Small Church – Big Faith

September 2, 2018               15th Sunday of Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2:8-13          
James 1:17-27            Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today our Gospel tells us about one of the encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees. Often these encounters involved the Pharisees, who are the keepers of Hebrew law and tradition, challenging Jesus or his followers who are not keeping the laws and traditions as strictly as the Pharisees would like. This was part of their campaign to discredit Jesus as a spiritual leader.

To be fair the Pharisees always tested any Jewish spiritual guru who cropped up in Roman-Palestine. If you were a person who was gathering a following among the Jewish people a few Pharisees would seek you out and confront you to see how truly Jewish you were. Okay, let’s go see if Mr. Levi, who has a considerable following in Bethlehem knows his Jewish stuff. I’ll quiz him on holiday protocol, you quiz him on theology, you try to see how smooth he is on scriptural references, and you see if he remembers his daily traditions. By demanding that people demonstrated their religious credentials it kept a lot of people from forming weird cults, which were rampant in the first century. And it reminded people to keep their traditions alive in an occupied country, with overlords who were trying to impose their culture on them.

The problem was the Pharisees had become so tradition bound that they couldn’t accept any other teachings other than the ones that they believed was right. In Jesus’ time they were turning into a classic case of a system and ideology that had been right for so long that they couldn’t see how they could be wrong. They were so concentrated on following and enforcing the rules that they forgot that the rules were created to help humanity, instead they acted like humanity was created to follow the rules.

But of course most of us would never get so wrapped up in rules and protocol that we would fail to do the right thing. Lord, have mercy on us! Most of us would never get so swept up by conventional thinking that we wouldn’t question the worth of what we do. Christ, have mercy on us!   And most of us would be able to recognize the value of the gifts and graces that we have been given at this time and not worry too much about the fads of the world and making ourselves look good with our neighbors. Holy Spirit, have mercy and guide us!

Those are very easy slopes for us to slip down. It’s why James tries to distill the action of our faith in the world down to: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. That’s a little bit of a narrow definition for our day and age, but essentially James is saying: Care for those who need caring and don’t worry about what the world says you should do. Don’t worry about the rules of protocol; don’t worry about conventional thinking; don’t worry about fads and making yourself look good with your neighbors. Take care of the people who need to be cared for, that is the essence of your Christian service to God.

Don’t worry about the big world. Concentrate on your small faith and big things will happen.

But we are human. And humans tend to get caught up in the “If bigger then better” ideology. If I have a bigger house then I will be happier. If I have more money then my life will be better. If I get a promotion then my job will be easier. If our company is bigger then we won’t have so many problems.

The problem with this thinking is not just the illusion of happiness, but also that we tend to look upon the small as being inferior and the large as being superior, and the largest as being the standard of excellence. This illusion of inferiority/superiority is insidious because it distracts us from the value of what we are, and what we have, right now in our lives.

And do you know where we in America have done the most damage with this inferiority/superiority illusion? In our churches.

I would like to read you something that blew a few light bulbs in my mind this week. It is from the book The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us, by Karl Vaters.   Rev Vaters says: For the last several decades, the church leadership culture as a whole has despised Small Churches. Years ago, I attended a pastoral conference where the keynote speaker was the pastor of a mega-church. After two days of often helpful and inspiring advice about how to overcome church growth barriers, mostly taken from anecdotes about the spectacular growth of his church, he took questions from the audience. One of the first questions was from the pastor of a small, struggling church. “I’ve heard a lot of good things in the last couple days about overcoming obstacles and bringing numerical growth to the church,” he said. “And I’ve been trying to apply these principles in my church for years now. What I was wondering was, is there anything wrong with a church being small?”

            “No,” answered the mega-church pastor, “not for two weeks.” The Small Church pastor chuckled uncomfortably, then waited for a smile, a “just kidding” or some further explanation from the mega-church pastor. It never came. The Small Church pastor turned and walked away. Another person came to the mic with another question. The conference went on.

This message of: The bigger church is the one that has it all together and the smaller churches are the ones that aren’t functioning properly, is a lie.   93% of American churches (membership under 350) are small, while 80% (membership under 200) are very small. If size equals success, then 80% to 93% of churches in America are failures. I’m sorry, that CANNOT be right.

The founding of America had Small Churches at its core. The band of Pilgrims who left England for religious freedom, were escaping a politically compromised big church system. Much of the impetus for the growth of America up to and beyond the American Revolution came through the theology, relationships and sermons of small churches. Most of the great drives for freedom in America were started and/or sustained through Small Churches. The eventual overturn of slavery was sparked in Small Churches and Small Churches provided many of the vital links in the Underground Railroad that ferried runaway slaves to freedom. Later on, the right of women to vote was largely sparked by sermons preached from the pulpits of Small Churches. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of a small congregation called Ebenezer Baptist church.

Jesus said, “I will build my church.” He didn’t say, “Fill the world with just mega-churches.”  Mega-churches are fine in large communities of concentrated populations. Mid-sized-to-big churches are fine in the communities that fit them. But the majority of churches are small way-stations of faith tucked into nearly every community around the globe. And when small churches concentrate on nurturing people in their faith then big things happen in those communities.

Just look at what is going to happen at the end of this month in our community. We will have our annual crop walk and the majority of the organizations doing the sponsoring for that are our churches. Churches are the majority contributors to the local food banks. And both of our Methodist churches open our doors to meetings to help people cope with substance abuse.

The point is not to be a big church – the point is to be a healthy church that serves its community with the love of God.   Jesus got mad at the Pharisee not because they were following the ideals, but because the ideals had replaced following God and helping humanity. James cautions his parishioners to be: doers of the word, and not merely hearers . . . We need to stop hearing that small churches aren’t enough and do actions with our faith that serves God and Christ in the world.

Let’s recognize that in our small church we stand with the Faith of Christ and the Love of God. We are 93% strong and we are vital to the labor of God in this country. Let’s take our Faith and believe that, with Christ by our side, we can and will do big things in His Glorious name.

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Wearing Our Faith

August 26, 2018         14th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43           Ephesians 6:10-20        John 6:56-69

Kids like the Ephesians reading because the idea of putting on this armor that is made by God is really cool. You can actually buy – and this church might have even had one at one time – a poster for Sunday School that shows a person with Roman style armor all labeled with Christian symbols and lettering like the Sword of the Spirit and the Breastplate of Righteousness.

Of course as a little kid looking at that poster I didn’t know what half the labeling meant. I kind of got the Belt of Truth, but I remember being not too sure about the rest of them. The poster looked really cool though. And I thought, “When I grow up I’m going to be a real Christian and get a suit of armor just like that. I wonder if my Dad has one?” Oh, yeah!

Now you might wonder why Paul, being a Christian and a pacifist, was speaking in these war-like images. Well, in the Roman Empire there was a distinct division of first, second, and third class citizens. If you were a Roman Citizen you were a first-class citizen and had more privileges under the law, such as the right to vote, the right to hold property, and the right to sue or be heard in a Roman Court. If you lived in a place like Roman-Palestine, where Jesus lived, you had cultural rights within the Jewish community, but you had no legal rights under Roman law. You were actually a third-class citizen, because there was a class above you of people who, because of their service to Rome, were granted limited privileges of citizenship. Third-class citizens were often exploited by the first and second-class citizens because of this uneven privilege.

The symbol of that oppression was the Roman soldier, with his full gear and body armor. And Rome used the soldiers as a visual image and presence to keep people in line. Let us not kid ourselves – outside of Italy the Roman Empire was a police-state.

Christianity in the first century was mostly the religion of the poor and third-class; not a mainstream faith or a religion of the elite and the powerful. Christianity was a bottom up faith. It was a faith of people who came together to help each other in the name of God; to live the best they could together, with limited resources; under conditions that would give them the time to worship God and connect with their spirituality. Christian communities were created early on as a means of pooling resources to this end.

Now when people start to get into groups that help them to feel stronger they also start to feel that they can take on the oppression of the world in an armed-conflict-revolutionary type of way. But Paul knew that this was a bad idea and he always cautioned against it. First, of all because he had seen a succession of revolts first hand during his life in Roman-Palestine in which a lot of innocent people ended up dying, and he knew the ferocity of Rome when it put down a group it felt threatened by. Second, because Paul himself led a Jewish police force for a few years, which hunted down, imprisoned and killed Christians, before he was confronted by Christ and converted to Christianity. Paul had first hand experience of being the oppressed and the oppressor and he knew that you don’t win on either side.

And yet humans do have a part of our nature that wants to be the warrior, the fighter against what we see as something bad or dangerous to us.   And I can just see Paul getting into an argument with people in a local Christian church who have found a new self-worth and strength in their Christian community and wanted to take on the world. People who wanted to physically take on the oppression of Rome, and Paul says, “Wrong focus. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The outside world is always going to have its struggles and you can’t have control over them. What you can change is the condition of your own soul.

The amazing thing is that when we change the conditions of our soul to something better, we start to improve our own lives and that ripples out into the community of people that surrounds us, and the world itself does start to get better in its own way.

Paul borrows the imagery of the Roman soldier to create the image of the spiritual warrior who can stand up to any kind of oppression: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. And he tells us the tools and weapons that we can use against despair and destruction.

First, we have the belt of truth. Not only is this is an important attribute but truth is our place to stand in order to make lives work as Christians. If we are not truthful to ourselves and others about our experiences, hopes, desires, feelings, expectations, and problems, then we cannot begin to change the difficult parts of our lives. Once we become more truthful with ourselves we have a better ability to judge the right course for ourselves as Christians. Remember being righteous doesn’t mean being right all the time – it means that you are committed to trying to figure out the right course of action to take that is in line with the Grace-filled actions of God.

Your shoes are whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. If you are the type of person who walks into a room looking for an argument or a fight you are not being a Christian. If however you walk into a room looking to create a peaceful or a conflict-resolving environment then you are being a Christian. Our job is to bring peace to the party.

So we are willing to live within the truth, try to figure out how to live actions of Grace, and we try to bring positivity and peace to our environment, but how do we maintain that in the onslaught of the evils of the world?

Well, our first line of defense is our shield of faith. We get up everyday and we say: God is with me, Christ is with me, and the Holy Spirit is guiding me. Maybe I’m not going make all the perfect decisions, but I am going to try to live and create Generous Renewing Actions of Compassion today towards Everyone I meet. You know the first place that I need my shield of faith? When I turn on the news. If I didn’t have my faith I could get really depressed with the arrows of negativity that come off of that screen. I know that the news-anchors are reporting what is happening in the world, that is their job. It is not their fault that things aren’t going well. But as a Christian I need to remind myself that God is somewhere in those details, that He’s also sitting on the couch with me, and that my job is get out there and be and do Positive for people, with His help. That’s my shield of faith.

Now we’ve got the helmet of salvation. Where does a helmet fit? Over your head. As Christians we are not supposed to be just the loving-feeling people who are living on the Hallmark Channel. God gave us brains and there is nothing wrong with thinking our way through the tough stuff. And there is nothing wrong with us taking a hard stance and drawing boundaries.

Think also about the image of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The sword is an ancient symbol of knowledge and decision. Lady Justice holds a sword in one hand because she has to weigh the evidence, cut through the B.S. and make a decision one way or another. The root of the word DECISION means to cut away. And as Christians we use the word of God, our scripture, as our base-line to help us evaluate. But again, we are supposed to think and apply that scripture to help us evaluate what actions to take with our problems and situations.

And finally Paul says, all of that armor and weapons are nothing if we don’t take the time and Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.  If you are in prayer on a daily basis that means that you don’t take your God-connection for granted. You renew it everyday and you put God in the center of problem-equations not yourself.

Now if all this talk of warriors and getting ready for battle sounds exhausting think of our John reading. At the end of the lesson on the Bread of Life a lot of the hanger-on disciples left because the commitment to understand and live the life that Jesus was offering was just too much for them. But the disciples who remained said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

If we do not take on the commitment of Christ; live within the truth; try to live actions of Grace; try to bring positivity and peace to our environment; keep our faith in front of us; keep studying and learning the scriptures so we can use them to reason our way to a life of commitment to God, Christ and the Holy Spirit; then where will we go?   Eternal life is there for everyone, but its accessibility is opened by belief in the saving Grace of Christ given to us by God.

So put on your truth, get Grace in your heart, walk forward in peace, hold onto your faith, connect you mind, heart and soul with God, and you will be marching forward to eternal life.

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Getting to Our High Places

August 19, 2018         13th Sunday after Pentecost


2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33     Ephesians 4:25-5:2    John 6:35, 41-51

We often think of Solomon as being the great wise king of the Bible – even wiser than his father David. David was a great warrior, a great unifier of his people, probably a decent administrator, but in many ways David was not always wise. David knew a lot, he acted with the best intentions, but he was not very good at figuring out what the long-term results would be of his actions, especially with his family. His neglect of family problems led to two of his sons fighting a war against each other, in which both of them died. Solomon didn’t expect to inherit the throne, but he was the next in line when his father died.

It says that Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. At this time the temple had not been built, and people sacrificed locally to God on the holy days. Solomon was probably doing a tour of his kingdom, getting to know his subjects while they were getting to know him, and offering sacrifices to God at the local sacred places, like at Gibeon.

High places were considered to be very sacred spaces in the ancient world and were often associated with wisdom. Think about what happens when you walk up to the top of a high hill or mountain. You can look out over a broad area and see how the landscape is connected. You get a perspective on your world that you don’t have when you’re down in the valley and dealing with things that are right in front of you. When we have a problem that we can’t solve we often say: I need to step back and get some perspective.

On top of a hill you can also feel more connected with the world as a whole, rather than just as a small piece of it. You are more open to the sky and the sense of wonder of the beauty of this world, and you are usually away from the world’s distractions. In the ancient world, people believed that they were physically closer to God and the divine powers of the world. It was no accident that Jesus’ transfiguration happened on top of a high-hill, which was probably an ancient holy site of prayer.

So here is Solomon, the young king, still wet behind the ears, (most scholars feel that he was between 15 to 20 when he inherited the throne) going on a tour of his kingdom, meeting the locals, learning about the different local conditions, and the different traditions of the twelve tribes, gaining a lot of knowledge about what his kingdom is all about and the problems that he has to work on and solve. And I am sure that he felt overwhelmed at this point. And then, probably at the point when he feels that he is totally NOT up for the job of being king, God comes to him in a dream and asks him what he wants.

Now you can tell by Solomon’s speech that he knows that he is going to have a tough time following in his father’s footsteps. And all of the worries about his future responsibilities come out: although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

God grants him this prayer, and Solomon becomes the wisest king in the history of Israel.

Now wisdom is different from discernment, and knowledge. Even though we sometimes use them interchangeably I like to think of them as a progression. Knowledge is the information that we learn. Discernment is the process of figuring out how the pieces of knowledge relate to each other and then what to do with the knowledge that we have. And wisdom is knowing how to put knowledge and discernment into action and being able to calculate the short-term and long-term results of what will happen when we do. In some ways though, I envy Solomon because he didn’t have to deal with all the knowledge that we have coming at us today.

Today we are living in an age of information. The problem is sometimes I feel that it is almost too much information and it is becoming harder to figure out what information is important, what information is distracting, what information is unnecessary, what information is true, and what information is false. Just look at the last presidential election. Apparently there was a lot of false information out there about many people, not just the two presidential candidates, that led people to vote in ways that they wouldn’t have if they had clearly known what information was definitely true or false.

In this day of whatever-information Solomon’s prayer needs to be ours: Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to be able to discern between good and evil; so that we can govern ourselves and walk in the path of your righteousness. How do we get to our own high places and give ourselves perspective? How do we find our “understanding mind” so that we can discern between good and evil, right and wrong, and live inside of God’s will?

First of all we need to remember that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We need to resist the urge to grab a hold of a talking point and treat it as the summary of information. Grabbing one piece of the equation is quick and easy, but in-depth knowledge requires an investment of time to see all the different factors and sides to something. Do you remember the story of Solomon and the flowers? The queen of Sheba tested Solomon by giving him two wreaths of flowers, one was fake and the other was real. Solomon took the time to collect more information. He put the wreaths in the window and watched which one the bees came to! To gain knowledge you need to have an open mind and be willing to examine and test things to see if they are true or false.

Then discernment needs to kick in. What information is necessary and true and what information is just distracting and false? The bees collecting pollen were true; the perfume making the fake flowers smell like real ones is false. I admit that this is sometimes hard to figure out but the idea of checking and double-checking facts against each other doesn’t hurt.

The next step is to see how the different pieces relate to each other and how they are going to fit into our own lives. This requires that we put a value on our information and as Christians our values are based on Sin vs. Grace. If action from knowledge is going to create a systemic or spontaneous inflection of negativity then it is not going to help with a good outcome and needs to be rejected. But if the action from your knowledge is going to create a generous renewing action of compassion then you have something that will help with a good outcome and you can go ahead with that knowledge and action

Also any situation has several different sides and people involved who are going to be affected in different ways. Remember the women who both wanted the baby?   Solomon listened to both sides of the argument, and he really had to discern the how the pieces of the story that the two women told fit together. If the wrong mother got the baby the other woman would be grieving. But the right mother would want the baby to live and would value that above her grief at loosing him. Solomon considered the information, discerned the motives of the women, and then figured out that his decision to cut the baby in two would reveal which parent was real and which was not. That application of knowledge and discernment led to the wisdom of the judgment and result when the right mother gladly gave up her child so that it would live, showing herself to be the true mother.

But I don’t think that Solomon rushed into that judgment. He took his time to consider the contradictory facts, then how they fit together, the motivation of the people involved, and then he figured out a way forward and acted on it.

Now you probably have noticed a bookmark that I used to have that I have reproduced for all of you. Wisdom comes from Success; Success comes from Good Judgment; Good Judgment comes from Experience; Experience comes from Bad Judgment; and Bad Judgment comes from a Lack of Experience.

In order for any of us to become wise and have success in our judgments we need to go through experiences and learn from them. Experience takes time to accumulate from all those bad judgments that we make because we aren’t experienced enough to know better.

Everyday we are given a chance to learn from our experiences. But we need to step back and look at the knowledge we receive, test it, and decide the value of it according to sin or grace, see how it is connected to other things in our lives, project the best possible outcome, and then take action to make sure that outcome brings about renewing compassion. We need to take time to allow ourselves to be wise with the compassion of God as our guide.

Maybe we won’t end up being as wise as Solomon but we will certainly become better at going out and coming in, and we will be able to govern ourselves better and walk in the path of God’s righteousness.

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Food that Endures

August 5, 2018           11th Sunday of Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a           
Ephesians 4:1-16          John 6:24-35

The last 10 years of my career as an English as a Second Language teacher I worked with students who were between the ages of 17 to 25. Now – and this never failed – they would all walk into my classroom on the first day and be: Yeah, I’m here to learn English.   I would then hand them my comprehensive syllabus, for the 11 to 13 week program, which would included for each week their chapters, their grammar points, their tests, their projects or writing assignments, and the book we were going to read for that semester. You could see in their eyes, as I went over that syllabus: Oh my God! We’re going to have to work in this class!!!

Somewhere in each of them was this hope or belief that if they just got to America they would instantly learn English – POOF – by osmosis. And unfortunately it was my job, on that first day, to shatter that erroneous hope or belief.

The other problem that I had to deal with was the general mindset of that age group. As a colleague of mine put it so succinctly: That is the age that wants hard work, but doesn’t want to work hard. Now that isn’t true for everyone in that age-group, but just as you have to accept when you teach middle school that you are going to spend most of your teaching time dodging hormones, you have to accept that young adults haven’t figured out that mastery of something requires hard work.

I thought about all those bright smiling faces when I read this passage from the Gospel of John. They reminded me so much of the people who greeted Jesus when he got off that boat.         Jesus in the previous verses fed 5,000 people, possibly more, with 2 loves and 5 fish.   Then he and his disciples went off to pray, they got in a boat, and went somewhere else, and when they get there everyone recognizes them and they wanted Jesus to do the miracle again. Yeah, here’s the miracle man. Let’s have another miracle! That reminds me of how I feel when I go see a magic show. Yeah, there’s a magician, let’s see another magic trick!

Jesus calls them on it. First he tells them: You’re not looking for the message. You just want to be physically fed. I want you to be working for the Food that Endures. The spiritual connection with God that is going to keep you going through the good times, when you actually have food on the table, to the bad times when you don’t.

Then they say: Prove to us that we should follow you. Moses gave us manna in the wilderness. (Suggesting to Jesus that he should give them bread to prove that he is on par with Moses.)

But Jesus gets them back on track by telling them that Moses wasn’t the one who gave them manna – God was. And then Jesus equates the spiritual path that he is trying to teach people with the bread of life that will keep them connected to God.

Like my students, the people who met Jesus wanted the POOF moment. Jesus is here; he did a miracle; I saw it; now POOF I am connected to God. God connection by osmosis.

Well – as Methodists we know that one of the paradoxes of faith is that it does work that way and it doesn’t work that way. We are like fish in water. We are surrounded by God’s grace at all times. We breathe it, we move through it, but we are unaware of it until we open our eyes and start to notice the wonder of the creation that we live in. We are unaware of it until we open our hearts to the love and compassion that we can take part in, not only with our fellow human beings, but also with all of God’s creation. We are unaware of it until we open our conscious mind and connect it with our spirit, and find the power of God that flows through everything.

But that doesn’t happen in a POOF moment.

Like my students who had to practice their vocabulary, practice their grammar, practice speaking to each other, and practice their reading skills before they could really start to get fluent in their English communication, we need to practice our spiritual skills to improve our direct line to God, and our application of God’s love to ourselves and each other. There are no POOF moments here. I’m not saying that we don’t have moments of epiphany when we finally click and understand something. But those aren’t POOF moments. Epiphanies happen because you have taken the time to learn your basics, to make yourself somewhat fluent in your spiritual practice, and that gets you to a place where things can start to be connected, and your connection to God really starts to make sense.

The operating word for my students was practice, and the operating word for Jesus with his disciples was practice.

Usually, about the second week, my students would start to understand how my learning system works, but then they would get discouraged that it wasn’t working fast enough. So I would give them my lecture of how the brain acquires language. I could draw you diagrams as to how it works but essentially it takes 80 points of contact with a word in order to get it into the permanent language center of the brain. That’s the part where you don‘t think about the word and it’s meaning – you just know it and you say it. I told them that I could show them the vocabulary and the grammar, I could work on meaning and use – but unless they did the 80 points of contact with the word through seeing, hearing, speaking, and writing, it was just going to remain a distant concept and nothing that they would be able to use in daily life.

In this story Jesus is clearly frustrated with the people looking for the POOF. But if you read the Gospels you realize that the disciples are just as bad – they also look for the POOF. Who’s going to be the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus? POOF, you are, is what they want him to say. Do you think they really wanted to hear, “You have to first be like these children?” Infinitely curious, constantly growing, constantly questioning, constantly having faith that things are going to turn out all right in the world?   Nah, they wanted the POOF. They didn’t want to have to work on adjusting their perspectives. They were adults – they were beyond that.

Getting the food that endures takes practice. It takes cultivation and opening of our minds and hearts through prayer and meditation. We strengthen our faith, and deepen our roots, when we get out there in the world and act with love and compassion. When we dig down into the layers of the Bible and go beyond reading the stories, and say, “Where, how, and who am I in this story?” then the stories become relevant for us. I can give you my relevant stories, or stories that I’ve read about, but for each of you, your relevant stories are the shining connections that root your faith. And you should never discount them. Celebrate them because they are yours, and they are blessed by God.

Now, in this story I admit that sometimes I am a disciple, traveling with Jesus and working on getting it. But sometimes, I’m a person whose just met Jesus off the boat, and wants him to fix things right now. Yeah, Jesus, I want a miracle on this situation or I am not going to believe in you.

I know. It doesn’t get me very far. And that’s where Grace and Salvation are needed and kick in, because we can be so egotistical and think that we have finished our spiritual path so why isn’t God helping us right now? Or we can be so lazy and think well, if God really wanted me to do something He would just provide everything for me in a nice little POOF package.

We’ve got to quit thinking about what God should be POOFING and start thinking about what we should be doing. Like Paul said, our job is to realize that we start at Christ. Our belief to live the Third Commandment of loving the world as Christ loved us is where we move from. And then we need to figure out what talents we have and put them to the work of God and Christ, and Holy Spirit in this world. And your talent is not the same as your talent, but you all have talents, and gifts, and graces, and you can start to live Christ with them.

And it might take you 80 tries, in 80 different ways, before you get it right or before you see the results. But as you try, and use your talents, you are growing the food that feeds your spirit and your faith, and that endures for all time.

So let’s get off of our little POOFS, and start to do what we need to do to be Christ’s disciples in the world. And when we do that we will be working the ministry, that builds up the body of Christ, until all of us are in unity in our knowledge of God, are mature in the fullness of Christ, and know how the Holy Spirit is working in and through us, now and forever. Amen.

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Where Does the Bread Come From?

July 29, 2019             10th Sunday of Pentecost

2 Samuel 11:1-15        
Ephesians 3:14-21                John 6:1-21

Today we read one of the most celebrated and biggest miracles of the Bible: The feeding of the 5000. You’ve all heard about this miracle from Sunday school and it’s probably been preached to you at least every other year.  It’s a big miracle because it was witnessed by a lot of people and involved a lot of people. In fact some scholars think that it actually involved more than 5000 people because traditionally only men were counted in ancient times. Now I don’t know if that’s true, since Christians tended to include women a lot more often in their writing than other religious traditions. It could’ve actually been 5000 people but some people think that there could have been upwards of 10,000 that Jesus fed that day.

I have to say that I have issues with miracles. I have issues with them because as a child of the 20th century I want a logical explanation. And I know that I’m not the only person who looks for a logical explanation. I remember an adult Sunday school teacher who believed that when Jesus blessed the loaves and the bread and put them in the basket, that everyone followed the example and just started handing out pieces of food that they had in their pockets; donating food so that people who didn’t have the food would have some to eat; and in the end the disciples ended up with leftovers because so many people donated out of the generosity of their heart.

That’s a nice way to look at it as a logical explanation, but it takes away from the miracle part of it. That’s the thing about a miracle: You’re not really able to explain it. It is something completely out of the ordinary. It is something that defies logical explanation. It demands that you let go of what you know, and accept that things are possible beyond what you understand about how this world is structured.   Miracles require leaps of faith into the unknown and possibilities that we cannot conceive, and yet we must believe that they can happen.

That is mind blowing. Unlike the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland I am not good at believing six impossible things before breakfast, even though the White Queen says that if you practice you will eventually get there. Hmm – that sounds like a faith practice to me. (A lot of people didn’t know that Lewis Carroll really liked to sneak philosophy and theology into his books.)

But I’m not really here to question this miracle, rather I want to examine it a little and see if we can tease some interesting facts or characteristics of miracles out of the story.

The first thing I noticed is that Jesus asks a very normal logistical question: How are we going to feed all these people? You see this miracle wasn’t about parting the Red Sea, like Moses did, or setting a water-saturated bull on fire, like Elisha did, this is about the simple act of feeding a lot of people. It was a very down to earth miracle that happened; a miracle about daily life. And if you think about it most of Jesus’ miracles are about daily life and needs. That doesn’t make them less miraculous but it does make them more relevant to us because it says that miracles don’t have to take place during dangerous times – like when Pharaohs army is chasing you; or during national disasters – like when 500 foreign priests are trying to overthrow your national religion.  Miracles can happen with ordinary events.

The next thing I noticed, which I have always liked about this story, is that they use their material from a rather insignificant source: A little boy who has two fishes and five loaves. In the 1st century fish was the basic protein, and bread was the basic carbohydrate. So you see God doesn’t need to have a lot of fancy stuff to work with. You know Jesus did change water into wine, but he still worked with the basic water that was at hand, to fulfill the need that was wine. God is going to use what we have when he works a miracle. We don’t need to provide Him with anything fancy or unusual. The trick is to willing offer up what we have for Him to work with.

That’s the other point I want to make: Prayer, giving thanks, and offering, were a huge steps in this miracle. I am sure that Jesus prayed before every miracle. First the little boy offers to share his meal, then Jesus gives thanks for what has been offered, and I am sure that he then prayed for or invoked the miracle to take place.

So to sum up: Miracles can happen with and for everyday events, they don’t have to be for something special or dramatic. The materials for the miracles can be ordinary things that we use everyday and come from ordinary, unlooked for, or insignificant sources. And we must be willing to offer those materials up to God’s use, give thanks for what we have been given, and pray for the miracle that we need.

I would like to tell you about a miracle that happened with an insignificant little plant called the peanut. In the early part of the 20th century the South had overused the soil and the cotton crop was failing. A young scientist called George Washington Carver found out that if you plant peanuts in the soil that it would revitalize with the necessary nutrients. That was great, but there was no market for peanuts at the time. The farmers were slowly building up their soil, but they had nowhere to sell their crops. Carver went and prayed to God and God told him to go and study the peanut and find out everything it could do. In 1921 he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee and gave them a list of all the things that peanuts could be used for: make-up, deck-stain, cooking oil, peanut butter, glue, soap, garden fertilizer, and animal feed, are just a few of the things that we now use the peanut for.

Carver was a man of faith who prayed every morning at 4:00 am, and he felt that he was guided by God to take this ordinary plant and find the miracles that it could bring. Not only was the economy of the south saved, but a nutritious food was created. Now I know that people do have peanut allergies and they are no joke. But the peanut saved the economy of the south, and the soil of many other regions, fed a lot of people in times of need, and has helped boost the nutrition of the world. Famine relief today relies on the peanut to provide nutrition to many people in the form of food like Plummy or Mana, which are peanut based food packs. A lot of miracles have happened because Carver offered up the peanut and his own talent for God to work with.

I think that even though I am a 20th century girl who wants to figure out the logic behind miracles, my challenge is not to think so much about the logic, but to start looking around and see how and where I can ask God for a miracle in my life.

I think we all have situations in our lives that we feel won’t be resolved unless there is a miracle. We feel we need a miracle because we can’t see how, or when, or with what means that situation is going to be resolved. We can’t see how it is going to logically work its way out. We don’t have the mental conception for it. Just like the disciples, who couldn’t see how they were going to feed all those people.

That’s when we need to look around, see what we can offer to God that might help us out, like the loaves and the fishes that the little boy had. The trick is: Don’t get hung up on the logic at this point. Don’t say, “Oh, this isn’t going to be enough to solve the problem. What can God possibly do with this?”   That’s defeating faith, not leaping in faith! And miracles require leaps of faith.

Okay so you’ve got a situation or problem. You’ve got some materials that you think can help you get started. Now offer yourself and the materials up to God and pray to solve that specific problem. And be specific. I’m sure that Jesus didn’t say, “Hi Dad, Thanks for the loaves and fish, I need to feed a bunch of people here. Can you help me out?” I’m sure that Jesus said something more like, “Dear Father, Thank you for this child that brought these beautiful loaves and fishes. Help me to feed each and every one of the thousands of people who are here today with them.” You know which prayer is more powerful. Don’t you short change yourself and be wishy-washy about your miracle prayers and offerings. Step out in your faith and be bold.

Lastly, don’t be surprised at what you might end up with. The disciples ended up with twelve extra baskets. If Carver had ONLY invented peanut butter the world would have been better for it, and it probably would have solved the South’s economic problems. But we also got make-up, deck-stain, cooking oil, glue, soap, garden fertilizer, animal feed, and famine relief. That’s another thing that makes a miracle a miracle, you get something that you weren’t counting on.

So confront that impossible situation that you can’t see your way out of, and look around in unusual places for your ordinary bread and fish that you need for your miracle. Go ahead: Give thanks, offer, pray, and ask for that miracle. Like George Washington Carver, with God’s blessing, you might end up feeding more than 5,000.

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“Taking a Rest”

July 22, 2018             9th Sunday of Pentecost       Fellowship Sunday

2 Samuel 7:1-14a         Ephesians 2:11-22      Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 When I went down to the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who should wear the starry crown

Good Lord, show me the way

Oh, Brothers, let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

Oh, Sisters, let’s go down

Down to the river to pray

If you read the Gospels you see that in between all the activity that Jesus did, he had a very serious prayer life. Our gospel picks up today after the disciples have returned from their mission work and they tell Jesus about all the healings, the teachings, and all the demons that they contended with, and Jesus after listening to their stories says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” I am sure that while they were resting they were basically on a prayer retreat.

Prayer is mentioned in the Gospels, but it doesn’t have the same place of prominence that Jesus’ teachings and healings do. I think that’s because it was just understood by people in the first and second centuries that of course you prayed. Any religious movement at that time had prayer as its central component, even schools of philosophy had meditation times built into their learning. Prayer and meditation were considered to be the essential way of processing your experiences in the world. The Jewish religion actually designated five different times to pray during the day. So people reading the Gospels understood that, as a holy man, Jesus would be praying regularly, and the first and second century authors probably didn’t feel that they needed to emphasize that point.

All great religious leaders pray and meditate. It is a great way to clear your mind, and prepare and focus yourself for what you need to. Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do today, I’m going to be on my knees for three hours this morning.”

It’s also how we find strength in times of adversity and keep ourselves on a course of action. Desmond Tutu has stated that he prays for at least 2 to 3 hours a day. He says that he could not have maintained his faith; that he could not have gotten through everything that he live through with apartheid, if he didn’t have his daily connection with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Prayer is what kept him going.

And prayer deepens our connection to God’s love and to His amazing power of the universe. Did you know that the Dalai Lama came to my seminary when he preached at Riverside Church for a world religion conference? I didn’t have the privilege of meeting him, his handlers restricted access to him to keep him from getting too exhausted, and also the State Department was a little paranoid. (You can always tell Secret Service because they all wear black suits and sunglasses.) But the president of my seminary, Dr. Hough did meet him, and so I asked him the next day, “What is the Dalai Lama like?” He gave the reply that I have heard or read from so many other people: That he is a man filled with great joy, love, and compassion that just radiates off of him. Which is not surprising if you consider that since the age of four he has spent four hours every day meditating and praying. (Buddhists don’t really pray to God as much as they pray and meditate to the life force of the universe. Which I suppose you could call God.)

This leads me however to a little bit of a pet peeve that I have. I often meet people who tell me that there not Christian, but Buddhist. That’s okay, except that when I ask them, “What school of Buddhist meditation do you follow?” And then they say to me, “Oh, I don’t meditate I just believe in Buddhism.” That doesn’t work for me because if you call yourself a Buddhist you need to be practicing Buddhism meditation and prayer, because Buddhism isn’t a religion as much as it is a practice. If you don’t practice prayer and meditation you are a Buddhist wannabe, not the real thing.

But then I have to look at myself. As a Methodist minister I of course must declare myself to be a practicing Christian. Now there are two sides to Christian practice. There is the part where we go out into the world; treat people with dignity and respect; love our neighbors as we love ourselves; and build the kingdom of God by living grace-filled lives through our generous, renewing, actions of compassion that we do everyday. The outward action in the world is an essential component. But it can be really exhausting sometimes to do and that’s where the other side comes in: Doing what Jesus and the disciples did, giving ourselves a time apart to pray and meditate.

But I’m not so disciplined about that. So how can I looked down on wannabe Buddhists if I’m being a wannabe Christian in my prayer life?

And I do try, but you know, the phone rings, or I have to check my email, or gosh darn it, I’ve just got to get that laundry into the dryer. I’ll pray tomorrow.

No! No, no, no, no, no! You know and I know this is not what I should be doing. So this summer I decided to take a dive into prayer! And to hold myself accountable I made a goal with my Pastor’s Excellence Group to try to pray for 40 days straight. Well, the first two weeks were hit and miss. Part of my problem was that I tried to pray every day at the same time because that’s what a lot of prayer guides tell you do. I never seem to be able to pray at the same time so if I skipped my time I felt that I had lost my moment. After two weeks of this I said: Forget it. I’m just going to pray every day, at some point during the day, but I will pray every day. So for the last week that’s what I’ve been doing and it’s been a lot easier. It’s amazing what happens when you throw out expectations that don’t work, adapt, and get rid of a guilt trip.

The other thing that happened is that a fellow minister recommended the book Draw the Circle: the 40 Day Prayer Challenge, by Mark Batterson. It’s divided into 40 short daily meditations, which are a combination of different praying techniques, reflections on aspects of prayer, and personal stories and results. And I have to tell you that of all the prayer guides that I have ever come across this one is the most practical and down-to-earth that I have ever used. It also has some outlandish and kooky prayer techniques. But that’s okay – as I used to tell my students: Try my techniques, if they work for you great, if they don’t work move on. There is something in here for everyone.

Reading this book got me thinking that – you know, I was never really taught in any of my Sunday school classes as a child, methods of prayer. Now don’t get me wrong – I had good Sunday school teachers who taught me the Lord’s Prayer, and we prayed in Sunday school, but I think, like prayer in the Bible, that it was just kind of assumed that we would figure it out as we went along. And since I’m a teacher, which means that I’m really into method in my learning, this was probably the reason why I gravitated towards studying Buddhist meditation techniques in my twenties – I was looking for a how-to in my God/Divine/Force of the Universe connections.

I still use a lot of those techniques. I actually start with 20 minutes of Centering Prayer which clears your mind. (This is a technique used by both Buddhist and Christian monks) Then I read one chapter in this book, journal some of my thoughts and then create a prayer which I pray several times over. That part takes 15 minutes. All together this adds up to 35 minutes of prayer a day, but I’m not driving myself crazy with it. Sometimes I do the two prayer sessions together and sometimes I do them at different times of the day, depending on my schedule.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve had a major break through in the six consecutive days that I’ve been using this book. But let’s face it – six days? – I think we’re a little early for that. But I have noticed that I’m a lot less stressed, and I seem to be more aware of what I’m doing. Like I said – it’s still early days.

Now this experience has really gotten me thinking about all the things that the disciples did. I mean you have to acknowledge that they did powerful stuff. They healed in Jesus’ name. They started churches from nothing. They bought Jews and Gentiles together under one faith. But they didn’t do it from just their own will. They were able to do it because they were disciplined in their faith practices. They made sure that they continually connected with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And as a result, their own strength was increased, their individual purposes were clarified, and they were attuned to the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit that surrounded them.

That is where Christianity began – Jesus came to give us the idea that everyone is allowed to be connected to God, and how you do that is through prayer. We have scripture examples of Jesus teaching prayer and the starting point of being a practicing Christian is to practice prayer. Unfortunately 2,000 years after Christ we have the distractions of Christianity as a group that maintains buildings, or supports the next mission project, or gets our annual reports in on time, or decides what the Christmas pageant will be. All those things are all right and in their own time important, but they exist because at some time they all came out of prayer – either private prayer or group prayer with the body of Christ, asking for guidance of what to do.

So today I am encouraging you to get back to prayer, or even to expand it, or explore different methods of prayer. If you want to get a hold of this book and see what it’s about I will gladly order it for you. If anyone wants to start a prayer group because that will help you pray everyday I’ll be there with you. But if we want to move forward as Christians we have to get back to prayer.

So get down to your “river,” that peaceful place that you might have. Maybe it’s a room, maybe a chair, maybe a walk around the block, and start to pray. As you pray you will start to study and reflect on the good old way of the Gospels. And you might be shown the way you need to take to end up wearing that starry crown.

Oh, Brothers, let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

Oh, Sisters, let’s go down

Down to the river to pray

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Doing Something Different

July 15, 2018             8th Sunday of Pentacost

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19           Ephesians 1:3-14        Mark 6:14-29

The mathematics of Chaos Theory (made popular in the Jurassic Park movie series) tells us that there is no fix logical outcome. At any point, at anytime, along the historical path, if something had shifted sufficiently we would end with a different ending. I’m not saying that we can’t logically predict things, as a way of trying to see a path forward. But we should never assume that the ending we think will happen is the one that will happen. Because for as many times as we use the phrase it was meant to be we also use the phrase Boy I didn’t see that one coming.

There was no real guarantee that David would survive to become King of Israel. That might seem to be a slightly heretical statement, but if you read the Bible at no time after the anointing of David does God say to David: You’re going to have to do a couple of years of guerrilla warfare against King Saul, but don’t worry in the end I’m going to make you king and unite the 12 tribes of Israel (a horribly, stubborn and divided people) under you. I am sure that there were times during those few years when David was hiding from Saul in the wilderness with his rag-tag band of followers that he didn’t wonder, “What the Heck am I doing here, and is this really worth it?”

But he kept on and eventually ended up as king of Israel. Leaving historians to write down the history, and to finally say: all this was meant to be. Leading to the wonderful celebration that we read about today.

David actually feels guilty that he has a beautiful new palace to live, in his newly established capital city, and the most sacred and most venerated object of his culture and people, The Ark of the Covenant, is still traveling from town to town, in an ox cart, and living in a tent.   David decides to build a beautiful temple for The Ark that houses the holy 10 Commandments given from God to Moses to the people of Israel, as well as a jar of manna, and the rod of Aaron. So David brings the Ark into the city to bless it and the people with much rejoicing.

(Just to let you know, David doesn’t end up building the Temple. David has a conversation with God afterwards and God tells him: No you may not build the temple. That is not your job, your job is to unite this kingdom under, fair administrative rule. Leave the building of the Temple to your son.)

The problem that I have with this story is that it all seems to be too easy to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and then to just leave it there – because that was doing something very different. You see the Ark didn’t belong to any one tribe of Israel. Once the Israelites crossed the river Jordon and began to settle in the area that was back then known as Canaan, the tribes had to make a decision about what to do with the Ark. The tribes divided themselves and settled in various areas of the country. The one family that didn’t settle exclusively in one area was the Levi’s, who were the priests in charge of taking care of the Ark. They settled in all the different areas and towns so that they could assist in local sacrifices to God and also so that they could take care of the Ark once it came into town. The Ark itself traveled from town to town with its cart and it’s tent. This way no one tribe could lay claim to the Ark and everyone had equal access to it. If you think about it the Ark was the world’s first circuit rider.

So, once the Ark got to Jerusalem I wonder how people thought about the fact that it then just stayed in Jerusalem. Now David didn’t hoard the Ark for himself. He allowed the people to have access to it so that they could pray and offer their sacrifices to God. But he did something different and this whole something different started to change the outlook and identity of the Israelites.

By placing their most sacred cultural symbol in a brand new capital that didn’t belong to any of the tribes (David had captured it separately), David got people to start to think of themselves as, not a scattered group with a shared God who visited them, but has a group of people who had a political center that was the same as their religious center. By setting up a different logistic, David changed the identity of their nation.

I’m sure some people resisted this and wanted to hold onto the old traveling Ark system.   I’m sure they missed seeing the Ark come into their town, it must’ve been a wonderful holiday. But people adapt to change, and they ended up creating a new kind of holiday, which was the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And if you think about it, I bet a whole new industry sprang up in Jerusalem to feed and accommodate all those pilgrims who came to town. Not only that but people in the outlying areas became connected to the capital because of their pilgrimage, and I’m sure that people me people from other tribes during the pilgrimage. So overall it turned out to be a very positive new way forward for the Israelites.

However, our other story today shows that when we get stuck in a certain way of thinking, things can end very tragically. Herod is very pleased with the dancing performance that his stepdaughter Salome preformed for himself and his guests, so he rashly tells her that he’ll give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom, as a reward. On the advice of her mother she asks for the head of John the Baptist. The Bible says that: The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he has John the Baptist killed.

I have issues with that explanation. First of all although, yes, Herod made these oaths and promises in front of all his guests, he made them to a teenage girl. This child had no political standing whatsoever, and no one would have blamed him if he had shut her down by saying, “Quit meddling in my politics kid, you know nothing about what you’re talking about.   Here’s a nice little necklace. Be happy with that and keep your mouth shut.”

I don’t we can lay his actions on a teenager, but I do think that Herod was caught up in a system. It is possible that there were several Roman officials present, who didn’t like John the Baptist either. It’s possible they used Salome as a convenient foil to egg Herod on. It’s possible that Salome’s mother set up the whole enterprise with court officials to call Herod out if he refused the request. The point is that Herod’s decision to execute John the Baptist was based on a systemic way of thinking that he couldn’t see his way out of, or that he didn’t have the courage to challenge and try something new and different to prevent the execution.

So we have these two stories. One is about changing a system to unite a people and one is about going along with the conventions within a system which ultimately ends up further dividing people.

We’ve all been stuck in a place where we need to make a decision of change, of doing something differently. Sometimes the decision is easy, because it just seems like the right thing to do; other times the decision is difficult because we will be going against social convention, and no matter what our decision we feel we will end up with a disaster. But often the results are somewhere in between. Change ripples out and affects people, positively and negatively, often in ways we cannot see. So the question becomes: How can we facilitate change so that it is mostly positive, and liveable.

The answer is to examine where the GRACE is in our change. Is the change generous and will it provide some bounty for people? Is the change renewing, will people find new direction and hope? Is the change actionable and adaptable? Can people work with change and find positivity in it, even if they might find a bit of inconvenience with it for a while? Is the change compassionate and caring, will it result in things being better for people? And is it something that we can put into practice on a daily basis and the results will hold up?

Think about a system that you are operating in at the moment. Is it like Herod’s system: a constant Systemic Infliction of Negativity? If it is then you need to examine it and change it into a system GRACE. That is what Jesus came to do – change our systems into grace-filled ones, not sin-filled ones. But it doesn’t just happen – poof – Jesus lays his hands on it and it’s changed. Jesus wasn’t a magician, he was the Messiah who was and is working with us to change and develop our lives into a more perfect life in God’s Kingdom.

Don’t be afraid of doing something different – just remember that you have the strength of the power of creation that God gave to you, the wisdom of love that Christ taught you, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to act in grace. And if we are willing to make our lives and the changes in them grace-filled then we will end up like David, joyous, happy and maybe even dancing with abandon over something.

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