Sermon: The Wisdom of Foolishness

Sunday 8 March 2015
The Third Sunday in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Christ CrucifiedPaul, the greatest of the apostles, has been busy, traveling across the known world spreading the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. And it hasn’t been easy business. No matter where he goes, Paul finds opposition. Many of his fellow Jews think that he’s a heretic. The Greek philosophers think he has a weak mind. The Romans think he’s trying to stir up rebellion. Even his fellow Jesus-followers question his beliefs and his methods. And yet, despite all the opposition, Paul is winning people for Jesus Christ. People are responding to his message in cities and towns across the Mediterranean world.

This morning he writes back to one of the churches he has founded, a church that is experiencing conflicts of its own. And he tries to explain to them that no matter how people may try to tear down the church and its message of transforming grace in Jesus Christ, God’s message transcends those kinds of criticisms. Don’t worry if they try to tear down the wisdom of your argument; God’s wisdom is beyond human categories.  Don’t worry if they make fun of our savior as weak; God’s power is expressed most fully in weakness.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense after all. Paul’s critics had some good points. At the center of Paul’s message is Christ crucified. It is a very unlikely image to found a religion on. The image of Christ crucified is God at God’s weakest, at God’s most foolish. Christ crucified looks like a failure of the greatest proportions. Jesus is unable to escape death. In fact, he dies on a cross like the very lowest of criminals. Weakness, foolishness, death—it doesn’t seem like a very good way to win converts.

In the arena of Greek philosophy, the highest value is placed on achieving wisdom. In fact, the very word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” When Paul debates with the philosophers, he claims that Christ is wisdom incarnate. He claims that the abstract, highest ideals that the philosophers have been seeking for centuries were actually born into a human body and wandered the earth.

That idea alone is enough to turn off most of his audience. Everyone knows that the highest, most perfect things are not things of flesh, but things of spirit. Everyone knows that this physical world is corrupted beyond redemption. The perfect things, the actual real world exists beyond the physical world, beyond our perception. Plato and Aristotle didn’t agree on much, but they could agree that anything perfect had to exist outside the physical world. So how could something perfect ever become incarnate in the physical world, let alone as a human being?

And even if we were to accept the possibility that the eternal and perfect ideal wisdom could become incarnate as a person, it certainly would not become incarnate as someone like Jesus of Nazareth. He was a commoner. He had little education. He died as a criminal. And worst of all, he wasn’t Greek. He was a barbarian. No one like that could ever be the incarnation of ancient wisdom.

The Jews Paul talks with are interested in something different. They think God is most fully expressed in signs of power. Miracles, healings: these are the sorts of things they want. These Jews are looking for the Messiah. They’re looking for a hero riding in a glorious chariot on the clouds. They are looking for someone who will have the power to overthrow the Roman oppressors and make Israel a free nation again. And so Paul tells  them that what they are looking for, the promised Messiah, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

And the proof Paul gives them is the image of Christ crucified. A very strange choice if you’re looking for power. Seeing the leader of your movement being tortured to death does not exactly inspire confidence. They know what glory looks like, and it does not look a crucified man.

But there is something even more problematic about Paul’s argument. You see, Deuteronomy 21:23 clearly states, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” That’s why people had been so anxious to get Jesus’s body down and in a grave before sunset, because the body of someone executed by crucifixion is an affront to God and cursed. That means that however good a man Jesus might have been, he is automatically disqualified from being the Messiah because he was crucified. The Bible says explicitly that he is cursed by God, and anyone who is cursed by God could never be the promised Messiah.

But Paul is undeterred by all these criticisms. He writes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” It’s a paradox, he says, so that no one can brag about how smart they are, how they could figure out God. God does something completely crazy, completely unreasonable, so that no one can understand what is in God’s mind. God does something that to everyone looks absolutely foolish, and yet it is the very epitome, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. God does something that for all intents and purposes looks weak—God dies on a cross—and yet it is the ultimate sign of God’s power, God’s victory over death. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not supposed to, because God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

We should have known. Christ’s crucifixion wasn’t the first time God’s wisdom was expressed in foolishness, and it wasn’t the first time God’s strength was expressed in weakness. When God wanted to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God didn’t send a general, or a warrior, or a diplomat. No, God sent Moses, a fugitive shepherd with a speech impediment. When God wanted to save the Jews from genocide in Persia, it wasn’t with armies or with plagues. No, God sent Esther, a young Jewish girl who was scared for her life. So why should we be surprised that when God wanted to be revealed to humanity, it wasn’t as a king or a hero or a philosopher, it was as a poor traveling preacher who was willingly executed in order to expose God’s victory over death.

And things haven’t changed much since then. God still finds wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness.

Consider John Wesley. He failed miserably as a missionary to Georgia. He was constantly in trouble with his superiors. And he could never seem to get a job in a church anywhere. And yet his work inspired the Methodist movement which includes about 75 million people today. God turned foolishness into wisdom.

In the American South, and across this nation, when God wanted to free a people from 400 years of slavery and abuse, it wasn’t done with violence or rebellion, and it wasn’t done by powerful men in high offices. God did it with sermons in packed churches and on crowded malls. God did it with nonviolent resistance in the face of unspeakable violence. God did it with old women, and with little school children, and with poor laborers, marching forward for justice. God turned the world’s expectations upside-down.

And how is God calling us now to act foolishly for the sake of God’s wisdom? How is God calling us to show strength by becoming weak? Is it by loving our enemies and praying for those who want to hurt us? Is it by holding on to hope while the world is clutched by fear and despair? Is it by reaching out to the lowest and the least instead of striving to be the most and the highest? Yes, it is all these things, all these things and more. God’s call for us nearly always seems like foolishness by human standards. And God’s strength is strongest when it is expressed in weakness. We just need the courage to be fools for Christ, and to rest assured in God’s strength, even when we feel the weakest. Because things are not what they seem, and in God’s world grace and power usually come from the most unlikely of places. Thanks be to God.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon!

++  FISH Food Bank needs food supplies! Small vegetable oil; jam; sugar and flour; protein items such as tuna and canned meats.

++  The spring women’s retreat at Mt. Angel is this Friday thru Sunday. May everyone travel safely and have a blessed weekend!

++  There was a great turnout last Saturday for the women’s meeting. 5 women within the many groups we have, have volunteered to be contacts about needs or ideas for our congregation. They are Cheri Anderson, Martha Hoskins, Carol Kyger, Rose Miller, Kristen White.

++  Spring Fling March 21st. You’re invited to help! The Women’s Ministry Group will be making ready the narthex and adjoining rooms for new carpet, paint, and interior decorating. Snacks will be served. Come for as long as you are able.

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: The Way of the Cross

Sunday 1 March 2015
The Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8:31-38

jesuspeterLast week I talked with you about Jesus’s identity in the Gospel of Mark. The gospel lesson this morning comes right after the key scene. Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. And the disciples report to him the things that they have been hearing. “They say that you’re John the Baptism, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” And Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the answer for all of them: “You are the Christ.” You are the Messiah. You are the Anointed. And Jesus orders them all to secrecy.

Jesus agrees with them, though. At this point in the story, he has come to terms with who he is. He knows that he is the Christ.

But there is a problem. And the problem is this: Jesus has a very strange idea about what it means to be the Christ. 2000 years later, it all seems obvious to us. But it’s important to remember that no one at the time was looking for a Messiah like Jesus. No one would have guessed that he would do what he was about to do.

There certainly were Jews who were looking for the coming of the Christ. Christ is the Greek word. Messiah is the Hebrew. They both mean “anointed.” And there are two kinds of figures who are known for being anointed: prophets and kings.

At this point in history, the Messiah that people are expecting is a king. They are expecting a warrior. They are expecting someone who will redeem Israel. To redeem literally means to free from slavery. And it’s very clear whom Israel is enslaved to. Israel is enslaved to the Romans. If the Messiah is going to redeem Israel, then the Messiah is going to have to free Israel from Roman rule. And how else would someone do that except by leading a military revolution?

So when Jesus starts to talk with his disciples about what his next move is going to be, it is no surprise that they are expecting him to lay out his war plan. They are expecting him to enlist the crowds as soldiers. They are expecting him to toss out the collaborators on the Sanhedrin and install new, righteous priests. They are expecting him to take up his sword and lead.

But Jesus says something very unexpected: “I am going to have to suffer, and I will be rejected by all of the religious authorities. Then, I will be killed, but after three days, I will rise from the dead.”

No doubt, the disciples thought that Jesus had lost his senses. Hadn’t they all just come to an agreement that he is the Christ. Why on earth would he be talking about suffering and rejection and death. It made no sense at all.

So again, Peter takes it upon himself to act on behalf of all of the disciples. He takes Jesus aside, so that he won’t have to shame him in public. And Peter begins to try to explain to Jesus that he must be mistaken. If you are the Christ, then everyone knows what you have to do. Everyone has been waiting for you to act. The crowds are already on your side. You have the momentum. It is time to act. It is time to mobilize. It is time to use the extraordinary power that God has given you and rise up against God’s enemies. It is time to fight.

But Jesus doesn’t respond with the same kind of manners that Peter showed. He turns to the other disciples, and in front of everyone, he angrily shames Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. These aren’t God’s thoughts that you’re speaking. These are human thoughts.”

This is the moment. This is moment in Mark’s gospel that everything changes. Jesus is at the height of his popularity. Jesus is at the height of his power. And now he is about to throw it all away. Now he is about to make his biggest political gaffe.

It’s not enough for him to make a fool of himself in front of his disciples. Instead, he decides to call the whole crowd together. He decides to make a speech in front of all of his followers and supporters and hangers-on. He is the clear front-runner in Judean politics. But now he is going to do something that he won’t be able to recover from. It’s the Howard Dean scream. It’s Rick Perry’s “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

“If anyone wants to follow me, they have to disown their own self, and pick up their cross, and follow me. Anyone who wants to save their soul will destroy themself, but anyone who destroys their own soul on my account or on account of the good news will save themself. What is the profit in acquiring the entire universe if you lose your soul? What could you possibly give in exchange for your soul?”

It would be as if someone said, “Let’s overthrow Robespierre, but don’t forget to bring a guillotine for yourself. Let’s topple Hitler, but let’s start by going into this gas chamber. Let’s fight back against ISIS, but make sure you bring your own sword for your beheading.” Take up your cross and follow me. That is no way to start a revolution.

Of course, Jesus did inspire some latter day revolutionaries. Not so much the revolutionaries like George Washington, or Napoleon, or Mao, or Che. Jesus inspired revolutionaries like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. And that is the kind of revolution that Jesus led against empire. He proved his point about empire by allowing himself to be unjustly killed by one.

When we talk about taking up our cross or having a cross to bear, we usually just mean some kind of generic suffering. Illness might be a cross to bear. Grief and loss might be a cross to bear. Sometimes the idea of denying self and bearing our cross is used to keep oppressed people in oppression or to keep abused people in situations of abuse. If he hits you, that’s just your cross to bear. You need to deny your own needs and bear it.

But that is a perversion of Jesus’s words. Denying self and taking up our cross is never about convincing weak people to continue suffering in silence. Taking up a cross is a form of resistance. Taking up a cross is an act of boldness and defiance, not an act of trembling or surrender.

At it’s most basic, to take up one’s cross means to be prepared to die. It means not being afraid of suffering, or loss, or rejection, or even death. To act as those who are prepared to die means to act fearlessly, to not be afraid of any consequence, to have nothing left to lose.

There are still places in the world where being identified as a Christian might get you killed. It’s not a risk that many of us are likely to face. But when Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross and follow, he’s not just talking about dying for the name “Christian.”

He is talking about being prepared to die for the values of God’s Kingdom. He is talking about a counter-cultural movement. He is talking about standing up against oppression. He is talking about advocating for the disadvantaged. He is talking about turing the world upside down. He is talking about doing all this—no matter what the cost might be. If you are rejected by the popular, if you are suppressed by the powerful, if you are injured by the authorities, Jesus says to press on. Even if it leads to imprisonment, even if it leads to death, then that death will stand as a witness against the injustice that caused it.

That is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is at once far more peaceful and at the same time far more radical than Jesus’s first disciples could understand at the time. And it is just as difficult for us in our own time. It is a power that is found most powerfully in weakness, a wisdom that is found most fully in foolishness.

So may God inspire us to walk as Jesus walked, to walk the way of the cross, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed. And may God grant us the boldness to do this without fear, to take up our cross and follow Christ, wherever he might lead.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon!

++  Lenten Study begins this evening. The Animate Bible series includes a video, time for personal reflection, and discussion.  There will be a light soup and bread supper at 6:00 followed by study at 6:30.  Faith in Action is sponsoring this 7-week Bible study.  

++  All Church Women:

This Saturday, February 28th, at 10am we will have a meeting for all the women of the Church.  This will be an idea gathering/planning meeting.  From this meeting we will select representatives from the different women’s groups to form a core group to call on when there are activities or projects to plan.  We need all of your input.  Cookies, juice and coffee will be provided to fuel your ideas and enthusiasm. You are needed!

++  From Marv Turner: at our morning meeting on Feb 21, the attending members voted to disband United Methodist Men as a group within the Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership.  We hope to promote a men’s group with in our Partnership to include all the men of our church in joint activities of some sort. We still plan to meet the third Saturday of the month for fellowship breakfast and to continue providing flowers for Mothers Day and to support The Christmas project by asking for $20 donation (dues) per year. We encourage “Methodist Men” support and aid in the Sausage project and the Easter Breakfast  as well participate in retreats now planned.   A name for the new group has been suggested to be “Partnership Men”

++  FISH Garden/Landscape update

Our faithful garden volunteers have raised thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the food bank in past years.  As the FISH building moves steadily toward completion, interest in the gardens is growing.

  • HRMS 8th graders in Michael Becker’s class are working on a landscape plan for the property to incorporate edible perennials and insect-attracting plants.
  • An instructor at Klahre House has approached us to see if her students can help with weeding or other projects.
  • We have received funding to hire a garden volunteer coordinator to work with community groups and individuals interested in helping with the gardens.

It is amazing to watch how God is multiplying our efforts to nourish both body and spirit !

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

FISH Garden/Landscape update

Our faithful garden volunteers have raised thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the food bank in past years. As the FISH building moves steadily toward completion, interest in the gardens is growing.

  • HRMS 8th graders in Michael Becker’s class are working on a landscape plan for the property to incorporate edible perennials and insect-attracting plants.
  • An instructor at Klahre House has approached us to see if her students can help with weeding or other projects.
  • We have received funding to hire a garden volunteer coordinator to work with community groups and individuals interested in helping with the gardens.

It is amazing to watch how God is multiplying our efforts to nourish both body and spirit.

Animate Bible study this Lent

This Wednesday we begin the Animate Bible study. This isn’t about reading from Genesis to Revelation. This is about wrestling with how the bible was created, how it has been understood across history, and how it’s supposed to interact with our lives now. We invite you to come on Wednesdays at 6:00 pm for supper and 6:30 for the study.

 

Sermon: Driven into the Wilderness

Sunday 22 February 2015
The First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

9:00 Traditional Worship Version

Cerezo Barredo, In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be going to the Younger Clergy Retreat at the Collins Retreat Center in Sandy. They call it the Younger Clergy Retreat, not the Young Clergy Retreat. According to The United Methodist Church, in order to qualify as “young clergy” you can’t be any older than 35. I still totally qualify… for the next 2 months, anyway. But there aren’t very many of us under 35. There aren’t even many of us under 40. So, we have the Younger Clergy Retreat to make sure we have enough people to make it worthwhile.

Of course, Jesus was only 30 when he started out in ministry. Then again, he didn’t have to go to seminary or deal with the Board of Ordained Ministry. No wonder he managed to get out in the field so young. Thirty isn’t very old these days. A lot of people are still in school at 30. A lot of 30-year-olds are still living in their parents’ basement. There’s still plenty of time at 30 to make a major life change.

But back in the ancient world, 30 really was old. You’d be expected to be well-established by age 30, with a stable career, a family, maybe even grandkids. For goodness sake, Alexander the Great had already conquered the known world by the time he was 30.

And here was Jesus. Thirty years old. Not married, despite the constant nagging of his mother, “All my neighbors have grandchildren, you know.  When are you going to settle down with a nice girl?” Still living at home, working in Joseph’s carpenter shop. He’d always been a little different, a little strange. At least he was still working the family business, though, making a living.

And then he heard about John the baptist, some fiery preacher down in Judea by the Jordan. It was a world away for a poor carpenter in Nazareth. And certainly no self-respecting person would leave behind his family duties to travel alone into the wilderness to hear some crackpot. But for some reason, Jesus does. “How can you do this to your poor mother?” Mary must have needled him. But Joseph reassured her, “It’ll be alright. Just let him work it out on his own. He’s a good boy. He’ll be back before you know it.”

But when Jesus came out of the water, something happened. He saw something. No one else saw it, but he did. And he heard a voice calling to him. All along he’d known something wasn’t quite right. “There must be something else, something more for me than setting doorposts and fixing old tables.” But now he felt something. Now he knew there was something more. What had the voice said? “You are my beloved Son”? But how could that be? What could that mean? What would his family say? What about the neighbors? He didn’t know. But he had to get away. He had to go somewhere to think. He had to figure out just what it was he had seen, what he’d heard, and what it could all mean.

And just then he felt an overwhelming need, a drive to go out deeper into the wilderness. He wasn’t sure why or how, but he knew he needed to go. He was compelled to go. Mark says that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. The Greek word, ἐκβάλλω, literally means to throw out. It’s the same verb that get’s used when Jesus casts out demons. The Spirit cast Jesus out into the wilderness. It’s violent.

“And he was in the wilderness forty days being tested by Satan, and he was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to him.”

Forty days is a long time. It’s a long time to be alone. A long time to be without provisions. It’s a long time to be tested, to struggle with questions like, “Who am I?  Why am I here?  What am I supposed to do with my life?”

It’s not the same in the other gospels, but here in Mark, I think the best way to understand Jesus’s time in the wilderness is an identity crisis. Remember, Mark doesn’t say anything about Jesus having and extraordinary birth. Jesus is just an ordinary guy. He arrives on the scene as an adult… a fairly old adult, who goes out to see John the baptist. So far in his life, nothing extraordinary has happened. Not until he comes up out of the water. Then he hears that voice, “You are my beloved Son,” and it freaks him out. He runs out into the wilderness, where everyone goes when they’re are struggling with God. Jacob, Moses, the freed Hebrews, Elijah, Jonah. They all do it. He goes out into the wilderness to struggle with God, to struggle with his identity, to struggle with his mission.

After 40 days, he starts to get a handle on things. He comes out of the wilderness, and he picks up where John left off. In the first 8 chapters of Mark, everything goes well. Jesus is powerful. He’s casting out demons. He’s healing people. He’s drawing huge crowds. No one knows who he is except the demons, and he shuts them up before they can tell anyone, because he doesn’t want anyone to know. He doesn’t seem to have fully accepted it himself.

But then, right in the middle of the gospel, in chapter 8, Jesus comes back again to his struggle with identity. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And in Mark, there is every reason to believe that Jesus really wants to know the answer to that question. Then he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And they respond, “You are the Messiah; you are the Christ.”

And that’s when everything starts to unravel for Jesus. You see, he knows something that his disciples don’t know. He knows that the Christ is going to have to suffer. And as soon as Jesus accepts in chapter 8 that he is the one who is going to have to suffer, everything starts to fall apart. He’s no longer able to perform healings and exorcisms like he used to. Instead of grappling with demons and winning, now he’s grappling with other people and losing. Everyone starts to abandon him. First the crowds drift away. Then his disciples leave him. And in Mark, Jesus’s last words on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is utterly alone.

Forty days is a long time. It’s even longer if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Jesus struggled so hard with his identity because he knew what being the Son of God was going to mean. He knew how hard the path would be. And yet, he accepted that path. He walked it to rejection, to suffering, and to death. And only after that to resurrection.

In these forty days of Lent, Jesus invites us to take the journey of self-discovery with him. Jesus invites us to come along, and to ask those the difficult questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? Whether you are thirty or thirteen, those are difficult questions. Whether you are 43 or 63 or 83, they are still hard. Who has God made me to be? How can I be the person God is calling me to be?  What if it’s not what my parents want for me? What if my friends will think I’m crazy? What if it’s not what my children would approve of?

Don’t be afraid. We travel with someone who has walked this path before. Someone who knew the full depth and breadth of human experience. Someone who knows our joys and our sorrows. He is Jesus, the Christ. He is going ahead of us, and he will not lead us astray.

10:30 Celebration Worship Version

In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be going to the Younger Clergy Retreat at the Collins Retreat Center in Sandy. They call it the Younger Clergy Retreat, not the Young Clergy Retreat. According to The United Methodist Church, in order to qualify as “young clergy” you have to be 35 or younger. I still totally qualify… for the next 2 months, anyway. But there aren’t very many of us under 35. There aren’t even many of us under 40. So, we have the Younger Clergy Retreat to make sure we have enough people to make it worthwhile.

Of course, Jesus was only 30 when he started out in ministry. Then again, he didn’t have to go to seminary or deal with the Board of Ordained Ministry. No wonder he managed to get out in the field so young. Thirty isn’t very old these days. A lot of people are still in school at 30. A lot of 30-year-olds are still living in their parents’ basement. There’s still plenty of time at 30 to make a major life change.

But back in the ancient world, 30 really was old. You’d be expected to be well-established by age 30, with a stable career, a family, maybe even grandkids. For goodness sake, Alexander the Great had already conquered the known world by the time he was 30.

And here was Jesus. Thirty years old. Not married, despite the constant nagging of his mother, “All my neighbors have grandchildren, you know.  When are you going to settle down with a nice girl?” Still living at home, working in Joseph’s carpenter shop. He’d always been a little different, a little strange. At least he was still working the family business, though, making a living.

And then he heard about John the baptist, some fiery preacher down in Judea by the Jordan. It was a world away for a poor carpenter in Nazareth. And certainly no self-respecting person would leave behind his family duties to travel alone into the wilderness to hear some crackpot. But for some reason, Jesus does. “How can you do this to your poor mother?” Mary must have needled him. But Joseph reassured her, “It’ll be alright. Just let him work it out for himself. He’s a good boy. He’ll be back before you know it.”

But when Jesus came out of the water, something happened. He saw something. And he heard a voice calling to him. All along he’d known something wasn’t quite right. “There must be something else, something more for me than setting doorposts and fixing old tables.” But now he felt something. Now he knew there was something more. What had the voice said? “You are my beloved Son”? But how could that be? What could that mean? What would his family say? What about the neighbors? He didn’t know. But he had to get away. He had to go somewhere to think. He had to figure out just what it was he had seen, what he’d heard, and what it could all mean.

And just then he felt an overwhelming need, a drive to go out deeper into the wilderness. He wasn’t sure why or how, but he knew he needed to go. He was compelled to go.

“And he was in the wilderness forty days being tested by Satan, and he was with the wild animals, and the angels ministered to him.”

Forty days is a long time. It’s a long time to be alone. A long time to be without provisions. It’s a long time to be tested, to struggle with questions like, “Who am I?  Why am I here?  What am I supposed to do with my life?”

We don’t know exactly what happened in those forty days. But we can imagine. And maybe it was something like this:

Forty days is a long time.  It’s even longer if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.

In these forty days of Lent, Jesus invites us to take the journey with him. Jesus invites us to come along, and to ask those the difficult questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? Whether you are thirty or thirteen, those are difficult questions. Whether you are 43 or 63 or 83, they are still hard. Who has God made me to be? How can I be the person God is calling me to be?  What if it’s not what my parents want for me? What if my friends will think I’m crazy? What if it’s not what my children would approve of?

Don’t be afraid. We travel with someone who has walked this path before. Someone who knew the full depth and breadth of human experience. Someone who knows our joys and our sorrows. He is Jesus, the Christ. He is going ahead of us, and he will not lead us astray.

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Wednesday 18 February 2015
Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

AshWednesdayThe gospel reading this evening comes from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It lays out the three spiritual practices that Christians associate with the season of Lent: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting.

The one we think of first is probably fasting. What are we going to give up for Lent? Some Christians will completely give up one category of food for the whole of Lent. I’m going to give up candy this Lent, or I’m going to give up coffee this Lent, or I’m going to give up alcohol, or I’m going to give up meat. Other Christians will set a particular time in each week for a complete fast. John Wesley was fond of a complete daytime fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, a practice he derived from early Christian writings. No food whatsoever until sundown on Wednesdays and Fridays. Other Christians will fast from something other than food, perhaps television or social media. What you decided to fast from is between you and God.

We need to remember, though, that fasting is not a form of dieting. Lenten discipline is not about getting in shape for swimsuit season. Fasting is a spiritual practice. It is meant to focus our thoughts on God. It is a reminder within our daily lives of all of God’s good gifts, and of the proper use those gifts.

The second spiritual discipline is prayer. Christians often commit themselves to a particular discipline of prayer during Lent. I’m going to read from a daily devotional every morning before I start the day. Or, I’m going to pray three psalms each night before I go to bed. Or, I’m to take thirty minutes each day at lunch time for silent meditation. Or, I’m going to take a walk each day and spend it giving thanks to God for all the good things I see. Again, which discipline of prayer you choose is between you and God.

But it is important to commit to something, usually something that you will do the same time each day. It’s a way of growing closer in our relationship with God, of cultivating mindfulness, thankfulness, and responsiveness to God.

The third spiritual discipline of Lent is giving, specifically giving to the poor. This might mean supporting the FISH Food Bank or the Hood River Warmer Shelter, not only with money but also with volunteer time. It might mean giving through the United Methodist Committee on Relief or Lutheran World Relief to fight hunger, poverty, injustice, and disease around the world. It might mean preparing yourself ahead of time so that you have something to offer the persons you encounter on the street or by the side of the road. Christians sometimes think of the practices of giving and prayer as taking something on for Lent.

Having this reading from Matthew on Ash Wednesday, though, has always struck me as a bit strange. On the one day of the year that we smear ashes on our foreheads, why would we choose the passage where Jesus says, “When you fast, don’t disfigure your faces like the hypocrites.” That is a very odd juxtaposition. And it is almost as if Jesus is discouraging fasting, prayer, and giving rather than encouraging them.

But that’s not quite right, either. Jesus does introduce all three practices with the word “whenever.” Whenever you give. Whenever you pray. Whenever you fast. Jesus takes for granted that his followers will be engaging these practices, that they won’t have to be convinced. What Jesus is doing here is warning us not to do them as practice in self-congratulation. Don’t show off that you are giving, or that you are praying, or that you are fasting. It’s not about showing off to everyone else how disciplined or righteous or holy you are. But even more than that, it’s not about showing up to yourself. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Jesus is saying that spiritual practice is not about convincing ourselves of how good we are. It’s not about achieving something or making ourselves better, it’s about turning toward God.

In a few minutes, we are going to confess our sins, and we are going to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. We do this together in community, not to prove to each other or the outside world that we are spiritual virtuosos. We are not marking our faces to make ourselves look emaciated so that people will be impressed by how much we have been fasting. We do it together, at the beginning of Lent, as a sign of our willingness to take a first step. We do it as a sign of our penitence and our mortality. We do it as a seal of our promise. If we’re doing it so that other people will praise us, Jesus says, then we shouldn’t expect any praise from God. Instead, we do it in order to turn toward God. We do it as a tactile expression of prayer. We do it to remind ourselves of who we are, and whose we are. Thanks be to God.

Notes-N-News

++           Ash Wednesday service is at 6:30pm today.

++           March Newsletter Items are due Friday 20th.

++           Men’s breakfast at Charburger is this Saturday 21st.

++           Sunday 22nd is the first Sunday in Lent. It is also Food on the 4th.

++           SPRC meets this Sunday at 11:45.

++           Financial committee meets Tues 24th at 6:30

++           Lenten study begins Wed 25th.  A simple meal is at 6pm and study starts at 6:30.

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Past, Present, Future

Sunday 15 February 2015
Transfiguration of the Lord

Mark 9:2-9

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day when we celebrate this strange event, told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, about how Jesus’s appearance changes while he is on a mountain with Peter, James, and John. Jesus’s clothes become dazzlingly white. Elijah and Moses show up and start talking with him. A cloud surrounds them. A voice speaks, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Then, in an instant, everything goes back to normal. It’s a very strange story, with lots of supernatural details.

So how are we to understand it? One way is to understand it as what Celtic Christians call a thin place. Celtic spirituality is particularly connected with the land and with nature. They believe that in certain physical locations, the veil that separates the material world from the divine world is particularly thin. In these thin places, it’s easier to have a direct experience of the holy, because there is less separating us from it. Mountains are often thin places, where humans can get a glimpse of the world beyond our world, can clap our eyes on the invisible divine.

Another way to understand the Transfiguration is with a concept from Star Trek. What happens on that mountain is a breach in the space-time continuum. It’s not that different from a thin place. The idea is that two or more points of space-time intersect, even though they are not supposed to. In other words, you can be in more than one place at the same time, or in more than one time at the same place. The boundaries that usually keep distant places apart have been worn thin. The walls that usually separate past, present, and future have been torn down.

That’s how Jesus can be on a mountain in Galilee, but he can also be on Mt. Horeb where Elijah heard the still, small voice. And he can be on Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the law. Not only space is being tinkered with, but also time. Jesus is in the first century with his disciples, but he is also in the past with Moses and Elijah. And yet, he is also in the future, the shining, bright Jesus from after the resurrection. Past, present, and future, all in one moment. Jesus’s identity is revealed in this juncture. He is the continuation of the Law given on Sinai; he is the successor of the mighty prophet, Elijah; he is the one who was baptized, and a voice said, “You are my beloved son;” he is the one who will die; he is the one who will be raised in glory… all of these things, past present future, revealed at once.

At the end of this service, we are going to do our own experiment in bending space and time. And we will do it with a two-page questionnaire. This congregation has taken a long path to get to this point. Our history goes back beyond two congregations coming together, beyond the founding of Our Redeemer, beyond the founding of Asbury, beyond the coming of Christianity to this land, beyond John Wesley, beyond Martin Luther, beyond the Latin church, beyond even the first disciples, or the prophets, or Moses, to God’s first imaginings of human beings, and earth, and stars, and space. And our story will go on from here, not just for months or years, but for generations and ages and into eternity. And not only in this one place, but in all the places where we or our children may move or travel, and in all the people whose paths we will cross along the way.

In this moment, we are going to pause. We are going to try to see as clearly as we can where it is that we are just now. How do we relate to God just now? How do we relate to each other just now? How do we relate to the world around us just now? But at the same time, we are mindful of where we have come from. What has brought us to this place? How did we get to here, on this morning, at this point in space and time? And as we assess where we are and how we got to this place, we will to catch a glimpse of what God has in store for our future. We will seek to break through that thin veil, to see where it is that God is leading us, to grasp a vision of God’s future, so that we can continue our journey together in the right direction.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Pastor, we’re just doing a survey. We’re just filling in Scantron bubbles on a questionnaire. There is nothing mystical or supernatural or special about that? It’s hard to believe that something as ordinary as a congregational survey is going to help us see the future. It’s just a survey.

And to that I say, it’s only just a survey if we make it just a survey. A survey is no more ordinary than ordinary bread that becomes body, or ordinary wine that becomes blood. It is no more ordinary than ordinary water that becomes life and death and life again. It is no more ordinary than ordinary clothes that shine bright, an ordinary cloud that speaks divine words, or an ordinary mountain that becomes the throne of God.

And so, as we end this worship service with filling out a survey, I invite you to take it not only seriously, but sacramentally. I ask you to seek God in this process. I encourage you to release any skepticism and be open to the possibility of God’s extraordinary action in the ordinary.