Listen Before You Speak

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

February 4, 2018

 

Scripture: Numbers 22:21-38

 

Donkeys rarely get a role – much less a speaking role – in the bible. Today, however, Balaam’s donkey is not only a main character but is actually the hero of our story.

 

To understand what is going on in this admittedly unusual bible story, we need to know a little of what has come before. You know some of this background, I’m sure. Let’s start with the Israelites: God’s people. The Israelites have come out of Egypt because they were being oppressed by Pharaoh.

 

They have been wandering in the wilderness for a whole generation. At this point in the story, they gotten out of the wilderness and set up camp on the plains of Moab.  So there is a whole new generation of Israelites, and there are a lot of them. God has fulfilled God’s promise right there that Abraham’s ancestors would be fruitful and multiply. The people of God are thriving – hurray!

 

However, not everyone is excited about that. Enter King Balak. Balak is the king of the Moabites. He’s looking at these Israelites who are camped out on the plains of Moab and looking pretty cozy there, and he is worried. King Balak is worried that these Israelite immigrants (maybe more appropriately described as refugees given Pharaoh’s violence toward them)… he is worried that they are multiplying so fast that they are going to use up all of the resources of Moab, and he is worried they might start a war and try to take Moab for themselves. He doesn’t want them in his land, and he certainly does not want them multiplying.

 

Now King Balak has heard about the guy with the donkey: Balaam. (I know their names are similar.) The donkey guy, Balaam is described as a diviner. He has special divine powers. He is able to bless or curse people. Balaam is a Moabite, a subject of King Balak. He is not part of God’s chosen people, but even so, he knows the Israelite God Yahweh. Well, all King Balak knows is that Balaam is powerful and might be able to help him with his Israelite immigration problem. So King Balak summons donkey guy Balaam to meet with him, so he can command Balaam to curse the Israelites, so they will quit multiplying, and he can get rid of them.

 

Our scripture today opens with Balaam on his way to meet King Balak. But as you heard in our scripture, God has other plans. The angel of the Lord appears three different times to try to stop Balaam’s progress. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and tries to alter his course, and every time, rather than heeding the donkey’s warning, Balaam strikes the donkey to try to get him to keep going. Finally, Balaam’s donkey speaks up – literally! He tells Balaam to stop striking him, and points out that he has been a loyal donkey who would only be stopping and going off course for good reason.

 

Once Balaam is convinced that his donkey is someone who he should listen to, Balaam is able to see the angel of the Lord himself. The angel tells Balaam that if it hadn’t been for the donkey, the angel would have killed Balaam. And Balaam finally hears God’s message to him which is: when you meet with King Balak about those immigrant Israelites, only speak the words that God tells you to speak. Do not help King Balak by cursing the Israelites with your words.

 

In this story, donkey guy Balaam possesses the power to bless or to curse God’s people by his words. I think we too have the power to bless or curse by our words. Now, we might not have magical divine powers like Balaam, but the words we speak, the opinions we share, have consequences. Sometimes our words are a blessing. And sometimes they are a curse.

 

In our story, Balaam has a choice. He can curse the immigrant Israelites because that’s what the powerful, corrupt king wants him to do. Or he can bless them because that’s what God wants him to do.

 

He is fixing to curse the Israelites when his donkey tries to get his attention. His donkey, this powerless, abused animal has something important to tell him that will help him see and hear God’s message. But Balaam just sees the donkey as getting in the way of what he wants to do. So instead of listening to the donkey, he beats the donkey. Balaam wouldn’t ever dream that maybe the donkey can tell him something about God. And yet, only when Balaam listens to the donkey’s words, is he able to hear God. Only then, can he receive God’s instructions to bless instead of curse.

 

As I pondered this story this past week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of political discourse in our nation. How often do we really listen to the people who we see as getting in the way of us having what we want? How often do we listen to the voice of the member of the other political party? How often do we listen to the person who deeply disagrees with us: that person who maybe we think is responsible for everything that is wrong in this country in the first place? How often have we metaphorically kicked those who are getting in our way rather than stopping to listen to them?

 

What if instead of getting angry and frustrated with our political foes, we listened to them instead? What if before we decide to kneel during that national anthem, we talk with a veteran who thinks we should stand in respect for the flag? What if before we condemn people who kneel, we talk with a black mother who is terrified for the safety of her teenage son? What if we talk the veterans who don’t really like the kneeling, but still believe that they served for your right to kneel if that’s what you choose to do?

 

What if we listened to victims of sexual assault before we decried political correctness? What if we listened to the men who are afraid they will be unjustly accused? What if we listened to refugees to hear about the violence they fled and the ways they are contributing to our country? What if we listened to poor white people who feel like they are being told they are privileged, even though they can’t find a decent-paying job and feed their families?

Before we speak, before we post on Facebook, before we forward that email, before we re-tweet, before we even have a good rant in the privacy of our own living rooms, what if we listened to the very people we think are the problem? What if we listened to those we have been treating as less-than-human, as obstacles in the way of getting what we want and what we think we deserve?

 

Friends, I’m not sure you know this. Maybe you do. But we are a politically divided church. We do not agree on many of the issues I just named. But what if in our diversity, we could at least be an example to the world of people who absolutely refuse to treat someone as less than a beloved child of God – just because we disagree? What if we absolutely commit to listening to one another, and even reaching out beyond our little community, to listen to the voices of people with radically different experiences and opinions than us?

 

Maybe then we could be like the diviner Balaam and hear the words that God is speaking to us. Maybe then we can even be a light and an example – this church – for the people and systems all around us that are so very divided and broken.

 

May our listening and our speaking be a blessing to the whole world.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

—-

 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

 

  1. Re-read the scripture for today. What details are especially interesting to you? What are you drawn to?

 

  1. What questions do you still have about the scripture? What do you want to learn more about? Is there anything your find problematic or concerning?

 

  1. Who is one person in your personal life that you have trouble listening to because you have deep disagreements? What do you disagree about, and why might you find it so hard to listen?

 

  1. Have you ever listened to someone whose life experiences were very different from yours and changed your perspective / opinion because of it? Tell us about that person and how/why you changed.

Keep the Miracle Bandwidth Wide

by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

January 28, 2018

 

Scripture: Matthew 17: 24–27

 

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’

 

Unlike last week’s scripture, this is a new one to me. It came up in a Google search of weirdest scriptures in the bible. I mean – Jesus telling Peter to pay the temple tax with a coin God sends to him via the mouth of a fish – I mean, what’s weird about that?

 

Miracle stories in scripture – whether about fish or not – always have some kind of point, but sometimes we can hear these scriptures and get hung up on the miracle part.  We write off not only the scripture but the whole concept of miracles because we think miracles don’t happen or no longer happen. We define a miracle as God sort of magically breaking a law of physics on our behalf. And maybe we even relegate God into those gaps – only believing that we see God at work when something utterly unexplainable happens.

 

But in ancient times, when the bible was written, miracles were simply part of the worldview. There wasn’t this division between everything-we-could-explain and these things called miracles. There wasn’t the natural world and the miraculous world. There were stories about the wondrous signs of God’s presence and power – and that was all seen as possible and natural.

 

We modern people have a much better understanding of science, and we like to have categories of natural and supernatural – and we tend to put miracles to the latter category. But I would argue that just because we understand science doesn’t make the world we experience today any less miraculous. A professor of mine one said it to me this way: “Keep the miracle bandwidth wide.” What if we learned to see and talk about the miracle of God’s presence not just in the gaps of the unexplainable, but in everything?

 

Today, we are welcoming new and some returned members into our church community. And I think when we welcome new members, it’s a good time to ponder once again the nature of discipleship: about what it means to be a person of faith and what it means to be a follower of Christ.

I think the first thing that committing to be a disciple of Christ means is that we commit to seeing the miracle of God’s presence in our everyday lives. Whether that is awe at the birth of a child, or natural wonders, or extraordinary kindness, or relentless justice. Whether it is the everyday miracle of suffering loss and grief and still being able to get up and out of bed one more day. Whether it’s not being able to get out of bed and receiving the love and support you need from those around you.

 

There is almost an endless litany of evidence I could offer of the divine miracles that don’t break physical laws but are simple and extraordinary moments of light breaking through the darkness. The first step of discipleship is moving from using God as a way to explain the unexplainable to seeking God in the effervescent reality of every moment.

 

And once we see God in our lives, discipleship requires us to respond. In response to the miracle of God who is light and love, we incarnate God who is light and love. In response to the miracle, we are called to be the miracle.

 

Many years ago, before Ruby was even born, I was working as a librarian. My friend Jodie had invited me out to visit her. She was the principal of an alternative school for emotionally and behaviorally challenged adolescents in Oakland, California. This was a private school for the kids who had been kicked out of the public alternative school. These students had some serious challenges.

 

Well, I had agreed to help Jodie at her school for one day. She needed help organizing books in order to set up a school library. So I spent most of the day in a dark basement room organizing all these books. At the end of the day, Jodie came to get me and was leading me through the school. And we happened upon two teachers who were having to physically restrain a student who had been acting out violently in class.

 

Jodie, of course, took this all in stride, but I was more than a bit unnerved by the situation. Mostly because, as I explained to Jodie later, I couldn’t understand that when the kids she worked with had such emotional and behavioral problems, how she could ever imagine them graduating from high school, getting a job, and being able to support themselves and live productive lives. And Jodie simply told me that she didn’t think about that. She thought about the fact that she helped a child to become a better reader that day, or that a child had one good day with no emotional outbursts. And I was in awe of her – and of all the teachers’ abilities – to be present with students who other people (people like me) would have just given up on.

 

To me, these teachers’ ability and willingness to give themselves in service to these at-risk kids…well, that looked like a miracle. I’m often taken by the miracle of those who serve as a way of life. I recently have been able to be in awe of hospice workers, of nurses, of the teachers of kids with profound disabilities at JP Lord School that will be moving in right across Frances Street from us. And the people who I talk to, more often than not, are simply responding to a call because they have seen the sacred miracle in the people they serve, and they are responding by being the miracle.

 

To tell you the truth, when I came up out of the basement that day in Oakland, having been hidden away safely from the chaos of Jodie’s school with my neat little stacks of books, I think that was the first time I saw a glimmer of the kind of life I was being called to as well.

 

And so we are here today, some 15 years later, ready to welcome new and returning members. If you are joining the church today, will you raise your hand?

 

So…you are being invited to this strange new way of living: this way of living where we run around not explaining away all the good and holy things that happen in life – but we name the source of them as God. And we agree that if these things are a gift from God, then it demands a response from us. When we see the miracle, we make a commitment to be the miracle. We commit to finding our strength in God, and then we put ourselves in uncomfortable places and situations, so that we will find ourselves transformed – more and more each day in the image of Christ.

 

May it be so…for our new members, and for all of us.

 

Amen.

 

——

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

 

  1. Re-read this week’s scripture. What details are especially interesting to you? What are you drawn to?

 

  1. Pastor Chris said that miracle stories in scripture always have a point. What do you think is the point of this particular scripture? (Or if you are not sure, what questions do you have about the scripture that might help you better understand the point/message of the scripture?)

 

  1. Pastor Chris invites us to be open to seeing miracles in our everyday lives. What things, people, or experiences in your life do you consider to be “non-magical” miracles?

 

  1. In response to the miracles we experience in our lives, we are called to be miracles for each other. How is God calling you to live differently in order to be that miracle? What step (either big or small) could you take in order to participate more fully in being God’s miracle in this world?

 

Jesus Our Plumb Line

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

January 21, 2018

 

—–

2 Kings 2:23-25

 

Elisha went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

 

——-

 

Friends, would you raise your hand if you ever heard that passage of scripture read in church before? How many of you have ever read this passage yourself, or heard someone talk or teach about it before? As you might have guessed, this scripture is not very well known. It is not in the lectionary. The lectionary is that prescribed cycle of readings that many churches use each week in worship – including many Methodist churches. In theory, if you follow the lectionary readings for three years, it is supposed to pretty much cover all of the bible (or at least the important parts), but there are some passages that are conveniently left out. This is one of them.

 

Now as I said last week, if we are going to be Christians who are active in our faith, who take our Christian tradition and scripture seriously, we have to acknowledge that there are some pretty awful things in the bible. I’d say this scripture is in the top five worst stories in the bible. So today, I want to use this colorful and frankly pretty horrible story to talk about how we can take the bible seriously in the context of our faith in a loving God who we know in Jesus Christ.

 

So why this passage?

 

Well, I stumbled across this passage about seven years ago. And when I did, to be honest, I just thought it was funny. This is kind of funny on first read, right? A guy is walking along. Some kids are making fun of him for being bald, and he curses them, and then a couple bears come out and maul 42 boys. Even funnier, one of my clergy colleagues this week told me that he actually read this scripture to Boy Scouts while they were camping one time… because he wanted to get their attention in worship.

 

But I digress. Strangely enough, this is a text that I have mentally carried around with me and wrestled with for a long time. It would come up again occasionally through seminary, and I’ve taught about it at the Urban Abbey when I was there. And the reason I carry it around with me is that, even though I thought it was funny at first, I learned that it is best not to take the scripture lightly. I have come to understand that when we affirm the Bible as sacred, we must take it seriously, all of it.

 

During my Hebrew Bible course (my Old Testament course), my professor Dr. Ngwa said this, “Reading scripture is an ethical activity.”

 

I understand that to mean that when we read a biblical text, we make judgments about it. Wesleyans like us might use the tradition, our experience, and reason to decide what the scripture is saying, and then decide whether or how this scripture reflects the nature of God

or the nature of humanity or both. As a preacher, I might use commentaries and dictionaries to discern a scripture’s meaning and significance. And I do believe I am guided by the Holy Spirit when I study and research and write and preach – and you are guided by the Holy Spirit when you listen and reflect and study as well.

 

When I was researching our text for today, I was appalled to find out that there is a whole bunch of commentators throughout history who seek to explain how Elisha’s actions and God’s instigation of the mauling of the boys are justifiable. I will use just one example of this from a commentator named Mark Mercer [1]. Mercer explains that the youths in this text (note: he argues that the Hebrew word used here could mean youths – or even young adult males – not necessarily little boys) are actually urging the prophet Elisha to engage in idolatry at a cult site in Bethel. He says that what the NRSV translates as “go away” could also be translated as “go up.” In other words, go up to Bethel and worship an idol. Mercer makes a good case for this reading.

 

And then he explains that the reason the 42 young men got mauled by bears was because they were encouraging the breaking of the covenant with God, that this terrible outcome was because of God’s intolerance for idolatry, rather than anything about the young men making fun of Elisha.

 

When we read this ethically, we might agree that yes, idolatry and the breaking of a covenant with God is a serious sin, but even so, does the mauling of 42 people seem like God’s justice as we know it in the rest of the biblical text or what we know from tradition, reason, and experience? I would argue, “no.”

 

This reading from Mercer is just one example of a whole lot of scholars turning themselves into rhetorical pretzels trying to figure out a way to say that the prophet Elisha was right, and that anger and killing of children by bears is a reasonable divine response in this situation.

 

But what if we read this text freed from the idea that our job is to just defend what the prophet did no matter what?

 

That is what I believe we have in the interpretation offered by a scholar named Wesley Bergen, who reads this incident as one example of how the biblical text is actually inviting us to criticize the prophet Elisha.

 

Through Bergen’s study of all of the stories about Elisha in the bible, he shows how Elisha is a substandard prophet, who acts more like a roving miracle-worker than one who is committed to God’s larger purpose of bringing Israel back to Yahweh. Bergen suggests that though Elisha claims to speak in the name of God, he gets distracted from his prophetic purpose as he goes about the countryside blessing and cursing by his own power. Bergen summarizes, “The prophet is powerful. The prophet is not unambiguously good” [2].

 

A detail highlighted by the Jewish Study Bible supports Bergen, while mentioning nothing about these boys inciting idolatry (Mercer’s argument). The JSB interpretation emphasizes that calling Elisha bald-head was in contrast to the prophet Elijah’s hairiness [3]. And Elisha would have understood this as an attack on his authority, saying in essence, “you are no Elijah!” That attack on his prophetic authority is what caused Elisha to curse the boys.

 

So through Bergen’s interpretation, we see these cracks emerge in the prophet Elisha: that maybe he wasn’t as good of a prophet as Elijah, and maybe he knew it. And maybe that’s what causes him to respond with overreaction and evil to these boys questioning his authority.

 

But we have two different readings to choose from. One that says those boys deserved it, and this was just divine punishment, and one that says this story tells us more about the broken humanity of our prophets than about how God would react in this situation.

 

So how do we choose? Well, as I mentioned before, we use our Wesleyan Quadrilateral: the whole of scripture, our reason, the tradition, and our own experience of God’s grace. And we also use Jesus as our plumb line. Certainly, our Jewish brothers and sisters and sibling (who also call the Hebrew Bible their sacred scripture and have to deal with this text, too) have other ways to read the Elisha text critically and ethically, and they might decide that Elisha doesn’t act on behalf of a just and merciful God based on their tradition. But we, as Christians, we can evaluate whether this story truly tells us something about how God and God’s prophets would and should act by looking at our cornerstone, Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus is our plumb line. From the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we find out what is true about God. And the one teaching that comes to mind when I think about whether I need to defend Elisha’s actions or not is from Matthew 22: 34-40

 

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. All the law and the prophets MUST conform to these two greatest commandments to love God and love your neighbor. Does cursing and instigating the mauling-by-bear of 42 boys because they made fun of your hair and/or your authority sound like loving your neighbor? I don’t think I even have to answer that.

 

It’s not just Jesus’ teachings that reveal to us who God is and what God would have us do. It is his very life, death, and resurrection. Jesus went around healing people and casting out demons – all with the intention of restoring suffering people to community so that they would be loved and cared for. Jesus died at the hands of the Roman Empire because he dared to confront the religious and political authorities who were oppressing his people. And then Jesus forgave even the people who nailed him to the cross.

 

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus taught us that the fullness of life and love come not from God dominating humans, but from God’s love and mercy that transforms even the most death-dealing situations into life – not through threat of harm but through the startling offer of love even to those who might seem least worthy of it.

 

So, no. I do not think God sent bears to kill children because they dared to make fun of a prophet. To want to hurt someone because they questioned our authority or hurt our feelings – that’s something that humans do.

 

But God… To love us so much that our fears vanish: that’s what God does. To show mercy beyond comprehension: that’s what Jesus does. To empower us to love those who would seek to harm us, knowing that even in our death, there is victory: that’s what the Holy Spirit does.

 

Thanks be to God, for Jesus Christ: our cornerstone, our plumb line, our hope.

 

Amen.

 

—–

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

 

  1. What details of this scripture are especially interesting to you? What grabs you? What parts do you still have more questions about?

 

  1. What other stories or images of God in scripture (or elsewhere) do you find hard to reconcile with the God we know in Jesus Christ?

 

  1. Have you ever made a decision or acted in response to a situation after asking yourself the question, “What would Jesus do?” Tell us about what you did and why you thought Jesus would do the same.

 

  1. What is one thing about God that you learn when you consider the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus?

 

—–

Citations

 

[1] Mercer, Mark. Elisha’s Unbearable Curse: A Study of 2 Kings 2:23-25. Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology. Vol. 21, Issue 2. 2002. p. 165-198.

 

[2] Bergen, Wesley. Elisha and the End of Prophetism. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p. 13.

 

[3] The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin & Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

 

Comply, Collaborate, Resist?

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

January 14, 2018

Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-16

So, you might be surprised that we are revisiting the story of the magi this week. I mean, we need to get moving here. Epiphany is over, right?!

But here’s the thing! That scripture we usually hear about the magi. Where it ended last week… well, the scripture ends of a cliffhanger. Imagine it with lots of drama. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

What?! Why?! What is King Herod going to do?!

Well, if we keep reading, like we did this week, we find out that Herod has some seriously evil plans. Herod is plotting to kill Jesus, this newborn King of the Jews, to make sure he is not replaced. In fact, Herod is so evil that when he figures out he was tricked by the magi, he does not hesitate to send his armies to kill all the children under two years of age in the Bethlehem area, so he can get Jesus that way.

Now Herod was a bad, bad man. Historians tell us that Herod was a willing collaborator with the occupying Roman Empire. While he provided order and political stability to the region, he also imposed a crushing tax rate to re-create Jerusalem in the monumental style of Roman cities and to fund his own opulent lifestyle. He liked his position of power and money and would do anything to keep it.

He was known for his domestic disputes and willingness to kill off members of his own family if necessary. Religious historian Reza Aslan writes, “Herod’s was a … tyrannical rule marked by farcical excess and bestial acts of cruelty…Upon ascending the throne, he massacred nearly every member of the Sanhedrin [a council of judges] and replaced the Temple priests with a claque of fawning admirers” (Aslan, Reza. Zealot : The Life And Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York :Random House, 2013. p. 20-21).

So the event called the Massacre of the Innocents, these children murdered around Bethlehem, while not able to be proved historically, was well within Herod’s usual character. And in the story we heard today, he used his new temple Priests, that “fawning claque of admirers” to help him justify and implement his evil plans. In the scripture we hear today, it is the “chief priests and scribes” who give both him and the magi the information that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Though perhaps unwitting, these religious leaders use the scripture to help Herod with his massacre.

The people around Herod seemed to have three options about how to respond to this despotic ruler: comply, collaborate, or resist. The scripture says that when Herod was frightened, all Jerusalem was frightened with him. Those frightened folks were likely to just keep their mouths shut and not get involved. They certainly wouldn’t have wanted Herod’s anger turned toward them. So they comply. The temple priests, of course, collaborate with Herod. They too lived a sumptuous lifestyle, and they know they only have their positions at Herod’s pleasure. So they help him figure out where Jesus is. The only people we see resisting are the magi. They sneak away before Herod can get Jesus’ exact location out of them.

I think the thing that bothers me most is the action of the temple priests: these collaborators who are supposed to be faithful and upright. They go ahead and use the scripture to help Herod decide which children he is going to massacre. This bothers me, I’m sure, because I am a pastor and can relate to the temple priests in some ways. But mostly, it bothers me because I know Christian history, and I know historically, Christian religious leaders have used scripture so many times to justify evil.

For example, Anti-Jewish and pro-authoritarian sentiment justified by scripture was used to support the Nazi Party and the Holocaust in World War II-era Germany. Before the American civil war, scripture was used to support slavery, and afterward racism and segregation. Most recently it was and still is trotted out to justify the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. And in every one of these instances, Christians have chosen to either comply with the evil being done in Jesus’ name, collaborate with those who were doing it, or resist.

On this day before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I’d like us to look specifically at how Christians responded to segregation. I will pull just one example from our own Methodist history. The year was 1963. The Methodist Church (not yet “United”) was an officially segregated institution. When the Methodist Church and the Methodist Church – South unified in 1939, they (we) created something called The Central Jurisdiction. Every other jurisdiction was a geographical one, but all of the African-American churches and clergy people were put into their own jurisdiction that spanned all of the United States. Of course, less resources were allocated by the General Conference to the all-black Central Jurisdiction. This was textbook institutional racism and segregation. The Central Jurisdiction was not dissolved until 1968.

So, as I was saying, the year was 1963. And 28 white Methodist pastors in Mississippi wrote a letter protesting racial discrimination and segregation, and condemning communism (you know, to prove the writers were not too radical). It would be considered pretty tame today. But in 1963 Mississippi, the reaction to the letter is described as being like a bomb exploding. The pastors were verbally harassed, their congregations demanded they be fired and withheld their pay. They and their families – including their children – were ostracized from their congregations and communities. Eventually 20 of the 28 left Mississippi, driven out mostly by statewide church politics. But eight did stay and continue to work for racial reconciliation. (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/mississippi-pastors-paid-price-for-segregation-challenge)

In the face of evil, these Methodist Christians chose to resist. And it had real consequences. For many in the civil rights movement, the consequences were even greater. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself gave his life for the cause.

And so on the eve of his holiday, with the story of Herod and the massacre of the innocents echoing in the background, I invite us to ask ourselves a very hard question. In the face of an evil like segregation, and in the face of evil that oppresses and takes advantage of the most vulnerable people in our world today, would we comply, collaborate, or resist?

Frankly, I think that depends on one thing. In our scripture, we heard about Herod’s fear. This fear drives him to kill children in order to keep his position of power. And the people of Jerusalem, it says, were fearful with him. Their fear caused them to comply or collaborate with this evil man.

Fear. Fear leads down the road to destruction. Fear leads to complicity and collaboration with those who would crush the vulnerable in order to maintain power. And, yes, what I’m talking about is political. And it is also personal. How often being fearful causes us to want to impress the popular kids at the expense of the outcasts? How often do we adults court the approval of those in power and ignore the needs of those who are not?

It’s likely not even conscious. Maybe we get to know the “higher ups” in our work place because it’s good for our career, but we don’t pay much attention to those in positions lower than ours. Heck, I do this. I want to please the District Superintendent and the Bishop because they have power over me. But if I give into the temptation to worry first about pleasing my DS and the bishop and climbing the ladder of power, then I am not acting out of love and care for you (my people!) and the vulnerable people in our community that Jesus calls us to serve.

But it is so easy to be fearful and complicit. How do we ever resist?

How did the people in history who stood up against oppression at all costs do it? Well, many of them did it because of their faith. Martin Luther King, Jr. had real faith. Real faith that convinces us that we can be like Jesus – and resist the powers of evil no matter what the costs. Real faith that there is something and someone MUCH bigger than you – or the specifics of your current predicament – that will hold and support and catch you even if your choice to resist costs you everything.

We need that real faith. Faith so strong and deep and anchored that it casts out fear in the face of whatever evil we need to confront. It is the only kind of faith worth having. And with God’s help, that is the kind of faith we are cultivating here. Bold and courageous faith. Faith that calls us to something greater than comfort and respectability. Faith that makes us unafraid to resist because we cannot put up with the injustice and suffering happening all around us.

That is an MLK-kind-of-faith: a faith that caused King to knowingly risk and ultimately give his life, working for the liberation of black people and poor people of all colors.

May we have even a sliver of King’s faith, and may it set us free from fear – for the good of all people and all of creation.

May it be so.

Amen.

————–

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Read the scripture for this week. How does reading the “rest of the story” about the Massacre of the Innocents change the way you think about the scene with Herod and the magi?

  1. Do you have any questions or observations, anything that jumps out at you or confuses or concerns you about the new verses for this week? (Verses 13-16)

  1. Describe a time when fear caused you to act in a way you wish you hadn’t.

  1. Describe a situation in which your faith gave you courage.

Venturing Out

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

January 7, 2018

person looking at starry sky

Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

 

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

  who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

Today in our scripture we encounter some wise men, some travelers from the East. The Christian tradition sometimes calls them the three kings, like in the song we just sang. But the commentary I was reading this week points out that there is actually nothing in the text to indicate that they are kings. The word used to describe them – magi – could mean wise people or even astrologers. They are more of a Persian or Babylonian pagan priestly class. They are readers of the stars, interpreters of dreams. They are thoroughly outsiders: both in terms of their religious beliefs, and ethnic and national identity. They are completely outside the Jewish tradition from which Jesus the Messiah arises.

 

And yet God calls them to see the child Jesus. God uses what they know – their own belief system, the stars, dreams -to guide them to Jerusalem. There they encounter King Herod. And Herod consults his experts, the ones who know the Jewish tradition and its scriptures about the Messiah. And the experts tell Herod that the baby will be found in Bethlehem. Herod shares this with the wise ones from the East, and this information from the scriptures helps to lead them to the baby Jesus, so they can honor him.

Prompted by star-struck curiosity and wonder, and guided by the scripture, the magi venture out and show up to see the Christ-child, God incarnate. And this is the Epiphany we celebrate today: the revealing of God in Christ to the whole world. Because these magi were foreigners, it signals that Christ has come not just for a small community in Judea, but in fact for everyone. And the magi bring valuable gifts to honor this Christ child. Before they left home, they packed up their gold, frankincense, and myrrh – expensive, precious items. Because even though they didn’t know exactly what they were seeking, the stars told them that it was very important indeed. And God moved them to follow.

 

God move us, too. God calls us to follow our inner sense of God in the world, our sense of awe and curiosity and wonder. For a stargazer, it makes sense that God would reveal Godself in the stars. Maybe we too get a glimpse of the awe of God when we get out of the city lights and look up into the vast night sky. Perhaps we sense God’s grandeur in a sunset, at the edge of the sea, even in the silent falling snow.

 

Or maybe it hits us most as we greet a newborn child, or as we witness the love poured out between two people at a wedding. Maybe it’s the hope of resurrection that we experience when a loved one dies. Perhaps it’s seeing selfless acts of compassion or courage that warm our hearts and bring a lump to our throat. Like the magi, it might be something very specific to our culture and situation and individual interest that moves us to wonder about God, to ask questions about who or what brought all this into being – and what we are supposed to do about it.

 

In the Methodist tradition, we refer to this as prevenient grace. This is the grace that comes before, the sense of God’s presence that is in us even before we might name it as God, even before we realize we are longing for God. In our tradition, we believe this grace is available to every person.

 

And as we experience this grace, these glimpses of God, maybe our curiosity gets piqued. Maybe the next thing we do is read the bible. Maybe we might go to church. Maybe we have been in church this whole time, but this light of God’s presence suddenly makes us want to pay attention, real attention for the first time. Maybe we decide to try praying, even if we are not really sure what good it will do or who exactly is listening.

 

After my own experience of encountering God’s prevenient grace, I decided I needed to get a bible. I literally didn’t have one in my house. So I took Ruby one day, and we went to Borders on 72nd and Dodge (way back then when it was still open). And I got a bible. I flipped open to the Gospel of Matthew, and I started reading. Chapter 5.

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 

What I read there took my breath away. It was so beautiful. It was none of the guilt and shame and judgment I had learned about as a child. It was a story of a God who loves and who calls us to love each other in response. It drew me deeper into faith.

 

And yet, the bible is a complicated book. Had I turned to lots of other chapters, I might have experienced something very different. I’m going to be honest. When you pick up a bible, it does not take long to find something violent or ethically problematic. It does not take long to find an excuse to throw the whole thing out if you are looking for one. Our holy book: it was written by deeply flawed human beings – like us.

 

And yet, by some miracle of the Holy Spirit, it still points to God. As our Methodist Articles of Religion – the fundamental doctrines of the Methodist church say, “the Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The scriptures lead us into a saving experience of God’s grace.

 

But we have to venture out and show up in order for that to happen. We cannot simply say yeah we believe all that stuff without knowing what’s in the bible. We can’t simply pretend that the violent and problematic parts of scripture don’t exist. Part of our job as Christians is for us to take the bible seriously. That means we have to wrestle with it. That’s our gift we bring when God calls us. We bring our openness to encountering God in the story and person of Jesus. We bring our effort in asking questions about how the scripture leads us to God and figuring out how to apply it to our 21st-century lives.

 

Because we don’t have faith in words in a book. We have faith in the Living God, the capital-W Word, revealed through Christ, whose essence flawed humans tried to capture in the bible. We don’t worship the book. To worship the book is idolatry. But to wrestle with this book is holy. To struggle with our doubts and open our hearts and devote our lives to knowing this God: that is the precious gift we bring like the magi. We too are seekers and wanderers with our heads filled with stars – hoping to see a glimpse of God.

 

I want to close today by telling you about Guy Consolmagno. He is an astronomer. He studies space, meteorites, and the physical universe as a whole. He is also a Catholic, Jesuit Brother and the Director of the Vatican Observatory. I listened to an interview online with him this week. It was from the radio show called “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet. In the interview, Brother Guy says a lot of interesting things about religion and science.

At one point in the interview Tippet asks him about something he once wrote, which is this: “Christianity does not start with faith but with experience. Faith is our reaction to that experience.” He replies to her that he still believes that is true, and he has come to believe that the same is also true about science. Before you decide what you want to study, what hypothesis you want to test, you experience something. You intuit something. Then you begin to ask questions about it, to try make sense of it. You use all the tools of science to learn about this experience.

 

The same is true of theology – of learning about God. Scripture, though certainly not perfect, helps us to make sense of this experience of prevenient grace…this pull from God, this call, this sense of awe and wonder that makes us want to seek and learn more. This is the same call that moved the magi to Bethlehem. And it is the same call that moves us to seek and understand God’s presence in relationships, in nature, in scripture, sometimes even here in church. And each of these things we encounter is not God himself or herself in totality, but they do point us toward God. They guide our way as we earnestly seek to understand and encounter the divine.

 

And when we venture out and show up, with the gift of earnest desire and a willingness to encounter and maybe even be changed by God, we too might be graced with an epiphany: the revelation of who God is with us and for us.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

*https://onbeing.org/programs/guy-consolmagno-george-coyne-asteroids-stars-and-the-love-of-god/)

 

Discussion Questions

 

1) Re-read the scripture for this week. What part of the scripture do you find most interesting and inspiring? What are you drawn to? Why?

 

2) What part of the scripture do you find problematic or do you still have questions about?

 

3) In what situations in life do you feel most aware of God’s presence?

 

4) What is one thing you have done in response to becoming aware of God’s presence?

Humbled to be Holy

A sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

December 3, 2017

 

woman holding up arms to sky

 

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

 

The scripture we heard today contains a prayer (or song) that is known in our Christian tradition as The Magnificat. The word “magnificat” comes from the Latin translation of this song of Mary. It means magnify. Mary starts her song by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is a song of joy and confidence in the power and goodness of God.

 

…which is actually a little surprising coming from someone in Mary’s, um, situation. Let’s back up in the story a bit. You may know this already. See Mary has recently been visited by the Angel Gabriel. And the Angel Gabriel informed her that she would be bearing a child, Jesus, who will be called “Son of the Most High” and who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end!”

 

That sounds pretty good. But there’s a little problem. Mary is not married.

 

If we turn over to the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that Mary is only engaged (or betrothed) to Joseph at this time. My trusty New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary tells us that this engagement “was a binding arrangement between people already legally considered husband and wife, so that unfaithfulness was considered adultery.” So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and they have not yet had relations, technically Mary could have been put to death for her unfaithfulness (though our commentators mention that the death penalty for adultery was not really practiced by the time the gospels were written). However, they still describe the penalty for adultery as “severe and humiliating.” Think: how people sometimes react to unwed mothers in our culture, but like 100 times worse.

 

Not to worry though. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that upon finding out Mary is pregnant, Joseph (who is a righteous man) decides to divorce Mary quietly. But he too is visited by an angel in a dream. And that angel explains to him that Mary had become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and that Joseph should marry her anyway. So that’s good.

 

But over in today’s gospel, in the one we heard – Luke’s version of the story, we get no such assurances that Joseph was going to swoop in and save the day by covering up the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy. All we know is that the Angel Gabriel visited Mary. That Mary was afraid and perplexed by his visit. But when the angel explained to her that she is going to become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, she agreed to this plan. God gave her a choice, and she chose obedience. She said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.”

And from that point on, our heroine Mary is not deterred one bit by this scandal. In our scripture today, Mary sets out and goes with haste to see her relative Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Mary is pregnant. She has not been married up properly to Joseph. She is a young woman having a child out of wedlock in a society that thinks that is a real problem. And she goes to see Elizabeth.

 

She goes with haste that conveys excitement. Everybody in this scene is filled with joy. Mary is joyful, Elizabeth is joyful, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy – even as Mary is part of this scandalous mess of God’s plan for birthing Christ into the world. And the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise, indicates her awareness that what God is doing through her is counter-cultural. She names that God has come to her in her lowliness, in her humility – and God has done great things for her. God has done and will do great things for her and for her people, who are poor and oppressed and lowly just like her.

 

God’s plans for Christ being birthed into the world through Mary are unexpected, are counter-cultural (even a little scandalous), depend upon Mary’s humble obedience, and bring Mary and the whole world joy and salvation.

 

So what might this tell us about God’s plans to birth Christ in the world this year – through us? Perhaps God’s work in our lives too is unexpected, counter-cultural (even a little scandalous),  and requires our humble obedience – and will bring us and the whole world joy and salvation.

 

Now, I think the key to embracing God’s plans for us is to start with the humble obedience piece.

 

I know, it’s my least favorite piece, too.

 

Because humility and obedience also require vulnerability. And I think holidays in general, but Christmas in particular can make us feel really vulnerable. During Advent we are invited to come face to face with our deepest longing. Our longing for love and acceptance. Our longing for salvation and assurance. Our longing for a life of meaning. Our longing to really know that we are loved by God and part of God’s dream for the world.

 

But we can’t really control that. Nothing we can do, can MAKE an experience of God’s grace happen for us. So I think maybe we put all of our hopes for the Christmas season into the things we can control, the things we can plan, the things we can buy. And our whole culture tells us this is what we should be doing. It promises that this is what will make us happy. Right?

 

The culture tells us things like this: “Giving your kids just the most beautiful tree surrounded by piles of presents will fill your (and their) deepest longing for joy. Making sure that your holiday gathering is just perfect will guarantee that your family will get along and will always be there for you. Buying new clothes or getting your hair done will make you beautiful enough to be deserving of love. Filling yourself with good food and drink will make sure you never have to feel empty.”

 

Now I’m not against any of those things. Please. Enjoy your festive tree (I’ve got one) and your lovingly set table and the confidence of a new hairdo and the pleasure of food and the fun of cooking it together. But just remember that none of it needs to be perfect, and that none of it can fill the deepest longing of your heart. Only God can do that. Only Christ can do that.

 

To invite Christ into our lives, we have to humble ourselves. We have to give up the power we think we have to fill our own every need. And we have to offer ourselves in obedience to God’s desires for us. Now, as your pastor, I wish I could give you an exact 3-step process for how to ensure that you will be filled with the Holy Spirit and never feel empty again. But I can’t. But I do have an idea of how we might start.

 

I believe it starts with prayer. One thing I’m doing to help us commit to prayer during this season of waiting is that I am sharing my daily devotional time on Facebook. Friends, it’s not fancy. It’s me turning on my computer and a camera and asking you to pray along with me through my usual practice. It’s probably not even as long as it should be. But it does help us to be accountable to one another when we commit to praying together – whether it’s in person or online. So if you are on Facebook, go Like the Hanscom Park United Methodist Church page, and you will be able to find me doing a live video there Monday through Friday at 7:45 AM…just praying and reading scripture and a reflection. And you are welcome to join me.

 

And if not that, then find another way to ground yourself in prayer this season. I encourage you to add whatever prayer practice to your life that will help you stop and listen for God’s presence and desires for us. Because we hear so many voices, so many messages every day, and even if they have the word “Christmas” as part of them, they are most-of-the-time not God’s voice. You know as well as I do that Christmas has been commercialized and secularized and exploited so folks can make money. The voices outside us talking about Christmas have almost nothing to do with welcoming the presence of Christ into our lives. So if we want to hear God’s voice, we have to do something counter-cultural.

 

We have to stop and listen. We have to be non-productive. We have to pray. Prayer gets nothing done. Prayer is not going to help you get one thing marked off your Christmas list. But I believe prayer is the only way we can hope to humble ourselves before God and submit (that’s a scary word, right? Well, I’m using it anyway). We have to submit to God’s radically different dream for our lives and for the world.

 

And as counter-cultural as submission and humility seems, it is also the only thing that will bring us joy.

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

 

To be like Mary, we have to be lowly servants. We have to be counter-cultural, wrapped up not in the commercial trappings of a money-making holiday, but in the beautiful scandal of God coming to live with us right here in the mess of our world.

 

And promising to redeem it.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

What will you write?

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

October 22, 2017

 

paper with the word hope written on it

 

Scripture – Romans 8: 18-25

 

This week, we are finishing up our Unwritten sermon series, and I would like us today to consider our place and our role in God’s unfolding story of love and liberation. We are somewhat like the community in Rome to whom Paul is writing in our scripture. Surely, the historical and cultural details are wildly different. But on the grand cosmic level, we are pretty much at the same point in the story.

 

In the grand biblical narrative, Paul and the Romans come into the story after all the big stuff has happened. It is after Jesus’ death, after his resurrection, after his ascension, and in the midst of a promise: A promise of a return that will bring renewal and restoration for all of creation. The members of the Roman church are a people waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, and Paul tells them to wait with patience. They also wait with hope.

 

Fast-forward about 2,000 years to our place in the story, and we are still waiting. I’m not sure even Paul knew how much patience this waiting would require. And I didn’t know until I started studying our scripture this week, just how much responsibility we had either. So in this text, Paul is writing about the future restoration of all of creation, about how all creation will be freed from its bondage to death and decay. That sounds amazing! Restoration! No more death and decay. Who doesn’t want that?

 

But as I read closely, I saw this little nugget that was not so amazing. Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” He says that once we humans are revealed as the children of God, then all of creation will be restored. Which sounds good in theory, but is actually a bit distressing when you think about it. All of creation is waiting for us. It is groaning under the stress of it. Because all of creation is not going to see the full salvation of God, the end to decay and death, until we humans get on board with God’s agenda.

 

I’m not sure how you feel about that. But for me, that is way too much pressure. I don’t want the restoration of all of creation being contingent on whether I personally am responding to God’s call on my life. And I certainly don’t want it depending upon all of humanity responding to God’s call to peace and love and justice.

 

I’m not sure if you’ve looked around at how we are doing as a human species lately, but it doesn’t look so good. We humans are pretty messed up. We are mired in political bickering and personal attacks that keep us from focusing on people’s real needs for health and safety and sustenance. There are violent conflicts going on around the world. Even the small ways we interact with each other on Facebook or in person – they seem so often to be filled with fear and hostility and anger – instead of compassion and understanding. I don’t see that we as a human species are doing very well contributing to God’s dream these days.

 

When are we going to be revealed as the children of God?

 

Creation is waiting for its redemption, its restoration: but it sounds like we humans have to go first. The view from the ground on that can be pretty discouraging. Theologians have wrestled with this for a long time: this question of whether humanity is sort of generally on track to fulfilling its role as children of God, or whether we are hopelessly doomed and creation will only be restored after we are more-or-less wiped out.

 

One theologian I have been reading about lately is the one who wrote our opening prayer today. His name is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a Jesuit priest living in the late 19th and early 20th century. And he articulated this hope we read in Paul like this: God is moving all of creation toward what Teilhard calls the “Omega Point.” The Omega Point is the point of fulfillment to which all of creation is going. More or less, the Omega Point is Christ. We (in the very big cosmic sense) are all moving in the direction of restoration and unification in Christ.

 

Teilhard’s views were controversial during his lifetime. He wrote in the wake of the First and Second World Wars. Many theologians believed that humanity had proved itself unredeemable. They might have called Teilhard a foolish optimist, whose theology was not grounded in the reality of human experience.

 

Yet Teilhard constructed his theology, what some might call an unreasonable hope, during his time as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War I. In the midst of seeing the worst that humanity could do to each other and the earth, Teilhard found hope in the promise of God as articulated by Paul. He found this hope by pulling his perspective back, way, way back to the cosmic view of history and the universe. He was a scientist who studied evolution. He admits that humans indeed go through very dark times, do very violent things to one another, but that God is always moving us to the Omega Point, to Christ himself. He points us to times in natural evolution where all seemed lost, but then something extraordinary arose.

 

A scholar of Teilhard, Cynthia Bourgeault writes this about his perspective:

 

“Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first [scientific evidence] confirm[s] that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.”[1]

 

Our hope comes from the cosmic view, from the universe’s timeline, and from God’s promise that the end to which we are moving is life not death. Now, I will admit. It can be hard to get from that cosmic, billion-year timeline down to what we are doing today.

 

I think our old friend John Wesley might be able to help connect the dots for us. Toward the end of his career as the founder and visionary of the Methodist movement, Wesley began to preach more and more on this theme of the new creation. Of course in the 18th century, Wesley was not privy to the science that Teilhard employs, but he found the same hope and promise in Paul’s letters. Wesley too was convinced that God was acting in history to produce a “new creation:” one in which suffering and death were no more.

 

And Wesley connected the intensely personal experience of a person becoming a “new creation” in Christ to God’s cosmic work of bringing about a “new creation” everywhere. Wesley had no illusions about people being just sort of generally good, and they would do the right thing in time. He has a very robust theology of sin. He probably would not be that surprised about the current mess we are in.

 

But he did believe that faith in Christ could transform even the most flawed person into a “new creation.” And as new creatures, we are able to respond more and more in line with what God would have us do. Through faith, there is the possibility that we will be revealed and restored as children of God, and then one day, all of creation will share in that restoration.

 

Wesley notes that the way our lives change when we experience Christ is evidence of the new creation, what he calls the “age to come,” started right here in us. To quote him directly, “’In a degree’ we can experience both God’s purpose for us and the first evidences of the age to come as “God sets up his throne in our hearts.” [2] What Wesley calls the “first evidences of the age to come,” Paul names in our scripture as the “first fruits” of the new creation. The transformation that is wrought in our lives because of faith is the first evidence, the first fruit, both a sign and a seed, of the restoration of all of creation.

 

So that leads us to ponder the question: What first fruit of the new creation is present in my life, and how am I being called to use it to contribute to God’s dream of a world of peace and love and justice?

 

Put another way, what gift has God given me that I can offer for the good of the world?

 

Your answer might be one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians. Has God gifted you with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Maybe it’s one of the gifts of the Spirit listed in First Corinthians: wisdom, knowledge, or healing. Maybe it is one of the big three gifts that abide: faith, hope, and love. Maybe it is something I haven’t named.

 

What gift has God given you that you can offer for the world?

 

I will tell you. For me, it is hope.

 

The greatest gift God has given me is hope in God’s promise: that God’s dream for the world will come true, and that I can contribute to it, even in just a tiny way, through my faithful response to God’s love. That is my job. I have received the gift of hope and am called to offer hope back into the world.

 

And I know, in our desperately broken world, my gift of hope alone is not going to bring about the fullness of the reign of God. But I trust that when I respond to God’s call and offer my tiny contribution…and when all of you do that, too…that God will take our offerings and do something with it.

 

And that God’s dream for the world will one day become reality: in us, and through us, and – thanks be to God – sometimes even in spite of us.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

[1] From: https://www.omegacenter.info/teilhard-for-troubled-times-1/

[2] John Wesley in Theodore Runyon, The New Creation, p. 9.

 

—-

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / DISCUSSION

 

  1. What gift has God given you that you can offer for the world? (If you were at church Sunday, what word did you write on the altar cloth?)

 

  1. What is some evidence of that gift in your own life? Describe a time or situation where you have experienced that gift.

 

  1. How do you or how can you share that gift with others?

Believing Thomas

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Sunday, October 15, 2017

 

person in church looking up

John 20: 24-29

 

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Like last week, this is another very familiar story from scripture. Similar to the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, this idea of a Doubting Thomas has also kind of jumped the sacred-secular line into our culture. And Poor Doubting Thomas – made famous for being that guy who just couldn’t believe.

 

You know what, though? I think Thomas has gotten a bad rap. I know, for my part, growing up in the church, his story did not make him sound so good. When I was told the story of Doubting Thomas, it sounded something like this:

 

So Jesus had died and risen from the dead, and everybody believed it without any proof, except Doubting Thomas. Thomas was the only one who doubted. And when Jesus showed up, Jesus caught Thomas right there in his doubts. It was a real gotcha kind-of-moment. Jesus repeats the words Thomas had said about what he would have to see to believe. In the version I remember, Jesus was sort of scolding Thomas, saying, “Oh, so you need to see my wounds to believe. Well, fine, here you go.” And Jesus shamed him. He showed that Doubting Thomas how ridiculous – maybe even how bad – he was for not believing.

 

Now, that I think about it. In retrospect, it’s not just Thomas who got a bad rap here. In that understanding, let’s be honest, Jesus kind of looks like a jerk. Now, to be fair, I was learning about Thomas in my childhood religion classes, so it’s possible that I am misremembering, or that it was just my teachers who taught it this way. But since poor Thomas can’t ever be remembered without the word “Doubting” in front of his name, I suspect they were just giving me the same impression they had gotten when they were taught about Doubting Thomas. In fact, I think that interpretation is common in the tradition. Which is both 1) unfortunate and, 2) I would argue, a really inaccurate reading of the scripture.

 

When I first got excited about Christianity about 9 years ago, I actually started reading the bible myself rather than just remembering the way I had been told these stories. And I started reading commentaries about the stories. Commentaries are written by people who have actually really studied the bible and read it in its original language (Hebrew or Greek depending on the Testament) and know the cultural and historical context it is written in. These folks are experts.

 

But even though they are experts and some of the commentaries I read were really complicated… some commentaries didn’t do much else than just get me to read the plain words on the page to see what they really said – rather than read them with the assumptions my religion class teachers and our cultural imagery had given me.

 

The story of Thomas is a great example of this. I have to give credit to commentator Gail O’Day who helped me see it. So, here is what really happens in the Gospel of John (from which the Thomas story is taken) after Jesus rises from the dead. Everybody doubts. Everyone. Every disciple who encounters Jesus after the resurrection in the Gospel of John either doesn’t know or doubts it is really him until Jesus gives them some sort of proof. And Jesus gives every person what they need to believe.

 

The first person to encounter Jesus after the resurrection is Mary Magdalene. She goes back to the tomb looking for Jesus’ body. She assumes he is dead. Now, you might remember that when she encounters Jesus there, she mistakes him for the gardener. It is only when Jesus says her name that she understands who he is, that she believes he has been raised from the dead. And she goes and tells the other disciples.

 

So next Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples: all of them except Thomas. Now Mary has already told them that Jesus is risen. So he appears in the locked room in which they are staying. And do you know what he does? He shows them his hands and his sides. And then they rejoice because they know it is Jesus. Jesus shows them his wounds, and they believe.

 

Now, when the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus, he does not believe them. That’s when he makes the declaration we heard that he must see his hands and his sides in order to believe. Now, let’s stop here to see if you are following along. Who else needed to see his hands and his sides in order to believe? That’s right. ALL of the disciples, except Mary – she recognized Jesus at the sound of her name.

 

They all doubted. Thomas is simply very honest about his doubts. And so, just like with the other disciples, Jesus shows up and offers Thomas his hands and his side, and says “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” When you read the text – and this is supported by the commentators, and just for good measure, I looked up the Greek myself – there is absolutely no reason to think Jesus is rebuking or shaming Thomas.

 

What a difference it makes when you can imagine Jesus approaching Thomas with tenderness, wanting to help him believe, generously offering Thomas his very body so that he might be able to have faith. This reading should not be surprising to us. Why would Jesus, the incarnation of the God who is Love, respond any differently?

 

Jesus gives each of the disciples what they need to believe.

 

Jesus also gives each of us what we need to believe.

 

But we do have to show up to receive it. That was the difference between Thomas and the other disciples. He simply wasn’t there when Jesus revealed himself to all the others. He wasn’t there when Jesus appeared in that locked room. Nor was he there with Mary when she followed her longing for Jesus and went back to the tomb to find him.

 

We don’t really know why he wasn’t there. One commentator speculates that he was off grieving by himself, though I don’t believe the text gives us any actual insight. I don’t think it’s possible to figure out what Thomas was doing when he missed experiencing the Risen Christ. I think the more important question is: What is keeping us from showing up, from being open to God’s presence?

 

I suspect the answer to this might be different for all of us. Maybe some of us miss opportunities to experience God’s presence because we are distracted. Gosh, life is so busy – it really is. It is easy to keep on the treadmill of doing, doing, doing – so much that we don’t stop and reflect on why we are here, what really matters, and where God is working in our lives.

 

Or maybe it is doubt that keeps us from showing up. It’s easy to look at some of the big claims of our faith and think, I’m not sure if I believe that. And if you’ve been taught that faith is about certainty, maybe having doubt makes you stay away from church or keeps you from praying. Keeps you from showing up.

 

And when I hear about people who don’t show up because they have doubts, it hurts my heart. Doubt is part of faith. It is a part of the journey. We are meant to struggle and ask questions about what we believe. It means we are really engaging with the questions that matter the most. And when we do have doubts, it’s not the time to take a break. It’s time to double down on showing up. God gives us what we need to believe, but we have to show up.

 

As you can probably hear, I am passionate about this. Because I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t shown up in spite of my doubts.

 

Let me tell you my story. Some of you have heard this before. Back in 2009, I had been attending First United Methodist Church for a few months. At that time, I would describe myself as agnostic but slightly hopeful. I had been coming to church and was just waiting for the pastor to say something to offend me so I would never come back (which is of course a kind of stressful realization now that I am myself a pastor…but I digress). What I am trying to say is that I had lots of doubts. But I kept coming to church anyway.

 

And then this thing started happening. I started feeling a pull on my heart, what I now would call the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Week after week, I’d show up, I’d start experiencing this pull, this nudging, and I’d put up my guard. I’d tell myself to quit imagining things.

 

And finally, one week I thought to myself, what if I just stop resisting this? And during some particularly moving piece of music, I found myself filled to overflowing with the assurance that God was real, God was present, and God claimed me as beloved. And I cried with joy and relief. As the founder of our Methodist movement would say, my heart was indeed strangely warmed.

 

Because of that experience, I realized some things about how I had been living my life. I realized that I did not have to spend all of my time trying to be perfect anymore. I realized that God forgave me for my mistakes, and so it was possible for me to finally forgive myself. In traditional language, you might say I was saved, and I am being saved every moment in every day. I was saved from the death-dealing expectations of our culture to which I could never live up, and I was saved for the task of loving the world into wholeness the best I could.

 

That’s all I had to do, and I didn’t have to do it alone. Because God is with me and working through me, and God is with you and working through you. And God is with us and working through us. And God has a dream for a world of peace and love and justice, and God has promised that dream will come to fruition one day, whether we live to see it or not. And we are called to work alongside God to help bring that beautiful world into being, so now I have something worthwhile to do.

 

If I had stopped showing up to church eight years ago because I had doubts, I wouldn’t be a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t be your pastor today – which would be a real shame. And I would have never had the opportunity to stand up here and tell you with all sincerity that my encounter with Christ that day changed my life…and that my life as a disciple of Christ continues to fill my days with more love and joy than I ever would have hoped for.

 

And all I did was show up, and Jesus gave me what I needed to believe.

 

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

 

May it be so for all of us.

 

Amen.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

 

  1. Think about the times you have heard the story of Doubting Thomas in the past. In the versions you heard, what was Thomas like in the story? What was Jesus like in the story? What lessons were you supposed to learn from the story?

 

  1. Think back on your faith journey. Was there a time when you were having doubts? How did you get past your doubts? Or what are you still struggling with?

 

  1. What is keeping you from showing up, from being open to God’s presence? (You might also think of this in terms of what keeps you from showing up to the practice of prayer, or showing up in worship, or doing whatever else might help you grow in your faith.)

Outside Looking In

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Preached at Hanscom Park UMC

October 8, 2017

 

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

 

image of a sign that looks like a crossThe story we just heard, often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is one of the most well-known parables in the bible. It is maybe second only to the Good Samaritan as far as parables that really have entered the culture and kind of have a life of their own outside the church. Almost everyone knows that a Good Samaritan is one who helps someone in need. And a Prodigal Son is one who has left, has turned his back on his family, and then comes home.

 

Taken out of a theological context, these stories become stories about people, with no reference to God. And certainly, they tell us something about what human beings are like. But Jesus used parables, these metaphorical stories, not primarily to tell people what they were like, but to tell people what God was like. He told stories to illustrate God’s nature. In some ways, Jesus’ whole life, his death, his resurrection is one grand story to show us who God is with us and for us.

 

Stories invite us to imagine God in ways that aren’t easily explained, easily understood or even sometimes aren’t easily accepted. I mean, I’m pretty sure, if Jesus wanted to, when he was teaching, he could have just said things very directly: “Like hey, listen, God is really forgiving. No, I mean, God is REALLY forgiving.” Except I don’t think people would have understood the extent of God’s mercy if he just said that.

 

Instead Jesus said things like this: God is SO forgiving, God is SO merciful, SO filled with compassion and grace, that if God were a father, and his youngest son insulted him by asking for his inheritance early (essentially saying “it really would be better if you were dead right now so I could have my money”). And if then, the son went out and recklessly spent it all, and came back…If God were that father, he  would respond not by yelling at the son, not by making the son pay for his disloyalty.

 

Instead, if God were that father, and he saw that son coming up the walk, he would run – RUN (even though running in ancient Palestine would have been considered undignified, and maybe even embarrassing). And even so, if God were that father, he would RUN and throw his arms around that son and kiss him. A kiss that signals forgiveness before the son even voices his remorse.

 

And when the son asks for scraps, to maybe live as a servant because that is all he deserves, if God were that father, that father would say, “Heck no! You are welcomed back into my house as my beloved child!” And then that father would throw him a banquet. And we are invited to see that God’s grace and mercy and generosity are surprising and extravagant – they come faster than we would ever expect, and they go deeper than we would ever hope.

 

What human father would be so quick to forgive? Now I have a high regard for fathers. I have talked about my own father and his lilies, and I live with one of the best fathers I can imagine because I have seen the love that Matt pours out on Ruby. But not one of our fathers is perfect. Very few would not even be offended in a situation of a child rejecting and insulting him. Human fathers might be very good. Some human fathers are very bad. Probably most fall somewhere in between.

 

This is one of the reasons you will hear me use feminine images for God, to insist that sometimes we imagine God as a Mother God. Not because mothers are perfect. (Heavens, no! I couldn’t handle that kind of pressure.) But because God is not exactly like a human father or just like a human mother. God is entirely beyond human. Of course, human fathers can be forgiving, human mothers can embody compassion. But we are still human. But our Mother God. Her love never fails. Our Father God, His forgiveness never runs out. He never holds a grudge. She always runs out to meet us when we return, however long we’ve been away. God’s mercy and compassion is beyond what we humans can muster or sometimes even understand.

 

We are much more likely to be like the elder son in this story. He has been good and loyal. He has never insulted the father like his ungrateful younger brother. He has worked hard. And he’s in a good spot. As the elder son, he is entitled to double the inheritance of his younger brother. Nothing his younger brother did changes all that. His brother’s sins were against the father, not against him.

 

Yet he stands in judgment against his brother. When the younger son comes back, the elder son is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the Father comes out to him. And the elder son is rude to his father. He addresses him saying, “Listen!” And he complains he has been working like a slave for him, and the father never threw him a party.

 

And then the father gives him this news. Maybe it comes as something of a shock. The father says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Here the elder son thought he was earning his father’s love, all these years. And it turns out that the father’s blessing and generosity was never in peril. It never depended upon him being good or loyal. And the father just wants him to rejoice with the rest of the family at his brother’s return. The Father wants him to be part of the party, but he won’t come inside.

 

And if God is like that father, if God is telling us that our place in God’s family, our portion of God’s love doesn’t depend on our hard work and our good deeds – and if we have been working hard and being good for a long time – that can be hard to hear. We might even find the wideness of God’s mercy intolerable.

 

And the tragedy of that is that we are not locked out of the party. We are invited. But sometimes our angry hearts won’t let us go in. But here is the good news. God’s mercy is so wide, God’s compassion is so deep, it receives and transforms even us and our angry, judging hearts. And it also receives those we think are undeserving, and even those who have done things which humans find unforgivable.

 

On our altar today are stones representing the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. On Thursday, I put 58 stones on the altar: one for each person who had died. And I walked around with a 59th stone in my pocket for the whole day: the one that would have represented the shooter who also died. And I thought about the victims. I thought about the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children who were grieving them. And I didn’t want to put that 59th stone on the altar. If it were up to me, I would have said the killer was outside of the bounds of God’s love and grace.

 

I couldn’t forgive. I wouldn’t ever suggest to someone whose family member was murdered, that they had to forgive. But you know, sometimes people do forgive. In ways that I think must be beyond human. I think of the African American Christians who forgave their loved ones’ killer in Charleston two years ago. I think of the Mennonite Christians who forgave the man who murdered their daughters just over 10 years ago. I think of someone I know personally, a Methodist Christian named Fred Wilson – who was shot and disabled in the Von Maur shootings, and who forgave the shooter almost immediately. Those are certainly acts of forgiveness empowered by God. So I know it is possible.

 

But I knew I couldn’t forgive like that, and in fact, it wasn’t my role or right to forgive or not. So I walked around with that stone for quite some time. And even though I didn’t want to put it on the altar, I did. Because that is the cross of Jesus up there. And it’s got nothing to do with whether or not I declare someone forgivable. Jesus on the cross said, “Father, forgive them” about the very people who put him there. It doesn’t make any sense. It is mercy beyond our comprehension. It is grace far greater than we can ever offer. Because we are just humans, and God is God.

 

And, as hard as it sometimes is, we are invited to rejoice because God is so merciful, even to the last person we would ever include. We are invited to let go of the responsibility of standing in judgment of others and of ourselves. So that our hands and hearts are open to receive the grace of God.

 

So like the elder son, we have a choice. We can stand outside of the celebration judging ourselves and others, or we can be part of the joy that God’s mercy is so great.

 

God is coming out to invite us in.

 

May we walk through the door.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

 

  1. Which character in the parable of The Prodigal Son do you most relate to? Why?

 

  1. What story from your own life or the world around you gives you a sense of what God’s grace and mercy is like? Have you ever been a witness to or heard about mercy or compassion that seemed beyond human? When?

 

  1. What judgment about yourself or others is it hardest for you to let go of? In other words, what things do you judge others or yourself for? How does that impact your ability to believe in and receive God’s grace and forgiveness for yourself?

Knowing Each Other So We Can Love Each Other

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Hanscom Park United Methodist Church

October 1, 2017

 

Isaiah 56:6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

 

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant—

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

8 Thus says the Lord God,

who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them

besides those already gathered.

 

communion table

 

I love this scripture. Here we’ve got God gathering outcasts and foreigners as part of Isaiah’s vision of the full restoration of Israel. This is a vision of God’s holy mountain Zion and the temple on it that will be restored and expanded to include not just one nation – but all the nations.

 

This is a great scripture for World Communion Sunday, if I do say so myself, since I am the one who picked it. World Communion Sunday is a celebration of the diversity of our worldwide Methodist connection, as well as an acknowledgment of our ecumenical relationships (meaning all Christians celebrate communion, not just Methodists). And it is an opportunity for us to give, to donate in support of students from all around the world. Like the text says: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Thus says the Lord.

 

But…like almost every scripture, when you start studying more and digging deeper, you encounter some trouble. As preachers know, there is almost always some trouble in the text. In this one, the trouble comes from the context in which it was written. This part of Isaiah was written in post-exile Israel. This is the period where the exiles who have been taken against their will to Babylon come back. They get to come back because the Persians have ousted the Babylonians. In some ways, this new imperial overlord was good news. The Babylonians had forced most of the people out of Israel, but the Persian Empire thought it was better to let them return to their homeland.

So, some 60-70 years, generations after having been removed, the exiles were allowed to return. However, as you might imagine, during that 60-70 years, other people have moved onto the land. Some of those people were actually there to start with. They were the poorest residents who the Babylonians didn’t even bother to relocate. And some of those people were the foreigners we hear about in our scripture today.

 

When the exiles return, things are a mess. The poor folks and foreigners didn’t have the land or humanpower or resources to rebuild or re-work the land after the Babylonians ruined it. So when the returnees arrive, there are suddenly way too many people, and way too few resources to go around.

Let’s suffice it to say that Isaiah’s idealistic declaration of the foreigners being welcome additions to the people of Israel: well, not everybody felt that way. Some of them thought that maybe those foreigners should get out, so the real chosen people could have more to eat. In fact, you can find other prophets writing at this exact same time who very clearly want that. Nehemiah preached against the Judeans marrying foreigners, and Ezra went so far as to tell Judeans if they have taken foreign wives, they should abandon them and any children they had with them. There is not agreement, among people in the community, even among the prophets, about whether God’s salvation is really for all people.

I think this trouble in the text invites us to acknowledge that there is similar trouble in our world. Sure, we love celebrating World Communion Sunday. We want to declare that this is a house of prayer for all peoples, but we too struggle with whether we think there are really enough resources to go around.

 

And so we have to ask ourselves the question, “with which prophet do we stand?” Do we stand with Isaiah who declares that God wants to include everybody? Or do we stand with Ezra and Nehemiah who insist that resources are too scarce. We have to take care of our own. Do we really value people in different communities and distant countries and cultures as much as the people who are nearby? Think about Puerto Rico. Think about the recent earthquakes in Mexico. Think about our political debates about immigration. It’s hard to know what to do. And the prophets could have us go either way.

 

Luckily, our Methodist tradition has some help for us. How many of you remember me talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral? It tells us that we have to read scripture using these other tools: our reason, tradition, and experience. The bible is a complicated book – a library of books in actuality. To make sense of its many voices, we have to bring to bear all of the theological resources we’ve got. And today I’d like us to seek some guidance from our Methodist tradition. Specifically, from our founder (I may have mentioned him before), the Reverend John Wesley.

 

Now John Wesley knew something about salvation. He knew that salvation was new life, lived in love, right now. It is something we experience when we receive God’s forgiveness and acceptance. It results in transformed lives. Wesley expected people who claimed to know Jesus, to know God, to be changed. He believed every faithful person could grow more and more in the image of God, and that eventually they would be “perfected in love in this life.” They would be perfectly conformed to the image of God, totally free from sinning. They would be able to love God and love their neighbor perfectly. In this life. All the time.

 

Now, I know that it quite a claim. I think even Wesley knew that the actual reaching of perfection was rare. But even so, he encouraged all of his people to strive for it. And one thing he thought was absolutely indispensable for people if they were going to grow in the image of God, is that they had to be in direct relationship with the poor and the sick. Because we simply cannot love our neighbors, if we do not know our neighbors. And if we only know middle class and healthy people, then there are a lot of neighbors we don’t know and can’t love.

 

Wesley was ruthless about this. Prepare yourselves. He did not coddle people. Here is an excerpt from a sermon he preached called On Visiting the Sick.

 

“One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart.”

From http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-98-on-visiting-the-sick/

 

I know that is harsh. Wesley is not playing, and it’s not because he hates the rich. He interacted with people of all social classes. He is concerned for their souls. He believes that not being able to love all of God’s children – especially those who are in need – is a major and dangerous impediment in our relationship with God.

 

He shows this concern also in a series of letters he writes to a wealthy woman named Miss March. Wesley is clearly impressed with her spiritual progress. He writes to her that he has great optimism that she will go on to reach perfection in love. But she does have some work to do. When she survives a grave illness and asks Wesley how she can best give God glory because she has been given the gift of more days on earth, Wesley replies:

 

“And are you willing to know? Then I will tell you how. Go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman! Remember the faith! Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ!” (Wesley, John. “To Miss March, June 9, 1775.” In The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. (Vol. VI). London: The Epworth Press, 1931: p. 153-154.)

 

Wesley tells her to “put off the gentlewoman.” In our language, maybe something like “quit being so high and mighty.” And go visit the poor and sick in their homes.

 

Apparently, this was not easy for Miss March to do. In successive letters, Wesley continued to urge her again and again to visit the poor, to know the poor. I remember the day when I was sitting on the floor in the library in seminary, digging through volume after volume of Wesley’s letters, and I saw his last letter to Miss March. It was this exasperated plea to just go visit the poor and the sick already. It gave me the impression that he was so disappointed with her that he was just done with her. He never wrote to her again. I was surprised to find my feelings hurt on her behalf. And honestly, I think Wesley could have been more kind.

 

But this issue was so essential to him. He took it with such seriousness. And I think it is that essential to us. You can’t truly love people you don’t know. Your heart can’t break with compassion when you haven’t heard people’s stories, when you haven’t shared relationships, when you haven’t been in their homes.

 

So before we decide whether it is our job to help Puerto Rico or Mexico or not, or whether we should support immigration reform or not, I think we need to listen to John Wesley. We can’t look from afar and decide it’s okay not to care about people who are distant from us in geography or circumstance. We have to know people so that we can love people.

 

Now, it is sometimes not as easy as just “visiting the poor in their poor little hovels” as Wesley would say. We can’t just hop on a plane to visit people in other countries. We might not know any recent immigrants with whom we can have a chat. But I do think we can take first steps in learning about those who are different than us, so that eventually we can build relationships with those same people.

 

There is an organization called Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). They were started by The United Methodist Church, and they actually are moving into the old Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging building on 42nd and Center. So they will literally be our new neighbors. They employ a team of attorneys who work with low-income immigrants who cannot afford to pay for legal advice.

 

And I am glad that our WIMPS group (Women in Mission Projects) is hosting a speaker from JFON here at the church on October 19th at 6:30 PM. Her name is Anna Deal, and she is an attorney that works with immigrants. She will be talking with us about the immigration process and how families are impacted by it. And I hope you will consider attending. While this isn’t yet what Wesley would require of us since it doesn’t directly put us in contact with our immigrant neighbors, I hope it will be an educational step for us to prepare to reach out with compassion to the many immigrants who, for example, attend Norris Middle School just up the street and live in our immediate vicinity.

 

Friends, we can’t celebrate World Communion Sunday with any integrity unless we commit to knowing the diverse people in our own community. So I am going to keep encouraging us to do that. And I’m also going to tell you the truth. The theological bottom line is this: you are a beloved child of God, made in God’s image, and able to grow to perfection in love. And so is every person of every race and nation and class in this vast world of ours.

 

So we have a big job to do. Because to be in communion with each other, we have to put in the effort to know each other. And only when we know each other can we possibly love each other.

 

May it be so.

 

Amen.

 

———

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION

 

  1. When resources are scarce and need is great, how do you decide who to help, which people to care for, or which organizations to support?

 

  1. Where are there gaps in your experience with diverse people? Are there certain groups or types of people you need to know better so that you can love them better?

 

  1. Tell us a story about a time that you got to know someone who was different from you (from a different race, ethnicity, nation, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, level of ability, etc.). How did it change how you thought, felt, and acted?