August 27, 2017 | Romans 12:2

At last census, there were 28 states that boasted Amish communities. Sadly, if Google can be trusted, Oregon lost its lone fellowship during the last decade. But friends, do not presume that extinction here reflects a wider national trend. Indeed, the Amish are one of the faster-growing religious communities nationwide. Although they can be found from Texas to Maine, the path of totality clearly cuts through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. At the epicenter of these religious separatist movements are Ohio’s Homes and Wayne counties, which host not only the largest single settlement of Amish, but also stand at the intersection of several competing branches. You have the Beachy, the Andy Weavers and the Swartzentrubers, not to mention the Renno, the Bylers and the so-called Nebraskins (even though they live in Ohio).

Although I went to college in Wayne county and was a religious studies major to boot, I never fully understood the sectarian lines of the Amish who surrounded us. Part of what makes studying the Amish so difficult is that their beliefs are intentionally fluid. Discussions are never concluded, debates are never final, and the community changes its stance on issues whenever the Spirit moves them to adapt.

As a matter of pride, the rules in an Amish community are never written down; to do so would make them that much harder to change. These rules, which to outsiders seem innocuous, are of great importance to those who follow them. Families will up and leave their faith communities over such profound ecclesiastical issues as whether overcoats have four buttons or three, and whether kerosene lamps may use mantles or if wicks are more in line with God’s purpose.

Faith, for the Amish, is all in the details. Spirituality is found in the way you cut beans and the color of your horse-drawn buggy. (In case you are wondering, the Renno say black, the Nabraskins claim white, and — as you can see from our bulletin cover — the Bylers hold firm to a remarkably jaunty yellow.) What is intriguing about the Amish obsession with detail is that even they recognize how their unique lifestyle choices are not, in and of themselves, “morally” superior. I have never known an Amish person, or read an Amish writer, who would claim that cars are immoral or that electricity is anything but ethically neutral. At the same time, they will assert that we are shaped by our everyday choices. Three buttons on the coat, it was once explained to me, draw the mind to the Trinity. Four keep you warmer, and thus less distracted when you pray outside in the winter. It is the role of the faith community to help you weigh costs and benefits, and to choose the path that promotes, as best it can, a closer walk with God.

Where are we in our walk with God? Are we as careful as we should be in ensuring that every choice in our lives moves us closer to rather than further away from the life of faith? Is our spirituality grounded in how often we cut our grass, what shows we watch on TV, or what goes into the glass tumbler at the end of a hard day? Do we spend the energy needed to evaluate our lives, moment by moment, movement by movement, or have we become distracted, as the Amish would suggest, by the impurities of the world?

For decades now, the United Methodist Church has asked us to focus on the world. Our bishops, our district superintendants and yes, our clergy — your clergy — have argued that faith is about our engagement with what’s going on out there. “God wants you,” the Church has cried, “to join community groups, to focus on political change, to throw wide the doors and try to convince others that we are no different than they.” Methodist churches now meet in bars. We open coffee shops. We applaud those ministers who write blogs, not to speak to ourselves, but intentionally to speak to others. But I am beginning to question, At what price? Missional theology may have made the gates to the Church a little wider, but at the cost of a growing emptiness within those gates.

Many of you, I know — because you tell me, and others have told me — are not sensing God as clearly as you once did. Your prayers, when you pray, feel vacant and empty. The bible has become cold; worship has become devoid of meaning. For years now, we were told that reaching out was what good Methodists did, but it may be time to reach in instead. It may be time to take this passage from Romans 12 to heart: to worry less about them out there, and focus more on what’s in here.

This is a daunting task. The world has become safe for most of us. A congregation that looks at what they are doing out there may not feed us, but it is, undeniably, comfortable. To suggest that perhaps we should not conform to the patterns of society, but rather be bold about making our own pattern is to beg the question: What would Montavilla UMC look like? What life style choices could we, together, agree to commit to? And if this line of reasoning makes you feel trepidation, it should. The Church has sometimes overstepped its role in directing people’s personal behaviors. I fear now, though, that the church has abandoned that role altogether.

Something must change. If this community is to exist in fifteen years, something must change. And I’m not talking about evangelism. I not advocating a new path to attract new people. The simple truth is, if you and I are going to bother coming ourselves, something must change. I would suggest that in our stumbling efforts to turn inward, to take seriously the patterns of a more spiritual life, we could learn a thing or two — well, actually four — from the Amish.

Number one: the little choices we make in our daily behaviors do effect our walk with God. Two: a willingness to appear strange to outsiders may just be the cost of discipleship. Three: faith communities are strengthened — not weakened — when they are encouraged to guide us on how we live our private lives. And four: whatever “rule of life” we develop, whatever code of behaviors we agree to here, we need to make sure it is fluid enough to change as situations change and as the Spirit moves. Best not to write it down at all.

The truth is that it has been a long time since we have felt comfortable having the church shape our private lives. It’s been a long time since we pushed each other to embrace behaviors that may seem strange to the outside world. And it’s been a long, long time since we really asserted that shaping our walk with God, and not the world’s, is the most important thing we do. As such, your leadership is not always clear on how to proceed. We need your wisdom and buy-in.

Today at Church Council, your lay leader, Janice Stevens, will ask for a bold change to how we do Sunday mornings. I hope all of you will be in attendance. Janice will ask us to approve a calendar that puts our spiritual growth first, and makes our organizational structure accommodate it, and not the other way around. In one sense it is just a meeting calendar: a list of when committees gather and how often. But spiritual growth starts someplace — and often, profoundly, in the smallest details. It is the little choices, one after another, that will help us deepen our walk with God.

Romans is the last letter Paul wrote. He was taken from the cell where he scribed this epistle, and was executed. Before his imprisonment, he had spent years establishing churches all through Asia Minor. As such, he had gone to many administrative meetings, and we know of various councils he attended. He had been very active in his world: as a church planter and as a missionary out in the courtyards of urban business districts. But here at the end, older and wiser, Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world,” even the patterns of the old church, I would imagine. “Be transformed,” he continues, “by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is.”

Janice will also ask us to consider a second motion at Church Council. She will ask us to establish an academy: a system by which we covenant with each other to learn together, to study as a faith community, so that we can figure out what God’s will is for us. In one sense, it is just clearing the noise of Sunday mornings so that we can set aside time to study a book together. But spirituality starts somewhere, and hopefully here at MUMC, it will start with a single book about how we read and see the bible.

As we mature into the faith community that God has dreamed for us, it may also mean remaking the patterns of our lives together, patterns that have evolved over decades. It is not, as our Amish cousins would remind us, that the old patterns were wrong or ethically suspect. It is just that they do not serve anymore. A new pattern where our community is grounded on study and intentional faith development takes time, but something needs to change now. And that change, hopefully, begins today. Please plan on attending Church Council.

Amen.

August 20, 2017 | 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 & Matthew 15:10-18

“Why I Eat Meat”

As you may have noticed, I have taken the rare and bold move to title today’s sermon, which is not my typical operating procedure. I have done this because I want to be clear that I am not merely an observer in the battle alluded to in today’s two passages; I am a foot soldier myself. I play for one team and not the other, and I very much have a dog in this fight. I want to acknowledge this early on because I know that many of you, shall we say, eat only vegetables. And so I want to pause and say very clearly to you that I understand that you are smart, faithful people who choose to eat vegetables because of your upbringing, your life experiences and your chosen theology. I also want you to understand that I eat meat because of my upbringing, my experiences and my theology.

Furthermore, I want you vegetarians to trust me when I say that I do not think my position is in any way morally superior. I stand on my side simply because when I weigh the pros and the cons, I am led to stand there. I trust that you, having weighed those same pros and cons, spurn meat out of faith in Christ and love for the Church. I offer today’s message as a white flag of parley. I desire to stop the fighting for just a few minutes — not to trick you, but simply to explain why I stand where I do, and why many of your fellow church members choose to eat meat alongside me.

First, let me say this battle is as old as Christianity itself. Paul writes his impassioned letter to the Corinthians only a handful of years after Jesus died and was raised. The war did not end with Paul’s plea; neither was it contained to Corinth. In truth, every one of the original seven churches fought this battle, and it has been fought in churches across the globe ever since. Of course, some of the details have changed over time, but the essential conflict is sewn into the very fabric of what it means to be a Christian.

And yes: the conflict that Paul and Matthew fought simmers in this congregation too, and has simmered here in one way or another since the day Montavilla was founded. Saying that, I acknowledge that my clear allegiance to meat eating has brought the conflict into greater relief during my tenure than under some of your previous pastors.

To begin to explain, let me first remind you that early Christianity was an urban phenomenon. In the countryside, where people had their own flocks, meat had no religious overtones. If you wanted lamb for supper, you went out with an axe and came back bloody. But in the cities, where Christianity first thrived, meat had great religious significance. In the cities there were no secular butcher shops—none. All meat was purchased from the priests and priestesses of the various temples that performed animal sacrifice. People wishing to curry favor from a deity brought their acquired goat or dove to the officiant of the temple of their choice. The priest or priestess would say prayers on behalf of the worshiper, sacrifice the animal, and then sell the remains out the back door. This was not done in the shadows; it was simply the economics of religion. Selling meat that had been sacrificed was how temples made payroll.

Thus, in Corinth and Ephesus and all the other urban centers, to eat meat of any kind was to consume what had been offered by pagans during pagan rituals to appease pagan gods. The early Christians were unique in that we did not make animal sacrifices. Christ had been our “sacrificial lamb,” so no others were needed. In Paul and Matthew’s day, half the church thought that we must be vegetarians so as not to condone these competing religions. The other half of the church said that since these other religions were false, and the idols they worshiped were just stone, eating what they had to sell asserted Christ’s dominion over them. As is so often the case with church fights, people of good intention and sound reason weighed the pros and cons and came up with different conclusions.

Eventually, as we all know, butchery slowly left the shrines and temples and became a secular profession, but the underlying issue about what the Christian church should do with offerings to other traditions did not disappear. Paul argued that in Christ we certainly had the freedom to eat meat, but decided for himself that restraint was best, because he did not want those who were new to Christianity to be confused. Matthew, facing the same question, put into the mouth of Christ a strong argument for why eating meat was almost an imperative. If we refrain from eating “what is not clean,” then we lose the opportunity to state that it is what we do with the offerings that matters—and not where those offerings were first sacrificed.

I recognize that much of the reason I clearly side with Matthew has to do with my Presbyterian upbringing. I believe Methodists most often side with Paul. This makes sense, really. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a priest, born of a priest, and he and his brother, mother and wife were indoctrinated into the sanctity of Christian particularity. The purity of what his Anglican flock consumed and how they worshiped was paramount to him. Presbyterian thought, on the other hand, was crafted by scholars and lawyers. They loved science and civics, literature and cultural exchange. The universities and the courts they served relished knowledge wherever it came from, and in their minds, Christianity encompassed everything they felt passionate about. In the idea of the merging of flesh and spirit, humanity and God, matter and divinity, all other truth took shape.

In my confirmation class, I remember my teacher bellowing out, “All truth is God’s truth!” If he said it once, he said it a hundred times. The other point he hammered into us was that Christ was not Lord over the church; Christ was Lord over all creation. This language may sound dangerously triumphal, but the point was that “meat” from any source—secular or not, refuted by that source itself or not—testified to Christ, and to the merger of flesh and spirit, humanity and God, matter and divinity.

And this, above everything else, I want you to understand: when I offer you a reading of grace from some president or TV personality, when I read to you some beloved poem, when I quote from the sayings of Buddha or use the Jewish Shabbat prayer or reference the Quran, I am not trying to be politically correct. I am, if anything, the exact opposite of politically correct. I am claiming these “cuts of meat”— regardless of where they were originally sacrificed — for Christ. He is Lord over it all, and all of it — regardless of whether the author saw it as politics or popular culture or poetry, regardless of whether it was first uttered by a Buddhist, a Jew or a Muslim — all of it points to Christ, because he is Lord over all creation.

Paul urged his flock to refrain from meat, to refrain from indulging in anything was not USDA-stamped “Christian,” for fear that those young in the faith might be confused about what the church was all about. I recognize that concern. I recognize that when a visitor first comes here, it might be confusing for them to hear a reading from a different faith tradition or a quote that is contrary to their expectations. Those are real concerns. I know that. I acknowledge that. But there is another danger, one that Paul could not imagine in his day. It is the danger that those already in the church might come to think that Christ is Lord only over this little building, only over the one book called the bible, only in the rites and worship services we perform here.

Society tells us in a thousand ways that they are fine with us believing in Christ as long as we do so privately, as long as our faith does not escape the confines of our church buildings. My fear is that we might come to believe this, too.

Matthew says, eat everything, find Christ in everything: in law, in politics, in nursing, in house construction, in where you shop and how you vote, in the cheesy novel you are trying to finish before the library wants it back, in the religions and cults that surround you, in the science lab, in the movement of astral bodies across space, and in the summer blockbuster that you are dragged to by your grandkids. Christ is everywhere! Search for him everywhere! These things, these wide and varied cuts of meat, do not defile you. Matthew’s Christ declares that they are not distractions. This is the world, Matthew says, that Christ came to love and celebrate, and you should love and celebrate it with him.

Friend, know this to be true: I have never read a reading of grace, a scripture from another tradition, or a poem in this church that I did not believe pointed directly towards Christ. You may not agree that such cuts of meat are appropriate to this setting. People of good intention and sound reason weigh the pros and cons and come up with different conclusions. As I said in the beginning, I do not expect to change the minds of any of you — especially my beloved, my cherished vegetarians. What is more, I hear your concerns and those of Paul before you. They are real. But in the end, to my way of thinking, they are simply not as dangerous as closing our eyes to Christ’s presence in the fullness of creation.

Hopefully, I have shed some light on why we omnivores elevate Matthew over Paul. I know that I never want our faith to relinquish the world, even if the world wishes that we would. I know that I never want Christ to be confined to the safe, acceptable covers of our hymnals and bible. And so, because I hold Christ to be Lord — not of the church, but of the all creation — I eat meat. Amen.

August 13, 2017 | Genesis 37:1-34

I know that I have mentioned the movie Saving Mr. Banks in worship before. But it came back to mind this week as I read and reread today’s Old Testament passage. The film is essentially a long, drawn-out negotiation between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the reclusive author who wrote eight children’s books collectively known as Mary Poppins. Mr. Disney is enchanted by the tales, and making a movie about Mary Poppins becomes an obsession for him. He tries repeatedly, over a number of years, to convince Travers to give him the rights, but she steadfastly refuses. No matter how much money Disney offers, no matter what sorts of flattery he resorts to, she says no. Part of his obsession is built on his befuddlement about why. Most authors are frantic to see their books made into Disney films, and so Travers’ resistance beguiles him.

While this plot is unfolding, the audience (but not Mr. Disney) discovers, via flashback, the painful realities of Travers’ own childhood. Her father had been a handsome and charismatic banker, and he had adored his daughter almost as much as she had adored him. But he was also deeply flawed. Slowly the man had spiraled into penury and alcoholism. Travers, as a young girl, had believed that it was her responsibility to keep her father from the bottle. She played games, she told jokes, she got him to laugh — all of which worked in the beginning, but as the disease progressed, eventually failed. Her father died a broken man, leaving his daughter’s childhood in splinters.

Although Travers never directly confides in Disney, over the length of their relationship he slowly becomes aware that for her, these books were never about the children depicted, or the wife who became liberated, or even about the magical Nanny — who was the miracle that never appeared in Travers’ own life. For her, the books were always and only about her father: Mr. Banks. In a heart-wrenching scene at the end of the film, Disney shares with Travers his memories of his own broken father, and when he promises to save Mr. Banks in his rendition, she finally gives him permission.

Sadly, the author of today’s passage from Genesis was not around to defend his flawed but beloved central character when Tim Rice and Andrew LloydWebber wrote Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. The author was not there, either, when generation after generation of Sunday School editors produced Children’s bibles and church school plays based on today’s famous account. And because the author was not there to protect the intended protagonist, we are blinded by the eclipsing Joseph. Yes: much of the rest of the Genesis does focus on him. But today’s story, and in some ways even the rest of Genesis, is actually about redeeming Reuben.

To grasp the back half of Genesis, and today’s story in particular, you have to understand the strict roles of Hebraic tribal societies. It was not Jacob, the father, who was supposed to discipline, control, and silence the young upstart Joseph. Jacob’s realms were the wives and slaves of his generation. It was Reuben, the first son of the first wife, who held both the authority and the responsibility to control his brothers.

As his father’s viscount, Reuben ruled over the upcoming generation of the tribe.When Joseph began to share his dreams of insurrection, the family looked to Reuben, not Jacob.When Joseph’s visions of bending wheat and celestial bodies were revealed, it was Reuben who everyone assumed would put a stop to it. One can sense the frustration of Jacob when he finally has to intervene and take Joseph to task. And when the plot arose to kill Joseph, it was Reuben’s task to lead that plot, to wield the knife, to assert dominance. And if he was against the fratricide, than it was his job to clearly and unambiguously quell the revolution. But in all these instances, Reuben failed. The best he could do as the plot advanced was to blubber out a quaking, “Let’s just put him in a well.” And why? So he could sneak back behind the underlings: the very boys he ought to have been leading.

The original audience of the story would ask themselves:What sort of patriarch would this shrinking, sniveling violet make? This man-child who still needs his father to do his disciplining, this milquetoast who cannot control his younger brothers?When Judah suggests selling Joseph, Reuben is powerless to stop even that.What hope did the tribe have when this quaking scarecrow would replace his father?

Friends, all through scripture, God uses weak men to promote God’s ends: the drunkard Noah, the idiot Isaac, the conniving Jacob, the murderous Moses, the licentious David; the list goes on. Interestingly, Biblical women seldom are shown in impaired light. Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, Mary, and Pricilla all get better press than the boys — including the disciples, by the way.

In today’s story, it is cowardly Reuben who is up to bat. And yet — if he had quelled the upstart Joseph from the beginning, if he had wielded the knife himself and done what many firstborn sons would have done, if he had stopped Judah and kept to his original plan — if he had succeeded when faced with any of these pitches, the tribe would have perished in the great famine which was to come.

No, God used Reuben to advance God’s plan, not in spite of his weakness but through it. Now I don’t know about you, my dear brothers, but the story of Reuben gives me comfort. I am not known for courage myself. I am not the charmer, chatting up folks in coffee shops, pressuring them to come to church. I am not the one who heads up parades and protests in an attempt to pass socially-just laws and policies. No, courage is not my strong suit, and so it gives me great comfort to think that if God can use even Reuben, then perhaps my gelatin spine can be of some holy use as well.

It is easy to read Church history and to dwell on the giants whose faith and courage are legendary. And, I am thankful, truly thankful — as you should be, too — for the likes of Augustine and Martin Luther and Joan of Arc. But I am even more thankful that God so often chooses weak people like me — and perhaps people like you, too — for the unraveling of God’s mysterious and glories purposes. Amen.

August 6, 2017 | Matthew 14:13-21

Not a lot of people know this about me, but I have a small degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In my case it is well-controlled and entirely situational. I never feel its tentacles here at church, and except for occasionally having an irrational urge to check the stove, it does not affect my home life either. But on the evenings when I go to the hospital… even after all these years.

I have discovered that I can control my pre-hospital-shift anxiety if I allow myself the freedom to engage in some compulsive behaviors. When I get to the hospital, I cross myself as I go through the airlock. I mumble the hospital’s core principles under my breath as I walk down the basement hall. At each door I pass, I ask God’s care for the staff and patients who will enter that day. I take the elevator to the chapel, where I have a dictated litany of prayers. I take the elevator back down to the first floor, making sure that I stand on certain tiles while awaiting the lift. When passing the crucifix on the first floor, I reach out and run my fingers over Jesus’ feet and cross myself again. I have to tap other tiles on my way to the second set of elevators that take me to my unit. I have to mumble other words as I get off the elevator. I focus on crosses hidden in the architecture when I swipe in and when I sit in the report room.

When everything is carefully orchestrated, when all my little compulsions are followed, I can start the shift with relative peace. If they cannot be followed, I have to do a lot of cognitive reframing while clutching the wooden cross I always carry in my pocket. In truth, the compulsions begin when I leave for the hospital. I say certain prayers when I back out of the drive way, others as I pass the park, others still as I cross the bridge.

The advantage of having a little bit of obsessive compulsive disorder is that it helps you reflect on all your little mantras and movements. Each prayer, each glance, each tile to be tapped — each arose out of a moment of feeling frightened. What people don’t realize is that you have some control in modifying them. You shift them around as you seek to control the anxiety more effectively.

For the first few years that I turned off 74th avenue onto Powell on my way to the hospital, I would pray “Open my heart to the mystery of your gifts… Open my heart to the magnitude of your gifts.” But a few years ago, I found that if I added the line afterwards, “Open my heart to the mystery and magnitude of my gifts,” I could lower my anxiety just a bit more. As I said last week, I really have never struggled with faith in God, but I do struggle with faith in myself. And I am very aware that if it were not for my trust that God has faith in me, I would be in far worse shape. But God does have faith in me — and I know that. And that, more than anything else, helps me carry on when I am feeling fragile.

Part of the reason I am Christian is that the gospel narrative is filled with the challenge of faith. If you read it carefully, you realize that the challenge is seldom about the disciples’ lack of faith in Christ, but almost always about their lack of faith in themselves. And although Christ can be hard on them, he never ever loses faith in them.

Today’s story is a perfect example. The crowd of thousands is before the disciples, and the day has stretched into early evening. The disciples, understandably, say, “Let’s wrap this up. Let’s let them go.” They are acting rationally and out of compassion. They simply cannot conceive that the solution for the hungry crowds exists within their own resources. But Jesus does. He has complete faith in them. He trusts that they have the gifts necessary to meet the needs of the multitude.

One of the concepts that they talk a lot about in seminary is the specific form of idolatry known as “Jesusolotry.” This is the Church’s inclination to turn Jesus into an idol. The first time a professor brought it up, it seemed a strange concept for me even though I had recognized by then that Jesus did not come to create a religion focused on himself. He came to introduce our hearts to the kingdom of heaven. He came to empower us to heal, to feed, and to raise one another from the dead. And yet, as our professors often reminded us, the Church has always been somewhat overly-obsessed with Jesus.

We have always been prone to view gospel stories first and foremost as accounts of his gift, his ability, his miraculous love. But I doubt that he is pleased when we do. Most gospel accounts are also, and I think more importantly, about how a handful of scared disciples overcame their fear and changed the lives of those around them. Certainly that is the driving theme of the book of Acts and the Letters of Paul — in other words, the vast majority of the New Testament.

Brothers and sisters and those unaffiliated, we are a small congregation — a small congregation sitting in the midst of a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and a world with problems that seem flat-out insurmountable. And the Christian message that we cling to has been rebuked, laughed at, and belittled by the institutions and culture of our land, and by most of our children and grandchildren. So it makes sense that we long to turn toward Jesus and cry out, “Do something!” And it is easy to feel despair when instead he says, “No, you do something.” But that is what he does, the vast majority of time.

My friends, he does not say “You do something,” because he wants us to be humiliated one more time. He does not say, “You do something,” because he wants us to sacrifice ourselves on some altar of pointless futility. He says, “You do something — you give the fish you have, you break the bread you have, you distribute what you have and see the extent of your gifts,” because he has an almost irrational faith in us. Jesus remembers what we often forget: namely that we are powerful enough, even in our weakened state. We are powerful enough to still change the lives of the numberless thousands who are all around us.

On Tuesday evening, when I return to the hospital after a few weeks away, I will undoubtedly indulge in my little grab-bag of compulsions. And they will, most likely, help me control my ever-present doubts in my nursing abilities. But they will not, truth be told, help me as much as will my conviction that Christ led me to this service — as uncomfortable as it is for me — because he has faith that I can help these people with their own obsessions and compulsions.

Please join me in prayer: “Living Christ, open each of our hearts to the mysteries of your gifts… open each of our hearts to the magnitude of your gifts… and open our hearts also to the mystery and the magnitude of our gifts. Amen.”

July 23, 2017 | Genesis 28:10–19a

Pretty much anyone can write a three- to five-page paper. I know you might think you can’t, but if you got through eighth grade, I’m pretty sure you could dust off those skills if you had to. I raise this point because I hope that you don’t come here to listen to me deliver my rendition of the ten-paragraph explanation of today’s passage. That is not a sermon. A sermon may be three to five pages, and will most likely offer something of an explanation of a text — but if that is all I am doing up here, take my advice: stay home, watch a Ted Talk.

A sermon, as crazy as it sounds in today’s hyper-secular world, is an attempt to listen for a whisper; to see a glimmer; to catch the passing shadow of the God who is alive today and who cares about us, here, this congregation. The salient point I want to reinforce (again) is the word, “attempt.” The best preacher in the world does not hit pay dirt every time they plunge a shovel into the soil of exegesis. Capturing some vestige, some dusky aftermath of the whisper or the glimmer or the shadow of God is rare, elusive, and frankly, always somewhat questionable. I call what I offer each Sunday a sermon not because I can assure you that it is truly “the word of God for you,” as the Scot’s Confession claims, but because I can assure you that I always attempt to offer you that.

Let me tell you how it works. If I choose to write a letter for the newspaper, or an essay for some Web site, I decide what I think about an issue, do a little focused research, and slam out the required word count: easy peasy, lemon squeezy. But when I craft a sermon, the approach is fundamentally different. When I write a sermon, the whole purpose is to move beyond what I think: to escape my personal perspective. I am, as most of you know, a very opinionated man, and if telling you what I think was all I was expected to do, this would be a very easy job indeed! The task of the preacher, though, is to try and grasp the holy whisper, the sacred glimmer, the divine shadow that is oh-so skittish and is always gone almost by the time you recognize it.

So I haul out my commentaries, and I sketch out various possible illustrations, and I outline two or three or six possible approaches, and I just keep messing around in the dirt just waiting … waiting for something to stir. And when it does stir— if it stirs—the spiritual work of the pastor is to have the discipline and self-control to scrap everything he or she has been working on, everything he or she personally believes, and chase after whatever it was that stirred as if the whole soul of the church depended on it.

I did not spend eight years getting my Masters of Divinity so I could write a three- to five-page paper. I became a minister, what with all the decades of therapy and psychiatric evaluations and biblical theology and all the rest they put us through, in order to come to a point where I truly believe that God is still talking and where I am willing to hunt that God like a starving dog after a mouse.

Most Sundays, I give thanks if I see the barest flick of a tail before it disappears once more through the stone wall of my own ego, perspective, and desires. This week I started my labors by simply messing around in the dirt they call Bethel. Our story is, as I mentioned last week, the formation myth of the temple which the northern kingdom set up in defiance of the national temple in Jerusalem. So, with that in mind, I pulled out the Bible atlas and my concordance and ran through the various places that Bethel shows up in scripture. I fired up Wikipedia and researched what the city is called now, who lives there, what churches were built by whom on the site over the eons, and when they collapsed. Again, the point is not to discover anything, the point is to stomp around enough in the dust until I see, or even imagined I see, anything that seems more than mere thought; anything which could possibly be beyond my own creation.

Sermon writing is a mystery—even to those who ply the craft. I’m not quite sure how I knew, but early on I sensed that for this week, the rock under which the Spirit was hiding was most likely not the question, “Why did God set up this dreamy staircase with ascending and descending angels?” Nor did it seem likely to be, “How did the staircase drive the proclamation that Jacob would father the decedents of a great tribe?” I sensed early on that the question, the hiding place of the holy, was, “Why, out of all the myths that existed before the temple, did our ancestors cling to this one? Why did they cleave to this myth so greatly that they built a new temple in deference to it and in defiance of Jerusalem?” As I ruminated over and over again on that question, I saw (or think I saw) the faintest flick of a tail. Gone, as always, as quickly as it was seen. But that is all one needs for a sermon: the faintest whisper, the vaguest glimmer, the softest shadow.

Brothers and sisters and those in between, if I am right, and it was God, the message for us today is simply this promise: God will descend to us, wherever and whenever we hit rock bottom. The reason our ancestors clung to this story—the reason they built a temple based upon this story, the reason they preferred that temple over the temple in Jerusalem erected on the triumphal myths of David—is because they did not feel triumphal. They were a people who understood what it meant to hit rock bottom and they knew, from their own experience, that God comes to those who seek God when they are lost and lonely, scared and suffering. The myth of the fugitive—running for his life when his family shatters, collapsing in the wilderness surrounded by wild beasts with nothing but a rock for a pillow—spoke to them. Perhaps, God whispered to me, perhaps it will speak to your people, too.

Now, one could argue that spending ten hours banging around in a garbage heap of biblical commentaries, past experiences, old lectures from graduate school, and discarded illustrations, all in order to proclaim a truth that they print on every religious greeting card I’ve ever seen, may be inefficient. And one could argue that giving up Sunday morning to come to a place — a temple really — paid for by people who don’t have a lot of extra cash, in order to hear something inscribed on every religious greeting card Hallmark prints… one could argue, I suppose, that is just plain stupid. But I don’t think it is. I think God is still speaking, and because of that, God hopes we are still striving to hear, even if it is the same old message God has said before. And the fact that the Spirit still whispers sermons to congregations like ours proves that God is still invested, and not just to the triumphal King Davids in their government offices or wall street high rises, or even their cool and trendy youth-focused mega-churches.

God still descends to people who know what Jacob experienced out there in the wilderness, in the shadowed forest. To strive and search for the God who is still alive and who still is speaking — even when what She says is somewhat predictable — is
one of the great privileges of being human. And I know it is a challenge which, succeed or fail, has helped me through my own dark nights of the soul: my own journeys to
rock bottom.

So, to all of you who are running blindly in the night, who feel afraid and lost, and who are unsure what the morning will bring, let me profess — with all the authority that comes with my clerical office — Bethel is not a story of the past. It is not an historical temple built centuries ago and lost now in the sands of time. It is not even an event that happened for our ancestor Jacob. Bethel is a promise made fresh in our day and to our church and to each one of us by the elusive God who will never expose Herself so fully as to be proven, but who will always be there, hidden in the dump of our own egos or descending from heaven, when you need her most.

Amen.

July 16, 2017 | Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1–7

I love today’s story. In part, I love it because who doesn’t love babies? And in part I love it because it speaks volumes about the nature of God. But also—and I recognize that by admitting this I expose myself as a complete nerd—I love it because the story hangs on
a contronym.

Now most people, if they dig around in the recesses of their memories, can recall from grade school what a synonym is. Synonyms are words that have the same or almost the same meaning. “Happy,” “joyful,” and “elated” are all synonyms of each other. Because English is such a large language, we have tons of synonyms. Many of you may recall that the sibling of the synonym is the antonym. Antonyms are words that have opposite meanings. “High” and “low” are antonyms. “Big” and “small.” “Happy” and “sad.” Unlike synonyms, which can have large bunches of words all together, antonyms always come in pairs.

The contronym, that middle child in the family, (the one of whom there were so few photos taken) is usually not even mentioned in school. Even though English is a very large language, there are still only a handful of contronyms—which is why teachers tend to skip over them altogether.Cutting to the point, though, a contronym is a single word that means both one thing and it’s opposite. Huh? Let me give you an example.

The word “cleave” is a contronym. To cleave to another is to embrace them, to draw closer, to connect, to become inseparable. At the same time, you use an ax to cleave a log, to split it apart, to divide it into pieces. One word with opposite meanings.

The mayor hosts a reception in your honor in order to give you a “citation:” citizen of the year. On the way home, drunk, you get pulled over by the police and get another kind of citation: the one that lands you in jail. One word with opposite meanings.

Now if you Google examples of contronyms, it is unlikely that you will find “laughter” on the list. But laughter, at least in today’s story, is a contronym of sorts. When Sarah laughs while eavesdropping on the holy visitors, she laughs in derision. She laughs because she does not believe, because she scorns the foolhardy prediction. She laughs because she is bitter at her plight, perhaps even at God.

In seminary, my theology professor told us that old age had led him to understand Sarah’s laughter in a new light. She laughed not only because of her menopause, but also, he had come to realize, because Viagra hadn’t been invented yet. Sarah laughs due to her lack of faith: in her own body, in her husband’s body, and in the impossible promises of God. It was not the laughter that Victor Borge referred to in our reading of grace. It was the complete opposite of that.

And yet, God responds to her laughter with feigned misunderstanding. Is this not what all loving parents do at times, intentionally misunderstanding their children’s indiscretions? Choosing instead to see them in the best possible light, in order heal the breaches without calling them out: without inflicting unnecessary shame? God spins the word “laughter” around and gently teases Sarah into seeing the limitlessness in what she believed was limiting. “Of course,” God says, “of course you laugh, because of course you know that the promise is true, and thus you are already celebrating.” And in turn, Sarah names the child Isaac — literally, “laughter.” I love this intimate little joke, shared between God and this woman who had doubted—and who both, in the light of Isaac’s birth, pretended she had not doubted.

I also love this story because in the hands of God, all of our lives are shown to be contronyms! The other side of the coin we call “doubt” is always  called “faith.” And God always chooses to look at the underside of our doubt to see that hidden truth, even when we cannot.

Brothers and sisters and those in between, the problem with the world is that it believes the God we Christians worship is a God of antonyms. They believe that God is there to stand in opposition to everything they want and value. They believe that God only knows how to say, “science is bunk,” and “pleasure is bad,” and “thou shall not do…” whatever it is they feel like doing. In the mind of the world, God has only one word: No!

The problem with the Church is that all too often, we believe that God is a God of synonyms. We tell ourselves that everything we want and know God simply mirrors back to us. God votes the way we vote, goes to war with whom we go to war, and always supports the Church programs and projects we secretly planned to do even before we prayed for guidance. God, the Church mistakenly affirms, is just like us, only writ large. In the mind of the Church, God has only one word: Sure.

But God is not the great divine antonym, nor our own personal holy synonym. God is the too-often overlooked child called contronym. We come to God with a truth that we believe about ourselves, the world, the future, or the past, and God affirms us and the truth in what we believe even while showing us the other side of the coin. God doesn’t say “No!” God refuses to shame or punish. But God, if we truly are open, opens our hearts to the reality that our perspective is always only half the truth.

Sarah’s fears of childlessness and her derision of the promise are real, and God does not refute that. But Isaac, it turned out, was also real—even though when Sarah laughed, her son seemed so impossible. A wise man once said, “the shadows in our lives only exist because somewhere close there is light.”

The God of contronyms, of broad perspectives, sees more completely than we ever can. The God of contronyms celebrates in our laughter even when we are still lost in doubt.

Dearly beloved, as God lifted Sarah’s chin and opened her eyes to the light just beyond her seeing, may God show each of you the truth in every opposite. Amen.

June 18, 2017 | Luke 5:16

Brothers,

I remember a mentor of mine saying that in twenty years, the church went from being 50% men to 30% men. He added that if Ford Motor company lost that much of one particular demographic in so short a period of time, it would be the only thing that they talked about. It would be addressed at every board meeting, reported upon in every annual conference. Every level of the company would have task forces set up to try and stop the bleeding. But due to fear of seeming patriarchal, the church has done next to nothing about the exodus of men. And when attempts like Promise Keepers arose, women cried foul. The simple truth is that the more we are ignored, the more we will just stay home.

Men are deeply spiritual by nature, just not in the same ways that women are. Many of the biblical texts that are especially important to men have been taken out of the lectionary — the passages the church tells us to preach on. And for the passages we still have, many of the interpretations that fed men have gone out of favor in the past century. And if you women are feeling a little anxious about what I’m saying, just remember how ignored and shamed we in the front pew have been feeling for a long, long time.

If you take Men’s Studies in graduate school, they will talk about the rise of “the bearded women” in Christianity. What they mean is that when women took over teaching Sunday school — which was originally always taught by men — Jesus began being depicted in a dress with long flowing hair. He hung out with children, he simpered soft platitudes. He became in the view of the wider culture and by the men who were still in the church as being a woman — who happened to have a beard.

The church as it is designed now is, quite honestly, brothers, incapable of fulfilling our needs. We men need to reclaim our spirituality. And we may, for awhile, need to look to places that are not necessarily Christian. Although there is plenty in Islam that we should all be offended by, there is also a tradition of deeply spiritual men that we might learn something from. Indeed, there is a long tradition of Christian men looking over the fence to help us re-imagine Jesus and ourselves.

In just a minute I am going to read a poem by William Butler Yeats, entitled “Sailing to Byzantium.” Byzantium is another name for Istanbul. And tomorrow, I myself set sail for the holy city. Yeats was a deeply religious man who loved Christ, but found the Church dissatisfying. He was drawn, as many men have been before and since, to Istanbul. Istanbul, or Constantinople, or Byzantium (the name keeps changing) is the crossroads between Islam and Christianity. For centuries, Islamic and Christian men have gone there to find the truths that their own tradition lacks.

Muslim men discover the power of incarnation, which is shunned by their theology but a deep part of their inner hunger. Christian men are reminded of what masculine spirituality feels like by a tradition that has not shamed men.

When I get back, I am going to invite you all to a showing of the movie Kedi. In theory, it is a documentary on the cats of Istanbul, but it is also very much the story of authentic masculine spirituality and intimacy.

Brothers, listen for your story of male spirituality, and especially how it relates to aging, in this poem by Yeats.

Sailing to Byzantium

I
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

II
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

May 28, 2017 | Matthew 7:1-5 & Acts 1:3-11

As many of you probably know, one of my favorite expressions is, “Just because you have a problem does not mean that there is a solution.” I love this expression because it’s true, and because it confronts the deeply-held, false myth that “every problem has a solution.” This belief that “every problem has a solution” is engrained in us almost from birth. We are assured in a million ways by a million people that nothing is impossible. We cling to this myth because it makes us feel powerful. We somehow have come to believe that as a species, we are entitled to success: in all things, and at all times.

Like all myths, this one has some basis in reality. As a species we have encountered many problems, and we have found solutions for many of them. In the face of larger animals, we evolved opposable thumbs and learned to use tools and weapons. When we needed to migrate into climates not suitable for our hairless bodies, we developed clothing and shelter and learned to harness fire. To cross oceans we made boats; to travel faster we invented planes. To cure illnesses we created medications, and to solve engineering problems we developed math.

Clearly, many problems do have solutions. But if we are honest, we know that not all problems can be solved. Some marriages fail, some children go off the rails, some cancers cannot be cured. Some conflicts — inevitably it seems — end in war.

The church is not immune to this assumption of success. We have encountered many problems along the way, and we have either solved them or… well, when we can’t solve them we just shove them under the rug. Problems under the rug are no longer seen, and so the illusion that we are powerful remains intact. Sadly though, it is these hidden problems — the ones left unattended to — that most often trip us up as a species: in relationships, in global political conflicts, and also in the church.

Today’s story of the Ascension is a form of shoving a problem under the rug. It is a pseudo-solution to a problem that the Church has never solved. For two thousand years, people have asked, “If Christ was raised, where is he? Where is this man who overcame death, who came back from the grave? Why can’t I see him? Why is he not holding press conferences or something?” It is a legitimate question. And it is a question to which we have no good answer. Instead, we mumble sheepishly that he had to slip away for a bit, but that we are awaiting his return. This creates another problem, which is that we cast our entire religion into a passive stance. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the world says, “Well?” And we keep saying, “Honest, he’ll be right back! Really, just wait an itty bit longer. To which the world finally says, “Why bother?”

So: is there a better solution to our missing Jesus than the Ascension? No, not really.

One option some people take is to veer toward Pentecostalism. They say to the great, impatient world, “OK, the purpose of the church is not really to wait around for Christ’s return. The purpose of the Church is to live in God’s Spirit! God is now! God is here! Umm, not in the person of the Risen Christ (whom we do seem to have misplaced), but in this other thing called the Holy Spirit!” To which the world replies, “If the church is about living in God’s Spirit, why did you need Jesus in the first place? What’s the point of a messiah if you can come to God directly, like we all did before he showed up?”

An even more radical move, made by people like John Dominic Crossan, is to say that the resurrection never happened: Jesus died on the cross and he did not come back. We are his followers in much the same way that Buddhists follow Buddha, Muslims follow Muhammad, etc. Gulp. So much for Easter.

We Christians have a problem at the dead center of our faith. We can keep Easter and the problem of our missing messiah; or scrap Easter, focus on the Holy Spirit, and essentially give up on the divinity of Christ.

In truth, my dear friends, all great world religions have a central problem: those unanswerable catches in their otherwise fleshed out theologies. Hindus and Buddhists have no answer to global climate change or unchecked population growth. Their central tenet of reincarnation is based on everything staying the way it is now. In the event of human extinction — or even a vast de-population — these religions crumble into meaninglessness. No more humans means nothing to reincarnate into, and their religions die with humanity. Muslims are stuck in an intractable nationalism. Their faith was designed for a very particular culture, time, and language. Their crisis is that Islam only really works if you are a fourth-century Saudi Arabian. They keep squeezing people from around the planet into archaic dress, into a foreign language, into a prayer position that demands they face a homeland they do not claim allegiance to. Modernizing is simply not a part of their theological wheelhouse.

Incidentally, the problems that Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims face are easy-peasy for us Christians. Unlike Hindus and Buddhists, we have a highly developed end game: we celebrate the end of human existence. It brings on the return of Christ! Our religion not only survives past human extinction, it kind of demands it. The earth, we have always claimed, is not our final kingdom; it’s just a rest stop on our way to glory!

We scratch our heads at the central problem plaguing the Muslim world. “Why do you force women to wear burkas?” Watching Trump uncomfortably line dancing with a bunch of dignitaries dressed in archaic robes, I heard someone mutter, “Why is it that everything they do is so old fashioned and… weird?” The truth is that Muslim problems simply don’t make sense to us. Since the days of St. Paul, we Christians have cherished a faith that is easily adaptable to any culture, any language, any place. On the other hand, our problem — the fact that we have a risen but missing messiah —is easily absorbed by other theologies. Hinduism (and to some degree, Buddhism) have divine humans coming and going all the time. And as for the Muslims, they happily buried their founder in the ground and never thought he was coming back.

So what is the lesson for today? What do we do, right here, right now, with this story of the Ascension? What do we do with all the various theological problems we create with our elaborate triune divine-human matrix?

Well, the first thing we do is agree to admit that there are some problems — even in our cherished faith — that do not have satisfactory solutions. In fact, since we have such a beautiful and elaborate theology compared to many other faiths, we have more problems than most.

Second, in the face of our honest self-reflection, we resolve to see the problems in other religions with a bit more compassion. I know the speck in their eye may seem weird to us, but they are no weirder or larger than the various specks in our own eyes.

Finally, though, let us accept that problems do not mean that our religion — or theirs — is somehow insufficient. Religions were never meant to completely resolve the mysteries of God. Understanding God is not like solving a calculus problem (hard but achievable). When discerning the nature of God, we will only ever have shadowy glimpses of the truth; and that’s OK.

Like our brothers and sisters and those in-between of all the great world faiths, we live and move and find our being here in the imperfection of our beliefs, while trusting in the one who is perfect.

Amen.

May 14, 2017 | 1 Peter 2: 2-3

Good friends, I stand before you, a preacher of the Word of God, experiencing a sensation not often experienced by pulpiteers on Mother’s Day. And by that I mean hope.

Mother’s day is one of the days most dreaded by preachers. We men and women of the cloth pale at the mention of Mother’s day, knowing that there is only one day more daunting— by that, of course, we mean Father’s day. But today is Mother’s day, and believe you me, that is challenge enough. Why is it, you may be asking yourselves, that preachers wake up every Mother’s day in a cold sweat? Well, before us lie several choices, and none of them are good.

The first choice is whether or not to take the bull by the horns (or do I mean the cow by the udders? I’m not sure!) and take on the issue of Mother’s day in our sermons. Or, shall we run for the hills and mumble something about mothers in the blessings time and leave it at that? I confess, I tend towards the later over the former: the duck and hide strategy. After all, I do not think the church NEEDS to address secular holidays.

I hold a very high premium on holy worship, and every Sunday when I am urged to bring up announcements for events or community gatherings, I ask myself, “Is this really ‘sacred?’” After all, this is God’s temple, not our club house, and as a minister of Word and Sacrament am I not duty-bound to uphold the sanctity of worship? In my lectionary group, most of my clergy colleagues stridently refuse to mention Mother’s day in their messages. “We are preachers of the ‘Word!’” they thunder, “and we will not sully the call with such folderol!”

But, the thing is, to not preach on Mother’s Day may be a way of avoiding God’s voice more than protecting it. After all, most of us will think of our mothers today. If they are alive and near, we will take them out to lunch, and if they are gone, well, we will stand at their graves and weep. And what is more sacred, I ask myself, than the flood of tears that will fall: tears of loss, of loneliness, of regret, of anger, of thanksgiving. No, addressing Mother’s Day in the sermon is not unwarranted. At least, it seems to be so this year.

But having resolved the first question, we preachers are posed with an even greater question: what to say? We can veer towards anthology and talk about earthly mothers. But how do we do so honestly? Platitudes of old-fashioned stereotypes are neither useful nor correct. Every person in this room holds a different image of mother. My feeble attempts to weave a tapestry that does justice to even a small portion of them only highlights the images left out.

Of course, we could also choose to veer towards divinity instead: speak of God the mother. But is this not also an invitation to convey traditional gender roles writ large? Wandering those paths smacks of idolatry, pure and simple. There is another problem with speaking of God the mother. By definition, it highlights that we are not speaking of God as father. And just as we learned in the 1970s that using “Father” language creates a barrier for many, so does using “Mother” language.

In truth, for forty years the church been hog-tied by pronouns. The church I grew up in went gender-neutral when I was a child. All the “Fathers” got tossed from the prayers and the hymns, and in their place, we started to worship a watery, neutered thing. Oh, it solved a problem, I guess. And it was better than laying a stumbling block, to quote our Matthew passage, before those more vulnerable.

When I went to college, I attended an evangelical fellowship that stridently used “Father” even when it didn’t make sense. Stumbling blocks was their rallying cry! Let the liberals like it or leave. Most of them left. In seminary, it was quite the opposite. It seemed like all the crucifixes had large breasts on them, and if you dared to claim that the risen Christ was not a woman, you suffered the rage of the feminazis. They also seem to hold stock in stumbling blocks. Indeed, although I am unhappy with the amorphous, pronoun-less God, it remains the one I address our prayers to, even to this day. Although, that may change.

Remember, my dear brothers and sisters, and those unaffiliated, I told you that I stand before you on Mother’s day, for the first time in my career, with the sensation of hope. That hope rests in the wise and caring hands of those who are “unaffiliated.” It is the transgendered of our society who have suffered the slings and arrows of daring to see the world and themselves outside the old models of male and female. By refusing to simply accept the binary assumptions of the past, they not only force us to see each other differently — they allow us to see both our mothers and our God in new ways as well.

Have they made mistakes? Can they be self righteous and annoying? Will they double back and change course, causing migraines for well-intentioned school principals, the makers of bathroom signs, and members of the house of representatives? Yes, of course. All change agents stumble in the beginning, but still we should be grateful to them. Especially  we in the church.

When I went to work at the hospital seven years ago, we all received training on how to address transgendered people. And for the first few years, most of our transgendered patients were strident about their chosen pronouns. During shift report, we would be told, “male to female patient prefers female pronouns,” or “female to male prefers plural pronouns.” And we would write down on our crib sheets exactly what we were told, and try our best not to forget. But we would forget, of course, because it was hard to say “she” when talking about a patient with a full beard. And if we were talking to them and got it wrong, they would be angry, and we would apologize, and sometimes we would have to be talked to by our nurse manager.

A lot has changed in the last seven years. We are all now much more comfortable with bearded “shes” and breasted “hes.” And “they” and “them” flow off our tongues these days with ease. And as their cause becomes more mainstream, our transgender patients are also less defensive. They still correct us when we get it wrong, but they no longer assume we got it wrong on purpose.

What is more, the transgendered community is growing up and discovering more about themselves each day. The new realization they are sharing is that for many of them, their gender identity is not stable — male, female, or plural—but fluid. Today they feel “he,” tomorrow they may sense a longing to be called “she,” all last weekend they went by “they.” They are demanding the right to be migratory and inconsistent. Furthermore, they are claiming the right to call others by the genders that make sense to them — quite the opposite of what we were taught just a couple years ago. For example, the one who they once called their “father,” they now see — and call — their “mother.”

Interestingly, in my experience, the shifting is not based on the stereotypes of old. I’m not quite sure they know what the shifting is based on either. It is just a feeling. A certain person, at a certain time, calls for a pronoun — calls for a certain role: mother, father, friend. But these things are more fluid now, at least in their minds.

What, you may wonder, does this have to do with us? How is this related to Mother’s Day? Well, I see a day when we will gather in this room and give thanks for our “mothers,” whoever they are at that moment in our lives. And it will not surprise us when one of our pew mates recalls a “mother” whom others understood to be a kindly neighbor. And it will not surprise us when another pew mate uses the word “mother” to refer to someone they used to call “grandpa.”

In my first church, interestingly enough, we lit candles in honor of our mothers, just like we do today. But the idea of mother was more solid, frozen. And for better or worse, everyone had only one name to offer, one candle. Friends, I hope to live long enough that traditional words like “father” and “he” and “mother” and “she” will trip off our tongues when we are speaking of God — not based on traditional gender roles or out of some political allegiance, but because at some deep unconscious level, the right word will simply appear: the word or title that unconsciously describes what we are trying to express.

So, my beloved flock, happy Mother’s Day. I pray that your mothers, whoever they are and whatever their sex, sense your love. Or, if they are gone, that they are held gently in your memory. Be they hard or kind, wise or foolish, emblems of love and peace or not, they have — and maybe still are — gifting you and shaping you, and you should claim them as your mothers on this day. And we should all give thanks to God — Mother, Father, Great Spirit — for God’s gift of mothers and for their witness of God to us.

Amen.

April 30, 2017 | Luke 24:13-35

It is easy to pull out the moment of revelation and preach upon it. For all that Cleopas and his partner experience that day, walking from the Passover festival in Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus, they do not recognize Jesus — not until the breaking of the bread. It is that moment, and not before, that their eyes are opened and they recognize the person with whom they have spent the day. As I said, it is easy to focus on that moment — the moment of revelation — and by doing so, to diminish the importance of what came before.

I know. I know you can preach that sermon because I have many times. I think I did last year. The concluding salvo of such a sermon is that though we may hear of Jesus through many avenues, we only recognize him when we offer hospitality to the stranger: when we get involved in mission work. Certainly, this is the sermon that our bishops want us to preach. Missional ministry is all the rage in the Methodist church. “It is our social outreach,” they say. “It is our involvement in the neighborhood, our service to the least of these that matters.” And everything else, if you read the statements of bishops, seems to matter not at all.

The revelatory moment, the concluding scene in today’s drama, the power of offering hospitality: this will be the sermon preached most often from Methodist pulpits this year. As I said, it is the sermon I most often preach myself, especially when this text is read. But try as I might to write that sermon, somehow it seemed wrong: here in the wake of the march for science, here in the uncritical celebration of the world’s “new religion.” I am tired of elevating one aspect of today’s story over the others. I’m tired of forgetting the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus in favor of the final verses. I do not believe revelation is found simply in the breaking of the bread — as if the previous eight hours of the day meant nothing.

I think revelation is a recipe that takes time and the inclusion of many things, usually put together in a specific order. Cleopas and company finally recognize Christ because they spend the whole day with him and discover along the way the steps to revelation.

First, they need to understand their pain. If they didn’t verbalize the trauma of the passion, the stranger would not respond to their cry, “but we had hoped!” If you read the story carefully, you will notice that they are the ones who raise the subject of his crucifixion. Normally when you meet a stranger, the talk remains shallow. You comment on the Blazers or the preponderance of pot holes across the city. Maybe if you’re getting intimate enough, you ask them what they do for a living. We remember the journey to Emmaus because those undertaking it choose to go deeper with the stranger they meet. It begins when they, not he, bring up the subject of his trial and their hope in what might have been.

In other words, brothers and sisters, we do not stand a chance of recognizing Christ, here in our midst, if we don’t come to this room with him already on our minds. Come here looking for friends, for the comfortable rhythms of an earlier age, or out of sheer boredom, and you will find exactly what you are looking for. Come to this place — to this room — with your mind fully on Christ; well, you may not see him right away, but at least you are on the right road. Intention is the first ingredient: the first step to our eyes being opened.

Jesus’ response is the second ingredient. In response to their clear interest in him and his ministry, and in response to their hope that somehow there was a rational explanation for his death, he returns the travelers to the wisdom and insights of their tradition. He starts by telling them about Moses, and one by one, each of the prophets. He outlines passages from Isaiah and arguments from Jeremiah. He references Daniel and reminds them of what they were taught about Hosea. He brings up Joel and the central thesis of Amos. He lifts up Obadiah and lays down the truth about Jonah and Micah and Naum and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and Haggai and Zechariah and even little remembered Malachi.

It’s a long, long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and Jesus uses every step to go back in time and remind the travelers that truth existed before he did — before the current crisis that they are facing. All those things which may seem archaic and out of date, he says, contain the truth about himself and the answers to the questions with which they are wrestling. And yet, still they do not recognize him. The last step seals the deal: the invitation to stay, to eat, to rest; the missional conclusion.

You don’t find God just because you look for God. And you don’t find God just by respecting the wisdom of the past. And, brothers and sisters, you don’t find God merely by being missional. Any one of these ‘humors,’ by itself, is insufficient.

Sometimes I worry about our denomination. At the moment the call to missional living is so loud that we have grown arrogant and blind to the theologies of the past, which too often we openly scoff at. Where is our theology of heaven, of the second coming? We deride the “pie in the sky” as if our ancestors were ignorant. But I wonder, will we survive our environmental collapse without them? I do not believe so.

When the march for science is over, when this new religion falters — as it will — will the old religions be there to pick up the pieces? When the Methodist obsession with mission collapses — which it will, because secular forces do service better than we do, and we’ve given up on the one thing that we do better — will the old theology still be accessible? Not if we ignore the wisdom of our past, not if we “poo poo” the words Jesus says along this road.

I love today’s story. I love the way it concludes: Cleopas and his partner are so surprised and so excited when their eyes are opened that that they rush all the way back to Jerusalem. I love also that in their pain, they place their hearts and minds on Christ even before he says a word. Most of all, though, I love that when the world is melting before them, Christ comes not to reiterate his social gospel, but rather the salvitic wisdom of the saints who came before: trusting that the past can help unlock the blindness of the present.

Amen.