Sermon: The Root of Conflict

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8
Mark 9:30-37

September of 1984, I was a rather shy 18-year-old climbing aboard a bus to Logan Airport. Once at the airport, I would get on a plane for only the third time in my life and fly to Missouri. I admit I had no idea where Missouri was on the map, but I was going there. I had been ordered there by my Uncle Sam. Nice guy, my Uncle Sam. Promised my three hots and a cot in exchange for three years of my life. Sounded like a great deal to a young kid.

In the middle of the night, I arrived at Fort Leonardwood, so they gave us something to eat, showed us to the barracks, and bid us a good night. It seemed that my head had no sooner hit the pillow than an enormous trash can came bouncing down the aisle in the barracks. Welcome to the United States Army!

The following eight weeks were filled with constant questions: What in the name of all that is holy am I doing here? What is this on this plate that they want me to eat? Why are we running everywhere when we have a bus that we can ride on? My mind was a swirl of questions, but I asked very few. I just went with the flow.

However, others asked all sorts of questions and tried to buck the system; they did a lot of pushups. But over time, they gave in, and once they had surrendered to the process, everything started to click.

Our spiritual life is a lot like my experience in basic training. We fight it. We think we know better. But, of course, I do it better. I mean, it’s not like people have been doing this for 2,000 plus years or anything.

I want to draw attention to the last two verses we heard this morning from the Letter of James. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8) Submit, resist, drawn near all these words are not common in our 21st-century language, but they need to be in our spiritual life.

I constantly have to remind myself that trying to live the life that Christ has called us to is counter-cultural. We have to live life not according to the rules set forth by an ever-changing and individualistic culture but by a set of rules that requires us to this of other people, their needs, their wants, their happiness before ours. And friends, this is not easy.

I am presently reading a book by former President Jimmy Carter. The book “Faith, a Journey for All” explores his faith, how he came about his faith, and how he holds on to his faith. But it is also a book about doubts and questions and how those doubts and questions increased and strengthened his faith.

At 90 something years old, Jimmy Carter still teaches an adult Sunday School class at his Church. As you might imagine, the class is very popular. He writes about teaching the class the seven deadly sins. There is no biblical mention of such a list, but they all appear in Scripture, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

The list I just read is in a specific order with pride at the top of the list for pride, I believe is the chief among them all. Now, before we get too deep here, it is okay to be proud what’s not okay is when our pride places us above or in front of others. It’sIt’s fine to be proud of an accomplishment, of our children and grandchildren and all the rest. But when pride turns to “I will do whatever I can to get ahead” or “look at me” or “do you know who I am?” that is when it gets sinful.

Pride was the first sin. God told humanity not to eat from a particular tree, and humanity did just that. Humanity felt it knew better, and so in its pride, humanity disobeyed God.

We also hear in the Letter from James, the use of the word “devil.” James writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Now I do not want to make light of this, but James is writing about temptation here and not the guy in the red suit with the pitchfork.

Temptations are all around us, and some are hard to resist; back to the story in the garden. Humanity was tempted to eat what God specifically said not to eat. Humanity gave into that temptation for whatever reason, and humanity was kicked out of the garden as punishment for giving in. But, just as an aside here, God did not wholly abandon humanity; God provided. Even though humanity disobeyed, God still provided.

Often I speak and write about the command of Jesus to love everyone without exception. I talk about God’sGod’s love for us and that there is nothing we can do to change the fact that God loves us. I speak about how the divine spark exists in each human being, which is why we must always love the other person, and for some, this is difficult to hear, and I get that.

For some, to feel good about themselves, they have to put others down. For some to feel good about themselves, they have to think less of others. To feel better about themselves, they have to want less for others while wanting more for themselves. For some, to feel better about themselves, they have to work to deny fundamental rights, and the list goes on.

But James is setting us on a different path this morning, James tells us to draw closer to God, and God will draw closer to us. But for us to draw closer, we need to remove the “I” and replace it with “we.” We need to work for the greater good of all, not just for the greater good of some. If I work to lift another, I rise with that person. I don’t need to step on them to get ahead.

Anyone who is married or in a relationship knows that love requires sacrifice. Love requires the surrendering of the individual for another. I officiate many weddings, and I like to remind people of the biblical idea that the two become one, well until you have children, then it becomes about a whole different set of rules.

There is an old hymn that was played during the Billy Graham Crusades called “I Surrender All.” The song is about the surrendering of the I and drawing closer to God in Jesus Christ.

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His Presence daily live

Drawing closer to God is a daily activity that requires work, sometimes hard work. But it all begins with the surrendering of our will for that of another.

I surrender all;
I surrender all.
All to Thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

Amen.

Each Persons Grief is Unique

It was a cold morning in February that began like all the rest before. I woke about 5:30 and went to make the coffee. I scanned email, blogs, social media, and the news that took place overnight and was now ready to face the day.  After dressing, I returned downstairs, where my wife was on the phone. That phone call would change the direction of my life.

My parents were in their 80’s and living not far from my wife and me. They had the usual health problems of 80-year-olds but were in otherwise good health. Both had been in and out of hospital on various occasions over the last year or so.

The night before my mother woke in the middle of the night not feeling well. The ambulance was called, and she was transported to the hospital to be checked out. During her examination it was determined that the aneurism in her stomach was about to rupture, and she would need emergency surgery.

As the medical staff was preparing her for surgery the aneurism ruptured; and she died. It happened quickly. The phone call my wife received was my sister-in-law calling to give us the news of my mother’s death.

It is hard to gauge how a person will react to grief as everyone responds differently. In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, she outlined five stages of the grief process. This was the first work that outlined the grief process, showing the various stages one would move through to heal from their grief. However, each person moves through the grief process differently. The process is not straightforward and follows no logical path.

After my wife told me my mother was dead I experienced a wave of emotions. Emotions that I had never before experienced. I came close to collapsing on the floor, tears came to my eyes, and my mind went blank. There is nothing that can prepare you for that news. Intellectually I knew that one day this would happen. But when that day arrived, I did not see it coming.

But then it was as if a switch was thrown and I went into “minister mode.” Certain details needed attention.  Arrangements would have to be made. People would have to be informed. And, we had my father to take care of. My grief would come later; right now, there was work to be done.

Grief is a deeply personal experience. As I have already said, no two people experience grief in the same way. The uniqueness of the grief experience comes in part from the uniqueness of our relationship with the one we have lost.

I had a very close relationship with my mother. She was my rock and my biggest supporter. She always told me what she thought and challenged me when I made a significant life decision. I talked with her almost every day and she was usually the first one I would call when I heard news, like the news of her death.

The first stage of the Kubler-Ross method is acceptance of the death. I moved relatively quickly through this stage. My family gathered at the hospital with my father. The staff asked if we wanted to go and see her. At first, I was not sure, but I am glad that I did. Other than the tube in her mouth, she looked peaceful and at rest. The doctor came in and spoke with us. He reassured us that her death was quick and painless. We sat for some time in silence, just sitting and thinking.

I mentioned that I was in “Minister Mode.” I was busying myself with the thousands of details that had to be taken care of. This is a self-preservation mode that helped me “keep it all together.” I guess it comes from the idea that I am supposed to look at death from a professional point of view as a minister. I am the one that sits with families when they receive this news. Sometimes I am the one who helps them get started on all that has to be done. Now, it is my turn, and the switch just flipped, and I went on autopilot.

We set about making the arrangements and getting the word out. I have cousins that live all over the country, and if they were going to make arrangements to be present at the funeral, those plans would have to be made quickly. Then, there was the funeral home and all of those arrangements. We were looking through 80 years of pictures to select just the right ones and pick out what she wore in the casket. There was a lot to do, and I was happy for the distraction.

My mother’s priest was away on vacation, so I asked a priest-friend to preside at her funeral mass. I had decided that I would give the sermon/eulogy at the funeral, and I began to work on what I would say. I am not usually “preachy” at funerals. I would rather talk about the life of the person we are there to remember and leave the theology of the resurrection for another day. No one comes to a funeral to be “saved” or to hear about the resurrection. People are grieving and are looking for comfort.

Looking back on my process, I realize that putting my thoughts down on paper helped me process my feelings and grief. I am a manuscript preacher, so I write my sermons out. I don’t just read the words I have written, but the manuscript gives a road map of where I am going and keeps me on track. My words were mixed with emotion, thanksgiving for the life of my mother, and some humor. Funerals are a celebration of life, and laughter is a great way to celebrate.

In their book “Grief Work: Healing from Loss,” Fran Zamore and Ester Leutenberg write about grief as a journey that does not happen in a straight line but more like a meandering path. Like the Kubler-Ross Method, the Healing Pathway is a way to assist and make some sense out of the grief process. Although I had begun to process my grief, my real grief had not hit.

The grief journey came crashing down on me several months after my mother’s death. I am prone to depression, and I spent many a day curled up on the sofa watching Netflix. I had good days, and I had bad days. Days when the world seemed clear and days when the fog would set in. I was able to accomplish most tasks, but nothing seemed to bring me any real joy.

For many years, my family would attend an event in the mountains of New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Scottish Highland Games was an event that we looked forward to all year. We rented a condo, spent time together, and just had a good time. As that event approached, my grief started to intensify, and the night before we were supposed to leave, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

For those last several months, I had been holding back and distracting myself from the reality of my grief, but that night, the reality of my grief set in. I recalled all of the good times we had over the years and how different it would be without her this year. There was something about going back to the mountain that was a trigger event for me, and I broke down. I could not take that journey because my grief journey was not complete.

I prefer the image of the Healing Pathway or the Grief Journey, although I don’t think you ever really recover or heal from grief. There comes the point when the grief becomes less raw, and you adapt to life without the other person. My mother has been gone almost four years, but there are times when I pick up the phone to call her.

It has taken years to get to the point where I can write these words. I have good days, and I have bad days, and my journey continues.

Sermon: Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

Have you ever said something you wish you had not said?  Maybe it was said in anger or jest, but the other person misinterpreted what you were trying to say. Perhaps it was written in a text message or an email. Virtual communication is difficult as one cannot accurately see the other person’s body language to determine the message. Whatever happened, James warns us today to be watchful of what we say, whom we say it to, and who we say it about.

James is particularly hard on teachers; however, he does not define who teachers are. We often have an image of the teacher as the one leading the class. We have several teachers in this community. It seems like another lifetime ago now, but I was a middle school teacher. I remember that very first day of school, I had come into teaching in a very non-traditional way, so I had no actual classroom experience, but hey, how hard can it be.

I recall standing there, all those eyes looking at you, sizing you up, looking for your weak spot, ready to pounce. I cannot remember a time that I had been as nervous. It was my job to teach to mold these young minds, and if I failed, they failed. The pressure was tremendous. I quickly learned that I had to choose every word I said and remember what I said. Kids are like tape recorders; they remember everything.

James is taking his definition of teacher deeper than we might imagine at first glance. In my role as your pastor, I am also a teacher. I am Minister of Word and Sacrament. I have a teaching ministry. Standing here right now, I am teaching. I need to choose my words carefully and intentionally. Someone would say your salvation hangs on the words I say.

But what of the rest of us? Are we not teachers as well? Some have raised children, and parents are the first, and dare I say, most important teachers of their children. What if I said that all of us, who call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus, are teachers by our actions as well as our words. This is what James is getting at here; we are all teachers.

The human tongue is a fantastic thing. It is a considered a muscle, although it is made up of eight different muscles. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds. The human tongue is only three inches long but has caused the most damage in history. The human tongue can bless, and the human tongue can curse.

The human tongue is a blessing when we praise God. We praise God when we remember each other in prayer, when we sing, and when we affirm each other. We bless God when we read the words of scripture. Calling our children by name, welcoming the stranger, and speaking the truth in love are other ways our tongue blesses God. The tongue is a blessing to God when used to build up the community here at church, at home, and in all your other human interactions.

But the tongue can also be used to curse. We do not always use the tongue for blessings. Sometimes we gossip, slander others, or disrespect those around us. Perhaps we are arrogant in our answers or too set in our ways, and we leave little room for discussion. Sometimes we are so busy talking about what we believe that we take little or no time to listen to another, listen not for a chance to counter but to learn.

Let me pause here for just a minute. Yes, we seem to have lost the art of listening. In my work as a Hospice Chaplain, I spend most of my day listening. In the grief work that I do, I spend my days listening to others. Active listening is an art that has to be learned and nurtured. We listen attentively for clues as to what the person is feeling. Active listening is not waiting for an opening for us to jump in with our thoughts. Sometimes I say nothing.

Although we should listen to each other, not all viewpoints are equal. One of the most ridiculous things I hear is, “well, we agree to disagree.” Sure, sometimes that works, but there are sometimes when it is impossible to agree. For example, I’m afraid I can’t agree with any viewpoint that treats another as less than. Racist, nationalistic, misogynistic, or any of the other views floating around are not valid viewpoints especially coming from one who considers themselves a Christian.

Just last week, we heard in this same book of scripture that we should treat others equally and without partiality. We are to love and care for everyone, including our enemies. So how can we call ourselves followers of the one who commanded these things while at the same time advocating laws and positions that take rights away just because we disagree? Simply put, we cannot.

Now with that said, let me offer a word of caution. Yes, we will disagree, but it is how we disagree that matters.

The first church I was in was a faction of people that wanted to start trouble. It did not matter what the issue was; if they did not like it, they caused trouble. So at the church conference, they would all sit together and vote as a block. If there was an issue that would be divisive, they were at the center of it, usually stirring the pot.  I know this is hard to imagine, but it is true.

I was asked how to deal with folks like this, the ones that thrive on conflict. My response was to charm and disarm. People like that want you to argue, they want you to get flustered, and they will wait in the tall grass until just the right moment. Unfortunately, our current political situation is not unlike this. A conversation on a topic cannot be had with some folks because it will turn into a shouting match, and no one wins.

I saw a bumper sticker not long ago that read, being told not to talk about politics and religion has led to a society that does not know how to talk about politics and religion. Charm and disarm. The argument is lost when one side starts shouting, calling the speaker names, lying, and bringing up issues outside of the main topic.

You know what, charm and disarm works. It worked with the folks in that first church and will work in almost any situation. Jesus sent his disciples out in twos into the countryside to preach. He told them to present their message, and if those there did not want to listen, wipe the dust off of their sandals and walk away. Sometimes, we have just to walk away.

We will not win every argument, but we will walk away with dignity.

What James is advocating is control, self-control. Do not get caught up in anger, for if we lose control, we say things. I will not say we say things we don’t mean because that is not true; if we say it, even in anger, we mean it. We have had the thought, and now we are putting words to that thought. Self-control is being able to discuss with someone who makes your blood boil, but we remain calm, and we use logic rather than passion.

If we dedicate our tongues to the praise of God, our actions will follow. Our tongues, which can bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. No one is perfect, we are going to make mistakes, but we must choose our words carefully because God has given us authority to build up the body of Christ.

Amen

Remarks at the Town of Hull 9/11 Ceremony

Good evening, I bring you the greetings of the Parishioners at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

It is indeed an honor to be here this evening and to have been asked to say a few words of remembrance.

It has been said that when a historic event takes place, we remember exactly where we are. The first man to walk on the moon, the assassination of JFK, the Red Sox winning the world series in 2004, and the day the world stood still, September 11, 2001.

It was a day much like today, blue sky, warm breeze, birds singing in the trees. It was my first year of seminary, and I had just finished a class at Boston College. As I walked across the campus, I remember it being relatively quiet, but I was unsure why. Hundreds of students walking to and from class and not much in the way of talking.

I got in my car to return to my dorm, and I turned on the radio. I was surprised that there was no music playing but rather a news report that reminded me of something from the war of the worlds. Time seemed to stop at that moment.

As I got to my dorm room floor, the television was on in the common area; just after I arrived, the first of the towers came down. We all watched in horror as the events of the day unfolded on live TV.

As the day drew on, it was time for us to gather for prayer in the chapel. I returned to my room to change, and as I opened my closet door, I caught a glimpse of the Army Uniform hanging there among all the other things. I had worn that uniform for years, but now it had taken on a different look.

The following days and weeks saw our country come together like it had not for years. Neighbors were helping neighbors and, in our collective grief, we found common ground. Even the politicians seemed to get along for a while.

Today is a day when we remember. We say “We Will Never Forget,” but it seems that we have forgotten the lessons of that day and the days that followed. I long for those days of cooperation, and I wish it did not take a tragedy for us to come together.

In 2004 the country singer Tim McGraw released a song called “Live Like You Were Dying.” The song is about a man who gets a diagnosis that is going to take his life. He vows that he is going to live like these are his last days. He does all of the things that he had been waiting to do. He goes skydiving, he rides a bull, and he climbs the Rocky Mountains.

But there is more than just doing things. He becomes the husband he always should have been, repairs his relationship with his father, and gives forgiveness he has denied. He is going to live his life as if today is his last day.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, thousands of people got up, dressed, kissed their families goodbye, and started their day. None of them had any idea that it was going to be their last day. What would we do differently if we knew this was it? How different would tomorrow be if it was the last day?

On my wrist, I wear a silver bracelet that bears the name of Fr. Mychal Judge. Fr. Mychal was a Franciscan Priest and the Chaplain with the New York City Fire Department. Fr. Mychal was at the Towers on September 11th and was killed while ministering to someone who had died.

I have the honor of serving as Chaplain with the Quincy Fire Department, and Fr. Mychal is the reason why. Fr. Mychal was doing what he loved to do, helping people when he was killed on that day.

Let us resolve this day to live to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. We can bring honor to those who lost their lives that day by being the best version of ourselves, and by doing so, we will never forget.

God bless you all, God bless our First Responders, God bless our military, and God bless America.

Sermon: Making Distinctions

James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

As you might imagine, I often get into conversations about religion. Religion is a big topic this day inside the church and outside of the church. Religion is a big topic in history, politics, and everyday life. People love to discuss religion, but not many want to drill down into the essence of what is going on.

I have mentioned before that any study of scripture or religion requires context. Sure, I can find almost any verse that suits my position, and if I cannot find a verse, I can find a translation of that verse. But, for example, there have been many questions raised this past week about when life begins and what scripture has to say about it.

The only place in the bible that I know of that even remotely discusses the topic is Genesis’s first book. When God is creating everything and calling it, good God does so by speaking it into existence. God separated the light from the darkness; God separated the water from the land; God created the creepy crawly things, etc. But when it comes to the creation of humanity, God gets his hands dirty.

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The breath of life is often referred to as ruach, the very essence of God.

Let’s look at that again, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Same God, same creation, same breath, different outcome. In this translation, man becomes a living soul.

The first translation is from the New International Version, and the second is from the King James. Same verse, different meaning.

This is not a discussion of when life begins, but I use this verse as a way of showing how scripture can be manipulated to prove a certain point; in fact, I just did it. I picked two verses out of the thousands to prove my point about getting past the surface of scripture. Just as a final point on these verses, the bible is not a science book; if you want answers to science questions, talk to a scientist, not a theologian.

The Book of James is what I call practical theology. There are two types of theology, practical and theoretical, and both are important, and both feed into and off each other. James takes all the complexity of scripture and boils it down into what is essential. James writes to the universal church, not a particular church as Paul does. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of Jesus, gives very practical advice on living our spiritual life.

Before we get to the verses we heard today; we need to back up to the final verse of the previous chapter where James lays it all on the line. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” To put this into modern language, take care of everyone, love everyone, and do what is right.

James echoes the Sermon on the Mount in so many ways. The essence of what James writes about is that if we call ourselves Christians, if we say we follow Jesus, then we need to act like it. We cannot come here to worship today, sing songs, listen to a wonderfully inspired message, receive the “living bread come down from heaven,” and then treat others like property and not care for those on the margins on Monday. Our faith should move us to action when we see people being mistreated. Our faith should move us to fight for equality of everyone regardless of gender, skin color, or who they happen to love. Our faith should move us to compassion for those suffering here and around the world. And our faith should give us empathy and a willingness to help others. It is not enough to just sit here and worry about ourselves.

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” (v 2:1)

We must not show “favoritism.” A better word is partiality; we must treat everyone as equals. James uses the story of a rich person and a beggar coming into the assembly, the church. How will we treat them? James says we should treat them as equals because they are. To treat them any differently would be to show partiality.

The worth of another human being does not come from their material possessions or their position in life. The value of a human being comes from God at that moment that God breathes the breath of life into their nostrils. The worth of a human being comes from being created in the image and likeness of God, not from a physical point of view since God has no physical form but from a spiritual point of view. Therefore, when we look at another person, we should see Christ in that person whether we like them or not.

Throughout history, the basis of every problem has been that one person sees another person or group of people as less than they are. Treating someone as inferior or subhuman leads to things like slavery, misogyny, white supremacy, religious superiority, and all the rest. It leads to racism, sexism, classism, and all of the other “isms” in society.

If we strip away another’s humanity, it gives us a license to treat them as non-humans. Striping away the humanity of another allows us to treat them as property rather than humans, and therefore they do not have the same rights that we have. Classifying people by their actions, criminals, illegals, addicts, deviants, or whatever term you want to use allows us to feel better about how we treat them.

James would say, and I am saying that if you believe this way, you are not an authentic Christian and follower of Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of Mark that we heard, Jesus is approached by a woman of a different background than Jesus. The “devil has taken the woman’s daughter,” and she does not know what to do with her. So she asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

Jesus responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) In other words, he is telling her to go away, you are not of my people, and I cannot help you. Remember, this is Jesus saying this. The woman, being a strong advocate for her daughter, calls Jesus out for this.

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) The woman rebukes Jesus, and he heals her daughter. The story is being used to illustrate the idea that we are to show no partiality. We are to help all we can, regardless of where they come from, their legal status, color, religion, or whom they chose to love. We care for them because we are them, and they are us.

In Hinduism, there is a greeting that one gives to another when they meet. Hands clasped in front of you and a slight bow of the head while saying “Namaste.” The literal translation of Namaste is “the divine in me greets the divine in you” and is a recognition of our mutual creation. Thus, there is respect and an acknowledgment of the divine in the other person that begins every encounter.

In the creation story, God creates humanity; there is no gender; there is only humanity in the beginning. God breaths the “breath of life” into all of humankind after God created that humanity from the very dust of the earth with God’s own hands. Who are we to disrespect that?

Friends, the bottom line is that Jesus commands us to love everyone without exception, including our enemies. We are to forgive 70 times 70, and we are to care for all. This is what makes us true and faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Amen

Sermon: Avoiding Anger

James 1:17-27

If I were to rank all of the books of the bible from my most favorite to least, The Book of James would be right at the top of that list. Although a short book, it is filled with many theological and practical nuggets written, so they are easily understood. However, perhaps the reason I like this book the most is it made Martin Luther very nervous.

I like Luther, and I think he started a long-overdue reformation, but I also think that reformation stripped the Church of too much. The central theme of James is that faith without works is a dead faith. Luther missed the point that for James, it was our salvation and God’s grace that compels us to those works, and if that faith does not, it is not faith at all.

Over the next several weeks, we will be taking a closer look at James and how what we read on those pages can help us transform our lives and then work towards the transformation of others. First up, the destructive power of anger.

Have you ever been so angry that you have said or done something that you later regretted? I know I have on more than one occasion. Anger, like all emotions, is irrational and sometimes can cause us to say or do foolish things.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (19-20)

James gets right to the point, “anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James is concerned with how we relate to one another and the words we use in that relationship. Words reveal our motivation, intention, belief, and emotional life. I guess you could say that words are a window to our thoughts.

Our emotional life grows and matures from our earliest days and how we relate to others, but it also comes from how we relate to ourselves. Anger is an emotion that can become destructive. Anger is also an emotion that alerts us when something is wrong. There is good anger, and there is bad anger. It all comes down to what anger drives us to do.

One of the problems we face as a society is the idea of individualism. Being an individual can be a good thing, and the “rugged individualist” is, in some ways, what made our country. But individualism can be very destructive. If we only think of what is good for me, then we forget about our neighbor. We cannot “love our neighbor” if our thoughts are only on what we want. If we feel we can do whatever we want as long as it is good for me, we don’t love or care for others.

We have tremendous freedom that has been guaranteed from the time of our founding documents, well for a particular segment of the population anyway; the rest had to fight and continue to fight today for those same rights. But the other half of freedom is responsibility. So the more significant the freedom, the bigger the responsibility.

Words have power. Think of some of the greatest orators of our time. Think of speeches or sermons that you have heard over your life. Some were inspiring and moved us to action. Some allowed us to dream about the future, while others broke us down and made us feel less than. This is the power of the spoken and written word. We use words to express ourselves, to describe, to name, to blame. We use words to win arguments, console, counsel, ask someone to marry us, and make peace. But we also use words to incite, make fun of, blame, and start wars. Words have power.

It seems to me that in today’s world, we can say whatever we want, and then, if necessary, we apologize for what we said. This happens more frequently when we get angry; we tend to say things without thinking about it. Although we can apologize for what we have said, the damage may have already been done.

According to James, we cannot bring about the righteousness of God with evil or hateful speech, for that sort of speech only brings about destruction.

“Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” (v 21)

One of the more difficult places to “hold our tongues,” as my mother used to say, is on Social Media. There is a lot of good that can come from exchanges on those platforms, but we need to be careful. It is not always easy to determine wit or sarcasm, and sometimes, people can interpret things the wrong way. It is very easy to get caught up in something, and before we know it, we are falling into that “evil speech” that James warns about. The best rule of thumb is to never respond in person or on Social Media in anger.

Words have tremendous power, and it is better to use that power to build up the kingdom of God rather than break it down. Getting angry will happen, but what happens next can be avoided with a bit of practice.

Sermon: The Bread We Eat – Part 2

Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Last week I started a discussion about the United Methodist understanding of Communion. (The Bread We Eat) I spoke in broad terms and did not dwell on specifics. I defined what a Sacrament is according to Wesley, “outward sign of an inward grace, and a means by which we receive the same.” And that Sacraments are sign-acts in that there are actions and physical signs. For the Sacrament of Communion, that would be the words spoken and the elements used.

I left you with a long quote from This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, the document written for us to begin to think and pray about what the Sacrament means. The summary of the quote was the Jesus Christ is present in the Sacrament in a real way and not just in a memorial or a reenactment way. That there is a grace received through this Sacrament and that the presence of Jesus is not dependent on our belief in that presence.

The passage we heard this morning from the Gospel of St. John is a continuation of the Bread of Life Discourse of Jesus. Jesus continues with this idea that He is what we need to live forever, not physically since we know that is not possible, but in a spiritual sense. Jesus has this to say:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Now that we have had time to ponder this idea of Jesus being present in the elements let’s expand upon that idea. Again, I am asking you to approach this with an open mind and an open heart.

For most Reformed Protestants, the remembrance or memorial of Communion is the prime meaning that would be recognized. But Holy Communion is much more than that. This is where the idea of grace enters the conversation. God uses the “tangible and material” things that we can see and hear, the words, bread, and wine, as a vehicle for spiritual grace.

As I mentioned last week, Jesus is present in the elements; however, the presence is not physical. We cannot see or touch Jesus, and the physical properties of the bread and wine do not change; what changes are our perspective and our experience of Jesus being present. The presence is an act of God and is objective, and exists independent of human thought. This is a mystery, and it is far beyond our human capacity to understand.

If you are struggling with this idea, welcome to the club. For centuries this has been debated and discussed, and still, there is disagreement about what happens and what it all means. The Wesleyan Tradition that we belong to affirms the reality of the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, but it does not claim to be able to explain it fully.

Some of the best resources for understanding theology are contained in the Hymn Book of the Church. John and Charles Wesley wrote 166 hymns concerning the Sacrament of Communion.

Please turn with me to Hymn #627

O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace! Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys! How the bread his flesh imparts, how the wine transmits his blood, fills his faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God.

Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown; only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one. Let us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more. Thine to bless, ’tis only ours to wonder and adore.’

“In this Holy Meal of the Church, the past, present, and future of the living Christ come together by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may receive and embody Jesus Christ as God’s saving gift for the whole world.” (THM pg 25)

As much as we welcome all to the Table, there are some requirements. Jesus invites us to the Table. Jesus invites those who love him, repent of their sin, and seek to live as Christian disciples. This is an act of faith on our part. Our response to this invitation is an affirmation of our personal relationship with God and our commitment to the mission and ministry of the Church.

Last week I mentioned that this Table does not belong to me, and it does not belong to you; it does not even belong to the Church. This is the Lord’s Table, and it is a place for sinners and saints. We come to this Table at the invitation of Jesus Christ. We come to this Table in gratitude for the mercy that has been and continues to be shown by Jesus Christ towards sinners. We do not come to this Table because we are worthy; no one is truly worthy. “We come to this Table out of our hunger to receive God’s gracious love, and to receive forgiveness and healing.” (THM pg 30)

For me, the bottom line is this; it does not matter if you believe it is a memorial, a reenactment, or the real presence. It does not matter if you think yourself worthy or not. What matters is that you come to the Table. Taste and see that the Lord is good, for His mercy endures forever.

Amen.

Wearing a Mask is the Image of God

With children heading back to school and COVID numbers on the rise, the debate over whether to wear a mask or not has risen to a new level. Across the country, school boards are grappling with the issue of keeping their kids safe or exposing them to a deadly virus. Now I don’t really care if you wear a mask or not. It is, after all, a personal choice.

I should not say that I don’t care if you wear a mask or not because I do care. I care about your health and safety, and I care about my health and safety. Do I like to wear a mask, no I hate it, it’s hot, and my glasses fog up. But I will gladly make the sacrifice if it keeps one person from getting this nasty virus. What I do care about is your justification for not wearing one.

There has been all manner of justifications put forward by the anti-maskers, but by far, the strangest is the notion that it somehow desecrates the image of God. The rationale is that since all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, covering that likeness with a mask dishonors that likeness.

Of course, this idea of humanity being created in the image and likeness of God comes from the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26) But what exactly is that likeness?

I would suggest that being created in the image and likeness of God has very little, is anything to do with physical appearance; after all, God has no physical form. Sure, as a Trinitarian Christian, I believe that Jesus is God and Jesus had a physical form, but their argument is not for the physical form of a curly-haired, dark-skinned man from 1st century Palestine. So again, I ask, what is the image of God they believe they are created in?

During creation, God spoke all things into existence with the lone exception of humanity. For humanity, God created it from the dust of the earth, and if you believe the story from a rib. But unlike the rest of creation, God breathed into humanity’s nostrils, God’s Ruah, God’s Spirit. God animated humanity with God’s very breath, breathing life into humanity at the exact moment of creation. That spirit has been defined as the Soul.

The Soul, like God, has no physical form, but it is believed to be the very essence of our being, the very center of our existence. Since the time of creation, philosophers, theologians, hymnographers, and the rest have been trying to figure out the Soul. If the Soul is the essence of humanity and it was breathed into us by God, then that Soul contains the very essence of God and includes the attributes of God.

Since God has no physical form, the only way to describe God is with the attributes of God, creator, sustainer, father, mother, love, peace, justice, mercy, care for all of creation, etc. Although these are human attributes and emotions, we reflect them onto God to understand what one cannot understand.

But let’s take that a little further. Jesus left us with a new commandment, love each other, care for each other, fight for each other. Jesus said that this is how others would know that we were His followers, followers of the way, the example left for us by Jesus himself. These are the attributes of Soul, the Spirit of God that was breathed into us, each of us at creation, the creation, and our creation.

So then to be created in the image and likeness of God, to be a follower of Jesus, the be human is to care for others and not just ourselves. Therefore, the fullest expression of the Image and Likeness of God is to wear a mask because you are expressing care and concern for others by wearing that mask.

Wearing a mask, and therefore showing your care and concerns for others is the ultimate expression of the Image of God!

Sermon: The Bread We Eat

Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

There is a story about a little girl attending a worship service with her family. The family walked up the center aisle to receive Communion, and when the little girl received her piece of bread, she exclaimed in a loud voice, “I want more!” “I want more!” This caused some laughter and some embarrassment, but it also gives us an excellent jumping-off point to talk about the Sacrament of Communion because it should leave us wanting more.

The focus of my messages over the next couple of weeks will be on the theology and spirituality of Communion. What it is, what it does, why we receive it, and all the rest. I will bring to the table; no pun intended, the four parts of what become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We will explore this idea of Communion from Holy Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. But in the end, you have to decide for yourself about all of this.

In 2000, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church authorized a study committee to develop an interpretive document for Holy Communion. The Committee was made of nineteen individuals, bishops, clergy, laity, seminary professors, theologians, and regular folx. They produced “This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion.” This document was the first document created in the denomination’s history to establish the theology and practice of Holy Communion in the United Methodist Church. The document was overwhelmingly approved at the 2004 General Conference.

Like most Church documents, this one can be a little heady in its approach, but it is an important document to help us understand this mystery of the Church. My use of the term mystery will become very clear shortly.

As with any theological or spiritual topic, we have to approach this with an open mind and heart. We have to be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives to help shape our understanding of this mystery if we can understand it. This morning I want to quickly lay out some background and define terms that will be important in future discussions. I will also make this text available online after the service if you wish to reflect on it this week.

The 18th-century movement that became known as Methodism began as an evangelical movement, evangelical in the 18th-century use of that term and not the 21st-century use of it, emphasizing the sacramental life of the Church. The Wesleys saw the power of God available in the Lord’s Supper and urged those following the Method to draw on that power by frequent participation. Wesley did not, however, define frequent participation. Wesley himself received the Sacrament four to five times per week.

What is a Sacrament? As followers of the reformed tradition, we believe there are two Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion. The Greek word used in the early Church for Sacrament is mysterion, translated as mystery. We also use the Latin word Sacramentum, which we translate as vow or promise. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and given to the Church.

So, then a Sacrament is a mystery that involves a vow or promise. John Wesley defined a Sacrament as an “outward sign of an inward grace, and a means by which we receive the same.” According to Wesley, Sacraments are “sign-acts, which include words, actions, and physical elements. They both express and convey the gracious love of God.” (THM pg 16) Baptism is the Sacrament that initiates us into the Body of Christ, and Holy Communion is the Sacrament that sustains and nourishes us on our journey towards salvation.

Our theological understanding of Communion is rooted in Scripture, such as we heard this morning from the Gospel of St. John. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51 But it goes further than that. These are six themes of Communion presented in Scripture, and if we had time, we could explore them in much more depth.

Communion is Eucharist or an act of thanksgiving. Through the Sacrament, we express our thanks for God’s actions through history. Communion is Communion of the Church local and universal. Communion is more than a personal event; it is corporate, there is one bread, and we partake of one bread. Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but it is more than an intellectual remembrance. Communion is a type of sacrifice. It is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of the sacrifice of Christ. We present ourselves as sacrifices in union with Christ to be used by God. Communion is a vehicle of God’s grace through the action of the Holy Spirit. My point is, this is more than a simple remembrance or reenactment of an event that took place 2,000 years ago.

“The grace we receive at the Lord’s Table enables us to perform our ministry and mission, to continue his work in the world-the work of redemption, reconciliation, peace, and justice.” It is the Lord’s Table. This table does not belong to you or me; therefore, we do not get to decide who is and who is welcome. Jesus welcomed all to his table. I mentioned before that Judas, who would betray Jesus, and Peter, who would deny Jesus were present at that first Communion. Everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table.

I want to leave you with something to ponder this week. “Jesus Christ is truly present in Holy Communion. Through Jesus Christ and in the Power of the Holy Spirit, God meets us at the Table. God, who has given the Sacraments to the Church, acts in and through Holy Communion. Christ is present through the community gathered in Jesus’ name, through the Word proclaimed and enacted, and through the elements of bread and wine shared. The divine presence is a living reality and can be experienced by participants; it is not a remembrance of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion only.” (THM pg 23)

You are free to disagree if you like Christ’s presence in the Sacrament is a promise to the Church and is not dependent upon recognition of this presence by individual members of the congregation. We are free to believe as we wish. I know that something happens, I have seen the power of transformation that comes through this Sacrament, I have seen lives transformed. Do the bread and the wine change? Not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. What changes in and through this Sacrament is us if we allow it to change us.

Amen.

Sermon: Shaping Community

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

Truth has really taken a beating in the last few years. It seems that no one really knows what the truth is. How can we determine the truth when the institutions we used to trust, media, government, and the Church, continue to play fast and loose with the truth? He said she said, cover-up, scandal, resignations, and walking it back are all part of what happens on a day-to-day basis.

But what is truth?

According to a very trusted source, Wikipedia, truth is defined as “Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality.” Let’s hear that again, “Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality.” Sit with that for a moment. I am not sure the definition helps a whole lot because it leaves open this idea of fact and reality. My reality may be vastly different than yours, and we all know how facts seem to be a movable feast.

Let us come back to this in a moment.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “‘ In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Anger is another emotion we have become all too familiar with. Someone is always angry about something. This did not go my way, so I am angry. That did not go as planned, so I am angry. The Church did not do what I wanted it to do, so I am angry. Anger is good; it is what we do with it that is bad.

Let me tell you a little about my philosophy of preaching and teaching. I am not here to say what you want me to say, I am here to say what you need to hear, and yes, sometimes that will make you angry. The goal of any person that stands in places like this is to make you squirm and, if I am really on my game, get you fuming.

You see, me telling you what you want to hear is the easiest thing I can do. I can stand here and tell you how wonderful you are and all the rest, which is the truth, but it does nothing to advance and deepen our spiritual lives. If we are going to move along our spiritual journey, we must face the truth, there is that word again about ourselves, and then we need to find the tools necessary to keep us moving forward.

So, from time to time, I hope I make you angry. I hope I get you to squirm in your seat. And I hope I get you to question for faith is nothing more than asking questions and pondering the answers if there are any.

But back to the truth for a moment. The definition I used spoke of facts and reality. Now I know we want facts to be facts and reality to be reality, but the truth is, facts and reality change with time.

I am a firm believer that the Scriptures we have were inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. But what I do not believe is that the Scriptures in inerrant. Let me explain.

This book that we have was written over many generations, primarily by people that were no eyewitnesses to the events that they are writing about. For example, it is believed that Moses wrote the book of Genesis. Moses was not creeping around in the bushes taking notes when Adam and Eve were doing their thing. Moses wrote what oral tradition had been saying, and that changes over time.

But I digress. The Scriptures that we have today were written at a very particular time in history to a particular group of people, experience a very particular set of circumstances. Sure, there is an application to our lives today, but to fully understand what is being written, we have to understand the person’s mind and what was going on at the time. For the writer of Ephesians, there were facts, and there was a reality, but was it?

Believe it or not, facts change, and reality shifts. Yes, some facts do not change; two and two is four. The earth rotates around the sun. God loves you no matter what. All of these are facts. However, there was a time when they were not.

My reality is probably different than your reality. I grew up in a relatively privileged way. By privileged, I don’t mean we did not work hard for what we have. When I say privileged, I mean that the deck was not stacked against me based on race, religion, socio-economic standing, or who I choose to love. I came of age in the 1970s. I have spent most of my adult life wearing the uniform of my country. I am reasonably well educated. But that is my reality. Your reality is different, and that is not a bad thing.

In the Gospel passage we heard, Jesus continues the Bread of Life Discourse. He tells those listening that he is the bread of life and, as one would understand, they begin to grumble. These are learned men, and they cannot understand how someone with a known address can be what Jesus is saying he is. They cannot understand how a man can be God and God can be a man. They have facts, and they have reality. But then, Jesus comes along and shakes it all up.

I know it seems I am jumping around but stick with me.  I am as excited as you are to see how this all comes out, trust me.

Let’s get back to Paul and his bit about anger. Paul is not saying we cannot get angry; in fact, Paul is saying get angry because anger brings change. Righteous anger, anger for a cause, is just that righteous. Gandhi got angry, and things changed. Martin Luther King got angry, and things changed. Jesus got angry, remember he flipped the tables over in the Temple, and things changed. Anger for the right reason is good, but anger that turns to violence is not. Anger that causes us to twist facts, call people names, and hate is not and is precisely what Paul is warning about.

When Moses came down off the mountain carrying the Law of God, one of those laws was “do not bear false witness” in ordinary language; what God is saying is, do not lie. Do not spin the truth to your advantage. Do not twist facts. Always, to the best of your ability, tell the truth and do it in love.

So let us focus on the truth as I see it.

If we call ourselves Christians, we have to act in a certain way, not some of the time, not when it is convenient, but at all times. We have to love everyone, without exception. We have to care for those less fortunate than us, the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, those of a different color than us, and those who believe differently than we do. The Church exists to make disciples, not members, and we do this by love, not by force. We are to live our lives in such a way that if the bible were to disappear tomorrow, people would be able to tell we are Christians by the way to live, act, and love. As a church community, everything we do has to flow from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Everything we do has to be done in love. And everything we do has to be to make disciples.

And I want to focus on another truth; God loves all of us just as we are. But, of course, this does not mean we can stay as we are spiritually. No, we have to journey on. But what I mean is what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans:

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:28-29

In other words, and this is the truth that we need to shout from the rooftops, God loves each of us without exception and condition. And that, my friends, is the truth that we need to shout from the rooftops.

There are parts of Christ’s Church attempting to say who is and who is not welcome. Fine, let them do that; that is not our concern. Our concern is to make sure that we, in our little corner of the world, practice that radical love that Jesus taught and make sure all are genuinely welcome. And by all, I mean all.

For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Nothing.

Amen.

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