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.

Sermon: Everyone’s Looking for You

Sunday 8 February 2015
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:29-39

Poor Jesus, he just can’t seem to get a break. He sneaks out of the house early in the morning and heads out to the wilderness to spend a little time in prayer. He just needs a few minutes to himself. He hasn’t been doing ministry for very long, and he’s not used to the pace. People have been flocking to him ever since he came into Capernaum a few days before. And all he wants is a little time to himself, to rest and get reconnected with God. But as it happens, the time he gets is very short. As soon as they notice he’s gone, Jesus’s new disciples go out searching for him, saying, “Everyone’s looking for you. What are you doing out here in the wilderness when there are people back in town who want you to heal them?” And with that, it’s back to the grind for Jesus.

It all started when Jesus came to the synagogue in Capernaum and started teaching like someone who really knew what he was talking about. There was someone there with a demon, and the demon called out to Jesus, and Jesus drove out the demon. It didn’t take long for the news about Jesus to spread. He had hardly gotten out of the synagogue before people starting showing up, wanting him to heal them or their families or friends. And from then on, Jesus would barely get a moment’s peace for the rest of his earthly life.

One of the first people Jesus heals is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s a fairly simple story on the surface. She is in bed with a fever, Jesus goes in and heals her, and she gets up and starts to fix them dinner. But looking a little deeper, there is much more to it.

First, Mark uses an interesting word to describe how Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. It says that he “raised her up.” On the surface that means that Jesus lifted her out of bed. But of course, it’s also a word about resurrection, isn’t it? Jesus was raised up. And when we read this story, we’re supposed to be reminded of Jesus’s resurrection. We’re supposed to connect this story with that kind of resurrection power. This woman is healed by the same kind of power that raises Jesus from the dead.

And what that implies is that we can experience that same kind of resurrection power, not just after we die, but in the here and now. Maybe it’s relief from illness, like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law experienced. Maybe it’s relief from addiction, that anyone who’s gone through a 12-step program knows can only come with the assistance of a higher power. Maybe it’s escape from oppression or crushing poverty. Maybe it’s the new sense of purpose and worth that comes with conversion when we realize that God really loves us and we really are God’s own children. Maybe it is comfort in our grief, and a sense of assurance that, as it was with Jesus, our lives do not end when we breathe our last. These are all ways that God’s resurrection power is expressed, the power to bring new life out of death, the power to bring new hope out of despair.

The second unusual thing about the story of Peter’s mother-in-law is what happens after the healing. Mark says, “The fever left her, and she served them.” It’s always struck me as a bit strange that she began to serve them as soon as Jesus healed her. It seems a little cold of Jesus to allow her to run around fixing them dinner when she should probably still be resting.

But looking a little closer, we notice that Mark uses another interesting word here, and that word opens up a whole new layer of meaning. The word for service, διακονία, is the word from which we get the English word “deacon.” In addition to meaning service, it also means “ministry.” So while on the surface all she is doing is setting tables, at a deeper level, she is doing ministry.

And it makes it clear to us that the proper response to God’s resurrection power is ministry. We are not healed from illness or set free from addiction just for our own personal benefit. We are not released from captivity or saved from sin just for ourselves. God does not turn our lives around just so that we can sit at home and enjoy it. No, God turns our lives around so that we can share that gift through ministry to others. God heals us and sets us free so that we can continue God’s healing and liberating work in the world. The appropriate response to God’s grace in our lives, to the work of God’s resurrection power, is always ministry with God in the world.

When Jesus is out there in the wilderness the next morning, trying to recoup, recharge, and get reconnected with God, his disciples come out and find him. And they tell him, “Everyone’s looking for you. Come back into town so that you can heal more people.”  But do you notice what Jesus does?  He does return to active ministry, but he doesn’t return to the town, to all the people who are searching for him, who want a piece of his resurrection power, of his healing grace. No. This is what he says to his disciples who want him to return to the crowds. He says, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.”

Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come. He didn’t stay in one place. There was certainly more for him to do in Capernaum. He had not exhausted all the work that could be done there. But he kept on moving, going to new places and new people who had not yet heard his message of good news.

And I can’t help but think about the church. We are here because we have received God’s resurrection power in some form or another. We are here because God has touched us, made something new in our lives, sent the right person to help us just when we needed it. And on our good days we do respond to that grace through ministry to the world.

But Jesus does something harder. Things were going fine in Capernaum. People were flocking to him. Ministry was being done. But Jesus leaves it behind in order to reach new people in new places. Jesus leaves not only his comfortable sanctuary in the desert, but also his thriving ministry, in order to begin something new.

Now, in the church we tend to spend a lot time focussing on our inner life. We often want to stay up there on the mountaintop outside of town, continuing to work on our relationship with God, but oblivious to the fact that everyone is searching for Jesus, everyone is seeking that healing grace, and we have the ability to share it.

But even when we do come out of the retreat of our sanctuaries, are we ready to take that next step, like Jesus did?  Are we ready to make the riskier move of reaching out to new places and new people who have not yet heard the liberating, transforming message of the Gospel?

It’s much easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s familiar; it’s comfortable.  But God is calling us forward to a new level of boldness. God is calling us to expand our field of vision, to seek new areas of mission and ministry. God is calling us to go boldly where no Lutheran, no Methodist has gone before.  And in some cases, God is calling us to leave behind the old ways of doing things in order to reach new people.

Of course it’s easier to keep on with what we’ve been doing, especially when it seems to be working. But if we are ready, if we are willing, God asks more of us. God asks us to courageously step out in faith, to do the things that are uncomfortable, to blaze new trails, to make new starts, to do something bold and different. God calls us to strike out, like Jesus did, so that we can share God’s love and God’s grace with new people in new places. How ready are we to follow?

Sermon: Idol Meat

Sunday 1 February 2015
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

I was originally planning on preaching on the text from Mark this morning, and how the demons seem to know who Jesus is even when no one else does, including his own disciples. But the epistle lesson, the letter from Paul to the Corinthians, kept calling to me. So you’re not getting the originally scheduled sermon, “I Know Who You Are,” you’re getting a sermon on this very strange text about idol meat.

It seems very foreign, doesn’t it? Meat sacrificed to idols. What is Paul even talking about? And this isn’t the only place that Paul talks about idol meat. Why would he spend so much time on such a strange issue?

So, this is going to require some background information. Because the world that this argument about idol meat comes from is a very different world than our own. Paul considers himself the Apostle to the Gentiles. He’s a Jew, like all of Jesus’s early disciples, but he has a new mission to reach out non-Jews and to bring them into the fold of the Jewish God.

And the people Paul is reaching out to are practitioners of a variety of religious observances. They practice what we usually call paganism. They worship the traditional gods. The Greek gods: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hades, Aphrodite. The Roman gods: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Vulcan, Janus. Five our months and all of the planets in our solar system are still named after Roman gods. And other eastern gods, like Isis and Mithras.

And while practices varied from place to place and from tradition to tradition, a very common feature in ancient religion was the sacrifice of animals to the gods. Remember, this is also how the God of the bible was worshiped at this time in history, with animal sacrifice. Ancient Corinth had temples dedicated to Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Venus, Isis, Demeter, and the divine Emperor.

Not only was animal sacrifice common in a Roman colony like Corinth, nearly all meat available in the city would have been sacrificed to one god or another. Unless you could find a kosher Jewish butcher, chances are that any meat you could buy would have been sacrificed to a god before it was sold. What is more, many poor people—probably the majority of people—could not afford to buy their own meat. But on religious festivals, meat that had been sacrificed to the gods would be provided free to the public, usually being paid for by one of the leading men of the city.

So now we can begin to see why the issue of meat sacrificed to idols would have been a real issue in Paul’s time. If you were going to eat meat at all, it would have been hard to get any that had not been sacrificed to an idol. So if you ate that meat, did it mean that you were worshiping Apollo, or Mars, or whoever? Did it mean that you were worship a god other than the one, true God?

But there is another layer of complexity in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was different than any of Paul’s other churches. What’s different in Corinth is that the congregation there is of mixed backgrounds. Paul refers to the two groups as the weak and the strong. Like any letter between people who know each other, there are many things that don’t have to be explained, because both the sender and the recipient already know what it is that is being discussed. Paul never explains exactly what he means by the weak and the strong. Presumably the the people in Corinth would have had no trouble figuring out what he meant.

So we don’t know for sure, but scholars’ best guess goes something like this. The strong are well-to-do people. They are used to rubbing elbows with the other movers and shakers in town. They are educated in rhetoric and philosophy. They have the skill and the resources to get their way in court. They have the leisure to get together in the middle of the day. They enjoy sharing a nice meal with their peers. They have a voice and power in the community.

The weak, on the other hand, are the working class. They are slaves or servants. They work all day, every day. They don’t have leisure time. They don’t have education. They never get to sit down to sumptuous meals. They are just simple, ordinary people.

In this section of the letter, Paul is speaking to the strong. He identifies himself with the strong, and he says, we know that all those statues that people make their sacrifices to, they’re just statues. All those traditional gods, they aren’t real. Zeus, Mars, Isis—they’re all just fairy tales. Being educated in philosophy, the strong were already suspicious of the myths of the traditional gods. Even before Paul came around, they tended to believe in one God, formless, beyond matter, that created the entire material world.

The weak, though, didn’t have this advanced knowledge. Before they had come to Christ, they had taken the traditional gods very seriously. How else could they make sense of a world that kept them oppressed while a few at the top benefitted except that it was the capricious action of fickle gods. Even now that they worshipped the Christian God, they still thought the old gods had power, that they were some kind of lesser gods or demons.

So Paul tells the strong, yes, we all know that the gods those idols represent are fake. Of course eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol won’t cause you any harm. Of course you are free to eat the meat offered to you at swanky parties or during religious festivals. It doesn’t mean anything because those gods aren’t real.

But, Paul says, the weak don’t know that. They still remember going to those gods with their most basic needs. They used to depend on those gods for their very survival. For them, coming to Christ and to the Christian God means disowning the traditional gods. They don’t have the benefit of your philosophical training to understand that those myths about the gods are just fanciful tales. They really believed.

And so, Paul says, while strong people may have the freedom in Christ to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, they should not exercise that freedom. They should limit their own freedom for the benefit of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And specifically, they should limit their own freedom for the benefit of those who are below them on the social ladder.

Which brings us to the reason that this passage about the now obscure practice of animal sacrifice still has meaning for us today. Because what Paul is telling the believers in Corinth is that, in some sense, we are responsible to each other. We have responsibility for the faith of our sisters and brothers. When we decide how to use our freedom, it matters how our freedom affects others.

Martin wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” That sentiment comes from Paul.

And part of the reason is that Christ does not so much call us alone to be Christians as Christ calls us together to be the Church. If we look at each of the call stories in the bible, there is not one that happens outside the context of community. Noah does not get called without his family. Samuel does not get called without Eli. Peter does not get called without Andrew, James, and John. Paul does not get called without Ananias and the rest of the Christian community in Damascus.

We often seem to focus on the experience of individual believers. What does God ask of me? What is the significance of my baptism? How can I receive grace? How is my personal relationship with Jesus?

But in truth, we are not Christians alone. We cannot be. Even the most solitary of monks and or have the support of a community. And our Christian ideals are not just about how we act individually, they are about how we act as the church. How do we treat each other? What do we share together? How do we support one another? What are we able to do together in the world?

And to be the church as God calls us to be, we have to be thoughtful about how we interact with each other. There will be times when, for the sake of our sister or brother, we might have to act differently than we would otherwise. If my behavior is causing someone else to stumble, then I should think very seriously about changing that behavior for the sake of my sister or brother. And that is all the more true when I am in a position of power. But I don’t get to turn that around and use it as a cudgel. It’s not okay for me to try to get my own way by insisting that anything other than the way I want would cause me to stumble. Living together in community is not about demands and conformity. It is about grace. It is about getting over myself so that I can be a part of what God is doing with us. It is about showing love for one another, not only when we agree, but especially when we disagree.

Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more loving, to heal our hard-heartedness, to open us to the needs of our neighbors. Thanks be to God, who creates us in infinite variety and draws us together in one family.

Sermon: God of All the Nations

Sunday 25 January 2015, 10:30 am Celebration Worship
Favorite Songs and Hymns Service

Isaiah 2:1-5 | Luke 4:16-30

There have been some pretty important football games lately, at least important for people who live around here. And it just so happens that I’ve watched a few of them in public places. The college football championship, between the Oregon Ducks and the Ohio State Buckeyes, happened during the Byberg Preaching Workshop. Byberg, for those of you who don’t know, is an educational  event for Lutheran clergy in Cannon Beach. The pastors there come mainly from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Since U of O was in the final, the planners of the event wisely chose to free up the schedule on Monday night, and many of us found ourselves in a local pub watching the game. Now, I would have thought that everyone there would be rooting for Oregon. It seems, however, that a significant number of ELCA clergy come from the Mid-West. Even if they weren’t necessarily Ohio State fans, they were still Big 10 fans, and so many of them were rooting for Ohio State. This was, I think you’ll agree, a truly appalling state of affairs. Here they were, in Oregon, rooting against Oregon.

Something similar happen last Sunday, when we were at Pietro’s Pizza during the AFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The loudest people in the place were the Packer fans. It’s one thing to root against the home team in the privacy of your own living room, but it’s another thing entirely to do it in public.

I’m joking a bit, of course. One of the great things about sports is that they give us a safe way to express a kind of tribalism. As a fan of a particular team, it’s okay to fanatical in your support. You don’t have to be rational or reasonable in sports. I can, for example, say that the Portland Trail Blazers are the best team in the history of basketball. Someone might argue with me about that claim. They may show some me statistics or win-loss records to try to dissuade me, but they will never prove me wrong or convince me otherwise.

At the same time, though, sporting rivalries are fairly safe. On rare occasions sports rivalries boil over into actual violence, fist fights in a bar or small-scale riots. But it’s very unlikely that a disagreement about sports would spark an actual war. It’s fun to love your own team and hate the other team and its supporters, because we know that at some level, we’re all just pay-acting. I might call into question the parentage of someone who roots for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but at the end of the day, it’s just sports, right? It doesn’t really matter. It’s safe for us to be outraged with our neighbor and know that there’s not going to be any real harm.

But, of course, we know that there are other loyalties that have more serious consequences than the division between Seahawks and Patriots. Jew and Gentile. Protestant and Catholic. Sunni and Shia. Israeli and Palestinian. Capitalist and Communist. Indian and Pakistani. First world and third world. North and South. White and Black. All of these distinctions have led to conflicts that resulted in untold numbers of deaths. And these deaths are not just about power or land or resources. They may start out that way, as a dispute over who should be in charge in some particular place, but they become about identity. Disagreement turns to hate. Opponents become enemies. Pride grows into loathing. Until we find ourselves hating the other simply for being other. We find ourselves unable to imagine that the other is anything but evil, base, and irredeemable. What had been difference or diversity becomes bigotry, oppression, and vendetta.

And it is all too easy for us to do. It starts with a sense of pride in one’s own culture. We are proud of our family, or our community, or our nation. But very quickly that pride can turn into dismissal of everyone who isn’t like us. Then that dismissal turns to hate, and that hate turns to violence.

Right here in this community we are marked by a history of bigotry. During World War II, when our government decided that Japanese Americans were not real Americans, Hood River was one of the most radically bigoted places in the country. Land and possessions were stolen from interred Japanese Americans. The American Legion even had the names of American war heroes blasted of the local war memorial because they happened to have Japanese ancestry. Asbury’s pastor, Rev. Sherman Bergoyne, stood up against this blatant racism, but very few other whites stood with him, and he was driven out of town.

We like to think things are better now, and perhaps they are. But we know that there are still people in our community and in our nation who are considered to be unAmerican because they are not white, no matter how long their family has been a part of this country. It is all too easy for us to slip into suspicion of the other.

This kind of pride leading to bigotry affects our foreign relations as well. We used to use words like heathen to describe the people of other nations, as a way of defining them as somehow less than human, not entitled to the kinds of human rights that we take for granted. More commonly now we use the word terrorist, not just for the specific individuals who commit acts of terror, but for entire cultures, entire nations, entire religions. We think of ourselves as more deserving, more noble, more loved by God than those who are not like us.

In the story from Luke today, Jesus appears as a prophet and healer for the first time in his home town of Nazareth. He predicts that the local people will not be happy with his acts of healing and liberation. They will not be happy because Jesus is not saving his power just for them. He is going to heal people from other towns, from other nations, even, just like Elijah who saved a foreign woman from dying of starvation even when his own countrymen we also in famine, or like Elisha, who cleansed a foreigner of leprosy even when there were plenty of Jews who suffered from the same disease.

God does not respect our borders. God does not care about passports or birth certificates or work permits. God loves all people. God created everyone. God is the parent or everyone. We like to think sometimes that because God loves us, God must love only us. Or that if God loves us, God must hate the people that we hate. But that is not how grace works. God’s grace and love are not things that we get to keep for ourselves. As the prophet Isaiah declares, there will come a time when God will gather all people together as God’s own family. And on that day, we will likely be surprised by who God has chosen to include.

Today we have been singing the songs that you have chosen over the last two weeks as your favorites. The most requested song is the one we are going to sing next. This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. If we stopped singing there, we would be in danger. But the song keeps going: but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

There is nothing wrong with loving our country. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our heritage. There is nothing wrong with rooting for the hometown team. There is nothing with those things, so long as we do not fool ourselves into thinking that God shares our preferences or that our culture is somehow better than other cultures. Whenever we say, for example, that America is the greatest nation on earth, there is a danger that we will fool ourselves into thinking that everything America does is right just because it is America that does it. Of course we are proud of our country. People in other countries are proud too, and well they should be. The thing to remember is that God is not American . . . or Israeli or Chinese or Peruvian or Afghani or French or Liberian or anything else. God does not have a home town. The God that we serve, the God who loves us into being is God of all the nations.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.

Lloyd Stone, sts. 1-2, Georgia Harkness, st. 3
United Methodist Hymnal 437, Evangelical Lutheran Worship 887

Sermon: Follow Me

Sunday 25 January 2015, 9:00 am Traditional Worship
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20

A stranger comes to town. No reputation. No name recognition. He walks along where the fishers are working. He points to a couple of them, and he simply says, “Follow me.” That’s all. No introduction. No explanation. Just, “Follow me.” And they do.  They don’t know who he is. They don’t know what he’s about. They leave everything. Their boats. Their work. Their families. They just drop it, get up, and follow him.

The feast of St. Anthony of Egypt was just over a week ago, and so I was reading about his life during my devotional. He’s considered the first Christian monk. Born in the mid-third century in Egypt, at about age twenty, his parents died, leaving him in charge of his young sister. I’m going to quote from the words of Athanasius about Anthony, and as you hear it, I want you to think about your emotional reaction to Anthony’s choices and how they effect his young sister.

Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Savior, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected too on the great hope stored up in heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor—you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.

It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things.

The next time he went to church he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment’s hesitation he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent Then he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He kept a careful watch over himself and practiced great austerity.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this story for the first time, a knot started to form in my stomach. I got to the part where Anthony gave away his land and possessions, and all I could think about was his sister. It was his responsibility to take care of her, to raise her. They had already lost their parents. Now he was giving away the things that would maintain their livelihood at least until she is grown. I was relieved when I read that he kept back some of his possessions in order to support her. I took a breath. Then he decided to give away the rest of everything to the poor. What about his sister? He put her in a convent. Did she want to be in a convent? She had just lost her parents. Did she really need to lose her brother now, as well?

Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they drop everything. They leave their work, their possessions, their families, and they follow him.

It’s a difficult problem, isn’t it? What do we do when God’s call conflicts with our highest ideals? What do we do when God conflicts with family? When that happens, how do we know that we are understanding God’s call correctly. Is it faithful to take the more dangerous path, to give up everything for Jesus, or is it just irresponsible? Is it responsible to take the safer path, the path of security, or is it just cowardly? What is it that Jesus is calling us to do? And how are we supposed to respond?

Many early Christians answered the question by following Jesus and leaving family behind. The Apostle Paul, in 1st Corinthians 7, advises his followers not to get married and not to have children. He was convinced that the responsibilities that go along with having a spouse or children would distract Christians from really being able to follow God. He was sure that having a family was detrimental to one’s relationship with God, that having a family kept people from being good disciples of Jesus. Paul gave only one exception to his rule. He said that if there were any Christians who were so filled with lust that they couldn’t remain celibate, that it would be better for them to marry than to commit fornication. Otherwise, he insisted, all Christians should remain single and childless. Anything else would be an unnecessary distraction from the things of God.

We’ve come a long way since then, though, haven’t we? Typical American Protestantism today is all about family values. Rather than thinking of marriage as a distraction from religion, we tend to think of marriage and family as requirements for living a Christian life. Protestant pastors often aren’t really trusted unless they are married. It’s not much better for pastors who don’t have kids. We tend to think of family as our primary religious obligation. Being a faithful spouse, raising good Christian children—these are the things we seem to feel called to do in order to follow God.

And for many American Christians that means accumulating things. It’s important to provide a nice life for our families. That means a nice house, a reliable car, heat, electricity, internet, telephone, television. It means being able to pay for braces and music lessons and college and a wedding when the time comes. It means planning for a stable and comfortable retirement, so that we’re not a burden to the next generation.

Of course, with all of these things to buy and hold and maintain, it makes it awfully hard to respond when someone shows up and says, “Follow me.” We have so many things that we can’t think of leaving behind. The house, the car, the retirement plan.  How could we just drop everything and leave? We have responsibilities, after all. People are depending on us.

So what are we to do? Which is more dangerous, that we drop everything to follow Jesus and end up being irresponsible, or that we fulfill our responsibilities and end up missing Jesus’ call? What do we do?

I tend to justify taking the safer path by saying that my marriage covenant and my responsibility as a father are sacred trusts from God, that I have made promises before God to fulfill those roles, and so God would never ask me to do something that would make being a husband and father more difficult. But how often am I actually fulfilling my responsibilities, and how often am I just making excuses, taking the easy way out, taking the path more travelled? We know, after all, that Peter was married. And yet he dropped everything to follow Jesus. James and John were responsible for helping their father. But they dropped everything to follow Jesus.

Most of us are probably much more likely to take the easy path. We’re more likely to error on the side of responsibility. That is the more socially acceptable option for us. And yes, many of us do hold sacred trusts from God to support our families. But that means that we have to listen all the harder for Jesus’ call to us. We have to be all the more attentive to what Jesus might be asking us to do. At some point, Jesus will call us, ask us to make a difficult decision. What will we do when Jesus calls? How will we answer? How much are we willing to give up in order to follow the savior of our lives?

Sermon: Speak, for Your Servant Is Listening

Sunday 18 January 2015
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Samuel 3:1-20

If it were a movie, it would be directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The main character is a young boy, perhaps the Haley Joel Osment type. He was born under unusual circumstances to an older women who was supposed to be barren. But Samuel was her miracle child, the one she had prayed to God for, the one who had a special destiny. Though she loved him, she had to hand him over to the priest. He grew up living in the temple, with an old, blind man his only company. Samuel spent all his days there with Eli in the temple.

It wasn’t just any temple, though. This temple held a very ancient and very powerful relic. No one was allowed to even look upon it, except the priest, and then only once a year. The Ark of the Covenant was older than the nation itself. It came from a time shrouded in obscurity. A large wooden box topped with two statues of heavenly beings, the whole thing was plated in gold. Inside it were kept holy objects from before the people had entered the land: the stone tablets on which God had written the law, the staff of Aaron that Moses had used to part the waters of the sea, a golden jar filled with manna, bread from heaven. But no one living had ever seen these things. No one dared touch the ark, let alone open it. The ark contained a deadly power. So long as it remained hidden in the temple, away from people, it could not kill.

But although no one else dared go near the ark, the young boy Samuel, that boy of destiny, he not only gazed upon the ark, but he slept right beside it, in the holy of holies. Right there he lay down each night, just an arm’s reach from the deadly and terrible power of the ark.

So are you picturing it as a movie? It’s night. Samuel is laying there beside the ark. Perhaps it’s covered in a shroud. It’s dead quiet when a faint, other-worldly light begins to shine from under the cloth. A soft breeze ruffles its edges. And then the voice: “Samuel.” He sits bolt upright. No light no sound, no breeze. He looks around and sees nothing. Then he gets up and creeps down the hallway. Strangers seem to be lurking in every shadow. He shakes Eli, wakes wakes with a start. “Here I am. You called me,” he whispers to the old man. “I didn’t call you,” Eli responds. “Go back to sleep.” Samuel gets back in bed, and they repeat the ritual two more times, the suspense growing with each repetition, until the blind man finally figures it out. He tells Samuel, “Go back and lie down, and this time, when you hear the voice, say ‘Speak, YHWH. Your servant is listening.” He follows Eli’s instructions, and that’s when he hears the voice of God, giving him a message for the people of his time. It has as much suspense, as much drama as any movie thriller.

It’s been a few years ago now since the United Church of Christ came out with it’s slogan. The United Methodist Church has “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” The ELCA has “God’s work, our hands.” But the UCC’s slogan is “God is still speaking…” They even had some slick TV commercials that they ran on national television to promote it. It stirred up quite a bit of controversy when it first came out. God is still speaking. You might guess that it was an atheist group or a secularist movement that was upset about that statement, God is still speaking. But it wasn’t. It was Christian groups that were upset about it. They were upset because that message seemed to suggested that the Bible was somehow incomplete. If God is still speaking, that must mean that God wasn’t done speaking with the last page of the Bible. If God is still speaking, that might mean that God has something new to say, and that would just be too frightening, too dangerous a thing to contemplate.

Samuel lived at a time when messages from God were rare. That’s why it took so long for the old priest, Eli, to figure out what was going on. Even though he was the chief priest in the temple that held God’s ark, he had never received a message from God. Perhaps no one he knew had ever received one either. What happened to Samuel was unusual, even shocking.

Those sorts of gifts are pretty rare in our time, too. If someone says they are hearing a voice that no one else can hear, our first reaction isn’t usually that they are receiving a message directly from God. If someone is hearing voices, we assume that they suffer from schizophrenia, not that they are a prophet.

And there are plenty of religious wackos out there to make us skeptical about direct revelations from God. We have no shortage of charismatic pastors, cult leaders, and sidewalk preachers. There’s a reason that we don’t always believe people when they say they have a message from God. Believers have been fooled by too many false prophets in the past, who have brought corruption, exploitation, and even death to those who followed them. We don’t need any more crazy. Let’s just stick with the words of God that we’ve already got: the Bible.

But there is another reason that we might be doubting about someone who claims to have a revelation from God. Even if it is a word from God, it might not be something we want to hear. That certainly is what happened to Eli. Did you notice that in the story? After Samuel has received his word from the Lord, Eli insists that Samuel tell him everything. Before he even gives Samuel a chance to speak, Eli is already calling down curses on him if he tries hide anything from Eli. But the message that Samuel has in not anything Eli wants to hear. Eli is going to be punished by God because of the behavior of his sons and because of his own mismanagement and neglect.

As I was preparing this sermon, one of the things I wrote in my notes is this: Is it a good thing or a bad thing to hear the voice of God? Would we want to hear the message? And I think that’s still a good question. I think some of us crave the kind of clarity that might come along with a divine revelation. Right now we have all these questions, but if God would just speak to us, then we could answer them. We could have a simple faith, free of ambiguity.

But, on the other hand, what if God didn’t provide with more clarity, but only with more questions? Even if we didn’t receive the kind of message of doom that God gives to Eli through Samuel, would we like the kinder, gentler message of God any better? If the bible is any example, God doesn’t usually speak to people unless God wants something. God always seems to want prophets to go tell the powerful that they’re doing something wrong, or to leave behind their families and preach peace in the midst of war. A very large percentage of people who hear God’s voice end up getting killed when they do what God tells them to do. They get crucified, or stoned, or burned, or thrown to wild beasts. I guess Mary should just be grateful that with her God was only looking for an unwed teenager to knock up.

And what might God ask us to do? Go and preach reconciliation to our enemies, like Jonah? Tell the powerful to free their slaves and give up their capital, like Moses? Humiliate ourselves in service, like Mary of Bethany? Feed the hungry? Visit the imprisoned? Turn the other cheek? Give up all our possessions and follow? If God is still speaking, do we really want to listen? Or is it just more comfortable for us to imagine that God stopped speaking sometime in the second century?

What might God ask of us? To reach out to someone who makes us uncomfortable? To take on a task we would rather not be responsible for, or to let go of the thing that we like to control? God might ask us to say yes when we would rather say no, or to say no when we would rather say yes. God might ask us to love our neighbors. Or to love our enemies. Or, what is sometimes more difficult, to love ourselves the way that God does.

God is still speaking. Are we brave enough to listen? Are we courageous enough to risk the disruption, the discomfort, the disagreements, and the discourse that God might stir up in us? God is still calling us. Are we bold enough, or crazy enough to say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening”?

Sermon: The Heavens Torn Apart

Sunday 11 January 2015
Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Mark 1:4-11 — Acts 19:1-7

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel written, the very first narrative written of the life of Jesus the Christ. And what is the very first event that Mark records about Jesus’s life? It’s not his birth. There are no angels or shepherds or wise men. No, the very first thing that happens in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ baptism by John. Jesus comes down from Nazareth, we don’t know why. He comes out to the wilderness where that crazy preacher has been dipping people in the river, telling everyone about someone more powerful who is coming soon. And Jesus gets in line with everyone else, wades out into the water, and is plunged under by John, to emerge a few seconds later.

When he does, something amazing happens. Jesus has a vision. The technical term that we use is theophany; it’s a revelation, an appearance of God. As Jesus comes out of the water, he looks up, and he can see the heavens being torn apart, being drawn back like a curtain to reveal the divine realm. Then he sees a vision of a dove coming down out of heaven, and it lands on him. Just then, Jesus hears a voice coming from heaven, telling him, “You are my son, the beloved, and I am pleased with you.”  According to Mark, no one else sees anything, no one else hears anything. Just Jesus.  He has a mystical experience that is directly triggered by being baptized.

A generation later Paul comes across some believers in Ephesus who have been baptized either by John or by one of John’s disciples, but they had not received the Holy Spirit. In fact, they had never even heard of the Spirit. Paul takes this as an occasion to baptize them again, and they have mystical experiences in which they begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.

So what does that say about baptism? What is the purpose of baptism? How do we know whether a particular baptism is valid or not? What changes after someone has been baptized? And what is the connection between baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit?

Jesus was baptized by John. Some of Jesus’s disciples had probably been baptized by John as well, but as far as we know from Mark, none of the twelve apostles were.  And Jesus never baptized anyone. Matthew tells us, though, that Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

So what was it about the baptism of those disciples in Ephesus that didn’t seem quite right to Paul? They had apparently been baptized in the same way that Jesus had been baptized. But they hadn’t had an experience of the Holy Spirit like Jesus did when he was baptized. Is that what made the difference? And if that’s the case, what does that say about us? I’m guessing there aren’t very many of us who heard a voice from heaven or started speaking in tongues immediately after we were baptized? Does that mean that our baptisms are somehow invalid or need to be repeated? It seems that even in bible times there were differing opinions about what baptism was and how it should be carried out.

In today’s world, we still have disagreements about what baptism is and how it should be done. Should it be only for adults, or is it alright to baptize children? Should we do baptism by sprinkling, by pouring, or by full immersion? Should baptism be done only once, or are there times that baptism should be repeated?

Christians don’t agree about the answers to any of these questions. This congregation is connected to two different denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, and The United Methodist Church, or UMC. Our two denominations don’t agree on everything. But one thing we do agree on almost completely is baptism. We use slightly different language in our baptismal rituals, but our theology of baptism is almost exactly the same.

In fact, when our two denominations first started talking with each, the first thing we did was a joint study on baptism. It happened before I was born, 1977-1979. Baptism is the first thing the Lutherans and Methodists agreed to agree about.

The current document of agreement between the UMC and the ELCA is called Confessing Our Faith Together, and it outlines seven points on which our denominations agree on baptism. It does give even one point on which we disagree.

The first point is this: “Both the ELCA and the UMC accept as valid all acts of Baptism in the name of the Trinity using water according to Christ’s command and promise.” If you’ve been baptized in the name of the Trinity, it doesn’t matter where it was done, when it was done, how it was done, who did it, or what has happened to you since then, you do not have to be baptized again.

Which leads to the second point: “Baptism is the sacrament of entrance into the holy catholic Church, not simply a rite of entrance into a particular denomination.” We are not baptized into the Lutheran Church or baptized into the United Methodist church; we are baptized into Christ’s church. “Baptism is therefore a sacrament that proclaims the profound unity of the church.” Every time we celebrate baptism, we declare that there is only one church of Christ, that every baptized Christian is one in Christ, regardless of creed or denomination. We are all one in baptism. That’s part of the reason that our partnership here is so important. By being church together, we are living into the common identity that we proclaim in baptism. Let me say it another way. Whether we have a joint ministry here or not, we are one church. The fact that we do have a partnership is simply a statement of what God already knows: in baptism we are one in Christ.

The third point: “Baptism is intended for all persons, including infants. No person should be excluded from Baptism for reasons of age or mental capacity.” It’s convenient for us that both of our denominations believe in infant baptism, but there is something deeper behind this point. The grace offered in baptism should not be denied to anyone. Every person is equally a person and has equal access to God’s kingdom.

Point four. This is kind of a long one: “God gives the Holy Spirit in Baptism to unite us with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection; to effect new birth, new creation, and newness of life; to offer, give, and assure us of the forgiveness of sins in both cleansing and life-giving aspects; to enable our continual repentance, daily reception of forgiveness, and our growing in grace; to create unity and equality in Christ; to make us participants in the new age initiated by the saving act of God in Jesus Christ; and to place us into the Body of Christ where the benefits of the Holy Spirit are shared within a visible community of faith.” Okay, there’s a lot going in this statement. Whether or not we have a mystical experience during baptism, we believe that the Holy Spirit is active in baptism. We think that something actually happens when we are baptized. It’s not just a remembrance and it’s not an empty ritual. It marks a person’s adoption into God’s family. It serves to graft us into the Body of Christ, to make us members of Christ. In baptism, we are symbolically submerged under the water, we symbolically drown and die to our old selves, and we are then brought back to a new life in Jesus Christ.  Baptism marks us as God’s own and begins our journey of discipleship, a journey that we share with our fellow disciples.

The fifth point: “In Baptism, God enables the Christian to rely upon this gift, promise, and assurance throughout all of life. Such faithful reliance is necessary and sufficient for the reception of the benefits of Baptism.” In other words, the power of baptism lasts our whole lives. It doesn’t wear out. But, in order to receive the full benefit of baptism, we have to rely on it. If we recognize the worth of our baptism, we will receive more benefit from it than if we don’t recognize its worth.

Point six: “Baptism embraces both the prior gift of God’ s grace and the believer’ s life of faith . . . In faith and obedience, the baptized live for the sake of Christ, the church, and the world that Christ loves. In Baptism, the church witnesses to the faith and proclaims to the world the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” In other words, baptism does not just have a momentary effect on our lives. It draws on what has come before it, and it anticipates the future. Baptism is a way of realizing God’s kingdom.

The seventh and final point that the UMC and ELCA declare together is this: “Baptism has practical ramifications for the Christian life. Through the Holy Spirit Baptism gives us our true identity. People struggle with that most central of questions in life: Who am I? The church proclaims boldly in Baptism that we become forgiven children of God and members one of another. In Baptism we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong in life and in death. By welcoming us freely into the Body of Christ, the Sacrament also points to the central commitments in the Christian life, including the mandate of the family of God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Every celebration of Baptism is a reminder of our responsibility to one another. Baptism is connected intrinsically to mission. The Sacrament not only proclaims who we are, it frees us for our primary vocation in life, to love God and neighbor as agents of God’s reign of peace, justice, and abundant life for all.”

And so, as we celebrate our identity in baptism, as we declare our unity in baptism, as we live into our vocation in baptism, let us together, as one church, reaffirm our baptismal covenant.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon! We have a sidewalk in back again. It’s not ready to walk on yet; probably late Thursday.

++           This Sunday is our Annual Meeting at 11:45. Please bring a potluck item for sharing after the meeting.

++           Adult Sunday lesson will begin again this Sunday the 11th at 8am.

++           All women are invited to the WELCA general  meeting this Saturday 10th from 10 to Noon. Light refreshments will be served.

++           Bell Choir meets this afternoon at 4:45pm.

++           Our ELCA “Good Gifts” piggy bank fundraiser raised $206.45 for an animal(s) to give to a family/individuals.

++           Youth group Shebang forms are due this Sunday at the 6:30pm meeting. Shebang is Feb 13-16 in Tigard, OR.  SHEBANG! is an awesome annual retreat for youth grades 6-12, sponsored by the SHEBANG Ministry Team, as a ministry of the Oregon-Idaho United Methodist Church.  It is a fun-filled weekend of skits, learning about God, fun, music, sharing your faith, worshiping God, and more fun!

Blessings!
Jennifer Fowler