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Rev. Peter M Preble – Page 3 – Open-Minded, Open-Hearted Minister & Soul Friend
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Surprising Investment


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Mark 9:38-50

In one of the Churches I served as an interim minister, I met a man we will call John. John was a wonderful and delightful man. He was dedicated to the Church and one of the people I could call on when I needed something. If I called John, he would drop whatever he was doing and rush to help.

Like me, John had come to the Church after being raised a Roman Catholic. There was not one instance or event that caused John to leave the Church of his birth; instead, it was after a long period of discernment. He felt more comfortable where he was now than he had ever felt before.

It was time for elections for the Church council to occur, and I asked John if he would be willing to serve. It felt right to me to ask John; he was, after all, dedicated to the Church. John said that he would pray about it and get back to me. After a couple of weeks, I asked John if he had come to a decision, and he answered that he was willing to serve.

After about a year, John came to me and said he needed to drop off the Council as he had determined it was not for him. He was constantly getting frustrated with the slow pace that the Council was taking. He wanted decisions to happen much faster than they were and felt like we were dragging our feet. He was also concerned that all we talked about was money.

John and I sat for a while and listened to all he had to say. I tried to explain that we needed to move slowly to ensure we were making the right decisions and that, unfortunately, the nature of Church councils is to be concerned for the temporal matters of the Church. The Council is the body that is responsible for the running of the Church and ensuring that all the bills are paid so we can continue to have a place to worship.

John said he understood but did not like coming home after meetings frustrated and having ill feelings toward others on the Council. So, again, I sat and listened and tried to offer wise counsel on the matter, but in the end, we determined it would be best for John to resign from the Council. I recall saying that serving in Church leadership was not for everyone, and no one likes to see the sausage made.

The problem was, serving on the Council had become a stumbling block for John. He would get frustrated at a meeting and develop feelings about others that were not charitable. In today’s scripture lesson from Mark, Jesus tells us what we need to do when something is a stumbling block in our spiritual lives.

I believe that Mark’s Gospel is underappreciated. It is widely believed that the Gospel was written by John Mark, who traveled with Paul and Barnabas and later with Peter. It is understood that what John Mark is writing is based on the teaching of Peter and that Peter is the primary source for what is written.

John Mark does not leave many clues about when the Gospel was written in the text. However, there is a connection to Rome, and there is no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, so it is believed that these words were written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, which would make this the first of the four Gospels to be written. It is understood by many that John Mark was writing this Gospel for the Christian community in Rome.

The Gospel clearly shows that Jesus is the Messiah but also points out that Jesus has come to serve and give up his life for all. There is no ambiguity in Mark that Jesus is the Son of God and has power over demons, heals the sick, and forgives sins. But Mark also points to the fact that Jesus is fully human, expressed through his agony the night he is arrested and the pain he felt on the cross. Marl also points out the secret nature of what Jesus is doing. Jesus speaks in parables and often tells those he has done something for not to tell anyone.

Parables are a helpful tool in teaching, although I sometimes wish Jesus would get to it and say what he was thinking. Parables require the listener to listen, really listen, and look for the clues being given. Parables also require those listening to think for themselves. Jesus is not going to spoon-feed his disciples; he wants them and us to develop our spiritual minds and the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong.

The other interesting thing about parables is they sometimes leave the teachings open to interpretation. I have said before that I believe it is the job of the Church to take these 2,000-year-old lessons and make them new for the present age. This parable talks about lopping bits off that bother us, but that is not precisely what Jesus was getting at. So, the challenge becomes, how do we make this relevant to those listening today?

We need to begin with a question. What keeps you from truly following Jesus?

I started with the story of my friend John and how his service on the Church Council was becoming a hindrance to him and his spiritual life. He tried all sorts of ways to deal with it but decided that he needed to “cut off” that part of his life.

Jesus uses some radical examples if your hand is the issue, cut it off; if it’s your eye, gouge it out. I would not recommend that for spiritual purposes, and I think there are other ways of dealing with what keeps us from truly following. But that is what parables do; they make us think. It is not always what is right on the surface that we are supposed to understand.

Most actions have a cause; something caused them to happen. Sometimes those causes are out of our control, but we can often control them. For example, I slipped on the ice because I did not put sand down or wore the wrong shoes. The action was falling; the cause was negligence. What this parable to trying to get us to do is to dig deep and find the answers.

How often do we say that person makes me mad? Okay, we might get angry, but it is not the other person that makes us mad; it is not even their actions that make us mad; we let ourselves get mad and then blame the other person. It is much easier to point away from ourselves than point towards ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong; some people make us mad; it sure might be us, and it might be them. The point is that we need to find the root cause, which is not easy. Getting to the heart of the matter is the focus of our spiritual life. Asking hard questions about ourselves and our environment is essential.

I often speak of how Jesus commanded us to love one another, and I add that it’s love and not like. We have to love each other, but we do not have to like each other. This is an integral part of our spiritual life and one that Jesus is getting at here. This idea of loving everyone does not require us to be a doormat; for our preservation, we sometimes have to cut people off. We do not have to keep toxic people in our lives. If that person constantly makes you mad, cut them off. If that person frequently drives you to have uncharitable thoughts about them or others, cut them off. If that job is unfulfilling or brings you to do things you don’t want to do, cut it off. Sometimes it’s not the hand or the eye that needs to go but rather the other person. Yes, there might be an underlying issue in you, but for the time being, it is okay to establish boundaries while we figure it all out.

When I was training as a spiritual director, one of my mentors described the spiritual journey as making a slow descent through all of the stuff in our lives that we do not want to deal with. I like to think of it as that place in our homes where we jam all the stuff when people come over. We all have that place. Maybe it’s a drawer, or perhaps it is a room. We jam it full of stuff because we don’t want to deal with it.

Our spiritual life is about opening that door and dealing with what is on the other side one thing at a time. If we look at the project as a whole, it can be overwhelming, but if we take it one small piece at a time, it becomes easier. We open the door; we take out one item and deal with it no matter how long it takes. Then we go back and repeat the process. We may never get the room empty, but we need to try.

So, what is that thing, or what are those things that keep us from following? What do we have in that room that we need to deal with? Do you need help dealing with some of the stuff there? If so, there are people who can help you do not have to do it alone. The spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint, so take your time.

Amen


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Sermon: A Life Well Lived


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Psalm 122

I was sitting in my office on Thursday afternoon, working on my sermon for today. The words I was working on are much different than those you will hear this morning, for as I was writing, the word came that Queen Elizabeth II had died. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked but not surprised. Earlier in the day, her family released a statement that the Queen was under the watch of her doctors. As the Royal Family is remarkably silent on the health of the Monarch, this was a worrying statement.

It may seem odd to some that I am paying tribute to a British Monarch, but I pray your forgiveness as I believe it is appropriate to spend some time in tribute to an extraordinary woman. The Queen was a devoted servant of her people, swearing to them at the young age of 21 that she would devote her entire life, “whether it be long or short,” to their service.

But more importantly, she was a woman of enormous faith, a faith she was not afraid to share with the world. So among the many titles and honors, the Monarch carries Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. Queen Elizabeth took both roles very seriously. It is also interesting to note that when the new Monarch takes the oath, part of that oath is to swear to the protection of the independence of the Church of Scotland. So religion and faith are very much a part of the role of the sovereign.

In her Christmas message in 2014, the Queen had this to say as an indication of her faith:

“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance, and healing. Christ’s example had taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

As Americans, we prize the separation of Church and State. Over the last few years, those lines of separation have been blurred, but regardless, we are not used to hearing our leaders speak so openly and honestly about their faith and how it guides them. Sure, we have politicians who will use any opportunity to flaunt their faith, going so far as to clear out people to stand in front of a church for a photo op, but to hear such a pure understanding of faith and what faith is all about is refreshing.

The words the Queen spoke in her message in 2014 should be familiar to all of you since they are central to my understanding of the message of the Gospel. The Queen spoke of reconciliation and forgiveness. Last week, I spoke of the importance of forgiveness in the life of a Christian.

You will remember that forgiveness, as I see it, is central to our spiritual life and of great importance in our development of that spiritual life. But the Queen speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation on a personal and corporate level. We must seek forgiveness for past wrongs, whether individual wrongs committed by the church or wrongs committed by a nation.

As of late, it seems that seeking forgiveness is perceived as a weakness. The very idea that we, as a nation, should apologize for how we treated the native population or those we have enslaved is wrong. Yet, there is this sense that we should whitewash that portion of our history. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth was the first British Monarch to visit the Irish Republic in a century. That visit has been hailed as a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, nothing is instantaneous, and forgiveness is not immune to that, but these moments, these times when people come together, start the process, and as Christians, we should be at the center of these times. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and we should always seek peaceful means to resolve issues.

The Queen spoke of Jesus “stretching out his hands in acceptance and reconciliation.” Again, these are two central ideas and ideals in the life of the Christian. I have mentioned before that Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross symbolize welcome for all, much like a parent welcomes their children. At the center of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father welcomes his son back into the fold without asking any questions. In Jesus Christ, all is forgiven, and we are given a seat at the table of reconciliation and peace.

Healing is another aspect of this relationship with Jesus. Although that is not healing in the physical sense, Jesus makes possible the healing of past hurts. From the cross, the instrument that the state chose to kill him, he looked down upon those who had just nailed him there, and rather than shouting insults at them, he asked his heavenly father to forgive them. His last thoughts were not for himself but those around him.

England and the United Kingdom are very diverse and have been for a long time. Although the Church of England is the “Established Church,” there is room in society for all expressions of faith and no expression of faith. Yesterday, senior members of Parliament took the oath of allegiance to the new King. As part of that oath, they swear “by Almighty God,” but there is room for those who wish not to use those words. As a result, expressions of faith varied as the people and the Queen understood that.

In 1954, the Rev. Billy Graham visited England as part of his famous Crusades. The Gospel that Graham was preaching was not in alignment with the theology of the Church of England, yet the Queen welcomed Rev. Graham to preach at Windsor. The Queen’s depth and breadth of understanding of theology transcended that of the Church of England. She was undoubtedly Anglican, but she had respect and understanding for other faith and those of no faith.

But I think this was more than simply religious acceptance.

During her 96 years, the Queen saw monumental changes in the world. When she was born, there was an Empire, and the King was considered an Emperor. But in her life, she witnessed the Empire’s dissolution and the Commonwealth’s creation. No longer was the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered but friends, much like our relationship with God. And with that change comes an acceptance of all walks of life, again, something fundamental to the life of a Christian and one I spoke of before.

I would like to say a few words about grief.

As I mentioned at the start of the service, today is a day of remembrance of not only the life of the Queen but of the events 21 years ago in New York City, Washington, DC, and in that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Although we may not have experienced personal grief on that day, I mean to say we may not know of anyone killed on that day; we have shared or national grief.

We all experience grief in our own way, and regardless of what some experts say, we never get over our grief, nor do I believe we should. Grief’s sharp edges give way to life’s smoothness, but it is always with us. Our lives changed that beautiful morning in September of 2001, and it will never be the same. Times of remembrance are good if they lead away from anger and towards this idea of forgiveness and reconciliation. This will not be a popular statement, but we do not have to forget, but we do have to forgive.

Today we remember those whose lives were lost on that day and those whose lives have been lost since then, but we should also pause to remember how we all came together on that day and the days following. We stretched our hands to our neighbors and embraced one another in our collective grief. For a short period, we came together, prayed, and cried together. That is what I choose to remember about that day, not the burning and collapsing buildings but neighbor helping neighbor and friend helping friend.

Ritual is vital in our ability to come to grips with our grief. Tonight, our community will gather for ritual as we commemorate those lost on September 11, 2001, and this week a nation and the world will gather for ritual as we say farewell to the Queen. We have seen some of that already, but there will be more. One of the interesting parts of all of this is that amid grief, there is celebration. The Queen has died, but, as the Queen has said, “tomorrow, the daffodils will bloom.”

When we strip away all the pageantry, we remember that a family is mourning the loss of their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. My thoughts will be with them and the new King in the coming days, just as my thoughts are with all those who grieve on this day.

For me, the legacy of Her Majesty will be her faith and the idea that she was able to be Queen of all her subjects, but at the same time, she was not afraid to live her Christianity in public. She did not lord it over anyone or insist that England was a “Christian Nation.” Her faith influenced and guided her life, and it is that memory that I will take from all of this.

At the end of the day, a Christian has died, and we pray that she has been welcomed into the arms of her savior with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant.

Amen.


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Sermon: Entertaining Angels


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Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

In 1996 there was a movie released called Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story. Like most films with a theme of religion, it passed by without notice. However, it is a beautiful story about a great woman who will pass by most without anyone even knowing anything about her.

Dorothy Day was born in 1897 and described as a journalist, social activist, and anarchist. Dorothy Day became a Roman Catholic and brought with her understanding of the social gospel of Jesus Christ, which often put her at odds with the hierarchy of the Church at the time.

She fought for such radical ideas as women’s suffrage, rights for workers, honest days pay for honest work, and all the rest of the radical, liberal ideas. In the 1930’s she formed the Catholic Worker Movement that combines direct aid to the homeless or under-housed with nonviolent action on their behalf. She spoke for those who had no voice and advocated for those who could not advocate. She did more than make speeches; she rolled her sleeves up and got busy.

Day wrote and spoke about the Roman Catholic economic system called distributism. The idea is that the wealth and production in the world’s economy are owned widely and not concentrated in only a few hands. Day saw this as the middle ground between capitalism and socialism. Furthermore, Day believed that any economic system’s central focus and purpose was to help those most vulnerable. I wonder where she got that radical idea.

As part of her work with the poor, Day created “Houses of Hospitality” that would provide shelter, food, and other necessities of life. But these houses were also places of learning and activism. Part of the system was created to teach those with no voice to find their voice and advocate for themselves. By 1941, more than 30 of these Houses had been founded, and the work continues today.

A significant point in the theology of the Catholic Worker Movement was that everyone was created in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserved and demanded respect. Day believed that by helping and educating the poor, we were, in fact, entertaining angels. This theology comes from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham and Sarah entertain three strangers that bring a message. The great Russian Icon Painter Andrey Rublev has a beautifully artistic rendition of this meeting called “Hospitality of Abraham,” This meeting has been theologically connected to the Trinity. 

The entirety of Day’s theological understanding can be summarized in words we heard this morning from the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews. I have mentioned before that I have issues with Paul, but hey, a broken clock is right twice a day, right? Paul masterfully summarizes all of Jesus’ teachings in the opening lines, “let mutual love continue.”

Paul is somewhat of a windbag, but he employs an economy of words here and puts it rather plainly, “mutual love.” In one of Paul’s more famous writings, the one we often hear at weddings, Paul says that we can do all things, but if we do it without love, we are nothing but a clanging cymbal… (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Paul goes on to say that we have to provide hospitality to strangers. This might be difficult in today’s world, which teaches us to be cautious of strangers. For a good reason, we teach our children not to go up to strangers, yet here is Paul, the great theologian of the Church, telling us to provide hospitality. It can be easy to love those who love us back, and it can be easy to love those we know, but what of those we do not know? Can we love them and show them Christ’s love through hospitality?

But Paul goes on to talk about others.

Remember those in prison and those being tortured. But Paul says we are not to just remember them, wring our hands and mutter a few prayers; no, we are to remember them as if we are in prison with them and being tortured with them. The world looks very different on the other side of the bars.

I like to say, “I did a year at the Middlesex County House of Correction.” I usually pause and wait for a reaction before I continue and say, “as a chaplain intern.” While in seminary, we were required each year to complete specific placements for “field education,” or as it is called now, “contextual education.” The idea was to take the theory and put it into practice. To come alongside those working in those ministries, be it hospital, prison, soup kitchen, or whatever, and learn how to take the theory we have been learning and put that into real-world situations.

I learned a lot in seminary, and I was thankful for the opportunity I had to attend. I mentioned before that I was taught by some of the best thinkers in the Church today, but there is not much practical learning in seminary. I can wax on poetically about such theological topics as the tripartite structure of the sacraments and hold my own in a discussion about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Still, none of that prepares you to hold a person’s hand as they draw their last breath or you meet someone who is looking to find food for their children. Sometimes I think of it as utter nonsense.

During my time on “the inside,” I learned that prison is not a nice place. Middlesex is not for the hardened criminals amongst us; it’s low-level stuff. You won’t find anyone there who say had 15 cartons of top-secret documents in their closet, but it is still a prison. I will never forget the sound the metal bars make as they close behind you, locking you in. There is an atmosphere of danger and mistrust that permeates the entire place.

We call these places “Corrections Facilities,” but there is not much “correcting” going on. Sure, there are opportunities for education, drug and anger counseling, and all the rest to make the prisoner a “productive member of society.” But for the most part, they are just warehouses designed to make the lives of those confined there so miserable they do not want to return. But Paul is asking us to remember those confined as if we were there with them.

Jesus commands us to “visit those in prison,” but Paul is taking it to the next level and saying we have to think like we are there with them. How would we wish to be treated if we were in prison?

Paul mentions those being tortured in the same way; we are to remember them as if we were being tortured along with them. We often think of torture as physical, but what of mental, spiritual, and economic torture? Paul speaks of the love of money, and Dorothy Day preached this idea of distributism; what are we thinking about when supporting economic systems? Are we looking at the system designed for the greater good or the system that can provide what we want and need?

Lack of proper, affordable education, substandard housing, poor health care, and others torture people by keeping them locked in a system they cannot break free from. The idea that if we concentrate wealth at the top, it will trickle down is a fallacy, as those with wealth often want to keep that wealth for themselves. The very ones who complain about helping those caught under the torture of a predatory lending system, all the while having their loans forgiven, certainly do not want the system to change. But Paul is telling us that we have to be the ones who work for that change.

Paul then turns from the global to the personal. Keep marriage sacred. Don’t love money. Be content with what you have. Remember your leaders. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

When we strip it all away, Paul says, don’t be selfish. Christianity is about the other and not about us. We love God by loving our neighbor, and again, Paul is telling us to go further by putting ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes. Think about the others’ struggles and our desire to help lessen that burden. Be thankful for what you have and be willing to help someone else if you can. Life is not a competition but a journey that we share.

I began with the brief story of Dorothy Day, and I will end with another woman who helped change the lives of many. I have mentioned her before, a Russian Immigrant to France called Mother Maria of Paris. Mother Maria was a Russian Orthodox Nun and a contemporary of Dorothy Day. Maria advocated for the poor Russians in Paris and set up her version of Houses of Hospitality. I have used a quote of hers before, but I thought it fitting to end with it today.

Maria speaks of the last judgment when we will stand before God and try and justify our lives. She says, and I will paraphrase her, that she will not be judged by how often she attended Church or how many scripture verses she memorized. Instead, she and we will be judged by how we cared for the “least of these” during our lives. Did we genuinely serve them, or did we scoff at them? Did we truly love God and our neighbor, or did we simply pay it lip service? This is how we will be judged and by no other method.

If we love God, we have no choice but to love our neighbors and desire what is best for them.

Amen.


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The Spirituality of Renovation


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In April of 2022, my wife Nicky and I purchased a cottage built in the 1870s. Since our marriage, we had talked about owning a place of retreat. A place where we could go and unplug even for a weekend. We searched for several years and could not find the right place until we stumbled across what we now call “Love Shack.”  My father-in-law gave the name to this run-down, long-forgotten, sad little place because of the amount of love needed to restore this simple cottage.

The cottage is part of the Asbury Grove Camp Meeting Association in Hamilton, Massachusetts. The Camp was founded a few decades before the construction of our cottage as a retreat for church folk. A place of sanctuary from the everyday cares of life. A place of spirituality and rest for a couple of weeks each year.

Originally the “Grove” was a collection of tents scattered amongst the pine trees. Eventually, those tents were put on platforms, and those platforms became the foundations of what would become more than 300 Victorian cottages, of which many still exist today like ours.

So that is the back story, but how does spirituality play into all of this?

For starters, the cottage was built by people of faith. The builders of our cottage were coming to “The Grove” to retreat from their daily lives and to attend worship services and communal meals. The cottages were built without cooking facilities as all meals were communal. The residents of “The Grove” would sit together and break bread. They would feed each other spiritually and physically. They worked together to build their cottages and that of their neighbors with minimal machinery other than their hands.

There is a connectedness between work and prayer. The 5th Century monastic founder and writer Benedict of Nursia wrote a rule of life for his monasteries that struck a balance between work and prayer. The Ora et Labora of the day was the idea that prayer is work and that work is prayer. The monks would gather at various intervals during the day, often influenced by the seasons and the rising and the setting of the sun. After the communal prayer, they would gather for a meal. Although they ate in silence, they were together as brothers, where all were equal.

They worked with their hands to till the soil that would provide their food. They cared for animals that would provide milk and other raw materials for clothing and different needs of the monastery. They worked with tools, extensions of their bodies, building places for worship and living as well as the beds they would sleep on and the altar where they would offer communion—all with the sweat of their brow and the work of their hands.

I spent several years in a modern example of a 5th-century monastic community living under the Rule of St. Benedict. There were not as many of us as there had been in those early days, but we still followed the rhythm of the day and practiced the Ora et Labora that divided the day. The work had changed, but we still provided for ourselves, albeit not by tilling the soil.

But I want to take this idea of spirituality and renovation another step.

Just as there is a connectedness between work and prayer, there is a connectedness between all creation. My faith teaches me that God created the world and everything in it. God created the plants and trees, the soil and the water, the animals and humans. We were to live in harmony with one another. God breathed life into all of creation. The Bible tells the story of the creation of humanity and that God fashioned humankind from the dust of creation with God’s own hands. Humanity sprang forth from within creation itself. God animated humanity with God’s own breath God’s Ruach in Hebrew, which in some ways, set us apart from the rest of creation.

We, humans, are connected to creation through our energies, our souls, if you will. All creation has a soul, human and animal, plant and bird, fish, and tree. One might argue that our souls are different, to which I would respond that each soul is unique, just as each plant, animal, and human are unique, but the connectedness remains.

When we first looked at our cottage, I could feel the energy, the soul of the building. Of course, the building has its own energy, but it also shares in the energy or energies of the people who built it and the energy of the parts that went into its construction. Each board, each nail, and even the glass and paint have a created energy, and it is that energy that interacts with my energy as I restore the image that was created long ago.

My Christian faith is about the restoration of the image, the image of humanity that has been scared by our own willfulness and arrogance. Humanity strayed from the creator and creation. Humanity was no longer the caretaker but the taker of creation, taking it for its own purpose. My faith and my spirituality are about restoring my relationship with the creator and restoring harmony between my energy and the energy of creation.

As I peel back each layer and work to repair work done generations before me, I can feel the energy of those who have come before me. In some ways, that energy guides what I do and the decisions we have to make concerning the cottage. We are trying to be respectful of her history and listen to her story.

Our little cottage was all but forgotten when we found her, and we have breathed new life into her. By our love, sweat, and a little blood, she will shine again, and all will be well with her soul.

Follow the progress of our renovation on our Youtube Channel.


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Sermon: Healing Reign


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Luke 13:10-17

I am not a fan of miracle stories like the one we heard from the Gospel of Luke this morning. Sure, the miracle stories have their place, but I believe we spend far too much time focusing on the Los Vegas actions of Jesus, the magic, if you will, and not enough time on what that magic is really telling us.

I am also not a biblical literalist; by that, I mean I do not believe that we are to take every word of Scripture at face value. I have mentioned before that to study Scripture means to push past the surface and what is written on the page to what is lying just underneath the surface. Bible study requires more than the ability to read. One must also have a critical eye and ear. One must have an understanding of the time and the place where these writings came from. Who were they written to? What was going on at the time, socially and politically? Today, we must ask what it was like to live in first-century Palestine.

Something else I like to keep in mind, the Bible is not the word of God. The Bible contains many words and truth; they come in a roundabout fashion from God. But the Word of God is Jesus. Turning to the very first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus is the Word of God. What we read on Sunday and other times of the week are the words of God. Or instead, what people say God said translated from the original language and run through the filter of politics and life.

The study of Scripture requires more than memorizing a few passages that one has ready to toss into a conversation to prove or disprove a point. Taking Scripture out of context is not study. It’s not even good scholarship and requires very little thought on the part of the person using it. I have been a student of Scripture for most of my adult life and have been taught by some of the most profound teachers in the Church today, but I have only scratched the surface of biblical study.

All of that is to emphasize why I do not like the miracle stories of Jesus. And today, we come headlong into a doozy of a miracle.

The passage opens with Jesus’ teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Just as a review, the Jewish Sabbath runs from Sundown on Friday until Sunday down on Saturday. Jesus is teaching, and a woman comes in with “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”

Now, understanding 1st-century literature as I do, this could mean just about anything. It is ambiguous on purpose. We do not know what ales this woman. It could be physical; it could be mental; it could be spiritual. Whatever it is, it has bothered her for more than half her life.

I need to point out a few other things here; first, we do not know her name. We often do not know the names of the people Jesus does things for, mainly because it is not about them but rather a much larger issue. She is a woman in the Synagogue mixing with men. My understanding of 1st Century Jewish ritual practices tells me this is an anomaly. Women and men did not mix during worship or even during teaching. Lastly, this woman was just passing by. She did not seek out Jesus for healing; Jesus sought her out.

Anyway, Jesus notices the woman; perhaps he calls her over to where he is sitting. But he touches her. Touch can be healing, and touch can be transformative. When physicians heal, they have to touch. The ritual instructs me to touch the bread and cup when I say the words during communion. In baptism, I touch the water when I call for the Holy Spirit to enter the water, which becomes healing waters. After the water is poured on the child, the ritual instructs me to touch the forehead of the child. When a person is ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop, it is done by touch, the laying on of hands. Touch is important.

But healing is not confined to touch alone. We cannot say how or why the Spirit acts. We just know that the Spirit does. We often pray for people that we do not even know. We are not present with them, but we pray that God sends Spirit to heal them from whatever it is that ales them. We cannot restrict God. We, humans, always try to say where God is and what God will do, but God has a funny way of working the way God wants to work and not always the way we think God should act.

I was recently in a discussion in that fine bastion of all knowledge, Facebook. I often ask myself why I get involved in this discussion. However, this time I was in it for the enjoyment of it. A priest was waxing on about using too much water mixed with the wine for communion. Traditionally, a drop of water is combined with the wine in the cup. This is symbolic of the water and wine that came from the side of Jesus after he was pierced with the sword at the crucifixion.

Anyway, this priest was banging on that if you used more than a drop, the Holy Spirit would not come upon the cup at the appointed time, and therefore, that communion would be invalid. Well, not wanting to miss a good liturgical argument, I chimed in with, so if the mixology is not correct, if the recipe is wrong, then God will not bless it?

That seems to limit the power of God to work only with perfect things, and that would assume that you and I would be left out since neither of us is perfect.

I received a few thumbs-ups and a couple of hearts, and then I was blocked from the group. However, humans cannot restrict God. God will work where God wants to work regardless of what we want.

So back to the story.

Jesus lays his hands on the woman and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Ah, another important distinction here, he did not say, “you are healed of your ailment.” Nope, he said, “you are set free from your ailment.”

I think I have told this story before. Many years ago, when I was a priest in the Orthodox Christian Church, I was asked to come and hear confessions for members of a church that was becoming Orthodox. They had belonged to another denomination, and the entire congregation was converting, and part of that process was Sacramental Confession. So say what you will about confession; there is power in admitting our faults to another human being and being assured of God’s forgiveness when we cannot see it ourselves.

As I heard confessions, I noticed an older woman, I would guess late 70s or early 80s, in line waiting. She was hunched over, much like the woman in the story we heard this morning. She shuffled up and sat down in the chair before me. She was so hunched over that she could not look me in the eyes. This woman was obviously suffering from something.

We began in the usual fashion with a couple of prayers, and then I asked if she had anything to confess. She said a few things, but my experience had taught me she was holding something back. I asked a few questions, and she revealed that when she was 16 years old, she had an abortion. She was not forced into it, and, at the time, she felt it was what she had to do. She did not regret her decision and went on to get married and have a family, but her decision weighed her down. She confessed that she had never told anyone what she had done. She went alone to the doctor and never spoke of it again.

As I said, I believe in the power of confessing to another human. I firmly believe that God forgives us whether we tell someone or not, but I swear to you, when that woman rose to her feet to walk away, she was standing up straight as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

She had been “set free from her ailment” not because of anything I did but because she had faith that God had forgiven her. By the way, I did not know her name, but I can see her face in my mind’s eye today as if she had just stood before me.

So, Jesus touches the woman, and she is “set free of her ailment.” But, then, the Pharisees strike.

Pharisees are the keeps of the law. They are always on the lookout for violations and transgressions of things like putting too much water in the wine, saying who is worthy of God’s love, and who we can and cannot fall in love with. Pharisees live and walk amongst us today, and sometimes they are not easy to recognize, but they are usually the ones setting up barriers between humans and God. The ones who say things like “we need to find God” as if God is lost. Pharisees hold to a strict interpretation of Scripture and often bend Scripture to meet their definition rather than allowing Scripture to influence them and their lives. Speaking of their lives, they are very willing to apply Scripture to your life but not so much their own.

So, the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the healing he had just performed because he performed it on the Sabbath when there is to be no work done.

In the 1st Century, there were two schools of thought on the Sabbath. Some held to a strict interpretation that nothing was to be done; although one could feed and water one’s animals, that was the extent of the work one could perform. This is the school of thought that the Pharisees came from a strict, literal interpretation.

The other school was that the commandment was to keep holy the Sabbath day, and thus one could perform Holy works such as the healing, or rather the setting free of this woman that Jesus did. Jesus emphasizes that we should have one day out of seven dedicated to God; however, if we see someone in distress, that is Holy work and not only can but should be done.

Pharisaic rules and regulations are designed to control people and to tell people how and when to worship. I am not saying we should not have some rules and guidelines, but as George Patton so famously said, “Army regulations are for the guidance of the commander,” and we should look to these not so much as rules that should not be broken but rather as guidelines for how we order and live our lives.

As many of you know, our United Methodist Church globally is going through a time of transition; that is a nice way of saying there is a split happening. What is this split about? It’s about limiting the love of God only to people who love a certain way. There are those in the family who want to say that to be ordained in the United Methodist Church; you can only love a certain way. These same, well-meaning folx wish to say that you can only have your marriage blessed by the Church if you follow these rules and love a certain way. They hold to a strict, literal, pharisaic interpretation of the rules. Thankfully our little Church here in Hull has said that is all rubbish love, whoever you want, you are welcome here. We love you the way God loves you, warts and all. We welcome sinners and saints to come and worship with us, and we set no barriers to God’s grace and God’s love. Someone say Amen.

Friends, we have no right to restrict God, and by attempting to limit God, we take away God’s godness and reduce God to something that is ruled rather than the one that rules. Jesus commanded that we love God, and we love everyone, without exceptions. I want to say to you, by loving everyone, we love God, for there is never a person that you will encounter that God does not love, and by that fact, we must, we are compelled, we are commanded to love them.

The ancient and modern Pharisees refuse to see that behind every rule and regulation is a person just trying to get through the day. Life is hard enough. Let’s give people a break.

Amen.


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Sermon: Living into the Promise


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Luke 12:32-40

Music is an essential part of worship and the worship experience. I am not talking about the modern version of Church worship music that often involves lights, smoke, and the pastor standing behind a Plexiglas pulpit wearing skinny jeans. I am sure that has its place. I am not what that place is but to each his own.

In many ways, music is central to worship and aids the worshipers to fully enter the worship experience. Music conveys a message in both the words used and the notes on the page. How many times have we heard just a few bars of a familiar song, and it takes us back to childhood or brings back memories of a loved one? Music is important.

One of my favorite songs is “Be not afraid.” The song was composed by John Michal Talbot. He is a Roman Catholic monastic that writes worshipful, prayerful music that can be used in public worship and to aid in our private devotions.

Like most of Talbot’s music, it is a straightforward tune with simple words. I often find the tune less complex, and more often, the Chorus or central idea is repeated the best. The song begins with a few lines about why we should not fear God:

You shall cross the barren desert
But you shall not die of thirst

You shall wander far in safety
Though you do not know the way

You shall speak your words in foreign lands
And all will understand

You shall see the face of God and live

And then the Chorus

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

Today’s Gospel passage from Luke reminds us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

There is undoubtedly much to be concerned about in our world today. We do not know where the economy is going. Our planet is getting warmer each day. I read an article last night that says the earth is spinning faster than expected, and we might have to have a leap second to catch up. We still have the threat of a global pandemic, and now we have the monkey pox to deal with. It seems like there is something to fear around every corner, but God is not one of those things to fear.

I have spent the better part of my adult life studying religion and religious institutions, and one thing I have found common in all of them is control. For generations, the Church and I am using that term in its universal sense, governed by the idea that the Church needed to control individuals and their destiny.

We do not have to travel too far back in time to see how the Church often manipulated people’s lives for financial gain. Turn on most TV preachers, and you will soon get the idea that if you don’t send them money, God will strike you down. It is laughable for sure, but this is what I mean by control.

But control only works if the Church can make you afraid, and the Church is great at making you afraid.

Theologians and preachers will search scripture and find arcane passages taken way out of context that uses the word fear and say things like, “see, you need to be afraid of God.” The usual follow-up is, however, if you give such and such, it will calm God’s anger, and all will be well.

Ancient Hebrew worship involved animal sacrifice because it was believed that the smell was pleasing to God’s nostrils and would make God happy, and therefore God would not smite us. And there is always the fear of being sent to hell to keep you in check.

Look at religious art from the medieval and late medieval periods. Most of it depicts people burning in flames and running away from something called the Devil. But, of course, the Church designed all this nonsense to keep people in check and control their lives.

But the enlightenment and the reformation began to change all of that. People started to become more educated and realized this was not the way it was supposed to be. If God was some fearful being, why would this God send Jesus, God’s only Son, to show humanity a different way? The same God who healed the sick cured the blind, and fed the 5,000 does not sound like the same God that the ancient Church wanted you to fear.

Luke continues in the passage we heard this morning to say that we need to be ready, not out of fear but out of love. We sell what we have and give to the poor not because of some obligation or out of fear but because we love and desire to help.

Listen, God could have come down with fire and whatnot and destroyed everything, but God did not. Instead, God sent love in the form of Jesus to put us back on the right path and welcome us home.

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 10 Commandments. I mean, let’s face it, it is fabulous. But an often-overlooked part of the movie comes long after the Nile turns red and the fogs come out of the water.

Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai and encounters God. God writes the Commandments on stone tablets, not as rules to be feared but as a rule of life, a way of ordering society. As Moses comes down the mountain, he hears a tremendous commotion. The people have grown afraid and believe that the only way to appease God is to create a calf made from Gold. An idol that is taken care of is Commandment #1.

When Moses sees this, he gets angry and tosses the tablets down upon the people. In the movie, there is a large explosion, and the ground opens and swallows many of the people, including the calf of Gold.

Later we see God giving Moses another set of tablets, and God is also unhappy with Moses. But God does not smite Moses. Instead, God tells Moses that because of what he did, he lost his cool, and he will not be able to enter the land that God will give to the Israelites. Moses can bring them there; he cannot go in. You see, even from the beginning, God did not want his people to be afraid of God; God gave them and us the law not for punitive means but out of love to show us the way.

Paul writes to the Hebrews that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “By faith,” Paul says, “we understand the worlds were prepared for the word of God.” That Word of God is not the written word; it’s not even the tablets that Moses carried. The Word of God is Jesus, and the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Friends, in a few moments, we will gather around this table. It’s a simple table fashioned for one purpose, to share a meal, a holy meal with the world. The table and the elements that will be placed upon it have been fashioned by hand. Our collective prayers and the blessing of the Holy Spirit will turn those elements from something ordinary into something extraordinary.

We will not see the change. We will not hear or feel the change. We will not taste or smell the change, but there will be a change. This meal, this communion, is a union between the creator and the creation. This meal of love is Jesus, the word of God made flesh, giving himself to us. This is not some mere symbol or reenactment of an event that took place millennia ago; this is a sacred time when God and humanity come together not out of fear but out of love.

Scripture tells me, and my faith tells me, that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to show us a different way. God could surely have sent fire, and brimstone wiped the earth’s face clean and started again. But that is not what God chose to do. Instead, God acted out of love and not out of wrath.

I have used this quote before, but it seems a fitting way to end. The quote comes from Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the USA. Bishop Curry says, “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and way of love will change the world.”

Amen


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Word and Work


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Editor: Sermon preached on Sunday, July 18, 2022 at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church in Hull, Massachusetts. The Sermon is based on Colossians 1:15-28

I have to admit; I have a hard time with Paul. Sometimes he writes in beautiful prose, and sometimes he is a blowhard. Paul’s background is interesting. Paul is a Pharisee, a teacher of the law. Paul was the “great persecutor” of the people of the way. Tradition tells us that Paul was present when Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, was stoned to death. That same tradition says that Paul held the coats of the others while they did the deed. Paul’s hands were clean.

Most Christian Scriptures are accredited to Paul and most of what we know as Christian Doctrine comes from those very same writing. Many people can quote Paul backward and forwards, yet he remains one of the most controversial people in all Christian History.

Paul writes in the form of letters. Paul is writing to Churches that he has founded and is in some sort of trouble. The problem with Paul is that we often do not know the issues he is writing about. He does not leave many clues, yet we grasp a hold of his writings and apply them to whatever we think the situation might warrant.

Many Christians practice the art of the proof text. First, we find a situation, usually something to do with taking away the rights of others or excluding others from our congregation. Then, we back into it with Scripture and lift a passage to prove our point.

Let me give you an example. One of the favorite Christian lines is “judge not lest ye be judged” I am using the King James version here. We hear this often, especially when what we are saying is against what they happen to believe.

First, they usually cannot tell you where that particular verse is from in the Bible. It is from Matthew 7:1; I had to look it up. Next, it is usually not applied correctly. We all make judgments. We judge people. We judge their words. We judge their actions. You are lying if you say you do not. This verse is not admonishing us from judging; this verse is about the motive of that judgment. How do I know this? Because I do not just isolate that one verse, I take that verse in the context of the verses around it. I know what was going on at the time it was written. And I understand the mind of the people who not only wrote it but to who it was written. In other words, I have spent most of my adult life studying these words.

Now we come to the passage we heard this morning that Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae. Paul is writing this around AD 61 ish, and he is writing because the people there felt the need to enhance apostolic Christianity. Keep in mind, there were not a lot of books floating about this time, and folx did not have access to Wikipedia, so they were left to their own devices to help others explain things.

It came down to the nature of Jesus and his relation to God; that is why Paul writes the way he does concerning Jesus and describes him the way he does. The Colossians were teaching that Jesus was not God but rather one of several mediators. This is what we now call the gnostic heresy.

So, this leads us to the larger question of who is God/Jesus?

One of my other favorite tropes is “we need God back in America.” I was unaware that God had left. When I hear this, I usually ask a follow-up question: whose God do we want back?

One of my favorite authors is Brian McLaren. Brian is a theologian that has written dozens of books about the nature of the Church and the 21st century. In 2004 he wrote “Generous Orthodoxy,” which was a book mainly about this misunderstanding of Jesus.

McLaren uses his own experience and writes about the seven different Jesus’ he experienced in his life. He begins with the Jesus he met as a child; he calls this Jesus “Conservative Protestant Jesus.” I have met this Jesus, and perhaps some of you have. This is the “born to die” Jesus. This Jesus is individualistic, legalistic, and with no global import for McLaren and me.

As a young adult, he met the “Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus.” I have also encountered this Jesus. This is the Jesus that is involved in everyday life through the Holy Spirit, but again, this is a very individualistic Jesus without any genuine concern globally. McLaren then experienced what he called “Roman Catholic Jesus.” Now I know many of you know this Jesus, as do I. This is the Jesus focused on Eucharist and the connection to the ancient tradition that goes beyond our present experience. But for McLaren and me, this Jesus was too exclusive.

Next up is the “Eastern Orthodox” Jesus. The emphasis here is on the Trinity and mystery but still engaged in the world. This led him to encounter “Liberal Protestant Jesus,” which emphasized social justice that grew from personal experience of faith. From there was the “Anabaptist Jesus,” focusing on the historical work of peace and nonviolence. From there came the experience of the “Liberation Theology Jesus.” This Jesus confronts injustice in the whole of society and stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

I use this to illustrate the complexity of Jesus and God, whom we believe Jesus is, in a Trinitarian formula. So, when we say we need God back in America, are we speaking of the white nationalistic god that wants walls on borders and more rights for whites? Do we want a god that requires nothing of us but to come to church on Sunday, sing a few hymns, and listen to a sermon that will require us to do nothing? Or do we want a god that challenges us to move forward and to live in peace and harmony with everyone? You need to decide who god is.

This week I was told, once again, that I am too progressive. That my radical idea that we should love everyone, treat everyone equally, include everyone, fight for justice, mercy, and all the rest has placed me outside of traditional Christianity. My response was good. Because if traditional Christian stands in opposition to all that, then it is not any form of Christianity I was any part of.

I was also schooled in the notion that the role of the Church was to be the preserver of the past and that we are to cling to things like the historic creeds of the Church and ancient councils and doctrine. Now, as you may know, I am a big believer in the ancient creeds of the Church. We have to believe in something, and these creeds give us that basis for our belief. I also believe that we must understand and appreciate all that has come before us. But I also believe that we are not to remain there. On the contrary, the nature of the Church is to reimagine itself constantly and reinterpret these ancient teachings in light of the present day.

Our Wesleyan/Methodist heritage has something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Wesley used the Anglican theological tradition from which he came as a basis for his understanding of the core beliefs of Christianity. Wesley taught that we need to look at things from Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. (Wesley added reason to the Anglican 3). Scripture is the base of all we do and believe. Tradition is the experience and witness of that belief, what the Church taught and practiced. Experience is our understanding and appropriation of the faith in light of our lives. And reason is our discernment of all of it and how we make it apply to our lives. We need all four, not just a few of the ones we like.

So, this leads to the next question, what is the central purpose of the Church?

For some ideas, I turn to Professor David Ng and his book “Youth in the Community of Disciples.” Ng wrote this book in 1984 because he was concerned that the Church was distracted from its essential identity, the Body of Christ, and its central task to proclaim Christ.

Ng wrote that the task of the Church is not to be a place of entertainment where people come to be entertained while bible teachers put on a show using whatever gimmicks happen to be the latest craze. The Church is not to be some theological theme park where frantic leaders, ever fearful of boring people, employ some of the same tricks as the entertainment Church.

The purpose of the Church is not maintenance; it is not to be a safe place for its members to hide from the world until Jesus comes back. A place where they do not stir anything up or challenge anyone to do anything. Although this may sound strange, the purpose of the Church is not fellowship; focusing on the social relationships of its members. Fellowship is important and is one dimension of Church life, but it is not the central purpose of the Church.

The last point Ng makes is that the purpose of the Church is not protection, where we find refuge from the big bad world outside and invests all of its time and resources on building safe places where members can worship, study, and enact their sacred rituals. This type of Church forbids interaction with outsiders for fear they might upset the applecart.

For Brian McLaren, Professor Ng, Paul, and I, the purposes of the Church are clear – to be the community of disciples of Jesus Christ and, as such, to proclaim Christ. The Church exists for one reason, to proclaim Christ, the firstborn of all creation.

So here is my challenge for you for the week ahead. Through the words of Brian McLaren and my own experience, I presented seven views of Jesus and am sure there are more. Neither McLaren nor I will say that one view of Jesus is better than the next; you have decided that for yourself. I have a view of Jesus, which you should all know by now, and that is the Jesus of radical inclusion and love which I believe is the vision of Jesus that this Church and, to some extent, the denomination holds.

I believe in the Christ of tradition. I believe in the Christ of the Eucharist. And I believe in the Christ that died on the cross, not to save me or to make the final payment for some debit, but died on that cross, arms wide open as an indication of the kind of welcome we are to have for all people.

Jesus left us with a way to follow and Paul, in his unique way, tries to explain that way. That way is radical, and that way is difficult.

So, this week, think about who Jesus is for you and then decide that you are going to follow.

Amen.


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Pick up the Mantle


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Galatians 5:1, 13-25

I want to begin this morning with a question. How is your soul? More often than not, when greeting someone, we ask, “how are you?” Maybe we are interested in the answer, and maybe not. More often than not, the answer is usually I am good or grammatically correct; I am well. Even if we are not good or well, we will respond this way.

When John Wesley was in the early stages of his spiritual awakening, he held “class meetings.” These gatherings would bring people together for a time of spiritual renewal and accountability. Wesley felt that these times were so important that they were required of folx if they wanted to receive communion in his Church. You would attend the class and get your ticket which you will present on Sunday.

These meetings would begin with the question that I asked, how is your soul? Wesley desired to push past the usual pains of life and get to the spiritual pains that, from time to time, we have all suffered from. So, I ask again, how is your soul?

We have been through a lot this week, and, by all accounts, it is not going to get better. For some, our country has taken a radical hard right turn and has taken us on a journey back in time to a place that the majority does not want to go. And to further aggravate the situation, it appears that we may be in store for even more hard right turns and a journey even further back in time.

So, what do we do next?

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I have none other than to say whatever is next needs to be done from a position of peace. We saw on live TV on January 6th what happens when a mob turns ugly, and we know how we reacted. For me, the righteousness of any protest is over when violence or the destruction of property begins. Resorting to violence is never the answer.

But for today, for this moment, I want to focus on the question how is your soul?

I have spoken of my sermon preparation before, but, to just touch on something quickly, I use the Revised Common Lectionary when choosing what biblical passages I am focusing on each week. This Lectionary was designed by the Universal Church and gave the preacher an Old Testament lesson, a Psalm, and two New Testament passages for each Sunday of the Church year. The readings often follow a theme each week and for several weeks. It constantly amazes me how these passages, set forth decades ago, will often give you just what you need on a particular Sunday.

Today, in the Letter from Galatians, Paul writes about freedom. It seems fitting at a time when freedom is becoming a thing of the past.

Paul writes a church in Galatia that is fracturing. After a period of zeal for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, some in the Church have begun to follow a more rigid and legalistic road. There were those in the Galatia that were teaching that even the Christians had to follow the laws of the Old Covenant. Paul is writing to them to call them back to the grace of Jesus.

Freedom is an interesting concept that we often associate with the 4th of July. Freedom is essential to Americans. Freedom is what drove the Pilgrims to leave the relative safety of their homeland to take a treacherous journey across the Atlantic to the New World. Freedom is what drove the ancestors of those same pilgrims to take up arms against their King and Country and declare that they were free of English rule and had a desire to rule themselves, something that had never been done before. Freedom is what is driving Ukrainian civilians and the military to fight to preserve their freedom and way of life. We can walk all through history and find acts that have been driven by freedom, and many of those acts changed the course of history.

But freedom is not free, and by that, I do not mean the trope that we usually hear around the 4th of July about freedom costing lives, although that is true. Freedom is not free because we have to sacrifice a little for each freedom we have. Political freedom requires compromise, and that is not always easy. But freedom also comes with responsibility.

The Pilgrims I mentioned earlier came to these shores to establish a new life that was grounded upon the idea that worship was something that should be left to the dictates of the worshipper. They felt that the government should not force conformity of religious thought and practice, although that is precisely what they did when they got here, but we will leave that for another day.

As that thought matured, it became this idea that although you are free to worship and believe as you see fit, you do not have the right to force me to believe and worship the same way. The Pilgrims came from a place where the Church was wedded to the state, and as such, the state influenced the Church, and the Church influenced the state. A relationship that is not always the best.

Freedom involves choice; although we may not always agree with that choice, that is none of our business.

At some point, Christians decided that they had a responsibility to save others and keep them from sinning. Sure, there is Scripture that says that if your brother or sister is sinning, call them out. Well, we have seen how that goes. But unfortunately, we are so focused on other sins that we become blind to our own.

The only person the Christian is obligated to save is themselves. We do not have to help someone “find Jesus” because Jesus is not lost! Yes, we are to baptize and make disciples, but we do not do it by passing laws and writing legislation that forces people into a particular thought or belief. We make disciples through relationships, and by how we live our lives, not by telling someone they are wrong and especially not by telling someone they are sinners.

Paul writes to those in the Galatian Church that true freedom, as found in Jesus, is founded on, wait for it, love. It’s funny how we always come back to love. Love is why God did what God did. Love is why Jesus did what he did. And love should be why we do what we do. Love, my friends, is a choice. Following Jesus is a choice. Freedom is a choice.

But Paul says we do not use our freedom for our own selfish purposes; we use our freedom for others. Therefore, when we, through the grace of Jesus Christ, become free, we must become slaves to others. We can no longer think about what is good for me, but we must consider what is good for all. True freedom is the exact opposite of individual freedom and individual rights, but it becomes about community and what is best for everyone.

When we take on the title of Christian, we must broaden our focus and not limit it. We have to turn from our selfish ways towards the ways that bring freedom to all and not just some, and we may not always like what that freedom brings, but it is not about us.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We need to spend less time thinking about what it’s going to be like on the other side and worry more about making God’s kingdom right here where we are; that is what we are called to do. We are not being called by grace to just sit on the sidelines and pray, not that prayer is not essential, but we are called to be the voice for the voiceless. We are called to ensure justice and mercy. And we are called to love everyone, including those who despise us and want our destruction.

Friends, I would like us to focus on the question that Wesley asks, how is it with your soul? I want our little Church to be a place of refuge and retreat where the weary can come and find that refreshment. I want us to be a field hospital for those on the front lines, where we bandage up the wounds physically, mentally, and spiritually. I want us to be open for prayer on more than just Sundays. I want us to provide more times to gather around the table for communion. I want us to offer healing services with the ancient practice of anointing with oil and the laying on of hands. I want us to form prayer circles and Class meetings and become a spiritual powerhouse in this community that works to build bridges and longer tables and breaks down barriers. I want us to open the doors of our hall for more support groups that help people with addiction and grief and where we minister to the community by providing meals and fellowship at no cost.

In his address to the Annual Conference, our bishop called us to live a deeper and more meaningful spiritual life. He called us to reflect on our spiritual life so that we pay as much attention to spiritual matters as we do those physical and political. Wesley started a method, a method of spirituality that transformed those who practiced it and, by extension, transformed the world around them. Our spiritual journey must take us off the bench and get us in the game. We need more spirituality, not less.

I know it will be a sacrifice. We will have to give up more than just an hour a week to come here and be present. We will have to become vulnerable and share our hearts with others. It will cost us in light and heat, but what is the purpose of having space if we do not use it. We will change the world we live in by our example and not by our legislation. We will support those called to the front lines of protest with prayer and comfort when needed. Think of it this way, Jesus started with 12 and changed the world! Jesus had no money and no building, but he had love and he had compassion. Do we have less?

Will it be hard? Yes, it will. Will it cost us? Yes, it will. But what we seek is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, costly grace and not cheap grace. So, I want us to commit, as individuals and as a congregation, to be this place of rest of retreat. We can do it; I know we can do it. So, rest up because we have work to do.

Amen


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I am a Pro-Choice Pastor


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I have remained silent far too long. Sure, I have posted the odd MEME and article that supports choice, but I have never written or preached on the subject. Perhaps it was out of fear or the desire to avoid conflict in the various churches I have been in; I am not sure. But after yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling striking down 50 years of settled law, I feel I have a duty and an obligation to add my voice. I am a lover of Jesus Christ, a minister in God’s Church, and I am pro-choice.

I have, however, not always felt this way.

A couple of years after I was ordained, I attended the “March for Life” in Washington, DC. I had not spent much time on either side of the issue, so I thought pro-life meant that life was to be respected from whenever one thinks it begins to the natural end of that life. I quickly learned that many in the pro-life movement are hypocritical – there is no respect for life past birth, only before. Although the march was peaceful, the undertone of fear and anger was present. Seeing and feeling this set me on a journey of discernment about this issue and many more.

Choice is a very personal matter. Personally, I do not like the idea of abortion, but that is my choice. Thankfully, I have never been in that position, but if I was, I hope I would make an informed decision that involved my spouse and that we would do what is best for our family. But that is my choice, and not another’s choice. Although I may be personally against the idea of abortion, I cannot and should not be allowed to make that decision for another person.

Additionally, this is not and should not be a religious issue. Religion and faith should inform an individual, and then that individual makes choices based on that faith and belief. Religion should not be the basis for the laws of democracy, and I say this because not all religions look at issues the same way.

Just because I have been asked, I will answer. I believe that human life begins at birth. I have a child, and through the miracle of medical science, I watched her develop in the womb. My belief in life comes from Genesis and the creation of humanity. God created humanity with God’s hands from the dust of the earth, but it was not until God breathed God’s breath into humanity that humanity was alive. The ancients believed that the soul entered the body with that first breath. This is my belief, and it is not up for debate, nor do I think you might be wrong for believing the way you do.

Living in a free society means there will be laws with which I disagree. But these are rights and laws nonetheless. Freedom means just that, freedom – not just for me but for all. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, color, creed, and all the rest, should have the same rights. It does not matter what state you are from or how much money you have. Rights should equally apply to all; if not, then we are not a free society.

If you do not like abortions, don’t get one. That is your choice. But do not take that choice away from someone else.

I know many of you are hurting and angry right now, and that is okay. Sit with that and let those emotions flow; then, we get to work! If you protest, stay peaceful and calm, do not give in to the anger and hate. Be ready for the long game. Battles are not won or lost in a single day, so pace yourself and, please, take care of yourself. And to those like me who are in the shadows, now is the time to come out and be a support for those on the front lines.

I started this essay by saying that I have been silent for too long, and for that, I apologize; my fear and discomfort have kept me in the shadows far too long on many issues, and that ends today.


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Sermon: In God’s Presence


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Luke 8:26-39

It was a day not unlike the day before it, with one exception, this would be the first day of freedom. The day was June 19, 1865, and the place was Galveston, Texas. The war had been raging for five years. Hundreds of thousands were dead. The American landscape had changed forever. Most historians place the ending of the US Civil War to the day when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. But for those left in bondage in Texas, the war did not officially end until June 19, 1865.

Texas was the last of the former Confederate States to free their slaves. On that day in June, by General Order Number 3, the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced, and those in bondage were set free. Last year, after 156 years, President Biden signed a law designating June 19th as a Federal Holiday in recognition of that day in Galveston.

When our country was founded, 89 years before those events in Texas, owning another human being was legal. The Capitol Building and White House in Washington, DC, were built by slave labor, and much of the agricultural production was provided by slave labor in sometimes unbearable conditions. Slavery and the fact that this country was built on the idea of freedom is part of our history, although some would like us to forget it. You can mask it in whatever language you wish, but slavery was the main reason brothers took up arms against brothers and fought the Civil War that still rages in some parts of this country.

Although many knew that the institution of slavery was sinful, I cannot hold those who founded that country to the same standard as our 21st Century sense of morality. I am not saying it is correct, but times were different, and morality was different, but that does not mean we should sweep it under the rug. History, just like theology, needs to be studied and taught with a critical lens and the unvarnished truth. Unfortunately, America has a pretty poor track record when it comes to the historical as well as the modern treatment of minorities. We can and must do better.

But today, we hear a story of another kind of emancipation, spiritual emancipation.

The story from Luke’s Gospel is a story of the awesome power of God. The demons feared it, the possessed man was saved by it, and the local people did not know what to make. Finally, Jesus reveals that God has power over evil and compassion for those who are lost.

Jesus and those with him arrive in the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus stepped out of the boat, he was met by a man who had lived most of his life among the tombs. Scripture tells us he was naked and would often throw himself into the fire and do other things to harm himself. He was sent there in chains because the people of the nearby town were afraid of this man.

Scripture does not provide us with a lot of detail. We do not know the man’s name or the names of his parents. However, we know that the man is so worn out from his ordeal that he survives, shackled and under guard and in the caves near the water. He is an outcast from his community.

It is usually at this point that preachers will attempt to explain his condition using modern psychological terms because we do not like things we cannot explain, like demon possession. Now, I do not think it is at all like the movies, such as the exorcist, but I am a believer in such things as spiritual warfare. However, regardless of the terms, we want to use, this man’s life is out of his control, and he has been reduced to being chained for his protection and that of the society around him.

Jesus confronts the demon and asks what their name is, and the reply is Legion as an indication that the influences on this man were many. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many, even those of us who call Jesus Lord. Sometimes there are so many forces around us that pull us in one direction or another that it can seem like we have lost all control. Concerns about employment, health, finances, broken relationships and the day-to-day details of our lives can all conspire to make us feel like we have no control.

It is important to note that the unclean spirit is the first to recognize the divine in Jesus. The question asked is not “who are you?” but “what are you going to do with us?” Recognizing the presence of God is not the same as committing oneself to that presence. The unclean spirits’ only concern was for self-preservation, so much so that the only way they could see a way out was to ask to be sent into the beats that would be their final destruction.

Often in life, we see no way out; we are so lost that asking for help seems beyond our control. We might accept God’s healing and forgiving power and love in our lives, but our human instincts drive us in different directions.

Just as the man in the story seems to have no will, we often resist change and flee to what is familiar, living a life that makes little or no sense from a faith perspective. Only when the man fell before Jesus did he find any kind of hope. So likewise, we find peace and transformation at the feet of our savior, not in the shelter of a life directed by other influences.

But those living in the town, those who knew this man and his struggle, were not so quick to accept this transformation. How many times have we witnessed someone who has changed and repented, yet we approach them with skepticism? I am not saying that we should welcome everyone, we need to be cautious, but the point here is that the demon was quicker to accept the authority of God than the townsfolk were.

They feared the Son of God more than the unclean spirits and demonstrated the emotions that sometimes accompany an encounter with the holy. There is some truth that we sometimes prefer the troubles we know to changes we do not.

Right there in front of them was the awesome power of God. The man was not only healed but the demons had been destroyed. The man’s life was visibly changed; he was no longer the victim but the victor. His life has been transformed, and he has been given a new chance at life. Yet the people asked Jesus to leave, and in so doing, they forfeited any opportunity to further benefit from this awesome power of God’s love that he brought with them.

Jesus tells the man, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Then, Jesus sends the man back to be among his own as a witness. The man is a recipient of life-changing grace and has a story to tell.

In a few moments, we, like the man in the story, have an opportunity to share in that lifesaving and life-transforming grace. We will gather around the table and consecrate the elements that have been provided for us. This is not something you or I do on our own, but together with the Holy Spirit, we transform these simple elements into something holy in the same way that the same Holy Spirit will transform our lives into something Holy. This is the Lord’s table and not ours. We do not come to it as some reward for obeying all the rules; instead, we humbly approach this table as imperfect people. We come and ask the question, “What will you do with us?” And the answer is, forgive, love, and transform.

Take this gift freely given but do not hold on to it. Instead, we must “Return to our homes and tell of the awesome power of God and all that God has done in our lives.”

What is it that possesses us? What is it that we have to fall on our knees in front of Jesus and leave there, at his feet? Trust that God will forgive and trust that God will help you make the change that you need to become his disciples in the world.

Amen.


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