Monday, January 28, 2019

Stone Soup: Generosity in Community, Part 4: This Soup Needs Some Witnesses

Through the lens of a folktale, Stone Soup, we explored the ways we share our goodness generously in community SO THAT we are nourished, learning, growing, able to share ourselves with the world.  We’ve talked about our prayers and presence, hopefully you’ve read about service (we missed that one in snow, but it is online), and last week we talked about our call to share our financial gifts. 

Today, we’re wrapping up the exploration by talking about what it means to share our witness with the world.  WITNESS was just added to the list of membership vows in 2008 —if you look in your hymnal at the vows for membership, you’ll notice the word isn’t actually there. That’s why you have an extra bulletin insert today.  WITNESS is a latecomer to how we understand what it means to be a member of Ferndale United Methodist Church, how we understand the ways we collectively commit to growing as disciples ourselves.  WITNESS is a latecomer to how we understand our work to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What is our witness in the world?

Imagine some of what might have been said, reported, posted, shared after the Stone Soup incident:

“After that stranger knocked on my door and I sent him away…I saw my neighbor talking to him out on the street and my neighbor had some potatoes in hand, handing them off to him.  Well, if Bill’s got potatoes to share, I surely have carrots. And I called up Sylvia — I know she’s always got onions... and she wouldn’t want to be left out.”

“That pot bubbled in the center of town. And I talked to neighbors that I hadn’t seen all winter.  It was chilly still in the spring air, but the fire was warm, and the smell was amazing.  I’ve never smelled soup quite like that, surrounded by so many familiar faces and names and stories.”

“The whole time our visitor sliced and diced, he also talked about all the places he’d been and the people he’d met along the way. Clearly, he’d seen a lot of things – good things and hard things.  And he’d met people who took him in and people who chased him out of town.  I’m glad he came to our town.”

“The guy seemed sketchy at first, knocking door to door.  Looking for a handout it seemed.  But he turned out to be really wise. And he had a new idea. At first I thought, we’ve never done that before.  But then he shared the soup with all of us!  That was a great idea!”

“So yesterday, I was stopped on the street by a stranger who needed directions and to use a phone to make an urgent call.  Normally, I would have walked away. It is hard to trust people today.  But then I remembered our stranger and the stone soup.  And so, I let the stranger use my phone and I helped him figure out how to get to his appointment. It was the right thing to do.”

Our witness is our story.  It is the story we tell with our lips. But it is also the story that we tell with each of our actions.  Our story is like our portrait in the world. But our story is just that – one story.  A story about our life.

Part of what is vital about the story of Stone Soup for this conversation is that it is a story with a cast of characters that MUST work together. Each person there walks away from the experience with a slightly different story to tell – one that comes from their experience not just on that day, but the experience of life who have led up to sharing the soup pot with a stranger.  And together, the collective story paints a picture for the world to see.

In the United Methodist church, in our membership vows, we covenant to work together to be Christ’s light in the world.  A key to what we believe here is that our individual salvation doesn’t actually mean much if we are not growing and serving and living with others in community. We make a promise to one another and to God to grow and become, to serve and to share — together. We make a promise to weave our stories together one by one so that a new picture comes into being.

In our text from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he talks about the ways each individual has a role and brings something needed to the picture that is the church — the body of Christ.  Not everyone will be an ear or a foot or a hand or an eye. But together, our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness collectively make up the Body of Christ in the world, the way people experience a living moving God through us.

Part of what our founder John Wesley was doing with his Methodist protest movement back in the 18th century was pushing back against the idea that had become so prominent in the world - that one was saved and that was that.  Going to church was about holding on to your salvation.  Holiness was a private matter. 

No….John Wesley believed that there was no holiness but social holiness.  No religion but social religion.  We do this life together because iron sharpens iron and we are not independent — we are painfully dependent as mere humans in the world.  And it is because of that understanding of how we are all connected in a web that we have been able to reach across continents, respond to victims of natural disaster, cure malaria in many parts of the world.

Of course, in this day and age, it is important to note that our witness – our individual and collective witness — can work against us if we are not careful. If we are not true.  If we are not closely connected to God’s movement in the world.  If our choices and our lifestyle don’t actually reflect our decision with our lips to be disciples.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

These are the opening words in DC Talk’s song, “What if I Stumble.” 

We face a crisis in Christianity today, particularly in the Western world.  Young people are leaving the church in droves because what the learn about in the pews and Sunday School, what they understand a Christian should be, is not what they see when they interact with many who call themselves “Christians” in the world. Young people today see the church as exclusive, inward focused, discriminatory, unrealistic, self-absorbed…

Because the mosaic of our witness in the world is confusing.

When Jesus called together the disciples, he was inviting them into life together.  This strange little band of fishermen and farmers and tradesmen shared life and became known as a collective. These were Jesus’ followers.  They became both an attraction and a threat to the status quo.  They chose simplicity, they chose learning.  They chose love.  And they chose a power higher than the economy or the government.

When Jesus showed up in a synagogue in Nazareth, unrolled the scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah, declaring the prophecy fulfilled as people heard him reading the words, he was declaring a mission for the church to come — to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release of the captive.  This was the work that Jesus was called to do and it is the work his motley band of disciples took on.

And anytime we stray from that call, our witness in the world becomes a little harder to connect to the person Jesus Christ.  Who built a team.  Who sent the Holy Spirit to enliven the team.  SO that their witness, collectively, would represent the body of Christ in the world.

Today, we are joyfully adding to the body of Christ which is Ferndale United Methodist Church.  Today, we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to this call on our lives to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release of the captive — the captive to addiction, the captive to materialism, the captive to self-absorption, the captive to politics.

And so today, at the end of the first month of the year, we’re going to end our sermon time by sharing together a prayer adapted by John Wesley and used as part of a new year tradition called watch night — sort of a way of renewing resolution to discipleship at the beginning of a new year. 

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Wisdom and Mary Poppins...

One summer, I worked as a summer camp counselor at Indiana University's family camp, Shawnee Bluffs.  I was 18 going on 19, a rising sophomore in college who didn't know which end was up in the world  Camp seemed like a good job.

I'd done camp. I'd been a Girl Scout summer camper all my life.  Two of my three sisters had been camp counselors. Why not?  Of course, alumni family camp is a FAR CRY from Girl Scout camp, but another day for that...

I'd spent a lot of time babysitting.  I had spent hours upon days upon weeks tending my nieces and nephews.  I had a life full of songs and stories in my back pocket.  I had games to spare.  I could make just about any down time fun.  Which is helpful when you are a camp counselor.  Because downtime happens between each camp adventure...and the job is to keep everyone moving forward all day long.

It was there at Shawnee Bluffs that I became Mary Poppins.  It started with my fellow counselors who marveled at the repertoire of songs for every occasion.  For hiking, for waiting while everyone got dressed at the pool, for waiting for the van so we could water ski, for keeping little hands and mouths busy while someone set the archery range. Or for when someone stomped on a yellow jacket nest, got stung multiple times and was inconsolable. Or when all the 5 and 6 year olds were freaked out by the inconsolable stung-multiple-times kid. (Again, a story for another day...)

In the midst of the peer pressure of college co-eds who were all working on their co-ed tans and flirting after hours and between sessions, sipping on the dregs of the keg after the camp families settled down for the night, being dubbed Mary Poppins wasn't remotely cool. I mean, Mary Poppins was cool - as in aloof, uptight, sometimes harsh...right?

At the same time, there was something about the identity that was privately comfortable.

Mary Poppins was the first movie I remember seeing in the movie theater.  The Lans, in Lansing, is listed as a "cinema treasure" now.  A whole role of Sweet Tarts or Spree was only $.25 (it says something that my keyboard doesn't even have a cents sign, right?).  The theater was always dark and cool...I'm pretty sure I went to a matinee.  With a sister. Or maybe my mom.

I also read the original books by PL Travers...four of them, a set.  In fabric board binding, each a slightly different muted "used book" color.  Stitched binding sections, thick paper pages.  I read them again and again, because that was how I consumed books.  By the time I was 8 I understood that the Disney movie version was a stitched together version of something from many if not all of the books. 

Mary Poppins had practical magic.  
She made hard things palatable.  
She made mysterious things real.
She believed the impossible was possible with the right attitude.  
She didn't always know the whole path, but she knew the next step.

During a week of retreat for our anniversary, Matt and I set aside a rainy afternoon to see Mary Poppins Returns...a Disney refashioning of the cast of iconic characters.  It is a good story in classic Disney writing style.  They work hard to give a nod to the work of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. There is the iconic mix of live action and animation.  But this is not a movie review.

I was stunned by how I felt about watching the character Mary Poppins return.  Forty years later, I was still breathless at the idea of her emerging through the clouds, umbrella aloft.  I might have shed a tear.

You see, Mary Poppins is still herself.  And my forty years of life experience has a new understanding of the complexity of the role she played in the fiction written around her.

Mary Poppins embodies wisdom.

And in the midst of the wild ups and downs of life, I have come to appreciate the role that wisdom plays in seeing the world unfold and responding well.  As a student of theology, I have respect for the role of wisdom in so many faith traditions.  But mostly, I know that wisdom has come with experiences hard and joyful, expected and shocking.  Good things happen and bad things happen and God goes on and on. And wisdom accumulates - like wrinkles and grey hair, laugh lines and fairy sparkles - wisdom builds as life marches on.  So of course in her return, Mary Poppins was bringing even more wisdom with her.

In some ways, just as I wanted to embrace the label at 19, I want to embrace the label at 49. I want to be Mary Poppins. Because I believe her inner voice is at the root of my mom's desire to "keep them safe, help them grow strong, surround them with good people, help them find joy."  I believe her inner voice is the underpinning of my joy in calling folks Beloved of God.  I believe her inner voice keeps me showing up in hard things with people who need to see love in action.

Spoiler alert.  

That tuppence safely invested in the bank so many years ago has compounded and grown.

If you invest your tuppence
Wisely in the bank
Safe and sound
Soon that tuppence,
Safely invested in the bank,

Will compound...

Another thing compounds. Wisdom compounds.  More valuable than gold.

How much better to get wisdom than gold!
    To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. 
(Proverbs 16:16, NRSV)

Here's to the return...

Monday, January 21, 2019

Stone Soup: Generosity in Community Part 3 - This Soup Needs Some Gifts

2 Corinthians 9: 8 – 12
John 2: 1 – 11

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

That question always stops me in my tracks…

Because I am often not aware of being “afraid.” I walk around pretty comfortably in the world.

And so…if the question stops me in my tracks, if it makes me wonder, then I must really be afraid of some things.

In the story of Stone Soup, when a stranger knocks on the door asking for food, person after person turns him away.  We know that eventually, everyone shows up to share something for the pot of stone soup, so we know everyone had some food in their house that they could share, right?

I wonder what they were afraid of?
Afraid of not having enough for the next week.
Afraid of letting a stranger into their homes, their lives.
Afraid of being taken advantage of…

I wonder what they would do if they weren’t afraid?

I wonder, without fear, if the story might have taken other turns?  What if, at the very first house the stranger visited, he was invited in, given a hot meal, offered a shower and a warm bed and conversation?  What if around the table that night there was a conversation with the stranger about others he knew who were in transition of some sort? Others he knew who might wander through the town in days to come…

What if he was introduced to another neighbor who was looking for a dedicated worker for some projects?

And what if that stranger happened to have great skills in gardening? Or carpentry? Or meteorology? Or accounting?  Or personal finance?

And offered to help the community develop a garden to provide fresh produce and teach about the earth and how things grow? Or to build a community center with a playground for young families? Or to build a weather station that served the local first responders? Or offered to look at the town budget to find savings SO THAT different programs might be offered in the schools. Or offered to teach personal finance so that people could reduce their debt, have more secure financial lives.

I know it is fantasy. 

But what if? 
What would happen if we weren’t afraid?

Today it seems important to share a little bit of myself that is part of my identity as a pastor.

When I left college, I launched myself headlong into learning everything I could about fundraising.  While in college, I had worked for the Indiana University Alumni Association — hosting all the cool pre-game events, organizing the tournament tours during March Madness (this was back in the days of Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers as a basketball powerhouse), setting up a network of statewide leaders for legislative action on appropriations for the university.  I loved the glitz and glamour of that work in higher education and I wanted to be a part of that.

But my next job in my unfolding fundraising career was for a the co-cathedral of the archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The building was undergoing a $9 million renovation and they were in the midst of a $15 million campaign.  I did research on prospects and about once every two weeks, I got to sit in meetings with the Rector – Fr. Michael O’Connell, who had a vision for how this church might not just be an iconic building, but might also be a hub of care and support for single moms who were trying to get on the right track attending the community college a few blocks away and about how the building might become a center for the arts so that everyone could have access to beautiful music and dance and drama no matter their financial situation.

Fr. O’Connell knew that generous people would want to change the future for others…making life richer, safer, peaceful, better. His chosen scripture for this vision was the Jeremiah 29 text that has been our meditation for the past two Sundays.  Seek the well-being of the city in which you find yourself…for in its well-being, you will find your own. 

Then I moved back to Indiana and took a job with a local chapter of The Arc, specifically Stone Belt Arc.  Stone Belt operated 12 group homes and a workshop, offered job coaching and community job support for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  My mentor there was Elbert Johns, a former United Methodist Elder who had fallen in love with the beauty and passion of people with disabilities. He left the church and instead ran one of the largest service providing non-profits in Indiana.  Mine was the first fundraising job they’d ever created. With cuts in federal support, Elbert and his team knew that generous people would share their work and share financial gifts. Stone Belt’s mission is seared on my heart even 20 years later:

We believe in the uniqueness, worth and right to self-determination of every individual.  Therefore, it is our mission, in partnership with the community, to prepare, empower and support those with developmental disabilities and their families to participate fully in the life of the community.

My fundraising career, which I understand now as ministry, began because I was attracted to the glitz and the glamour, the people I would rub elbows with.  It led me to a profound understanding of the value of all lives, and a great joy and pride in helping others to find out how amazing it is to help people, how amazing it is to dream big dreams and make big things happen.  It makes people feel good to know they are making a difference.  And people making a difference do just that – they change the world for others. 

So that is all just preface to our conversation today.  It seems important that you know I’ve done this fundraising work over 25 years…and that in that time, I’ve grown to understand some things very deeply. 

Specifically, I’ve grown to understand that visions drive amazing changes for the better. Visions can cast out fear…they create a path or a picture, where before there was something unknown – a formless void. Visions are a road map. 

I’ve learned that people are eager to support meaningful, life-changing, daring visions.  When people with vision ask, people respond with generosity.  The end result of this relationship between vision and financial generosity is a better world. 

And truthfully, people who give time and money are happier, more satisfied, healthier (trust me - research supports this claim).

So let’s talk about stone soup, and the call on our lives to be disciples, and the commitments we make along the way.

In the month of January, through the story of stone soup, we are exploring the commitments we make to membership in the United Methodist church.  But I want to talk less today about being a member – because sometimes that feels more like a club of some sort – a place where some are in and some are not  -  and instead talk more about being a disciple of Jesus. 

Discipleship is a commitment we make.  That commitment can be a point in time, but really, it is a commitment that we revisit every single day. 

Today, will I follow Jesus?  What about the next day? What about in this moment?  What about in this particular choice, life decision? Is my commitment made plain to others around me by the choice I am making at each turn.

The word disciple can be translated to mean “student,” or one who follows a particular teacher, or one who receives a way of thinking and shares it intentionally with others, representing the original teacher.

And so we are called to be followers of a way, a way that Jesus lived and taught.  And by following that way, we become more like Jesus, closer to God, we bring the Kingdom of God just a little closer to the earth.  In living in that way, we show others how that way might be for them.

And today, as one of the vows we make to this discipleship journey, we’re talking about our gifts – and by the word “gifts,” our vows specifically mean our financial generosity. 

It can be uncomfortable to talk about money in church. 

I’ve heard several of you talk about your discomfort.  I’ve heard that we’ve not talked about money in this sanctuary for some time.

Let’s change that.  We need to not be afraid of conversations about money. When we have healthy attitudes and conversations, money is a resource – like our building, like the skill sets we each have, like the nudges we get from the Holy Spirit.  Money is a resource that helps us take a vision and make it happen in the world.

Often, when someone begins a conversation about money, we respond from a place of defensiveness and scarcity. Sometimes we begin by assuming someone is trying to get something from us, and when they do, we will have less of our money. 

Often, when someone begins a conversation about money, we react a little bit like the folks in the town react to the stranger knocking on their door looking for food…I don’t have anything to give you.  I barely have enough for myself.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
What would we do if we weren’t afraid?

Our gospel lesson today is Jesus’ first miracle.  At a wedding in Cana, his mother looks him in the eye and basically says, it’s time.  You’ve got the power to make something happen here.  And Jesus turns water into wine for the wedding guests. Not just any wine, either.  The servant who is monitoring the service notes that this is the best wine.  God is a God of abundance and doesn’t mess with any sub-par vintage.

I wonder if Jesus had doubts  about what his mom was asking him to do?  I guess he could have refused.  Mom, I just can’t.  But he didn’t. And I suspect Mary wouldn’t let him, either.

And in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, he remind them:

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  As it is written,

“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
    his righteousness endures forever.”
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

Here’s what I believe…. Actually, here is what I know deep in my soul:

We are living in times that feel scary to a lot of people.  But God is still moving and working, mercy and justice and love matter more and more, and the world depends on us – on our generous spirits, on our faith in a God of abundance.

I also know that gratitude begets a spirit of “enough.” And somehow a spirit enough helps us to be generous.  And when we are generous, we actually feel better, more optimistic, we feel more capable. 

My doctoral work is focused on the ways that generous people understand their generosity.  I am currently reading The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose by Hilary Davidson and Christian Smith, sociologists from Notre Dame.  Here’s what has my attention as I consider how we are called to share our gifts on this discipleship journey:

…there is more than one way to be impoverished.  Some people live in poverty because they do not have the income to buy adequate food, shelter, clothes, and medicine.  But some people who have a lot of money can live in a different kind of poverty.  Theirs is a poverty of anxiety, of imagined scarcity, of vulnerability, of dissatisfaction.  Such people suffer an impoverishment, amid real abundance, of believing that they do not have enough, that what they have may be lost, that the unknowns of the future are threatening.  Such people find it hard to relax, to celebrate, to truly enjoy, to be thankful, to share.  How can one enjoy when one is fundamentally worried? (Davidson & Smith, 74)

My prayer is that we can encourage one another
…to not be afraid
…to shape a compelling vision of how this small congregation can change the world right around us
…to invite others into our sense of abundance
…to give our gifts freely because our God isn’t about cheap wine.

What will you do when you are not afraid?
What will we do when we are not afraid?