Women Lead Faith

Women of faith are given far less credit than they are due. This past week, St. Paul’s United Methodist church celebrated the 23 years of service that Rev. Marianne Niesen has shared with Helena, she will retire June 30th. She is the first female pastor to serve St. Paul’s. Rev. Niesen began her career as a Franciscan Nun.  Through her ministry, she discerned a call to preach and teach, both of which she could not fulfill in the church of her birth. Her Franciscan sisters supported her financially by sending her to graduate school and then Rev. Niesen bravely stepped into a new tradition who embraced her God given gifts. This brave step of faith would send her outside her own tradition and give us an example of the faithful leaps women are called to take more often than men.

 

Women leaders have given me spiritual direction over and over. I would not be a pastor without faithful women guiding me back to religion as an institution capable of cultivating spiritual and God given gifts in people. According to a 2014 Pew research study American women are more likely than men to say that religion is “very important” (60% vs. 47%). American women are more likely to pray(64% vs. 47%) and to attend a religious service(40% vs. 32%).[1] Clearly women understand the need for spiritual guidance and support needed by our churches and communities of faith, and they seem to understand it better than men.

 

The past two religion articles I have written both highlighted the depth to which I am concerned about the entrenchment formed by deepening ideologies in our nation. Each day we see this division continue to play out in our national media. We saw it develop rifts in our own Montana legislative session again this year.  The statistic I continue to highlight comes from another Pew Research Center study comparing political views from 1994 and 2014. Twenty-three years ago, Democratic and Republican officials were more similar in their voting. In 1994, 16% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans viewed their opponents unfavorably. Those numbers more than doubled 20 years later to 38 and 43 percent, respectively. More concerning is that the research added a new category in 2014 to reveal that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans now view their opponents as a “threat to the national well-being.”

 

I firmly believe our faith communities are going to play a vital role in demonstrating and developing ways to fill in our entrenchment and redeem us from divisiveness.  It is only in religious community that we are asked to set aside our differences so we can come together and learn from God.  In my own tradition, Jesus invites us to learn the way in which we will live in grace with one another.

 

In the Christian scriptures, within the Gospel of John is the story of the Samaritan woman.  This woman who had been cast aside by so many men, is the first person outside Jesus’ own faith that he calls to be a disciple.  Not only that, but he calls her to go and speak with a people that the Jews of Jesus day were not supposed to agree with on anything, the Samaritans. Samaritans and Jews disagreed on even which temple God was actually located in, but Jesus calls her anyway because he knows the truth.  The truth is that nothing can separate us from what God calls us to be, and from the Christian tradition it is clear God calls us to be a people that love our neighbor and love God, the rest of Christianity is just a footnote to this the greatest commandment.

 

Women will play a vital role in the redemptive work of healing our society. They are the ones most well versed in overcoming boundaries and barriers.  Women understand the need to step beyond the faith of our birth into new understandings in the service of God. They understand the words of Martin Luther King Jr.  who said, “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”[2]

 

We need to give women of faith the credit they deserve.  Women are the ones holding our communities of faith together and I pray we listen to women as we follow God in the redemptive work needed in our nation. If we listen, God might be able to “…bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Data taken from the 2014 study found here: http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

Specific statistics highlighted were found in a 2016 article found here: http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

[2] http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol03Scans/451_3-Dec-1956_Facing%20the%20Challenge%20of%20a%20New%20Age.pdf

A Samaritan Woman

A visitor to the Australian outback visited a cattle ranch.  He was intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of ranching country with no sign of any fences.  He asked the rancher how kept track of his cattle.  The rancher replied, “Out here we dig wells instead of fences.”

 

“Out here we dig wells instead of fences.”  The implications of the phrase in our work as a church are deep.  There is no need to fence in that which is highly motivated to stay within range of water, their most important source of life.

 

Faith and helping provide places of faith should be about digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences.  However, to fully grasp this I need to take an excursion into mathematics, briefly, I promise.

 

The word “set” in mathematics refers to a group of objects that belong together because they have a defined similarity which binds them together.  For example a set of odd numbers might include 1, 3,5, 157, but not 2, 4, or 100.

 

Sets can be defined in various ways.  For example: in a room full of people the set of males is usually a clearly recognizable set which could further be divided into subsets of single males and married males.  Or we could define a set in terms of age, the set of those under 35; or in terms of knowledge, the set made up of all those who know what the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to do with the hair shave from his head and beard in Ezekiel 5.  Or behavior, the set of those who have not exceeded the speed limit today.

 

It is possible that someone in here might be included in all those sets today.  On the other hand, any speedy female over 35 who doesn’t know Ezekiel well, might be excluded from them all.[1]

 

Another set is determined only by how far a person is from the center goal.  For example, many of us would consider ourselves constantly working to deepen our relationships with those we love.  There is relatively no way for me to determine or define by position how deep you are in the relationship with your parent or your child.  You are one of the only people who can determine this depth.  Faith and our relationship to God is the same, we are the only ones who can describe the depth to which we know God, to which we feel connected to God.  And most likely it will take some conversation within the relationship to know what will help deepen that relationship.

 

The first form of sets we talked about is the bounded set.  We need parameters to define who is in and who is out.  The second set we talked about, when I shared about relationships is called a centered set.  And as the Australian rancher said, “Out here we dig wells, instead of fences.”

 

The writer in John seems to understand these set concepts well.  Last week, in John 3, we studied Nichodemus, who was a Pharisee.  Pharisees kept track of the bounded set, the laws that determined if people were in the bounds of God’s mercy, or if others life practices determined they were left on the outside of God’s mercy.  Nichodemus could not as a learned man approach Jesus during the day, nor could he fully comprehend the depths of God’s love described by Jesus.

 

In contrast, today’s scripture is about a woman whose very social location should have prevented Jesus from even talking to her.  Samaritans in the 1st century were unclean and fenced out from Jewish society as people unable of receiving God’s mercy.  While sharing a common ancestor with the Jewish people they were believed to be wrong in their worship of God, having their own temple to God instead of using the one located in Jerusalem.  Additionally, a man sitting by a well would not have permission to speak with a woman for fear they both would be seen as living outside of appropriate gender relationships.

 

The unexpected lesson is that Jesus and the Samaritan Woman had to cross boundaries to share the new life of God’s love, but beyond that the Samaritan woman had to have courage to work through the pain of her own life.  She stepped through her fear and doubt about a world that had probably discarded her, and dared hope that God might still cross a boundary to help her become the first disciple of the good news.

 

Here now from the gospel of John, chapter 4 retold, with what might have happened in between the lines.

 

Jesus came to Sychar, near the land of the Samaritans, and Jacob’s well who had been a forefather of the Jews and the Samaritans.  There he sat down at a well, it was about noon and the sun was hot.  His disciples went to town to get some food for him, at what would guess is the equivalent of 1st century McDonalds.

 

A Samaritan woman came to the well with her bucket to gather water for the day.  It was an odd time to gather water, as most would come in the early hours of the day when the air was still cool.  Jesus asked the woman for a drink of water stepping outside the barriers of gender and ethnicity that were in place for the day.

 

The woman was taken aback, and in confusion asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink?  Don’t you know what people might think?”

 

Jesus responds cryptically, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

 

The woman has seen this before, a man too hot in the sun spouting nonsense.  Jesus knows the disciples will be back with their own bucket soon, but she doesn’t know this.  She thinks to herself, “The truth is this man can’t offer me water, he has no bucket.”  So she lets Jesus know this and then in surprise even to herself she goes deeper, “Are you better than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well?”

 

13-14 Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (MSG Version)

 

The woman asks eagerly for this water, her life has been hard and challenging and this could be a break for her.

 

As if knowing this challenge Jesus, presses into the fear and hurt in this woman’s life with a phrase, “Go and get your husband and come back.”

 

The woman feels all the shame, fear, anger and pain come up for her again.  She feels in this moment the reality that she is a sinner, but also in the phrase a reminder that she has tried so hard to be a saint in her life.  In her world woman are judged by the man they are with, and if they are not with a man, they are sometimes considered powerless.  Knowing it might end the conversation she honestly shares, “I have no husband.”

 

In the past I have heard this woman called improper for having this many husbands, or told she lived immorally.  However, we know nothing of her context, so to make this assumption is to pass judgment.  Bad relationships, death, or rejection are all possible.  In this moment she has to face the brutal reality of the position of her life.

 

Then Jesus shares that he knows she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not even her husband.  Let me name the courage of this woman and the hard work she has done to work through the pain of her past, because if this wound was still raw, I think she would have walked away. Instead, she turns this pain of Jesus words to mocking Jesus for acting like a prophet and gives him the edge of her anxiety about going deeper into this conversation; she uses this emotion to turn the tables on him.  She reminds him of something that most likely caused Jesus shame, fear, anger, and pain.

 

19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”  (MSG Version)

 

Jesus would have felt his own skin crawl at this remark, because he knew that deeply God wanted all people to be aware of the love of God.  That God didn’t want boundaries and barriers to block this love and in this moment it almost did.

 

I want to take a minute to note the courage and bravery of both Jesus and this woman.  They keep crossing boundaries:  First the social and cultural boundaries.  Second the emotional boundaries that shut down so many conversations in our world, they let each other push buttons that drive many of us to quit conversations.

 

Then after receiving the pushback from the woman, Jesus shares:

 

23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

 

25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”  (The MSG)

 

Jesus and her seize this opportunity together.  They take the beauty of what Jesus has to share about the good news of God’s kingdom for all people and the brutal boundaries they just crossed, and do what one of my favorite author calls making a “brutiful” moment.  Despite all of the hard things they have shared, they both crossed enough boundaries to know that Jesus is bringing God’s good news and she is loved enough to carry this news to her people.  She gets up from that place and leaves her bucket behind to bring her friends to meet Jesus.  Jesus the man who has invited her to live through her pain, has shared his own pain, and for whom boundaries will be crossed to center people in the deep well of God’s love.

 

The Christian author, Tony Compolo, was in prayer with a group before he was to speak at a Pentecostal college.  A group of 8 had asked to pray with him before the event and he had agreed.  They had him kneel and all placed hands on him.  It was a little unusual for Tony, but he knew the importance of prayer in this community.

 

Then as sometimes happens in church prayers, it got a little awkwardly long and Tony was trying to think of how to end the prayer.  Especially when one of the gentleman started to share some pretty intimate details of the struggles of one man, Charlie Stolzfus.

 

The prayer went something like this; “Lord Jesus, you know Charlie Stolzfus.  He lives in the white trailer down the road from the church on the left hand side of the road, it is white.”

 

Tony was thinking, “I don’t know if I need to know where Charlie’s street address is, God knows right where it is.”

 

The man kept praying, “God, you know Charlie left his spouse and kids this morning, and we hope you Jesus can do something to help him and his family in the white trailer down the road from the church, on the left hand side.  Please keep Charlie Stolzfus in our hearts Lord.”

The prayer finally ended.  Tony completed the event and was headed to his hotel when he saw a guy who was looking for a ride.  Tony offered the guy a ride, and introduced himself.  The gentleman shook his hand and said, “Hi my name is Charlie Stolzfus.”

 

Tony without saying a word starting driving and then flipped a U-turn and drove back toward the college and the church he was at.  The guy was getting obviously nervous.  Here is this tough looking preacher who picked him up and is driving him in the opposite direction he was headed.  Charlie finally asks, “Where are you taking me?”

 

Tony says, “Home.”

 

Charlies asks, “Why?”

 

Tony says, “God told me.”

 

Tony and Charlie get home and meet Charlie’s wife and have one of those conversation that crosses barriers, and helps us live through our struggles.  Charlie and his wife were able to work things out and Charlie became a pastor because God stepped into his life that night in a deep way.[2]

 

The unexpected lesson today is that when we come as we are to God and Jesus; God can work with who we are, as we are.  We don’t have to be the perfect person and have it all figured out, we don’t have to be happy about changes that happen to us.  God will keep the conversation going until we are ready to see what is next.

 

I don’t think it is a mistake that this section is one of the longest in John’s gospel.  God knows that preparing for this kind of change takes time.  We don’t have to be happy right away, in fact God wants us to push back and forth until we feel ready to make a change.  God reminds us to let life be hard and not to numb it.

 

It is not going to be all better after we meet the change either, it is going to be different.  Different can bring beauty, but it can be brutal to get to that beauty.

 

Go and dig the brutiful well, and remember that crossing boundaries helps us find Jesus and the courage to share God’s love.

 

 

 

 

[1] Thanks to Sheila Pritchard for this great analogy around sets. http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/misc/pritchard.htm

[2] Tony Campollo Story and additional information for background. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2014/03/lent-3a-john-45-42-the-samaritan-woman-at-the-well.html

Roots

root-245667_960_720God of the quiet surprise, God of the silent night,

As I share my reflections today may they be true to your love and grace.

May we all find ways to make safe spaces this Advent.

Amen

This is Advent, the season when we prepare for God to be born into the world. As we begin the Advent season many of us have, are going to, or just realized we needed to set up our Christmas trees. We begin the strange custom of bringing what belongs outside in, and artificially lighting and decorating that which nature decorates quite well.   With many of us thinking about trees it seems good that we can root the beginnings of Advent in a scripture that invites us to learn how to branch out from God’s Love as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Now that I have completed pining for your attention, I invite us to listen to today’s scripture from the book of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Common English Bible (CEB)

14 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.

 

This reading from Jeremiah encapsulates all of the hope the Jewish people in Israel had for the coming of their Messiah. The coming of the Messiah was to change the world, bring freedom for God’s people from the oppression of Rome, and bring safety to all. Scriptures like Jeremiah and others speaking of the coming of the Messiah were being shared as Jesus was born into the world.

 

Like many today, people in the 1st century claimed to know how God would be revealed to the world, or when the end of time would come. Each one of these claimants had different understandings of how the Messiah would appear. Some in the 1st century pined for a violent change to the world and sought vicious ways to attempt forcing the issue. Others sought to separate themselves and ritually purify their lives to be ready for the arrival of God. Still others did not worry so much and went about their daily work.

 

For the Christian church, Jesus is the culmination of this change in the world. For early Christians, Jesus’ birth represents the fulfillment of the words in Jeremiah. Jesus is the branch on David’s family tree, the continuation of the lineage of the great uniting King of Israel that brought peace by uniting the people of Israel and conquering their enemies with armies. However, Jesus’ methods of peace through disciple making were not what many expected. Like Jesus’ surprising birth as an unexpected child in a lowly place, Jesus surprised most everyone by being a peaceful change agent.

 

To help us understand more about the branch Jesus is for us as Christians, I would like to take us all on a dendrological tour of our scriptures. For your information, dendrology is the study of trees.

 

Early in our scriptures, in Genesis, we run into a tree called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (TKGE). There is also another tree, “The Tree of Life.” The “Tree of Life” we will get back to. The TKGE tree is one of the early trees in the garden when God places the first two humans. The story goes that if the humans eat of the TKGE’s fruit they will die. So one day the more biologically sound of the two humans is out and some serpent cons her into eating the fruit. According to the book of Genesis this is the moment when humans learn they can die, that life is full of work, and that people will experience pain. It is also described as the first moment humans felt shame. Shame is that feeling that despite our best efforts to be the authentic people God created us to be, we have done something wrong that we cannot control.

 

The second place in human history people felt shame was at Thanksgiving dinner. We laugh, but it is kind of true. I read a post last week that called Thanksgiving the “Final Frontier.”[1] The post was referring to the fact that we most want to be the child-like, authentic and God-created humans we are around family. They happen to know all of our mistakes and use these to poke holes in the wholeness we start to find in God. Family is a hard place to be the peace-filled people Christ calls us to be because growing close to God involves change, and many times family tends to be about keeping us where we started. This usually happens around Thanksgiving dinner through Uncle Ned, or Grandma to say something that polarizes the room or takes us into a moment of shouting or stunned silence. They say something that makes us withdraw instead of branching out with support for one another.

 

One of the stories sometimes read the first week of Advent is the story of Zechariah. Elizabeth is described in the gospels as Mary’s cousin, and Elizabeth is married to Zechariah. Zechariah is a priest and while performing his priestly duties he is approached by an angel of the Lord. The angel informs Zechariah that he and his wife will bear a son, John (aka John the Baptist). John will begin to help people find God again, and prepare the way for one greater than him. Zechariah doubts this to be true because he and Elizabeth are older, and due to his doubts Zechariah is unable to speak until the events he has learned about come to pass.

 

Like Zechariah, some of us wish that we could claim we were mute until the good news of God came to pass. I think some wish they were mute at Thanksgiving when they feel the shame, and can’t share their true selves. It would be nice to just be able to sit quietly knowing that God’s blessings would arrive soon. In fact this may be a good first root response to the craziness around us. Take a deep breath, and find the silence.

 

The next tree in our journey is a tree that sneaks up behind Jonah, and gives him shade and comfort. Many of us know a big fish swallowed Jonah, but the story of Jonah is about God’s grace to people who Jonah does not think deserve it. The people to whom Jonah has brought the news of God are considered the most evil people in Jonah’s world. As Jonah is loathing this fact and wishing God would end the same people, a tree sprouts up to shade Jonah. In the next instant the tree dies and Jonah is upset. God points out that Jonah did not care about the tree unless it was doing him good, and the same of the people he went to serve. God loves all the trees and all the people.

 

These past few weeks following the bombing in Paris, Facebook and other social media are filled with conversations that have become polarized, and pretty vicious. The primary focus has been around immigration of Syrian refugees. One side claims that letting Syrian refugees enter our country tantamount to suicide. The other side seems to scream that those saying the former are bigoted idiots not worthy of this country. Not much middle ground is being sought, and people seem to comment on each other’s posts without thinking. Also, I have heard more stories of people’s family members of different political allegiances being the primary culprits. It is like Thanksgiving dinner challenges gone viral and virtual.

There is a great legend about St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century. In the legend St. Francis plans, during a lull in a Crusade battle, to sneak through enemy lines and attempt to convert the Caliphate of Egypt, a Muslim King. The King refuses to convert, but in awe of Francis’ bravery to cross lines and share of his faith the King invites a dialogue between the two during which they find common ground to respect each other. These two leaders represent faiths that like estranged relatives sought to find a brave and free way to relate, they provided safety for one another to share their own stories. In some of the accounts it mentions that both men changed their religious practice due to this experience.

 

This is our second task during Advent–be brave in our sharing, and create safe spaces for people to share their concern and hopes.

 

The final tree today is one that is found in Revelation 22, the tree of Life. This is the same tree described in Genesis, but as I said early we often ignore this tree. This tree in Revelation is described as connecting two sides of a river whose source is the throne of God. From the tree grows fruits, one for each month of the year. This tree has leaves from which the healing of the nations will come.

 

On the Wednesday following the Parisian attacks the following story could be found in the Upper Room daily devotional, keep in mind this publication is planned months in advance.

 

After a long flight a woman emerged from a Paris metro car feeling weary. She carried two large pieces of luggage and was looking for an escalator, only to find it was out of order. As she stood there being passed by many Parisians, someone reached for her suitcase. It took her a moment to realize the person was attempting to help her. She grabbed her other bag and enthusiastically followed the mysterious good Samaritan. The mysterious helper was a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. At the top of the stairs she set the bag down and headed on her way. The woman being helped shouted, “Shukran!” The Arabic word for, “Thank you.” Teresa Cannaday the author and woman who received the assistance shares, “Her actions reminded me that no matter who we are, where we come from, or the basis of our faith, in the end we are all God’s children.”[2]

 

The tree of life and this story speak to an ancient part of the Christian practice. It is the very truth that it takes all of us, each of the branches, to reflect and share the fruit of God’s love.[3] We all quite literally have to be able to share of ourselves at the table, and only then will we truly glimpse God. Only when we all can share our gratitude for God’s love in others can we truly grasp the tree of life.

 

Our final task this Advent is to learn to show gratitude for the love we see in others. It is through sharing gratitude that we graciously share of our branches’ fruit to help feed the world and its leaves that shade the safe spaces of healing.

 

The branch people expected for the coming of the messiah in the 1st century was a “big stick,” a big branch that could be used to conquer all. Instead what arrived was an olive branch bearing fruit of a promise that we all could live life, and live abundantly.

 

If you read a little more about trees you will learn that in the cold winter months, roots can grow and form as they are needed. This means that even when the world seems rough, or family seems tough we can provide space in the cold times for our roots to go deeper. While the ground is covered in snow during this Advent season silently waiting God’s arrival, let us: always let the chaos of the world catch us in silence, taking a deep breath like Zechariah, expecting good news. Always be full of the courage to share authentically, and courage to create safe spaces for others to grow their roots. Finally, let us always be filled with gratitude of the piece of God that can be found in each branch of God we meet in others.

 

As you put up your tree this season, may it be a tree of hope rooting us to peace, so we can experience God’s love born anew.

 

[1] https://www.facebook.com/momastery/posts/10153732756089710:0

[2] http://devotional.upperroom.org/devotionals/2015-11-18/excerpt

 

[3] Parker, Rebecca Ann; Brock, Rita Nakashima (2008-07-01). Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (Kindle Locations 3190-3191). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

It’s In There

                             Psalm 99     October 19, 2014

God, father and mother of us all, your love never ends.

You speak to us in the quiet of the spring, and in the clamor of the city.

As we worship together on this Bible Sunday may we seek how your scriptures will share a message of hope with us, with the world, and the universe.

May we find our connection with you, with all people and with all creation.

In the name Christ who dwells in us.

Amen.

 

 

Psalm 99 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Praise to God for His Holiness

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!

He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

The Lord is great in Zion;

he is exalted over all the peoples.

Let them praise your great and awesome name.

Holy is he!

Mighty King, lover of justice,

you have established equity;

you have executed justice

and righteousness in Jacob.

Extol the Lord our God;

worship at his footstool.

Holy is he!

Moses and Aaron were among his priests,

Samuel also was among those who called on his name.

They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.

He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;

they kept his decrees,

and the statutes that he gave them.

O Lord our God, you answered them;

you were a forgiving God to them,

but an avenger of their wrongdoings.

Extol the Lord our God,

and worship at his holy mountain;

for the Lord our God is holy.

 

 

When I hear this scripture it leaves me wondering many times, “Is that really in there?” This scripture doesn’t describe the God I have experienced. For myself and for many in our congregation God is generally described as a gentle, but firm presence. We describe God as a force of peace in our lives that finds us in moments of turmoil. Rarely in our context do I hear people describe God as a mighty king or sitting on “Cherubim.”

 

In our culture today the prevailing perception of Christianity is that everything written in the Bible describes the doctrines and rules of our faith. This notion comes primarily from the movement in American Christianity that believes the Bible is the inherent word of God. These are the people who refer to the Bible in the way the following acronym describes.

 

Basic

Instructions

Before

Leaving

Earth

 

In this mindset the Bible becomes an exact description of the universe and how it functions. Drawing rules for how to live now and in this life and the next. The challenge comes in that there are sections of the Bible that disagree. When the rules in one section do not match another then we are left in a debate about our eternal salvation, and forget the reason of our faith is to love one another. When in Leviticus it reminds us we are not to wear cloth made of two different fibers, are we to stop worship and check everyone who came in. Or instead do we listen to Christ who says love God and love your neighbor.

 

There are other Christians that treat the Bible like the old “Magic 8 Ball.” I am sure many of us remember the “Magic 8 Ball” that can be found in the toy aisle. On one side is the circular piece of plastic and behind it the mysterious blue liquid. Inside was a 20-sided dice with 20 different answers. You would shake the ball and turn it over and see what answer rose to the glass. You ask a question like, “Should I plan to look for a new job?” And an answer like “Signs point to yes” would rise to the glass. The Bible has been treated the same way, shake it, open it, and take the answer.

 

United Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton writes about both of these uses of the scriptures in his book “Making Sense of the Bible.”   These are the two things he describes that the Bible is not for United Methodists. It is not an exact rulebook and it is not a “Magic 8 Ball” for finding personal prosperity. Both of these uses of the Bible lead to a nightmare in which God gave us a text to tie us either into an eternal game of who is in or who is out, or to play roulette with our lives. I don’t believe either of these uses of the Bible helps to deliver the dream we learn about in Christ, the dream shared of a relationship with all creation.

 

The Bible is filled with ancient stories that describe the intimate relationship with God and God’s people. At first God’s people is a select group and then later God’s encounter expanding to all people, specifically those encountering Christ. The stories that make up our scriptures are an invitation for us to study the power of faith through part of human history. More specifically for us to experience Christ, Jesus spiritual background in Judaism, and to learn how God can be in our lives to invite us to a life of love, hope, peace and justice.

 

Our scriptures are for our study to engage the living Christ and study how to live the way of Christ on this earth.

 

In my preparation for today I found Psalm 99 is read often in correlation with celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Movement. In verse 4 you hear, “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice.”

 

We trust that God is on all sides of history, but the struggle for Civil Rights in this country called on people to overcome great fear. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders had to inspire people who had been oppressed, and even killed to engage in non-violent protests. When your life is on the line the knowledge that God is just and brings equity gives you courage to stand when violence is turned on you.

 

Martin Luther King Jr. did not cite Jesus consistently in his speeches, but Isaiah, Amos and Exodus. All of these texts were deeply rooted in a God that worked to bring justice amidst violence and oppression. These stories gave people hope they could overcome the worst and that God would be alongside of them. It gave them Hope and it gives us hope that the mystery of God can turn the pride of humanity from dwelling in the shame of slavery, and direct us then and now to continue the work of dismantling the awful work of racial prejudice.

 

As we can see the Bible can be used to create grand dreams as with Martin Luther King Jr. or personal nightmares of prosperity roulette and eternal insider and outsider club. Our role in studying the Bible in sharing the scripture is to seek to find God’s hope for us, and how we live that hope out.

 

Last summer I shared with many of you, that I had the opportunity to gather with young people from the global United Methodist Church, Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe. One of the pivotal moments for me was that as an ordained clergy in our church I got to share Communion with our group. I shared the story of Christ’s last night with the disciples and it was translated into 3 or 4 other languages. In each of those languages the words mean a slightly different thing. When I said, “this is the cup of the new covenant.” I wonder what different connotations that phrase had in Portuguese. Perhaps in one of the other languages it meant significantly more that God is intimately connected and offering hope to us all.

 

As I watched each of my friends being served communion, I could see hope in their eyes.   Some of them were going back to areas where Christians aren’t welcome, others to places stricken with poverty, some even to where Ebola now rages, and others to middle class comfort.  The power of this story sharing is that I trust my friends can go back with the story of Christ and his disciples, or read Psalm 99 or study the scriptures to see where God is calling them to hope, justice, peace and love.  I pray they find dreams instead of nightmares, and God’s hope every time.

The Bible is counter-cultural because despite our disagreements we are all called back to the text. We are called back to study the scripture to encounter the stories and to see where God is calling us to seek a common story with our brothers and sisters. By digging into these stories we can find ways to oppress, and degrade. Or we can find ways to build up and support life. No matter what stories we use we are capable of either. As Christians we share stories in the book called the Bible at it is our responsibility as Christian people to own these stories and learn where they come from and how they can shape our experiences of God.

 

Perhaps we might be surprised when we open ourselves to the scriptures with an attitude of hope that God really does change the world through a gentle and firm presence in us, we will be surprised how the stories change us to work to bring that spirit of hope to our world.

 

“Challenge Accepted” – Helena Church Challenge Helps “Change the World”

photo 3Church mission planning takes time and patience, but God does surprising things in the process.  For the past two years I attempted to organize projects for Change the World weekend in Helena, MT.  The first year we attempted to paint a building for a local non-profit.  The second year we did trash cleanup.  This year we challenged Helena.  Each year we saw an increase in participation from the first year when I showed up(just me), to last year when about 1.5 dozen showed up, and then this year when 15 Churches(maybe more by the time you read this) stepped up.  Laying the groundwork sometimes means doing it yourself first and figuring out a way to invite others to help Change the World.

Usually in the month of April churches raise about 4,000 lbs of food in Helena.  We donate heavily at Christmas and our gardens fill the pantry in the late summer and early fall, but spring and early summer see some of the lowest rates of giving to food banks.  How do we break this pattern and supply our pantries with more this time of year?  Challenge Churches!

Covenant and St. Paul’s UMCs this year teamed up to Change the World by challenging Helena area churches to raise 8,000 lbs of food.  When we gathered to plan the first time we gathered in the same building I had attempted to paint 2 years prior as I did a solo change the world event.  Now we were a team of 5 planning to invite whole churches to help us out.  We planned each step of the way.  First we needed to be in touch with our food bank(Helena Food Share) as they could help us coordinate.  When we ask if the need was real and if Food Share would be interested in us helping out, they said, “Yes!”  We worked with Food Share to learn about marketing the event in Helena and then the team went to work.  We called every church that donated to Food Share last year, we made sure we got the word out to the press, and we even called all the businesses that have reader boards to see if they could help us out.  photo 1

In the following weeks we created a website(challengehelena.com), put up our Facebook page, and set up a couple public service radio interviews. Then wouldn’t you know it we got a phone call, make that 2 phone calls from the local news stations, KXLH and KTVH.  Both stations did news stories on us right around Easter.  They were thrilled to cover a story about 2 churches challenging their fellow churches to raise food to feed people.  As Marianne Niesen, St. Paul’s Senior Pastor, puts it, “Easter isn’t really news to the media.  Christian Churches around the world have Easter services. Churches working together to make their community a more hospitable place to live, that is news they are interested in.”

After we got the word out, churches have been signing on consistently. Our list keeps growing 15 churches and counting trying to get 8,000lbs of food to our food bank in 1 month. Can we do it? We are giving it our best and trying to share a message of hope with our community. Not only that, but the national church helped out. If you sign up early enough each year you get a free banner to use, a t-shirt, and they even do a mailing for your community. We sent mail throughout our community inviting people to participate thanks to United Methodist Communications for helping us out.

I never thought this project would have such traction, but it did.  It has traction because people care about their community and we are inviting them to make it better.  Look for projects that help people know they are making a difference in the lives of others, big or small.  Take your time, and if the first year doesn’t work out, say a prayer and see where you see the community being called to change the world.

photo 2Covenant and St. Paul’s are working hard to change their community and the world. What will you do for change the world weekend? It is coming up on May 17-18. Sign up by clicking here. Let’s show the world that Church is about finding Christ in each other and sharing God’s love with the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which Way?

Religious billboards, the ones we see around today, really don’t help my blood pressure.  Most of them seem to carry an ultimatum on them.  “Follow Jesus or spend eternity somewhere you don’t want to.”   “Ignoring Jesus? Well he died for you.”  The guilt flows from these billboards like a flooding river in spring.  One billboard I drive by consistently reads, “Do you have any idea where you are going? –God.”  One practice I have taken to is answering “no” to its question every time I pass.

Driving home from the gym, “Do you have any idea where you are going?”  “No”

Driving to a friend’s house, “No.”

Walking back home from an appointment, “No.”

I first started answering “no” because of the implicit meaning of guilt in the billboard.  I can’t stand the way religion tends to use guilt and fear to justify sharing the message of God.

After I kept answering this way for a while, I began to find extreme comfort by answering “no.”

Our scripture today comes from Luke 3:10-14.  It comes from the Baptism narrative of Jesus and the dialogue is between people being baptized by John and John as the baptizer.  The people are inquiring, “Now that I have been baptized, what should I do next?”

Luke 3:10-14

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

John Dominic Crossan’s lifelong study has brought him to the conclusion that Jesus was committed to learning from John’s way and in fact learned much of his practice of ministry from John.  John has a message we hear it in this passage.  “Clean up your act.”  John shares this wisdom due to his belief that God is coming to clean up the world and you want to be cleaned up when that happens.  John’s message is a lot like those billboards that drive me crazy.  His message is full of guilt, trying to get people to act responsibly before God violently purges the world.[i]  Jesus learned many teachings from John, but Jesus’ message was very different.

The peace I have felt saying “no” to the billboard has been strange.  Each time I pass, it asks “Do you have any idea where you’re going?”  I find I am now saying, “No.”  And also, “Do you?”  As if I am asking God for a reply to this existential question.  Each time I ask, “Do you?” Thoughts run through my head of all the things that are going on in my life and directions to be chosen: family, friends, challenges, joys, fears, hope, the larger world, and even questions of my purpose.

In the scripture John gives different directions to the people who have come to be baptized.  To the crowds, “Share your wealth.”  To the tax collectors, “be honest, and stop stealing.”  To the soldiers, “Don’t be bullies stop extorting people with your power.”  To each group or person a new instruction is given and no single path is the right way.

When I was in college I was a part of a small United Methodist campus ministry.  We met at the Methodist church and at friend’s houses.  We prayed, shared in mission work, talked, and shared in meals together.  There were much larger campus ministries and part of me always wanted to be a part of those.  They had more people, more money, better music, and seemed to be so well organized.  They were doing outreach with all sorts of groups and our campus ministries’ outreach seemed so limited by our size.

The reason I couldn’t join those other ministries was their message left me feeling like I was dripping with guilt.  It was a lot like the message of John, “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.”  In those words alone there is nothing wrong.  Repent means to think differently or to change your path.  However, those other campus ministries’ “kingdom of God” is something I struggled with.  Their understanding of the “kingdom of God” was a world in which everyone had to follow their way of thinking, believe what their God said, and didn’t provide room for a lot of questions.  The reason their message made me feel gross is I couldn’t actively be curious about my God.

God in this context looked more like an abusive relationship, than a relationship of Grace being offered.  I knew that if I was a part of one of these other communities I wouldn’t have conversation, argue or challenge the norm.  Obedience was the key.  To leave the community would be to risk the worst of fates, eternally risky.  The icky feeling I got was because God didn’t feel like a safe place to be vulnerable, but instead a dangerous place to keep my guard up.  Why would I want a relationship like that?

“Do you know where we are going? – God”

I wish the billboard on Helena Ave. was posted like this instead.  This switch of questions is the same way Jesus switched his message from John’s message.  Instead of “repent for the Kingdom of God is near,” Jesus message was “repent for the Kingdom of God is here.”

The thing I really envied about the other campus ministries in college were the diversity of people they were engaging with their faith.  That they had found ways to share the experiences they were having with God.  I wanted to share my experiences of God, but I just couldn’t find the vocabulary, the shared language to do it.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Pastor in Denver, Colorado.  If you see a picture of Nadia you won’t think pastor.  She has more tattoos than anyone I had met prior to her.  I interviewed with Nadia at one point, to see if I could complete my internship with her church.  Some days, I really wish I had taken that internship.  She is now a nationally known speaker on faith.  Her church is called House for All: Sinners and Saints.  This community she has worked to build is an incredibly welcoming community to all kinds of people.  So diverse, that Nadia shares a story about how hard it was to accept people in khakis and polo shirts when they started to show up too.

In an interview online Nadia shared that she had the opportunity to engage in a clergy group with some evangelical and pentecostal leaders.  She was the only mainline clergy in the group.  She explains that at one point she felt “schooled” by these pastors because of the dynamic ways they were engaging with the poor in Denver.  Often times the mainline churches(Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, etc.) claim they know social justice and are experts at it.  Nadia experience is not always that and she states, “That sometimes evangelicals and pentecostals are able to share a message of the bible and of Jesus that is more connected to their hearts.” [ii]

The language Jesus shares in the scriptures is one of diversity and openness.  It is an invitation to join together in the work of making the world a better place.  The message of Christ is non-violent and filled with justice.  Justice filled like John’s message to the people, the roman soldier, and the tax collectors.  The message of Christ invites us to share God’s love by doing good and sharing love in community.  Then Jesus asks us to take it step further.  Christ invites us to pay it forward; because we can best feel God’s love when we are sharing God’s love.

Jesus doesn’t say to the Samaritan Woman at the well after offering her the life giving water of God.  Oh, and only offer it the first Sunday of every month.   Jesus doesn’t say to the man in Gerasine, whom he cured from the insatiable voices of demons in his mind, and if you don’t believe God did this for you the demons will be back.  No!  To both of these people he offered love and healing and said, “Go, share God’s Love.”  And there was never a mention of a penalty if they didn’t go and share.  Jesus invited people to partner with him, to dream with God about the potential for a better world.

The followers of Jesus way became so fond of the path that Christ laid out for them, they began to call it, “The Way.”  I don’t believe they use this term to describe the “only way,” but instead to share their fondness and hope in the fruits of their practice.  By practicing their faith they were beginning to see how God worked with people to share love, healing, and wholeness with the world.  Jesus was the way they had learned and it was helping them grow toward God.

It wasn’t the only way.  Jesus learned from John another way.   Jesus learned the world had to be changed and that justice needed to be invited by those who asked for direction.  However, Jesus learned also to invite some people who weren’t able to ask for the help they needed.  The systems of the world silenced them and hid them away, as happens today.  He would go to them and learn from them their pain, and then work with them for healing and wholeness.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech spoke words of hope to us.  I know almost no one who is not inspired when they hear the words of Dr. King.  His speech was deeply rooted in his tradition, our tradition of Christianity.  The dream Dr. King shared was a world freed from race, freed from oppression, and where our children could live in peace.

This is our language!  This is the language we need to share with the world.

The language:  We are a people invited to partner with God.  We are invited to dream with God about a just world.  And we invite you to dream with us.

Bishop John Shelby Spong says, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”[iii]

Our Christian tradition gives us the language of Jesus and his Jewish heritage.  A place to study, learn, dream of God, and invites us to work together with God.

May we be wise in our listening and conversing with God and not afraid to know the real question God is asking, “Do you know where we are going?”

God’s dream is that we might collaborate with God and see a future more whole than today.  A future beyond boundaries, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other division we might see.  May our continued community prayer be, “Which way should we go, God?”


[i] Crossan, J. D. (2011). The challenge of jesus, the new paradigm series. (Vol. 1). Sardom, INC and THE D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation.

[ii] https://vimeo.com/48757737

EKG: Ministry Flows From The Heart

1 Timothy 6: 17-19

Tyler Amundson

 November 3, 2013

      There goes an old story about a person who fell in a hole.  The first person passing by looked in the hole, reached in his pocket, and threw a pile of cash and a credit card into the hole.   The second passer by looked in the hole, designed a 5-point plan to escape and threw it into the hole.  Of course, point one was get out of the hole.

The last person to walk by looked down in the hole, said a prayer and jumped into the hole too.

The person who fell in the hole said, “Great now we are both stuck down here.”

The person who jumped in said, “Yep, but if we get enough people to jump in here, we can all get out.”

Talking about money and faith sometimes feels like falling into a hole.  And every time we arrive at stewardship season, I wonder what clergy person is qualified to talk about money.  I mean we honestly didn’t go after a career of serving churches to make a lot of money.

As if God has a sense of humor, not only am I leading off this sermon series for stewardship season and our conversation about money, but the class I teach on Wednesdays was talking about money last week. However, I figure if I am going to be in this hole I better jump in with a full heart and get as many of us to jump in with me, so we can all work together to get out.

I want to begin by stating we need to continue to have conversations about money in church.  There are very few safe places in this world to discuss finances.  In no generation is money a comfortable topic because money plays such a huge role in influencing how people think.  We have to be willing to talk about money if we want to remove the power money has to divert people from living a full life.  In order to do this work, we have to be willing to discuss it, even in our most sacred of places.  Through discussion and the demystifying of money we begin to unravel the power it has on our lives.

Think about the things for which money as the only goal has wrought our world.  Money as a goal in and of itself has brought about too many horrendous things now and in our history.  Human trafficking, child labor, and the abuse of our world have all been justified by the gaining of financial wealth.

We have to be willing as Christian community to talk about how wealth can be a tool for the kingdom of God and not something to put our faith in.  If we put our faith in money we risk causing harm or worse yet losing ourselves to something we cannot hold on to forever.

Paul instructs a small Christian community about this very thing:

1 Timothy 6:17-19   As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Earlier in this text Paul warns against the popular wisdom on money.  I am sure it was people saying things like, “I have earned what I have, so let me spend it how I please.”  People say this today.  They are right, but Paul is inviting something different.  He is saying there is nothing wrong with earning things, but do not hold onto just those things for eventually they will fail you.  Full life comes from a generous heart born of the celebration that God loves each of us.

I have some questions or you:

·         Have you eaten today?  Something like 20,864 [1] will die from hunger today.
·         Do you have a car?  About 7 billion people don’t have cars. [2]
·         Do you have a college degree?  Only about 7% of the world does, 93% think you have it pretty well off.
·         Finally do you have a computer?  About 22% of the world owns or shares a computer; this means 78% think you have it pretty good. [3]  And if you are like me you have more than one.

Most of us have it pretty good.  To the most of the world we are the “rich” Paul is talking about.  The question Paul is posing to us is, “Is your hope tied to your financial well being, or do you trust in God’s love?”

Charles Dickens Christmas Carol portrays the money hungry Scrooge as having a hardened unattached passion for the world.  This notion is not far from our understanding of what money can do to people.

Then another author Dr. Seuss describes the hardened Grinch’s heart to growing larger when the community of people surround him and he understands Christ’s day to be one in which people share what they have.

The Christians described in 1st Timothy are being asked to share their wealth to make a Christian community, in hopes that their efforts will bring the shining kingdom of God now as it is in heaven.  A city of justice and love to invite people into, and where all will be welcomed, cared for and loved.  This is a vision laid out in Isaiah to the people of God, because they are longing for a reign of peace and justice.  They are hoping to look upon the skyline of a place where they can live their lives fully realized and seek to feel God’s love all around them.

I’ve recently heard the heart rhythm monitor we know as an EKG described as displaying “skyline of the heart.”  What a striking image?  Our heart, our feeling organ, the place in which we passionately describe all of our emotions flowing from.  This funky ill depicted shape, is building skylines with each passing beat.

Think about the primary emotion associated with our heart:  Love

Think about the focus when money and love come together in our consumer culture.  These two usually are combined to objectify people and continue to sell products. They usually lead to some of the stark realities we see over and over again, of women and men’s bodies being altered to look incredibly different than real life.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2480191/Who-IS-girl-Time-lapse-video-shows-radical-effect-Photoshop-models-body.html

Sex sells, and they and advertisers are using this one aspect of human love to try and give us the love we all think we need to have. These advertising campaigns describe only the high of love, the things that take us to the top of the rhythm.   However, just like a goal to gain as much riches as possible is dangerous to only seek love, which takes us higher.

Goals of reaching this kind of love lead to objectification and one-sided relationships.  Love has to be a little more complex than the love used to sell us Valentine candy and the sexual innuendo of a perfect relationship.  Because life is about a steady rhythm, faith and life in Christ is about finding the rhythm of God.

Pay attention to the “skyline of the heart.”  With each passing moment we need, to the height and the depth, to feel the pulse of life.  The love we find in God, the love we attempt to emulate from the life of Christ are acts of deep agape love.  The kind of love Paul describes today is the love that gives a steady, stable rhythm to life and increases and decreases in rate depending on the needs of the community.   As Christians we are called to be this steady beat for the community and people around us.

Think about our current and past mission statements of St. Paul’s:

  • Welcoming all people to live and grow in God’s Love
  • A Christian Community in the Heart of Helena

Love flows from the heart of St. Paul’s.  It is the center of what we do as a community.  St. Paul’s teaches us from the heart that true life and connection to God comes from a willingness to trust in God and be generous.

As I was preparing for this sermon I came across this video and seemed to fit this very notion.

(Watch Video)  http://www.chuckknowschurch.com/archive/everyday-gifts-short-1

Did you catch the end?  Are you this generous everyday?  The boy was in awe as his heart picked up a beat at the idea.

The Christian notion of generosity and giving from the heart is enough to inspire all people to live the full life intended by God.  We don’t have to wait until the whole city of God is ready, the kingdom of God lives in our hearts and right where we are.

As a people of God we are called to be generous with our resources and most especially with sharing God’s love.  We need to always be willing to do more than throw money at a problem or think our 5 point plan is perfect.  Sometimes we need to trust our heart and jump into the hole with our neighbor.

If we can invite our whole community into every hole, over time we can develop the rhythm of the city of God.  A ministry of living a full life with the rhythm of each passing beat.  May this stewardship season call us together in the rhythm of love, so more people might experience what Paul describes as “truly life.”


[3]  http://www.100people.org/statistics_100stats.php?section=statistics

Faith Again? Come on Paul.

Hebrews 11:1-3                 Rev. Tyler Amundson                  July 14, 2013

St. Paul’s UMC Sermon

 This summer as I preach I am doing a sermon series on one of the most interesting characters in our Bible, Paul.  Paul is described by some as the “appealing or appalling apostle.” [1]  He gets this designation for two reasons:  He says and writes some of the most amazing things.  For example he writes the message we hear from 1st Corinthians 13 at weddings.  “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”  Then he turns around and says the most appalling things.  “Women be subject to your husbands.”  Paul’s words have been used to free one group from oppression only to be turned quickly into a vice for another group in history.

We focus on Paul because it is in Paul’s writings that much of the practice of Christianity is determined.  It is from these letters of Paul that the debates rage on in the Christian tradition.  It is in the letters of Paul that deeply spiritual insights are drawn from.  Paul is a powerful writer.  His work toward sharing the Christian message only survives to this day because it had incredibly deep meaning in its time and throughout history.

I gave one other reason we were going to study Paul at my first sermon about Paul on father’s day back in June, because our church was named after Paul.  Now I wanted to share with you the amazing visioning process as to why we adopted that name over 120 years ago.  I sat down looking at history of the church and was reading So Many Beginnings: The Story of the Methodist Church in Helena and I finally found out the reason.  I read through several years of history and finally honed in on to why we are called St. Paul’s.  This is according to George Harper’s research.  St. Paul’s was called St. Paul’s Rev. Raleigh  came from Cincinatti and his church their St. Paul’s is the structure which much of the newly built Methodist church came from.   That’s right we became St. Paul’s cause that was the name of a church in Cincinatti, no great stories about the apostle Paul led to our naming.  About as much thought went into that naming as me deciding we are going to preach on Paul this summer, it was simply what one pastor thought was a good idea.[2]

The name stuck though.  So maybe it is worth understanding our namesake here at the church.  At least I as one of the pastors thinks so.  If that was good enough to name the church, its good enough to pursue now.

Paul’s story should always be taken in context of his conversion experience in Acts 9:1-19.  Keep in mind as we hear the story that Paul is having a mystical experience of God.  That is to say it is an intense spiritual experience.  These are the experiences that many people including myself seek to find in Religion because they make the world feel intense and clear all at the same moment.  (Acts 9:1-19 told here).

For Paul this story sounds like it would be the guiding experience in his life.  It was a deep interaction with the love of Christ, a mystical experience that would give him the enthusiasm to carry Christ’s message throughout the Roman Empire.  This experience of God’s love in a vision of the risen Christ was an incredible change for Paul, who was before this called Saul.  He moved from seeing Christ followers as the enemy to being one himself.  While we know this account of Paul’s experience was written down well after it happened, we can imagine Paul shared this experience throughout his ministry.  He was blinded by Christ’s love, taken in by a Christ follower, and went to teach the world that faith with Christ created a vision he believed the world needed to know.  Paul truly had a vision that world could be a better place if people were to know Christ and the message of God’s love revealed in Christ.

The thing about this story I have read multiple times in my study, is that like the gospels, Acts is written by the same writer as Luke, we have no way to verify the validity of the story of Acts.  Was Paul’s conversion this dramatic? We have no way of knowing for sure.  From his letters we never get nearly this detailed of a description.  I tend to think that Paul’s conversion took time and multiple experiences with Christ followers.  Slowly as he saw them living Christ filled lives he felt as though his vision was cleared and he experienced Christ.  Like many mystics it was not a singular event, but multiple encounters with the divine that pushed him to be the Paul we read in the letters.

And so we come today’s scripture and message:

Hebrews 11

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.*

After all that intro about Paul, my first statement to you about these beautiful words in Hebrews is Paul did not write them.[3]  Paul for centuries was attributed to writing Hebrews, but modern scholars through review of early manuscripts and literary analysis have concluded that Paul is not the original author.  However, these words are the quintessential understanding of faith that many of us have heard throughout our lives.

And faith is the exact thing Paul carries throughout his ministry as the new reality of Christ.  Faith is the new answer the problem of separation from God.  For Paul growing up as a Jew it was violation of the law that separated people from God.  He would have learned from an early age the laws of the Torah.  A violation of those laws would have been possible each day of life, and it was through sacrifice and ritual that atonement would be achieved.

Now it is not clear that Paul ever changed his mind on this for Jewish people, but he most certainly started to seek ways of getting around this for gentile people.  Paul was a both/and sort of person all his life.  “Has Jesus’ act of faith rendered the covenant between God and Israel meaningless? God forbid! On the contrary, we who are members of Israel are fulfilling the prophesies of Torah by acknowledging God’s redemption of the whole world.”[4]  Jewish people could find connection through God through both practice of the law and Torah, and gentiles had access to Faith now.

It is important to remember that Paul never wrote down his theology word for word.  Instead it is through letters and living that we receive Paul’s message.  Just like a letter out of context for us can be misconstrued, so to Paul’s theology in letters has been taken all sorts of different ways.  The reason tis is important is Paul lives his practice and teaching, it is what he felt to be true by the experience of God and the Holy that he experienced.

Paul’s continuing message to the readers of his letters is that Faith is trusting that God’s grace is available to us, and all we have to do is accept it.  That salvation, truly feeling God’s presence comes when we are able to accept God’s love and live life filled with the hope of this love.  In fact the reason this Hebrew text is so often attributed to Paul is because it was written to mimic Paul’s great message of Faith.

For Paul there was a separation between this world and people, and most especially the people and God.  The goal was to connect people to God through Faith and it seems for the Jewish people through the law.  However, the goal was to connect people back to that experience of God and remove that which made people feel unworthy, unholy, or just plain separated from the divine source of creation.

Faith is that belief that gets you out of bed in the morning that promises you will be enough to accomplish some good in the world.  Faith is trust that when you live your life and do it by honoring God and neighbor and self that you will have accomplished something.  It literally is the ideas that drive us to trust we are doing something worthwhile in our world.

Faith really is holding a sense of purpose in our heart, a feeling that there is something for us to accomplish in our world.  However, I want to share that I think that sense is becoming increasingly hard for individuals to maintain in their lives.  In this day in age when we are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult population in US history.[5]  We have countless experts linking these addictions to a sense of depression and a lack of purpose.  And I believe them.

When I was in seminary we had counseling available to us for no cost.  Thank God for that.  The divorce rate in seminary is over the same as the US population %53, rates of depression go up in seminary, and mental illness is something that comes up for many people.  That information is not in the brochures for seminary let me tell you.  And while that divorce rate might not seem so remarkable, let me remind you that these are the people we are asking to be our spiritual and life skill leaders.

In Seminary one of the most challenging things was that we challenged our faith daily.  The class scenarios posed to us would have us questioning: God’s existence, God’s goodness, God’s ability to be present in our lives.  This is incredibly taxing on a person.  Especially because faith generally is what helps you be motivated to live, to work, to play, and to engage the world.  When you challenge it daily you begin to question fundamentally the very reason to do anything.  It tends to push you reconsider who you are, and it can often alter how you live.

This may sound like a situation relegated to seminary, but I would argue that in the multi-mediated society we live in today that most people experience this regularly.  This is perhaps one of the reasons our adults in the US have some many addiction issues.  There is a sense of needing to compensate for the impact of receiving so many messages.  Just preparing for this sermon I came across a talk online that challenged the notion of my understanding of the universe.  It took 5 minutes to change my whole outlook on how the universe functions.  If experiences like this are happening to us that quickly, then our sense of faith is being challenged.

Within Paul lies the answer though.  Paul’s letters are never written to teach faith to just individuals.  Even the letters written to individuals were letters to be read to a community.  Paul is clear on salvation in that it belongs to the community.  God loves individuals no matter what, and salvation is not their problem.  Instead salvation was about the community learning to reconcile together itself to God and the world.  To overcome those things that made individuals feel separate from God’s love and to make right their relationship with the rest of creation.

For us that means Paul’s message was we get to do this faith thing together.  If faith is to be challenged we should find a community to support us in the process.  A community that can help us to see the value we have despite the challenges surrounding us.  It is my hope that St. Paul’s is that for us all, and we hope to continue to be that place for the people of our community.  We want to continue to be a place to welcome people to experience God, and each other.

One final note, which I did not mention in my sermon.  Faith gets  challenged at the highs and deepest lows of life.  This is another time that community is vital, communities that support and fill us with love help us to navigate when it is hard.  And they allow us a place to celebrate the joy when things go well.  Faith is about being in community to share life, to connect with God, and to live to sustain the beautiful world we live in.


[1] Borg, M., & Crossan, D. (2009). The first paul. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[2] Page 89, So Many Beginnings: The Story of the Methodist Church in Helena.  September 1993

[3] Hebrews circulated anonymously, and it is likely we will never know who the author of this text was.  Eisenbaum, Pamela (2009-11-19). Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (p. 21). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[4]   Eisenbaum, Pamela (2009-11-19). Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (p. 249). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[5] http://www.brenebrown.com/videos/ The Power of Vulnerability around 15 minutes

Powerful Women…Balanced World

Thanks to Abbie Thompsons for sharing this on her blog Abbieadventures.blogspot.com

When I get the chance to teach the new member class at our church I always ask:  What brought you to our church?  What about it made you want to stay?  It is a great time to learn people’s stories about the experiences in their lives that have brought them to our community to learn, grow and serve the world.

Since I get to answer this question over and over again.  My response is generally this:  “Powerful Women.”

That is the honest truth about why I am hear and why I was so excited to come back and serve St. Paul’s.  The part behind my answer is this, my amazing mother encouraged me to keep this community as a part of my life even through my desire to push away from it.  The Bishop(a woman) had the wisdom along with a female District Superintendent to appoint me here to serve.  And along with that I have the privilege of serving with a talented colleague that encourages me to grow.  Then there is also my spouse and life partner whom joins with me in seeing the possibility of what the future holds and supports me when that is hard.

In American culture today there still exists enough of a push to assume women are not a powerful gender.   For this reason I think it is important to point out that powerful women equal balance for our world.   Women are a part of the fabric of our reality as humanity, and for myself this fact is played out everyday in the people I live work, serve, and encounter.  Without powerful women I would not be the person I am today and I am grateful for them.

Sarah Kay’s Ted talk spoke to me the minute I started watching it.  Particularly the way she dove into the reality of life and examined how we all have heartache.  In particular she challenged me to remember the depth of the women around me, our world still pushes women to be everything to all people.  Women are still considered less by many people in our culture, this means there is still a quiet underlying assumption they have to overcome in the workplace, home, in family, in society, and the world.  It is quiet, internal work they do everyday when they wake up.  It is important to remember this…because it means we all still have work to do, so that our daughters someday might not have to live with that reality.

So…I commit to remembering the females that have changed my life and to honor them for who they are.  And Ill remember to call my mom.

Father’s Be Good…no really

This summer I will be focusing the sermons on Paul. Paul is the character of the New Testament responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Paul is also the character credited with saying things we love in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13) and at times cringe at the way he moralizes life (1 Corinthians 11:3). Paul is the character our faith community has identified with. It is my hope to take this summer to dig into the life of Paul, that we might see the pieces that carry into our own life, learn about his life, and how Christianity impacted the world in his time. In searching Paul I believe we will find some of the reasons we choose this Christian walk, and at the same time learn how we want to speak of our faith to the world.

Paul’s story should always be taken in context of his conversion experience in Acts 9:1-19.

For Paul this story would be the guiding experience in his life. It was a deep interaction with the love of Christ, a mystical experience that would give him the enthusiasm to carry Christ’s message throughout the Roman Empire. This experience of God’s love in a vision of the risen Christ was an incredible change for Paul, who was before this called Saul. He moved from seeing Christ followers as the enemy to being one himself. While we know this account of Paul’s experience was written down well after it happened, we can imagine Paul shared this experience throughout his ministry. He was blinded by Christ’s love, taken in by a Christ follower, and went to teach the world that faith with Christ created a vision he believed the world needed to know. Paul truly had a vision that the world could be a better place if people were to know Christ and the message of God’s love revealed in Christ.

Today is Father’s Day, so it seems we can’t forget to mention that today. There is a real challenge in highlighting a whole sermon for fathers in a large congregation. For some people the image of a father brings up challenging things in their lives, of not feeling they have been good fathers, or of having not had a good father. It also is important to bring up because we should recognize what good parenting is, and how it can impact the world. Since this year on Mother’s Day we had so much happening with it being our graduation Sunday, I want to take time to really share with you the idea of how parenting can impact the world and spread the great love that Paul saw in Christ. So today is for both Mother’s and Father’s, but also it is to remind us we are all parents in some way or at some point in our lives to someone.

Now parents are generally considered to be adults. By the very definition when we think of a parent we think of an adult with the responsibility to care for a child. The question is, “When do we become adults?” Our culture defines that as 18 for many things like voting, penalization under the law, or even when you should move out of your parents place. For some it is 21 because for some reason we associate alcohol with adulthood, probably not a great definition. For car rental companies and car insurance companies it is 25, until then you pay more because statistically you are a higher risk. Our culture really doesn’t have clear message of when you become an adult and most of the markers I just listed are strange measures of adulthood.

As I was growing up I always saw adults as people older than me and had more of the answers to life than I did. I especially assumed this when I was in college, because I was responsible for myself, and people older than me had more experience. Except I continually found myself working with people older than me, that really weren’t always that experienced in what they were doing. I began to notice that they made mistakes that many of my peers saw coming, and that in reality they were no more adult than some of my peers. The picture of an adult being just someone older than myself began to unravel. I began to realize that adults were just people doing the best they could, with what they had. Just like all of the youth, children and kids I had known.

Throughout college and even until recently I don’t really ever think I walked around considering myself an adult either. That was until the other day. I was riding in the car with Corinne, my 3 year old. She said, “Daddy, are you an adult?” I replied, “I don’t know am I?” She said, “Yes, you an adult, grandma is an adult, mommy is an adult, papa is an adult.” I realized that she was naming off all the people who care for her, love her and help her grow. I was on that list. I was an adult. She was identifying a select group of people as adults. I thought about her list, all people I know well and realized that I know these people never have all the answers to life. Especially me, I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers. And yet, in that moment a 3 year old identified that I was her adult, a trusted person with answers.

Well I have been thinking to myself about this for a few weeks now. The thing that keeps popping up in my head is this, “If I am an adult…why does it feel like I am still playing house?” By that I literally mean it feels like I am still making it up as I go along, this life thing. As I dig deeper into that thought I realized more, we are all still making it up as we go along. We are all people doing the best we can with what we have. We are all children in the playground, but someone thinks we are adults.

The beautiful gift in the 3 year old statement was that I saw we are all someone’s adult. Someone looks up to you for insight into the world. I can guarantee it. Even when we least expect it, someone is calling us an adult, someone thinks we are worth listening to.

And so as we turn back to Paul, we have to remember that he was an adult to many followers of this new way, the new way we now call Christianity. However, as an adult we know he was no expert, but instead a passionate person doing the best he could with the experiences he had. One experience in particular called him to learn and follow Christ and so he shared his passion for this in all he did. Today we hear from his letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 2:15-21

The Message (MSG) [1] (Click Here for Scripture).

There is huge debate over sections of Paul’s writings exactly like this one. It is scriptures like this that have caused rifts in the church. His writings are complex and full of advice on how to live out the faith. In this section it is important to take notice of something he mentions several times “faith in Christ” and living like Christ. Scholars debate if the translation of the sections that say “faith in Christ” should say the faith “of” Christ or faith “in” Christ. Do you see the subtle difference? One is living with faith in Christ as the one who has the potential to right our lives. The other is faith of Christ in which we attempt to mimic Christ’s life of servant hood to the people around us. “Faith” in means we focus our energies onto Christ and rest that our lives will be better if we can lift up the image of Christ. “Faith of” means we go live in the world and attempt to change it into something like the vision Christ shared with us.

Because of this scripture we have Jesus worshippers running around converting people and we have Jesus mimickers trying to make everyone be perfect saints of work. And yet I think Paul like a parent meant both things in what he was trying to say. We respect Paul as an adult in this faith, but just like we as adults are doing, he is figuring it out as he goes along too. He is trying to figure out how to share how he understands this faith and the experience of Christ that he had. From this amazing experience he is attempting to delineate a new way to live. A new way of living that we now call faith.

How alike to parenting does this sound? Trying to figure out how to share a way to live with the people you have a responsibility to care for. Paul is simply doing the best he can with his experiences in life, all of it resting on the miraculous experience he had on the road to Damascus. He wants to be sure people know that the image of the world Christ shared is possible, and though none of us are perfect we can begin to work toward it.

Many times it is portrayed in our culture that parents are expected to be some kind of superhero. One mother named Glennon Melton shares this often in her blog momastery.com. Parents are asked to seemingly engage life with their children and enjoy every minute of it. Parenting is exhausting work though, and through all the tantrums, hard work, and struggles we are expected by the world around us to smile. Along with this we are to not have any faults as parents. Glennon proves this wrong just with her life. She started her parenting as a drug addict and realized she would have to make a change. Her turn around came when she realized she had a gift to share with her first child, the gift of showing up on the day they were born. She is not a perfect mom, but none of us are perfect parents. Consistently in her writing you see that parenting is about going out there each day and doing your best with what you have. I encourage you do go read her blog to see how a life can be an adult for so many.

http://momastery.com/blog/2013/06/13/speaking-of-kairos/

Glennon is an example of a person who recognizes the two things Paul was trying to share.

Doing the best with what you have is what Paul was trying to say too. Paul was saying here are two more skills to do this. These two skills will help you live faithfully.

  1. Trust that your life is a gift to be shared….faith of Christ.

– By trusting that your life is a gift, you step out in trust that you have something to offer the world.

– By not hiding this away you provide for someone the guidance they may just need, you are an adult.

  1. Know that grace is what you need to live your life as a gift – faith in Christ.

–          Know that mistakes are made by us all, but God’s love says I still love you.

Faith in Christ states that Christ is big enough to take mistakes or misgivings and help to absolve them, so that you might take the next step in life.

Glennon, the blogger I spoke about before, as an addict was told by society she could not be a good mother. To be honest this is an easy opinion to come by and sometimes it is true. However, she found grace big enough to feel she could be a gift in her kids’ lives.

Are you an adult? To someone you are. And living our lives with faith helps the next generation do the same. The song by John Mayer goes, “Father’s be good to your daughters, and daughters will love like you do.” All parenting is this way, and we are all parents. There is a lot of pressure there, but God loves us and believes we each have a gift to be shared. All we have to do is trust that this is true and know that we are loved.

Faith is trusting that our lives are a gift to be shared. [2] Not that we are perfect creatures that have it all right, but that there is something that we can each work to share of ourselves with the world. That by sharing those gifts we might bring ourselves closer to the vision that Christ shared with us. The question is not, faith “of” or faith “in” for Paul. Rather, can we let the grace of God convince us that we each have something to share as we live our lives? Paul seems to know full well that he is not the only parent of the faith, but that each follower will be looked up to by someone as if they are an adult. Someone out there thinks we are an adult, and let us also be honest, we each find someone else to be an adult in our lives. Sometimes our kids are even our adults. Adults are simply people living faithfully, attempting to share their life as a gift.

 

 


[1]  From the Message version. This scripture can be found at: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+2%3A15-21&version=MSG

[2]  Scroggs, R. (1977). Paul for a new day. (4th ed.). Fortress Press.