around a charcoal fire, and three times he denied he was a follower of Jesus. The disciples fled into the night, hiding behind locked doors. Crucifixion. Burial. How did it all go so wrong? And then, in the wee hours of the night—morning really—Mary ran in claiming Jesus’ body was missing—stolen. Peter ran and found it to be true, but a short time later Mary returned claiming, “I have seen the Lord!” And everything changed again. Twice Jesus stood among them—physically there, completely present, proclaiming new life and peace, and declaring it was their turn to be sent.
So what is Peter feeling in this moment by the lake? What is he feeling after these last whirlwind weeks? Exhausted? Emotionally drained? Overwhelmed? How would we feel, standing in his shoes? What do you do when it is all just too much to process? You turn to something familiar, something you can do in your sleep. You turn to something your body knows. You keep busy and let your mind turn off for a bit. We understand this feeling of Peter’s, for we get overwhelmed by life as well—especially in this season when calendars are easily filled to overflowing and to-do lists swell. And then suddenly the story expands, as the other disciples present declare they are going fishing with Peter. Now this story is about more than Peter’s personal exhaustion and confusion, it is about the community of followers, together overwhelmed and struggling.
We, the church of today, are experiencing our own exhaustion and sense of being overwhelmed. The world is changing so quickly. Nothing seems to be as it was. Attendance is different. Budgeting as a community of faith is difficult as giving changes. Ministries and programs that were foundations of our life together now struggle to survive. How do we minister in this new day and age? So what do we do as we become overwhelmed? We turn to what we know. We turn to worship, Sunday school, our classes and studies. We feed people—we are United Methodist, after all. All of these are wonderful things. But when we pull in our nets to measure our fruitfulness, however that looks for us, too often we find the nets heart wrenchingly empty. So we try harder. We get bigger, better nets. We move them in the water with more energy. We hang some bait on them. We cast them and pull them in over and over and over again. And we find ourselves exhausted, and frustrated, and even a bit angry—all this work and so little result.
And then there is this cheeky person, standing just a few yards off, who seems oblivious to our frustration and effort; This One has the audacity to call over, “hey kids, did ya catch anything?” “No, grumble, grumble, grumble.” The One calls, “Turn to the other side of the boat.”
What does that entail, turning to the other side of the boat? It shouldn’t be a big deal, should it? We just need to turn around. Surely the disciples have fished out of both sides of their boats over the course of their years as fisherpersons? But Jesus isn’t talking about fishing, is he? Jesus is talking about discipleship, and the ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. Jesus is talking about changing perspective, breaking the status quo, turning in new directions. He didn’t ask them to move to new waters, or to buy new and better nets, but simply to find the right side of the boat.
In the disciples’ willingness to give it a try, everything changes. As the fruitfulness of this new perspective begins to pour in, the disciples realize that it was Jesus calling to them from the shore. After all, every amazing catch in the gospels is a result of Jesus’ presence among them. With this realization, they rush to Jesus and are welcomed, invited to breakfast and to contribute toward breakfast. They are fed and nourished. Those overwhelming feelings and stresses fall away as they are surrounded by love and grace. Perhaps the next time they are overwhelmed by the world, by life, by expectations and feel that urge to dig deeper into what they know, they will hear Jesus calling sooner and try the other side of the boat.
As the story moves toward its conclusion, the wide expanse is again telescoped in on Peter. Along with the other disciples, he has been nourished and renewed, but more is needed. Once again he finds himself around a charcoal fire, but not at a trial this time, in Communion. Jesus probes Peter’s pain and doubt, and he pulls a confession from Peter three times of his love for Jesus. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Simon Peter, the Rock, is now not only renewed, he is re-commissioned, restored, reconciled. He is a new creation, molded in the image of his Creator, his Rabbi. He is ready to be the Rock on which Christ is building Christ’s church. All this because the followers of Jesus were willing to listen and try the right side, the other side, of the boat. Thank you, gospel storyteller, for calling us into the story. Amen.

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