Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sunday 19 February 2012 - God's Upside-Down Transfiguration

The Gospel text is Mark 9:2-13.  This sermon was preached at a contemporary service of Holy Communion for a mixed-aged Midwestern congregation.



The Problem of Pain

Probably one of the biggest theological challenges that a hospital chaplain faces is answering the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?

As you might think, most people don’t get angry at God when they end up in the hospital with conditions that are related to behaviors that they’ve been warned about.           

The other day, I was talking with a woman who had just had a very serious operation that was a direct consequence of her neglecting to follow her doctor’s instructions regarding her diabetes.  So we talked about her being compliant with her diabetes regimen and how taking care of her diet and medication was a spiritual as well as a behavioral issue.

In my experience, people will illnesses related to their own bad habits don’t usually blame God for putting them in the hospital. The vast majority of the time, such individuals are asking God for a chance at forgiveness and at repentance – for a chance to change their ways.

As you might expect, the real theological challenges come with people who have had unexpected accidents or situations like new parents whose babies have been born with severe medical issues.

I remember last winter, the parents of a thirty-something young man who contracted the H1 N1 virus (remember that one?) and died within days of getting the ‘flu.  They wanted to know why God had taken their son who was a good man, a good husband and a loving father.

Or the 25-year old new mother with whom I sat crying in the Neo-natal ICU last January.  She asked me why God would allow her baby develop in her womb in such a way that he had no chance to live a productive life. I had to tell her that I didn’t have an answer and that I didn’t really know.

I’ve heard the sorts of theological answers that people have given for why bad things happen.

I couldn’t in good conscience tell her that her baby was born without a chance of life because sin had entered the world through Adam and Eve.  I don’t believe that.

And I couldn’t say to her “Well, we can’t understand everything that God does but we believe that whatever God does is always for the best.” I don’t believe that it was for the best that her child was born with no hope for getting to his first birthday.

But the one that I could do was sit there with her and hold her and let her cry.

She turned to me and said “How am I supposed to hold on to my faith?”
I said the honest thing that came to my mind: “I don’t know.”

And then I “heard” another answer in my mind and I said it out loud: “Maybe this is one of those situations where you have to let your faith hold on to you rather than you trying to hold on to your faith.”  She looked at me strangely, but then seemed to understand what I was saying and she nodded her head.

The problem of pain is called “theodicy” and it’s one of our most difficult theological questions.  Humanity has been wrestling with this issue since we became conscious beings and I don’t personally think there is a neat answer.

Here’s what I believe.  I believe that sometimes bad things happen that are not the consequence of human behavior and which we simply can’t explain with a simple philosophy or theology of cause-and-effect.

And, when such things happen, I believe that God is right there with us, present in the mess with us and weeping with us. From my experience in the hospital, I personally believe that God is there when we are unaware of God’s presence and even when we don’t believe that God is there.

The Problem with The Problem of Pain

But I also think that there is a problem with the problem of pain. And the problem with the problem of pain is thinking that life is supposed to unfold the way we want it to unfold, and that when it doesn’t, that we have a legitimate grievance against God.

I could blame this viewpoint on modern society, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Buried deep in the human psyche is the conviction that if I am a good person, I deserve to get good things.

Most societies down through the ages (including ours, I think) and many religions have a simple answer for the problem of pain.

That simple answer is that if something bad happens to you or your family, it’s because you deserve it. Either the person afflicted with the pain did something bad to deserve their tragedy, or someone close to them did.

In this simple philosophy, the opposite belief also holds true:  If I am powerful, successful and/or rich, it’s because I am a good person and because the gods are rewarding me for being good. We see this all throughout history:  emperors, kings and aristocrats are regarded as having been appointed by God and serfs and peasants are regarded as slaves and/or cannon fodder.

In Scripture, we also see people who exhibit this idea that “God blesses the good people and curses bad people”. We see it in Job, and we see it when Jesus has to tell people that the man born blind was not being punished for his sins, nor were the people who died when a tower collapsed.

The Upside Down Transfiguration

By now, I’ll bet you’re trying to figure out what any of this has to do with the Transfiguration.

Well, I think that there are two ways that we can interpret this story:  we can interpret it in a Gospel way, or we can interpret it in the worldly way.

Before we get to the Transfiguration itself, I want to quickly point out what was going on in the Gospel of Mark before Jesus and the three disciples went up the mountain.

In Mark 8:27,28, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say the son of man is?” Anyone here sing in the Easter Cantata last year? (Some say you are Elijah, some say you are a prophet.)

Then, in verse 29, Jesus asks Peter who he thinks Jesus is. (The Messiah)

The scene then switches and in verses 31 & 32, Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah will be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed and then rise again after three days. Peter rebukes Jesus at the end of verse 32, and Jesus responds in verse 33 with his rebuke to Peter, telling Peter that his view of The Messiah is the human way of seeing things rather than the divine way of seeing things.

And then we get to the story about the Transfiguration.

Now, the Transfiguration is undoubtedly an Epiphany.  In Christian theology, an “epiphany” is when Jesus is revealed for who he truly is.

Some may say that Jesus is Elijah or a prophet, but here we have Jesus revealed as The Messiah. On the mountain-top, like Moses receiving the ten commandments, Jesus’ very being glows with the presence of God and he is revealed as clearly separate from and greater than the two greatest men in Jewish history.

The Transfiguration is very clearly a foretaste of glory divine. If no-one else is aware of it yet, on that mountain-top Peter, James and John are let into the secret that The Messiah has indeed come to Israel and that the Savior is present among them.

The only problem is that Peter (as well as James and John) has still got his mind set on human things rather than on divine things. In other words, Peter is still seeing this magnificent event through his own perspective that anyone who is blessed by God will be spared suffering and will receive absolute glory.

As Charlie Sheen might put it, Peter still thinks that being The Messiah is about “Winning, stupid.”

And this Transfiguration is just the kind of “winning” that Peter had imagined. Peter does what all of us would want to do: He sees this perfect scene of (what he believes to be) the great men reigning in triumph and he wants to pitch a tent and stay there forever.

That’s the worldly fantasy, isn’t it?  The hero kills the bad guys, puts the good guys into power, and we all live in this good kingdom happily ever after.

Except that Jesus has been repeatedly telling his disciples that “it” – his mission – is not about “Winning, stupid” but about dying and rising again.

The Good News of Jesus’ Death

Well, that certainly puts a damper on things!

I’ve managed to take what looks – at first glance – like a complete triumph and change it into something kind of depressing.

Where is the Good News in the Transfiguration if the shadow of Jesus coming death – his coming murder – is lurking in the background?

That, of course, is what is called the scandal of the cross.  It’s the scandal that the Messiah didn’t kill all his enemies but instead sacrificed his own life at the height of his political and physical power. And, who could possibly see that as Good News?

Well, I personally think that the parents of the 30-something young man who died from H1N1 can see it as good news and take heart from it.

And the mother of the baby who will never live to his first birthday can let her church’s faith in the Gospel keep her, because they know that the Trinity understands personally what it means to suffer and to die in a way that the world deems to be meaningless.

By becoming incarnate in the human form of Jesus, God demonstrates the dignity that has been endowed in us by our Creator. Because the God revealed to us by Jesus is not a God who sits triumphantly in heaven watching our lives with Spock-like detached interest, never getting divine hands dirty in all the mess of being human.

In Jesus, God gets down in the mess with us – Jesus accompanies us – in the chaos and confusion of what it means to be human. This Son of God accompanies us to the point of experiencing our sins and even undergoing death.

Please don’t think I’m looking at this story of the Transfiguration – which is clearly a story of triumph – and saying that there is no victory in it.  Because I think that there is great victory in it.
Not the least because Jesus keeps telling the faithful over and over again – and he demonstrates throughout his life - that God is present in events that the world sees as meaningless.  And Jesus demonstrates that God’s blessing is upon people who the world sees a useless waste of space.

After all, what good is a God whose only message to us is “Nothing succeeds like success”? To paraphrase Jesus, the successful already have their reward.

The Transfiguration is a sign of God’s sort of victory rather than the human (Charlie Sheen) version of victory.

Walk with Jesus in Confidence

What an appropriate text, then, for the Sunday before Lent.

Jesus takes his friends up the mountain with him and they can see that, even though Jesus must suffer and die, that nonetheless there is divine triumph and victory on this mountain-top.

What will look like the sort of defeat that confirms to human values that Jesus most certainly cannot be the Messiah, will in fact be God’s victory over sin, death and the power of evil (to quote Martin Luther).

Although the problem of pain will always be with us, our faith witnesses to us that we can trust that God is always with us and that we can allow our faith to hold us in times of darkness.

As we come before the Lord’s table this morning, I pray that we will first be able to go up the mountain with Peter, James and John and experience a little bit of that assurance that they must have felt that God knows what God is doing. And then may we take that confidence with us, and come back down the mountain secure in the knowledge that the risen Jesus is always walking with us and sharing table fellowship with us.

Amen



Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday June 20, 2011 - Great is Thy Faithfulness





The context for this sermon is an ecumenical Christian service of the word in the chapel of a large, high-acuity teaching hospital.

The Scripture is: Genesis 12:1-9

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Risk-taking faith

Today’s reading from Genesis is the story of the call of Abram and Sarai But, in pulling the story out of the bible as we do when we use passages for worship, we’re missing something important in this story. And that important thing is the context.

And I want to begin today’s reflection by reminding you of the context. Because this story of Abram’s and Sarai’s calling starts very abruptly with the words “God said to Abram, Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your parents’ house to a land that I will show you.” In the narrative as it’s presented in Genesis, there isn’t any preliminary build-up to this story.

Directly before God calls Abram and Sarai, we have the story of the Tower of Babel, Then a list of the descendents of Shem, of whom Abram is one of those descendents.

We have no other background information about Abram other than this genealogy. And, of course, we have no information about Sarai other than that she is Abram’s wife. And we have no previous information about Abram’s relationship with God, either. All we know is that, suddenly, God appears and tells Abram to get up and go from his parents’ house to an unknown land.

And I think that, because we are so used to hearing the story of Abram and his relationship with God and we know the end of the story…and because this verse is written poetically, it all sounds great and good and positive.

“Wow! God is going to make Abram and Sarai the Patriarch and Matriarch of God’s chosen people! Fantastic! Lucky Abram! Lucky Sarai”

But what would happen if we heard the story of today’s reading something like this: (Please excuse a bit of literary license)

"Suddenly, Abram heard a voice that he had never heard before claiming to be the God of all creation. He was afraid and thought he might be going crazy.

And the voice said to him, “You and your wife have got a pretty nice life here among your people, don’t you? You know everyone, your parents are here and life is pretty good, except that you have no children.

But if you and Sarai want to have children, if you want to leave behind your state of barrenness, you both are going to have to leave this land and this comfortable life and go to an unknown place that I’m going to direct you to.

I will give you descendents who will eventually become a great people. But you will also eventually despair of having an heir and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I will make your name great and your descendents will be a blessing to the world, but you personally won’t see any of the greatest blessings that I’m going to give them and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.

I will curse those who curse you, but the vindication you desire isn’t going to come in your lifetime and you’re going to have to trust me on this one.”


If we read the text in this way, it takes on a whole different slant. We see Abram and Sarai not as some lucky lottery winners who were unexpectedly and inexplicably given a jackpot. Rather, we see them as risk-takers who trusted in God. And we also see that some might call them fools. Maybe we would call someone a fool who behaves as Abram and Sarai did.

Call and Response

There is an ironic twist to this story because if Abram and Sarai stay in the safety of all that is familiar they will remain barren. In order to bear children and become the parents of God’s Chosen People, they have to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk in their old age.

If you wanted to translate this story into 21st century America, I could see one rendition of it where there is a con-artist somewhere in the background hoping to take advantage of a couple of senior citizens who she hopes might be befuddled.

After all, who ever heard of a couple starting a great dynasty when the woman is 65 and the man 75? And those who are familiar with Scripture know that Sarah (as she will then be known) won’t get pregnant until her 90th year.

Abram and Sarai are being called to abandon their families of origin, to renounce their former way of life and to set out on a journey that will be physically dangerous and to aim for a future that is logically impossible. But unless they take a risk and step out in faith, they will not bear fruit. God initiates the promise that God makes to them, but the choice as to whether or not to act on God’s promise is up to them.

And for me as a Methodist, that’s a great metaphor for what a life of faith is all about: God initiates and human beings respond to God’s plan. The life of faith, although initiated by God, is always a two-way street that requires the participation of both parties. True faith is not a matter of “cheap grace” where we accuse anyone who responds to God’s plan and calling as trying to earn God’s favor by human works.

Rather, faith acknowledges that everything in life is a gift from God, and that these gifts are given to us out of love in order that we might respond to them.

At the end of the day, faith is call-and-response. God calls and we respond.

God is Faithful

So - the story tells us - Abram and Sarai set out for the land of Canaan.

They set out in order that their descendents should become God’s chosen people……so that all nations and races and peoples would be blessed by them, and would be blessed as they were blessed.

But, for me, the most amazing and difficult part of this faith-journey was that neither Abram nor Sarai were going to live to see the fulfilling of the promise that God made to them. They were not going to see their descendents become a great nation. They were not going to see Isaac give birth to Jacob who was to become Israel and the father of God’s Chosen People through whom all peoples of the earth would be blessed.

At the end of the journey, at the end of their lives, Abraham and Sarah were still walking by faith rather than by sight. By rights, each of them could have gone to their grave saying something like: “God gave us something but God didn’t give us what we had been promised.”

But those of us who know the entire story know that God did, in fact, fulfill the promise made to Abram and Sarai. God remained faithful to Abraham and Sarah (as they would become), and through them to the people of Israel and through them, God remained faithful to all of humanity.

Even though Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to perceive the fulfillment of the blessing, it doesn’t diminish the fact that God came through as promised.

By responding to God’s call, Abram and Sarai stepped out of their barrenness and into a new future. And I find that both an inspiration and a challenge. Because it’s not always easy to have that kind of faith. It’s not always easy to trust in God’s faithfulness when events do not unfold as we expect and maybe when it even looks like God didn’t fulfill the promises that were made. It’s easy enough to say the words “God has the situation mapped out” but it’s not always easy to walk into the future when you feel that God has not given you a glimpse of that map.

And so, to encourage one another, we tell stories like this one of God’s faithfulness in the past and we remind each other that God continues to be faithful to us today. As people of faith, we remember that – as the author of Hebrews said – “we desire a better country”. Not just in “heaven” but also in the here and now.

Conclusion

For me, it is Good News that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises, even if I can’t perceive right now that those promises are being kept.

For me, it is Good News that other people of faith struggle with difficulties along their journey with God.

And for me, it is Good News that, as we step out in faith, that we are in a very real sense co-creators with God in the divine unfolding of history.

As we go from this place, I pray that the God of Abram and Sarai will bless each one of us as we take those initial steps out of our barren places into the unfolding of God’s creative endeavor.

I pray that we will be able to encourage other people of faith and to be encouraged by them.

And I pray that, whether or not we see the final result of God’s blessing on our lives that we will nevertheless be able to embrace God’s mysterious peace which surpasses all of our own human understanding. May the peace of God be with us always. Amen

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sunday May 8 2011 - God With Us in the Journey

The context for this sermon is an ecumenical Christian service of the word in the chapel of a large, high-acuity teaching hospital.

The text is Luke 24:13-31.

I have used some ideas from the following websites in this sermon:
* Working Preacher
* Beatitudes Society

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Introduction

Cleopas and his companion are in shock.

They didn’t go to Jerusalem just because they were curious onlookers who heard about Jesus and the controversy that surrounded him. And they didn’t go there to see the equivalent of a first century soap opera: to see whether Jesus would make a play for power this Passover or to see how the Roman Empire would respond to him.

Cleopas and his companion were disciples of Jesus. Obviously, they were not part of the closest twelve disciples, but they were disciples nonetheless. Jesus was their Rabbi, their teacher and their Messiah. They believed in him.

They went to Jerusalem because they believed him when he said that the Messiah had to die but would rise again in three days. And so they stayed in Jerusalem and they waited for the resurrection. They waited for the resurrection that the women witnessed in the verses just prior to this story, but somehow they missed it.

The passage tells us that on the very same day that the women witnessed the empty tomb, that Cleopas and his companion started their journey back to Emmaus convinced that their hope had been in vain.

And, as they made their way back to Emmaus from Jerusalem, they were in shock and in mourning. They had had so many hopes and dreams and now all of these were shattered. Jesus had not risen from the tomb. Jesus was dead, and all the hopes and dreams that they had invested in him were dead too.

Everything that they had hoped that he would do for them was dead. They had lost Jesus and any living relationship that they had hoped to have with him in the future had also disappeared.

Like everyone who loses a loved one, Cleopas and his companion were in shock. Their world had been turned upside down and they didn’t know what to do.

How ironic, then, that when Jesus appears in their midst, their souls are so clouded with shock and pain and mourning that they don’t recognize him. In fact, they tell him: “You must be the only person in the entire city of Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s going on!” They think that it’s Jesus who is clueless about reality when, in fact, it is they who are temporarily blind. They believe that God is dead when, in fact, God is walking with them right at that very moment.

Where is God in All of This?

Reading this story in this way made me chuckle a bit to myself because I do this too:

God can be right there with me in my journey and I don’t recognize the divine presence. God can be right there relating to me, trying to communicate, trying to teach me and show me the truth, and I don’t recognize it.

I say that I believe that God is present in every situation, but like a lot of people, I only partly believe it. Now there are times when I recognize God in the middle of my messes. But, like Cleopas and his companion, there are also times when it is only after the event that I realize that God was there all along.

And one of the things that I find comforting about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t get fed up. He’s walking and walking with these two men for a few hours and they are telling them about their lost hopes and dreams. They are telling him about how God was not present in the events of Holy Week and Easter after all.

But Jesus doesn’t walk away. He doesn’t get fed up. He doesn’t throw up his hands and declare: “Well, if they can’t see me standing in front of them, why am I even bothering?” Jesus just keeps walking with them.

Jesus also doesn’t get annoyed with them because they are grieving and in shock and in pain. Jesus doesn’t run away from their pain and their grief. He just stays with them. He accepts them as they are and doesn’t abandon them because it would be a lot easier emotionally to make the journey on his own.

Jesus just sticks with them and keeps on walking.

If this story is anything to go by, God continues to walk with us during our times of challenge and isn’t all that easily put off.

It can happen that during difficult times we ask ourselves the question “Where is God in all of this?”. This story suggests to me that the answer is that God is right here. Just like the story of the footprints in the sand: we think that God has abandoned us when, in fact, God is the only thing that is keeping us going.

We Had Hoped

The other aspect of the story that touched my soul was when Cleopas and his companion outlined to this presumed stranger their failed hope “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Because all of us also have failed hopes:
•“We had hoped that that this would be the doctor who could help our loved one recover.”
•“He had hoped that she would call.”
•“They had hoped that their son would come back from Iraq.”
•“We had hoped that this was going to be the company that would hire him.”
•“We had hoped that our child would be born healthy.”

But the stranger interrupts the travelers’ litany of grief and despair and he demonstrates to them that there is a bigger picture. He shows them that this story of Jesus is part of an ancient story of God’s saving action in the world.

God’s story is woven into the story of humanity. Jesus helps them to see that there is another way to look at this story.

The disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel but they had hoped for the kind of victory that the world understands. And they were still hoping for that kind of victory, for that kind of resurrection.

On this first day of Easter, it was still way too early for these disciples to understand that God was offering them a completely different sort of redemption than the one that they expected.

God is With Us

I love this story because it is a story of God’s presence with us in all the aspects of a life of faith.

It’s a story of God’s presence with us in the breaking of the bread: God is with us in the ordinary things of life and God is with us when we gather as a Church community at the Lord’s Supper.

But it’s also a story of God with us in our faith journey: God with us when we don’t recognize God’s presence. God’s sticking with us when we are in shock, in grief, when we are confused and even when we presume to lecture God incorrectly about what God is all about!

This story is certainly a story of the assurance of God’s persistence in being present with us.

But there is also a lesson in the story: if we look around and we don’t see God, maybe we need to look again and shift our own preconceptions of where God might be.

My prayer for all of us this morning is that, as we go through this week, we will know the assurance of God’s presence and, carrying that faith with us, that we will look for God even in the most unlikely of places.

Amen

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday April 22 2011 - My Lord My God is Crucified

The context of this service is an ecumenical Good Friday service in the Chapel of a large teaching hospital.

The texts are John 18 - 19

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People

It was the people in this story that struck me as I read the text. All the different kinds of people – a whole cast of characters – with a wide range of motivations.

First we have the groups of people:
The disciples, Jesus’ closest twelve.
The Roman soldiers.
The courts of the High Priest and Pilate.
The common people lurking in the High Priest’s courtyard.
The spectators on Good Friday come for a good execution and a bit of entertainment just as people have done from time immemorial.

And then we have the individuals, too many to list now:
Jesus, of course.
Judas, the disciple and the betrayer.
Peter, who is disciple, defender AND betrayer.
And Annas (the High Priest) and Pilate. So-called “leaders” who don’t seem to be doing a lot of leading.

I don’t know about you, but as a child I was taught to read all of these events as things that happened because Jesus needed to die for my sins. So, as I sat in church on Good Friday hearing these stories, there was a kind of inevitability about it all. In the same way that I knew how the story about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned out, I knew the story about Jesus praying in Gethsemane, judged by the High Priest and by Pilate and marched off to crucifixion.

It never really occurred to me that, in some very real sense, these events occurred because a number of people – both groups and individuals – made free choices. Free choices which led human beings to execute the Son of God. And as today’s reading reminded us, Jesus didn’t call down legions of angels to fight the legions of Caesar. He left the events of human history to the consequences of human actions.

Jesus died because an angry mob was looking for a scapegoat.
He died because the rulers of the subjugated people were frightened and thought it was better for one man to die than for the nation to suffer.
He died because the official representative of the Empire didn’t have the courage to do what he knew in his heart was right.
Yes, there is a sense in which all of this had to happen. Yes, he died for our sins, but he also died because of our sins.

The choices made by individuals over 2000 years ago killed Jesus. But I don’t think we’re off the hook. Unless any one of us can truly say that we would never be so frightened as to permit our government use individuals as scapegoats. That we would never give up one of our group in order that the group might survive. That we would never sacrifice another person on the altar of expediency. The human choices that were made by those individuals 2000 years ago are choices that we ourselves are very capable of making. And those choices killed Jesus.

Death

The other thing that struck me in reading this text was that it is a story about the death of a human being.

Of course, the Christian tradition affirms that Jesus was the Son of God, true God and true human being. But he was a human being. And I think that, historically, Christians have tended to forget this.

Often we tend to see Jesus as a kind of a Superhero, who shared all the qualities of God but was only masquerading as a human being. But the Passion story is also a story about a very human Jesus: a man who made sure that his mother would be looked after, a man who was thirsty, a man who looked death in the face and gave up his spirit.

And this particular human death reminded me of the deaths of other human beings that sadly happen here in the hospital, despite all the prayers and wishes of the people who love these individuals. Despite all the best efforts, choices and work by the medical staff here. Deaths that sadly sometimes happen despite all our best choices. And just like Jesus had all these different people surrounding him at the time of his death, so too do families often gather at the death of a loved one.

And that reminded me once again that, as a Christian, I believe in an incarnate God: a God who took on human form. Christianity does not tell us that we humans are a lower form of life who have to work very hard to rise up to the level of the divine. Christianity tells us that, by divine grace, God became embodied like us. Christianity tells us that, if we have seen Jesus, we have seen not only the invisible God but we have also seen who we are truly created to be as heirs to the New Creation.

Although the Christian church tends to talk about the Incarnation at Christmas, I think that here in this hospital we need the incarnate God – true God and true human – even more on Good Friday. When we see individuals facing times of pain, illness, trauma and death it’s good remind ourselves that God had a body. As human beings, we all need the Jesus who understood physical human suffering and who did not evade it.

This – embodied, suffering Christ – is The One who we need to be by our side when we are gravely ill and suffering. The embodied Christ is the One we need when we begin to wonder if God is so far off that God has no idea what we’re going through. On Good Friday, we are reminded that God became incarnate not just as a little baby but also as the Suffering Servant.

Conclusion

Today is Good Friday. I regret if you think I’ve spoken too much about death. Because, of course, we know the end of “The Jesus Story” and it’s not ultimately about death. The story of Jesus’ mission is ultimately about resurrection, about New Birth and New Life and a new Reign of God.

And Easter, of course, is the source of the sure and certain hope that we have in Christ.

But I do want to urge all of us not to jump too far ahead. As a devotion, let’s linger a bit at the events of Good Friday.

Let’s remember that human choices – the sort that we are all capable of making – put Jesus on the cross. And let’s remember to that Jesus also freely chose his suffering. A suffering which somehow unites God and humanity in a new and lasting coventental relationship. But a suffering that Jesus chose because of his deep and abiding faith that, ultimately in the final analysis, death does not dwell where God dwells.

This is the ultimate source of the Christian hope. This is the hope of Good Friday that points us toward the hope of Easter Sunday.

As we commemorate the death of Jesus this afternoon, I pray that the hope that we have in the embodied, crucified and resurrected Jesus will be with us all. Amen

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday 30 May 2010 - The Servant King

I was asked to supply-preach this morning on the general subject of "Memorial Day". I chose to use the assigned Epistle reading from the lectionary, Romans 5:1-11 but I departed from the lectionary for the Gospel reading and chose the story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet from John: John 13:1-9

Introduction

I’d like you to imagine with me a screenplay for a television movie.

The main character in my imaginary movie is a CIA agent who I’ll call Josh. Josh has spent the last three years working on a case that is very important to the security of the United States. He’s been hot on the trail of a terrorist cell and he’s just managed to uncover a major attack that is about to go down in one of the biggest cities in the US. Josh has just found out the time and the place for this attack and he’s even found out who is responsible for its planning. Furthermore, Josh knows that the terrorist group is on to him and that they are sending operatives to kill him.

And then, the movie switches scenes. Josh is at home. Knowing that a group of thugs has been sent to assassinate him in the next few hours before the CIA can put effective protection into place, Josh has chosen to go home to his family of twelve sons.

And what does he do? Does he pack his bags quickly and tell his sons that their lives are in danger and that they should leave immediately? No.

Instead, he prepares and shares a lavish meal with them. He tells them to remember him and to always do what is right and that, if they do, they will find that he is always with them. All of this takes hours. It’s not even a rushed meal before a quick get-away. It’s a proper, lavish, sit-down meal. Then he tells each son that, before he goes, he’s going to spend some time with each one of them, leaving each son with a with a personal memory of him because they will probably never see him again. As Josh speaks first to one son and then another, he also washes that son’s feet.

And while each one-on-one conversation is going on, Josh’s sons get more and more panic stricken. “The terrorists are after him! It’s been something like six hours now since he found out they were coming for him! Why doesn’t he leave the house? Does he want to get killed?”

In the final scene of my screen-play, the terrorists burst into the house, take Josh away, try him and execute him. Josh dies and the movie ends.

I wonder if anyone here thinks I’d have a chance of selling this screenplay to a network? Don’t worry, I don’t think that I’d have much of a chance, either.

The story is weird.

Normally, we expect our heroes to get the bad-guy. Or, if they don’t get the bad-guy, we expect the failure in the story to point to some kind of deeper meaning. Even if the meaning is something like the futility of trying to do what’s right or the difficulty of human existence, we want some kind of meaning.

But this story seems, frankly, stupid. If I submitted it as a screen-play to a Hollywood producer, I suspect that the reaction would be “Another illiterate wannabe writer who can’t even tell a coherent story.”

So why did I tell you this story this morning? Because I wanted to try to replicate how stupid and incoherent the story of Jesus’ death would have sounded to most people in his time. For them, as for us - when we are not hearing a story that has already been interpreted for us by 2000 years of Christian tradition - saviors are heroes. Saviors are people who win battles, they are not people who lose. Saviors are people who wield power for good, not people who intentionally give up power and who try to win their battles by serving others. And most of all, savior-heroes do not walk willingly to their deaths.

There are numerous examples in the various Gospels of Jesus demonstrating an approach to power that is very different from the “worldly” view of power. When the disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be the greatest, Jesus told them that it was the least of this world who would be first in his Kingdom. When Jesus, Peter, James and John met Moses and Elijah on the mountain at the Transfiguration, Peter wanted to stay in that powerful and exalted place, but Jesus sent the disciples back down the mountain to serve his people. When the Roman soldiers were coming to get him, Jesus chose service over his own life. Not just the service of the Last Supper or the foot washing or his teaching, but the service of crucifixion.

From God’s perspective, there is something about service that is important to the story of salvation.

God Serves Us

The title of this sermon is “The Servant King” so you might have expected a sermon about how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, how he served them in the hours before his crucifixion and how we should serve others too. Those are good ideas and I agree with all of them!

And tomorrow is Memorial Day, when we remember those who died in service to their country. So you could also have expected a sermon calling to mind our gratitude for the very real sacrifices made by everyone who has ever given up their life in service to their country. That’s also a good idea, which I agree with wholeheartedly, too!

But it seems to me that if Jesus the Messiah, King of King and Lord of Lords, was willing to be the Servant King, that there must be something in the idea of “service” that is central to who God is. There must be something in the concept of “service” that is central to the Gospel and to his Kingdom.

This morning’s reading from Romans brings home this idea when it says, in effect, that most people would find it difficult at crunch-time to die for someone within their own family or their own circle but that God was willing to die even for those who are outside his circle, for those who don’t know him, in order to give them the possibility of reconciliation with him.

So the first thing I want to do is to remind you that, in Christ the Servant King, God has served us. Hopefully, this isn’t a new piece of information for any of us. But sometimes we need to stop and meditate on the things we already know in order to carry the benefits forward into our daily lives.

In Christ the Servant King, God served us. When you stop to think about that, that’s really an awesome and amazing thing!

Martin Luther said that Jesus ultimate service to us was to gain victory over sin, death and the power of evil. Jesus conquered death not by destroying it with force, but rather by facing death. He conquered death by going through it and coming out the other side. In doing this, Jesus trusted that the character of God the Father was a character of Resurrection and Creation rather than a character of death and destruction and that resurrection would be the ultimate outcome of his death.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses the analogy of Jesus as a pioneer of salvation: Jesus forged the way through death to resurrection and, by making a path for us, made resurrection, salvation and reconciliation with God possible for us too.

Jesus served us. God serves us. The One who existed before the beginning of time who created everything out of nothing. the one who knew us in our mother’s womb who intentionally created me, who intentionally created you…He serves us.

For me, what is even more mind-boggling about the fact that Jesus died and rose again for me is that God wanted to do this. And if the Gospel of John is to be believed (John 1), God wanted to do this before the beginning of time.

So my first piece of good news this morning is: “God serves us”.

Service is Costly

But the thing about service is that it is costly.

Those who know me know that, for the last ten years or so, I’ve enjoyed discussing Christian theology on the internet. One of my internet acquaintances is a man who just retired this year after many years serving as a Chaplain in the British army. He told me that currently those people who are serving in the British armed forces are the most decorated soldiers since the Second World War.
And he was quick to emphasize that the British army has not “dumbed down” its service metals: these men and women are the most decorated soldiers since the second world war because they have faced the most harrowing combat situations since that time.

Now obviously, the US experience since WWII is somewhat different than Britain’s but I doubt that the combat conditions for current American soldiers is significantly different than for the British forces. I suspect that many of us may know of at least one person who has been deployed to a combat zone at least two or three times. And while many of us probably have a vague idea of what kind of a sacrifice this sort of experience must be, I suspect that those of us who haven’t had it probably can’t even begin to appreciate the enormity of it.

In the same way, I doubt that we can truly appreciate the enormity of God’s suffering as he reached out to reconcile us to him through Jesus.

And I also doubt that we appreciate how costly the sins of humanity continue to be to God as works through his faithful people to bring his Kingdom to fruition.
I believe that God works continually to bring justice and truth into the world, and that when God focuses on justice, his focus is restorative rather than punitive. God is not interested in bringing about the Kingdom by punishment, but rather in bringing about the Kingdom through restoration of those people and situations that have gone wrong.

But justice through restoration is far more costly than justice through punishment. Restorative justice requires forgiveness on the part of the one who is wronged and it requires the one who is wronged to let go.

The cost of restorative justice is borne by the one who is wronged, which is why many people will object that restorative justice is not justice at all.

And, believe me, I do not say this glibly or lightly. My purpose here is not to lightly tell you to forgive someone who has done a gross injustice to you or to suggest that it is an easy thing to do. My purpose here is rather to underline the pain, the difficulty and the costliness of coming to the point of being able to extend such enormous forgiveness. And when you can extend that forgiveness – IF you can – it is the ultimate service to the one who has wronged you as well as to others around you. It is the ultimate act of grace. And the person who you forgive is free and so are you.

That kind of difficult and costly forgiveness is what God does for us. As individual human beings and as societies, it often seems that we humans are engaged in an all-out effort to mess up God’s efforts to bring about his Kingdom. (That effort we put into messing up the coming of God’s Kingdom is called “sin”)

But, because of the service that Christ rendered on the cross, God forgives us over and over. Over and over, God takes us back into relationship with him.

And all of that is costly. My second point: Service is costly

Service builds Relationships

But it is ultimately the costly service that Christ rendered to humanity that makes a relationship between us and God possible. And it’s Christ’s service that also makes it possible for us to build relationships with each other.

That’s my third point for this morning: service builds relationships and so service is ultimately redemptive and restorative.

In serving us by dying and rising again, Jesus made it possible for all human beings to have a relationship with God. In ways that we don’t fully understand and never will this side of eternity, Jesus’ death reconciled us with God. His death forged the existence of forgiveness, reconciliation and a deep peace (Shalom) into the very fabric of creation.

As Christians, we believe that having a relationship with God in Christ is fundamental to being a Christian. And we also proclaim the Good News that God wants to have a relationship with every person who he ever created. And I think it is also logical to assume that God wants us to be connected in relationship to each other – to other human beings - as well as to him.

And service, I think it might be argued, is the ultimate expression of relationship. Because when we do acts of service, we are not asking the question “What can this relationship do for me?” but rather “What can I do for this relationship?” When we serve, we are looking outside ourselves. We are putting the needs of others before our own wants.

Service is an expression of the kind of self-giving love that Christians have always claimed is at the heart of the Gospel.

Those who have died for the sake of their country rendered a very real service to their country. But, ultimately, the Kingdom of God will not be built through war; rather it will be built through peace – God’s deep peace of Shalom that makes everything whole. The Kingdom of God will be built not through service to one group of human beings as it wages war against another group. Rather the Kingdom will be built through the Gospel understanding that Christians are called to serve all people just as Christ died that all might be saved.

Memorial Day originally began as a commemoration of the lives of those who died in the Civil War. About 617,000 individuals, which is about the same number of dead as all other American wars combined. And the date for the celebration of this holiday was originally set near the date of the reunification of the Union.

Whether or not it was intended to be a Christian gesture, I think that such a date indicates some understanding that God does not take sides in our human games of unforgiveness and non-reconciliation. If we are ever tempted to believe that God does not weep for the death of our enemies, we might ask ourselves the question “Which American lives did God fail to weep for in the Civil War?”

From God’s perspective, true service is not the kind of service that prefers one side over another. The foot-washing was more than just service to Jesus disciples, it was also an act of service to the entire world. Jesus served all of humanity because he trusted in God enough to understand that the way to conquer death was to be crucified and walk through death to resurrection.

Conclusion

As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I pray that we will remember all those who gave up their lives in service to their countries. For those of us who have never had the experience of combat, I hope that we take its dangers and sacrifices seriously enough to be thankful to God for people who put their lives on the line in this way.

Although Memorial Day was originally supposed to be a holiday that commemorated those who have died, I think it is nonetheless also appropriate to also say “thank you” those who are currently serving their country; say thank you to them as well as saying “thank you” to God for them.

But I also pray this morning for peace and for the coming of the Kingdom of God. I pray that, as Christian people, we remember that peace (Shalom) rather than war will be a feature of God’s Kingdom. And service, self-giving and forgiveness are the hallmarks of God’s great Shalom.

And I pray that the peace that passes all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Christ. Amen.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Sunday 9 May 2010 - Touchstone Moments

Text: Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5

Context: A Sunday morning Service of the Word at a large suburban church of mixed ages in Northeast Ohio.

Aim: Using the concepts of Resurrection and New Creation, to encourage members of the congregation to reflect on what the Christian hope means for them.

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Old Covenant

Everyone loves a happy ending.

And in today’s Epistle reading we heard the happy ending at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, which in my more mischievous moments I sometimes call the book of Hallucination.

But that’s not really a fair description of Revelation because the images didn’t spring out of nowhere like a bad dream. The symbols come from the prophetic books of Hebrew Scripture and they would have been as familiar to the author’s contemporaries as the image of the cross is to us.

To those who were steeped in the prophetic texts of Hebrew Scripture, Revelation speaks of the fulfilment of God’s covenant with his people. The forces of darkness and the enemies of God’s people are overcome by God’s envoy, the Messiah, and a new covenant and a new world are established.

New Creation

The images in the book of Revelation speak to God’s people of redemption, resurrection and new life just as certainly as do the cross and the empty tomb.

But the story in Revelation is not simply a retelling of the Easter story. It reminds us that God promised his people this ‘happy ending’ – this New Creation –since he made a promise with Moses and Abraham.

This morning’s Good News is not only that God sent his Son to redeem us and make us his own. But we are also reminded that redemption is part of the plan that God devised for all of creation before the foundation of the world; it was not just an afterthought.

Now maybe this piece of Good News seems overly optimistic. We might legitimately ask the question whether this image of living in a world directly ruled by God is even remotely in touch with reality. After all, there is war, terrorism, natural disaster and widespread unemployment all around us.

The only problem with such an objection, though, is that most of us who live in the West today have never faced the sorts of tribulations that challenged the author of Revelation nor have most of us faced the severe persecutions that are described in the book. The vision of New Creation expressed in Revelation does not come from na├»ve inexperience of life’s realities; rather it is a vision of hope born from the school of hard knocks.

Ultimate Worth

Of course, most adults in any culture have had a hard knock or two. Like me, I’ll bet most of you know people who are currently struggling with major challenges like unemployment, family issues, illness or disability. Or you may be facing such a challenge yourself.

Different people deal with life’s trials in different ways but I never fail to be amazed by those individuals who are able to see the positive side of life despite the sometimes very negative circumstances that they face.

What is it about a tragedy or a serious challenge that often results in a person gaining a sharp perspective on what is truly important? It is often in times of great difficulty that we have such touchstone experiences that transform our perspective for the better. Our minds are stripped of unimportant concerns and we become capable of focussing on what really matters.

In order to gain such focus I sometimes imagine myself close to death saying ‘Thank God for…’ And most of us, no matter how pessimistic we are, understand how we are going to complete this sentence. ‘Thank God for community, friends, spouse, children, grandchildren.’ And, hopefully, ‘Thank God for his presence in my life.’ I suspect very few of us would say something like ‘Thank God for my possessions’.

Perhaps the tragedy of human life is not that each of us must at some point face difficult challenges. Perhaps the true tragedy is that it is easy to lose the sharpness of our touchstone moments when our lives are comfortable.

These touchstone moments are an opportunity for ‘little resurrections’. They are an opportunity to walk in God’s direction and to see small glimpses of our lives from God’s perspective. But first we need to die to those old perspectives where we cling to things, people and events that are not of ultimate meaning. Because, until we die to our old ways of thinking, there can be no resurrection into new life.

Real Hope

On this sixth Sunday of Easter, resurrection remains the Good News. Not just Christ’s resurrection in the first century and not just our future resurrection into God’s New Creation. But also those little resurrections in this life when our minds become sharply focussed on what it is in life that is of ultimate worth.

As we go from this place I pray that, whatever trials we may be facing, our lives will be guided by those touchstone moments that God has given to us. I pray that, in our everyday journey through life, our eyes will be increasingly opened and we will catch ever more frequent glimpses of the hope that God holds out to us. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sunday Nov 1 2009 - Radical Hospitality

This was another "supply preaching sermon" and I was asked to speak on the topic of "Radical Hospitality". This was one in a series of five sermons preached on the five areas covered in UMC Bishop Robert Schnase's book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.

This sermon is not a precis of the chapter in Bishop Schnase's book although it draws from Schnase's work. This is a thematic sermon and I chose the following texts: Deuteronomy 10:17-21 and Matthew 25:31-40.

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Introduction

Good morning everyone and thank you for your hospitality this morning in inviting me to join in your worship and share Scripture with you today.

And I guess it’s appropriate to thank you for your hospitality this morning because “Radical Hospitality” is the subject that I’ve been asked to speak on this morning. As I understand it, today is the second in a series of sermons on the subject of “the five practices of faithful congregations”.

But I expect that some of you may be wondering “What has hospitality got to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ?” It might seem somewhat obvious how being a hospitable congregation could help a congregation to grow and thrive, but you might not see a direct connection between hospitality and the message of the gospel.

God & Hospitality

So the first question I want to think about this morning is “What has hospitality to do with the good news that we proclaim as Christians?”

I don’t know what sort of images the word “hospitality” conjures up for you, but I expect that for most people, it conjures up images of dinner parties or maybe weekends away at a friend’s house.

But stop and think for a minute what hospitality meant to the people of the ancient near East. For a person from a nomadic desert culture, traveling from nomad settlement to nomad settlement, a question of hospitality might very well mean the difference between life and death.

It was usually the custom to allow a passing stranger to spend a night in your town or settlement, but then the expectation was that the person would move on. However, permission to camp overnight was by no means assured.

It was the normal social custom to view strangers with suspicion and as a potential threat to the community. (I wonder if that sounds familiar to us today?)

But remember our passage that we heard from Deuteronomy this morning: The reader is told that God himself loves the stranger and provides the stranger with food and clothing. And then God’s people are commanded to love the stranger because they themselves were strangers in Egypt.

“Loving” the stranger certainly goes beyond what we normally think of as hospitality in our society. The biblical concept of “loving” someone, as you probably know, is not just about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you; it’s about going further than that and actually putting their needs and welfare before your own.

And this is actually what the ancient custom of hospitality was all about. In the ancient near East, “hospitality” was an elaborate custom that included both testing and obligations on the part of the host and guest. Once the tests had been passed, the host and the guest were bound in a formal and permanent relationship that required both to look after each other in the same way that they would look after a member of their own family.

The guest was required to offer hospitality to the host if the need arose in the future and the host was always responsible for the safety of the guest. The host was required to do anything to secure the safety of the guest, even giving up his life in defense of the guest, if necessary.

I wonder if you hear an echo of any kind of familiar themes here?

I think that there is a very real sense in which we can say that God invites us as strangers and sinners into his Kingdom. In order to fully benefit from this Kingdom, we are invited to repent, just as the stranger is tested. And, as the host who is responsible for the welfare of his guest even if it means dying, God died in order to save us from the ravages of sin, death and the power of evil.

So, rather than having nothing to do with the message of the Gospel, I think that hospitality has much to do with it. God gives us undeserved and unimaginable hospitality and we are called as his children to give hospitality to others.

God welcomes the sinner and the stranger and calls us also to welcome the sinner and the stranger in response to his welcome.

In fact, we are called to love the stranger. We are called to extend a welcome that is not only friendly and hospitable but also to give a welcome that is risky, possibly dangerous, and which puts the needs of the visitor before our own needs.

I wonder how many church congregations actually manage to do this?

Radical Hospitality

I said earlier, that the title of this sermon is radical hospitality.

Why radical hospitality? Why not friendly hospitality? Or pleasant hospitality? Or nice hospitality?

I hope you are beginning to see that the nature of true biblical hospitality is radical; extreme, even. God’s hospitality in welcoming us into his Kingdom and offering salvation to us was costly. It wasn’t easy or “nice” and it wasn’t just friendly and pleasant.

And if we are going to communicate the height and depth and breadth of God’s love to other people in our own congregations, we too will have to engage in some costly hospitality.

A story is told of a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany named Uwe Holmer.

Now, those of you who remember the East German regime know that to be a Christian in Eastern Germany was a risky business, let alone to be a Christian pastor. The regime discriminated against Christians and one of its policies was to make it impossible for the children of Christian parents to attend university or enter any of the professions which required a university degree.

Pastor Holmer and his wife had ten children, all of whom were denied university places and who had to make a living through manual labor. The person who was responsible for East Germany’s educational policy for 26 years was Margot Honecker the wife of East Germany's premier, Erich Honecker.

And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the East German regime was toppled. Erich and Margot Honecker were seen by many people in East Germany as their enemies. They were indicted for criminal activities and evicted from their home. The Honeckers suddenly found themselves friendless, without resources, and with no place to go. No one wanted to have anything to do with the Honeckers.

It was at that point that Pastor Holmer’s family invited the Honeckers to live with them.

However, their fellow citizens were not terribly pleased with the Holmers’ hospitality. The pastor’s family received hate mail from the German public and many members of his church threatened to leave in protest.

The hospitality offered by Pastor Holmer was not just nice or even just noble. This was a radical hospitality. A risky hospitality. A dangerous hospitality that put him and his family at risk. This is an example of truly radical hospitality.

Wat on earth could cause a person to give shelter to people whose life’s work and ideals had directly hurt his children's futures? And what on earth could cause someone to continue to give shelter to them in the face of threats and abuse from fellow citizens? Nothing on earth. Only the peace and love of God that passes all human understanding could cause someone to do such a thing.

Radically Hospitable Churches

Are we capable of this kind of radical hospitality?

I’ve got to be honest with you. Part of me hopes that I could behave this way in the same circumstances and part of me hopes that I will never be tested in such a way. But yet, I am inspired by Pastor Holmer. His actions draw from me the highest form of admiration.

And I believe that if we think about this story as a sort of benchmark for “radical hospitality” then some ideas that we regularly throw around about “being a hospitable congregation” begin to pale in comparison.

In his book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations”, UMC Bishop Robert Schnase defines radical hospitality like this:
“An active desire to invite, welcome, receive and care for those who are strangers so that they find a spiritual home and discover for themselves the unending richness of life in Christ.”
Hospitality isn’t just about smiling at visitors who walk into the doors of our church. It’s about an active desire to welcome and care for new people.

I wonder how many congregations consider themselves to be friendly churches but whose caring and friendship is based on the fact that the members of the congregation have known each other for many years?

Sometimes being a new person in such a group can be like going out to dinner with a newly-married couple as they sit there staring into each other’s all evening. They may be friendly between themselves and they probably genuinely want to be friendly with other people, but they are too wrapped up in each other to think that their friends might be feeling excluded.

As a cradle Christian who has spent most of my life going to church, my bet is that many if not most congregations are like this. We feel certain that we are prepared to be friendly to new people but, really, we want them to fit in with what we’re already doing and conform to the established group behavior.

In the UK, a poll was taken recently which – among other things – determined that it took the average person about two years after beginning to attend a new congregation to feel that they really belonged. Two years! That means the new people have to make an incredible commitment. They have to attend church for two years feeling like they are strangers before they can begin to feel comfortable.

That’s certainly not radical hospitality. I’ll leave you to decide whether you think its “hospitality” at all. If it takes someone two years to feel that they belong in a congregation then that congregation is not living out any kind of active desire to welcome and care for new people.

Looking Outward

So what does it take to be a radically hospitable church? In his book, Bishop Schnase lists some practical ideas that I will mention briefly this morning since I want this to remain and sermon rather than a lecture on strategic change management.

But there is one thing that the Bishop’s suggestions all have in common and that is that every single suggestion is about looking outside of the congregation to the needs of those who are not members of the congregation.

And when we focus on people outside our group, we are focusing on serving others rather than on being served ourselves. Or, to put it another way, we are focusing on the biblical concept of love. We are focusing on what is good for other people rather than on what is good for ourselves.

So very briefly, what are some practical suggestions?

Bishop Schnase suggests that every group that meets in church, every committee, and every activity should be constantly thinking “How can we reach out to those outside our church? How can we make our activities more welcoming?” Even those individuals concerned with maintaining the building can reach out.

Are there facilities for young families to feel comfortable? Is the building accessible to those with mobility problems? A really simple thing like are all the rooms correctly labeled? Are Vacation Bible School or Sunday School classes run for the benefit of church members or for the benefit of children whose parents don’t come to church? Can the choir put on an activity that makes young families feel welcome? Does the congregation keep in touch with families who visit the church at Christmas and Easter and invite them to other events? At the most basic level, will people from outside the church be able to understand your bulletin if they read it?

The Bishop suggests that every group in church should think about one thing that they can do that focuses on reaching people outside the current members. And this attitude of reaching out should become an on-going habit. He notes that “Institutions produce what they are designed to produce.” And he is challenging us as Christians – because I don’t think that this is just a problem of the UMC – to design our “institutions” to be places where change and outreach are built into the fabric of how we do things.

Before I conclude this morning, I want to briefly tell you a story about a part of my training for the ministry. I was required by the British Methodist Church to attend weekend seminars on a monthly basis. These seminars were designed to teach us by example how to nurture the spiritual lives of our congregations.

Most participants attended for two years but every six months a group of people would leave the group and a new group of people would arrive. The whole system was designed to accommodate this change.

And I promise you that we didn’t really do anything differently than many good prayer groups or Sunday School or bible study groups do. We didn’t really do any strange activities that you might imagine when you hear the word “radical”. All we did was expect the group to change. We expected new people to arrive and we expected to make room for new people in the group and to offer them genuine hospitality. We expected that people we’d come to know and trust would leave and we expected to “let them go”.

We didn’t spend a lot of emotional energy resisting change and we didn’t invoke the silent mantra of many a congregation “Because God doesn’t change, the church must not change either.” All we did was look outward and welcome the new people instead of seeing them as threats or as individuals who upset our existing group dynamics.

Bishop Schnase suggests a relatively “simple” solution that each individual in a church and each group simply think about how they can welcome new-comers and my experience would suggest that it really is as simple as that. When we really begin to live lives that genuinely seek the welfare of others, our lives begin to bubble over with joy and freedom and we become very effective witnesses to the Good News of the Gospel.

Conclusion

The good news of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us, is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Or, to look at it another way, God offered us hospitality when we were still strangers.

In sending Jesus to die and rise again for our salvation, God was looking outside of himself to our needs. God said “These people need saving and I’m the only one who can rescue them.” He didn’t say “Oy! These people are messing up the beautiful order of my good creation! What is a Creator God to do?”

God doesn’t ask us to become holy before he invites us into his Kingdom. He doesn’t demand that we cease to be strangers and sinners before he offers us hospitality. Rather, he goes out into the highways and byways and invites strangers and sinners into his Kingdom and then he invites us to repent so that we can grow in holiness.

The good news is that God is eternally looking outside of himself to the welfare of others; we learn this when we practice the love of God in exuberant worship. The good news is that God gives us an exciting purpose to our lives: to look outside ourselves to the welfare of others; we learn this as we practice the love of our neighbor.

My prayer is that the reality of God’s hospitality for us will fill our hearts anew this morning. And I also pray that, filled with joy at the salvation we have been given and filled with thanksgiving at God’s hospitality we will go from this place determined to spread Christian hospitality to everyone we meet.

May God bless this congregation as you continue on your journey to be an evermore fruitful congregation. Amen