Sunday, August 11, 2019

Becoming Faith-full: reflections on Faith that has been...



In the midst of many things, my attention was caught on Friday by a headline about a 104 year old survivor of the Auschwitz death camps who gathered at the wailing wall to celebrate her birthday by reciting traditional prayers with more than 400 descendants.  Let that sink in…one survivor and 400 descendants.  This is an image of the family gathered. 

What a beautiful testament to faith.  A woman who watched her parents hauled off to the gas chamber, a woman who lived through the horror of day-to-day survival in the death camps, also lived through the rigors of life after Auschwitz to have four children and raise that family, who raised families, who raised families, who have raised families. 

An for her 104th birthday, they gathered…all of them.  To pray. And to celebrate.

Thanks be to God.

I wonder how many times in the course of her life she was exasperated with her circumstances.  I wonder how many times she looked up at the sky and said, “why God?” or “How, God?”  or “Are you really there, God?”

But at 104, she was surrounded by the exponential growth of her family.  Gathered in an act of worship and faith.  Evidence of things hoped for…the faith in the unseen revealed slowly, but significantly over time.

We will spend the next three weeks exploring faith…a concept unpacked in the Letter to the Hebrews.

This seems important and timely because we are, after all, named Faith.  I understand it is a named selected unanimously, even if the story of its recommendation was as simple as, I once attended a church named Faith and I liked it…”  Somewhere, that word resonated with those gathered.  They claimed it.  They claimed the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Today we stand at a threshold between what was and what will be. So our exploration of FAITH as it is unpacked for us in the Letter to the Hebrews will be rooted in the mystery of faith as we speak that mystery at the communion table…Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. 

Let me explain.  As Christians we hold a common believe that Jesus was, is and will be.  We can read and learn about the Jesus that was.  My prayer is that each of us experience the Jesus that is.  And we imagine with faith and HOPE the Jesus that will be.

What does that mean for us as a community?  Can we explore what Faith (this church) was, what Faith is here and now and what Faith will be?  Can we look at our past experiences, can we live deeply into our present experience and look forward WITH HOPE to what Faith UMC will be? And can all of that be rooted in an understanding that FAITH is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  Can we hope and trust in what we cannot currently see?

The title given the “Letter to the Hebrews” is misleading, because it is NOT really a letter.  It is instead a sermon – a very long sermon that covers a lot of ground, one topic at a time, weaving together a series of important concepts for a newly formed faith community living in the wake of Jesus’ life…likely written before any of the gospels.  And so part of the purpose of all of the things we know as “epistles” is that these writings record the work of leaders and followers working out what is meant by following Jesus the Messiah. What did it mean that Jesus died? that he was resurrected, that he was the son of God, that he had not yet returned. 

And so much of this work is taking what these communities already knew – in the case of unpacking the word “faith,” it was important to recall the story of Abram waiting on God’s promise of a child who would carry forward his family line.

In the passage read from Genesis as our first reading, we hear Abram’s frustration that God’s promise has not yet been fulfilled.  This is a theme throughout Abram’s story – his is story about having to wait for what God has promised to come true.  His is a story of learning NOT to take matters into your own hands.   His is a story of living with moments of failed faith – failure to have faith in what he cannot yet see…

We all live stories of faith – stories of waiting for what God will do.  We here at Faith United Methodist Church have been living the story for more than 50 years now…and compared to Abram’s wait, that feels like a drop in the bucket.

Can we, in this season, rest in our faith – rest in the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

If you have been here very long, of course you know the history. And if not, perhaps you and I can learn this history together!  

Perhaps you know that in the midst of a building boom in Montgomery County, conference leaders approached the builders of this neighborhood to talk about making sure there was a Methodist Church in the midst of the expected growth.  Because in the mid-60s Methodist churches were booming, riding the wave of the baby boom bubble made a lot of sense. 

The Methodist Church was strong and growing throughout the United States.  Baby boomers had boomed and were still booming – and they were buying houses, settling in for block parties, creating lifelong neighborhood bonds.  And this spot right here, nestled between new pockets of suburbia was the PERFECT place for a Methodist church.

Having spent time now with many of our “seasoned” members, I know that there are still founding members in our midst.  There are people who came here as children in that special season and have grown up here and raised families here.

What a testament to faithfulness over many years. 

Let’s be clear that there were challenges. 
There was the challenge of having a building to meet the growth of the community.  There was the challenge of having the money to meet the growth of the community.  There was the challenge of helping people grow in their faith so that they would support the community with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. 
There were pastors coming and going.

There was the audacious vision of having a bus to transport the growing youth group and other groups to events.

There was the audacious vision of a new organ.

There was the audacious vision that 50% of tithes and offerings would be given away. 

There was the audacious vision that everyone would be in a small group.

Some of these visions were achieved. Others were aspirational.  All of them fueled a commitment to being a vibrant presence in this part of Rockville….a vibrant presence that was about the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Those earliest members were gazing at a sky full of stars, hearing a promise of what their descendants would be and would do…

Our challenge, in changing times and changing circumstances is to keep our eye on that sky full of stars.  Because while things have changed since the heydays of the mid-70s, the promise is still there.  It may not be shaped exactly the same way.  The way things were is NOT the way things will be.  We cannot expect our future to look like our past because the world is different and changing oh-so-rapidly.

But…in my prayers, I hear God’s promise still
In our conversations, I hear your DEEP longing.
Deep longing for fruitfulness. 
Deep longing for devotion. 
Deep longing for abundance.
Deep longing to see what God has yet to do.
Because God will do.

Faith has been fruitful.  Faith has been devoted. Faith has had enough.
Perhaps you have sung the Gloria Patri in this congregation over the years:
As it was in the beginning, is now and every shall be…world without end…amen.

This is the mystery of faith – God was, God is, God will be and there is not one thing we can actually do about it except play our role.

This prayers was published at RevGalBlogPals, on Friday, August 9, 2019.  As I think about this season we are in, at the threshold between what was and what will be, as we rest in the right now, this prayer speaks to me...and louder perhaps because it is written by a neighbor of ours.  Perhaps you've heard about the decision by Twinbrook Baptist to sell their building to another congregation, and to generously give away their money as investment in programs for those with great need.  (Read more about this HERE.)

A prayer by
Rev. Deborah Vaughn, Assistant Minister – Twinbrook Baptist Church, Rockville

Holy One,
The way ahead seems lonely at times, and I fear the unknown…

But You sing,
I am with you, I am with you always. I will not leave you abandoned.

The silence is awkward at times, and I worry I am missing something…

But you whisper,
I am calling, I am calling to you in this wilderness. I will make your paths straight.

I am impatient at times as I peer ahead to see what is just over the hill, just out of sight, wanting the future NOW…

And you say,
I AM, I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.

And I know that I know that you ARE, you are with me.
Thank you. Blessed be.
Amen.

Amen.  Amen. Amen.

Sources:  The New Interpreter's Bible Volume XII, The Letter to the Hebrews commentary by Fred B. Craddock; Working Preacher (workingpreacher.org), August 11, 2019 Commentary on Hebrews by Mary Foskett.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

You belong here...or a sermon reimagined as "Quit bickering!"

Texts:

I am reading more than the bulletin indicates today…because it matters.

Colossians 3:1-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

This is the word of God for the people of God.
 Thanks be to God.

PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION…

I am guessing that you heard some media coverage of the Democratic debates this week. Even if you didn’t actually witness them, there was so much news coverage about them that it was very, very hard to avoid.

I was struck, the morning after the second debate, by the tenor of the conversation about how the media framed questions, bating candidates into arguments.

Now…I confess that I did not participate in competitive debate as a student.  I have never been formally trained in skills of debating, but I do know that part of the reason I avoid watching political debates to this day is that I find debaters get a wee bit uncivil as they try to prove themselves right, most often by proving another to be wrong.

As I wrestled with the epistles text this week, it occurred to me that part of what is good news about this advice to the emerging church at Colossae is that the author, either Paul or someone writing as if they were Paul, is shutting down a debate. Not so much by choosing a side, but by declaring the argument unnecessary. And in fact, he’s giving instruction about how to fill the time, how to live this life, how to build community because the community does not need to be torn apart by debate.

Let’s start by remembering some things about the Epistles:

The earliest churches were following Jesus who was a teacher in the prophetic tradition.  His teaching focused on critique of structures of power in present day Galilee and the surrounding areas.  In the hard circumstances of being oppressed by the Roman Empire, the teachings that this man offered in his lifetime were a breath of fresh air.  He was taking ancient messages about economic justice and bringing them to life amidst the turmoil of people’s lived lives.  In the midst of hard societal standards about who would climb the economic ladder, who could lead politically, who was worthy of a warm dry place to live and who owed what to the Roman rulers, Jesus taught about justice and compassion and the “Kingdom of God” where the last were first. He was reminding people that God’s power was greater than any political power in the day – that allegiance to greater causes of goodness, love and justice were greater than allegiance to Caesar.

And so, after Jesus died, even when news spread about his resurrection, small communities of followers were still learning these teachings from his apostles. And while they were learning, they were trying to structure communities where love and possessions were shared equally, where justice reigned, where mercy and compassion flowed…because that was very different from the place and time they were all living in.

And it was always the case that there were “false teachers” clamoring for attention and a share of the market.  They were asserting a need to follow specific rules while the apostles and their followers were working hard to understand what it meant that Jesus died, was resurrected, appeared to them and was ascended.

That kind of feels familiar to me…wanting to follow this teacher who has suggested the last will be first, and that the meek are blessed.  And in the midst of all that, finding yourself in a society struggling mightily with homelessness, income disparity, gun violence, addiction…a society trying to figure out whether it can be a place where all thrive or whether it might just be the wild kingdom where survival of the fittest is the law of the land. And then add a layer of needing to discern true teaching from false teaching…you really must follow this rule and that rule.

How is it that the way we live our lives SO THAT love and goodness reign?

In the early church, there is a lot of arguing going on about who is in and who is out.  We’ve talked about this some already – who eats what, who is circumcised.  The early church was going through the hard work of becoming something new – something that had never before existed.  And there were people who were Jewish but following the apostles who taught about Jesus, the Messiah.  And there were gentiles who had never been Jewish like Jesus was, but were still amazed by what he had done and taught. 

The writer of Colossians reminds the reader that because Christ lived and died for them, because through baptism they have died to themselves and risen with Christ, they should not worry about the things of “this world.”  Rather, they should set their minds above.

One of the things I love about this passage is the way the author is reminding the community that they are already living in Christ…anything they do at this point is not to make up for what they might have done in the past. 

And let me introduce you to one of those fun and slightly geeky translational controversies that can make this passage even more powerful…

In the version you heard, the first verse begins “So IF you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…”  It is translated as an if  / then formula.  If you have been raised with Christ THEN you should live this way. 

But there is a translation, reflected in the New International Version in which the greek rendered “IF” in our version is rendered  as “SINCE” instead.  SINCE you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. 

What a difference a word can make.  The counsel on how to live is not a conditional statement.  It is instead including everyone who hears and receives the message. The call is NOT to change what you are doing SO THAT you can be part of this promised salvation…instead the challenge is to receive the grace that is already yours!!  And that translation of “SINCE” matches the rest of the conditions of the scripture. 

“You have died, and your life is hidden in Christ.”
“You have stripped off your old self.”
“Indeed you were called in the one body.”

We who gather in the hearing of this word are NOT called to live as if we are running after our salvation, and I would recommend we are NOT called to decide WHO ELSE is saved and included and belongs.  Instead, we are to grasp this new life we have in Christ and:
set our minds on things above
live our lives as one hidden in the messiah God
strip off dysfunctional or destructive practices
clothe ourselves in the identity of the Messiah
and live as a community held in love.

A five part formula for living in Christian community. A five part way of being.  A five part way of living into our call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God…

while not bogging down in debate. And not taking it upon ourselves to determine who is in and who is out.

Please hear me say that we MUST be in conversation with one another.  But we have already been saved.  Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  That proves God’s love toward us…

We are the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, broken and given for the whole world.

We forget sometimes that Easter is not just a day…we are Easter people.  We are redeemed and made whole. That work is done. It is not ours to do. It is not ours to do to or FOR others.  Our work is to be the living presence of love in the world.

You belong here.  There is no question about that.  And so does everyone else.  And the work is to live as people who have really embraced that gift of grace.

The work is already finished. Christ has opened paradise. 

What if we lived as if it were so – as if our call is to live out of the joy and thanksgiving and sheer love of that act?

May it be so.

Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Being with the Holy



 Our texts today both feature guests dropping by for a visit.

Guests who have something to say to their hosts.

Guests with a message.  And a message that has meaning on multiple levels.  A message that causes pause for those receiving them.

In our story from Genesis, Abraham and Sarah have lived so many years with the Lord’s promise of a son.  The text read today comes right after God affirms his covenant promise to make Abraham the ancestor of many nations, directing him to circumcise all in his house as a sign of this promise, and renaming both Abraham and Sarah. 

At the Oaks of Mamre, three unknown guests arrive.  This placeis already a place marked as special by Abram earlier – it is the place where Abram parted Lots company and receives the Lord’s promise of a specific area of land for his ancestors – those he still does not have.  At that parting, Abram built an altar to the Lord.  Now he’s back…

I wonder if Abraham knew the moment he saw three strangers approach that something big was about to happen. He greets them with enthusiastic and abundant hospitality.  Looking at the translation of what is described, while Abraham talks about offering a “little bread,” the three measures indicated would have made A LOT of bread in reality.  And a full fatted calf was also a mark of extravagance.  Imagine as these men washed their travel weary feet how the smells of a hot meal (one that would take HOURS to prepare) must have wafted around them.

Then we have a funny set of parallel dialogues.  The text indicates that it is the visitors who first inquire about Sarah’s whereabouts.  Of course she is busy preparing a LOT of bread and meat, her specific role in that society.  One of the visitors goes on to say to Abraham that Sarah will bear a son within a year’s time.  Sarah overhears and laughs, asking to herself if, at her advanced age she might actually enjoy some pleasure in her life.  We get to chuckle here too…this is not a comment first about childbearing – it is a comment about physical pleasure. (The Bible is full of wit and earthiness at times – this is one of those times!)

The text indicates that now, rather than a conversation directly with the visitors, Yahweh (the LORD) responds to Sarah’s laughter by speaking to Abraham – why did Sarah laugh?  Is anything too wonderful for Yahweh? 

And Sarah again overhears what is said to Abraham, and denies her laughter.  At which point, Yahweh speaks directly to her – yes, my dear, you did laugh.

I wonder if you have had the experience of hearing something from another person…but the message that they speak is one that you are sure comes from a higher place?  Maybe the person speaking to you is not even aware of the weight, importance or impact of what it is that they are saying?

Hold onto that for a moment.  And let’s look at this conversation between Jesus and Martha. 

Oftentimes this story is interpreted as a comparison between two archetypes – the contemplative versus the “do-er,” and it is generally oversimplified, as if there is one better way to be.  Let’s look at it more closely and more richly than that.

Jesus has stopped by a home where he knows he is welcome.  There, he and his disciples will teach and they will also be refreshed, receiving a meal and a place to clean up and rest.  That hospitality is necessary to their ongoing ministry of teaching. It supports their well-being in really tangible ways.

This story unveils in Luke’s gospel a kind of ministry that is woven throughout Luke and Acts, both written by the same author.  This is the ministry of the diakoneo, a word that often refers to table service or the necessary support work offered in the context of community – you know making sure that meals are prepared, served, cleaned up after. Think about those who help with the coffee hour or meals for those who mourn after a funeral.  As I thought about it, I thought about Trish Clark bringing me dinner one night when she and I met and then had another meeting immediately afterward – I needed to eat and she offered nourishment so that we could have all of the conversation that was needed.

In light of the way both Jesus and the disciples depend on and value this kind of support as they travel where their ministry takes them, we cannot read this story about Jesus’ conversation with Martha as a blanket condemnation of her work – rather a reminder that there is both work and there is listening to hear and to learn and to be in relationship.  Reading across Luke and Acts, we have to read this particular story as one that values BOTH roles, and a moment in which Jesus gently chides Martha for being too focused on just one. He reminds her that relationship is vital.  While Martha is focused on the role her society would have placed her in – that of attending to the physical needs of her guests, Jesus invited her to remember that he seeks to be in relationship with her – to talk with her, to teach her.

So…holding these two stories together this week, we could go about five different directions.  Here’s what I want us to focus on.

There are messengers who bring us a word that is vital to how we live into God’s expectation and call for our lives. Are we listening for that?

This past week, I spent five nights at church camp with 27 girls aged 11 – 15. Now…I’ve been a Girl Scout leader and a mission trip chaperone, and a supervisor to many.  I know how to plan and run a program.  I know how to adjust schedules when the weather makes the existing plan unsafe.  I know how to follow rules about working safely with children, about taking all the right steps when someone is sick or injured. 

And all of that is VITAL.

But I was also aware this week of the thin space of staying open to what God was saying in and through the stories and interactions with these girls. Camp is a bit of a bubble, a place where relationships are forged quickly because of an incredible amount of time spent in very close quarters. Because of sharing experiences of lots of new challenges, like overcoming your fear of heights to scale a climbing wall or swing 50 feet in the air.  Because of tolerating the weather and the camp food and a small number of showers and toilets for 31 females in a lodge.  You get close to one another in a different way VERY QUICKLY.

Our young people today are facing pressures and stressors that we didn’t face. They live in a world of fast news, of peer pressure and image constantly bombarded by social media, of conversations that happen in text messages more than they happen face to face.  They are dealing with hard things…the trauma of drugs, suicide, depression, anxiety…  I know that society offers generalizations about adolescent girls and their drama.  But I also know that the life they are living is harder than the life I lived at their age.

I found this week that God was speaking to me through these girls.  Reminding me of the role we have as a community of faith to be in relationship in meaningful ways – not just logistical support, but building the kinds of relationships that are trustworthy and true, the kinds of relationships where we hear and are heard, we teach and we learn, we give and receive love and compassion.  One of our covenant rules as a group was that we listened for understanding.  Not listening to know what our answer would be.  Not listening to craft the best response.  But really listening to hear what was being expressed.

Because often that is where we hear the voice of God.  In those speaking to us.

In just a few weeks, we at Faith will welcome hundreds of school kids with their families.  These are families that are unhoused, underhoused, have difficulty making ends meet.  And we’ll make backpacks and school supplies available.  And we’ll offer food and fund and activities.  And I hope we’ll be listening closely for the ways God is calling us to learn from our guests…calling us to stop serving in moments that present themselves so that we can hear hope and joy and pain and need as it is expressed.

In months to come, as we explore our future in the United Methodist Church, we’ll invite guests to join us to share their story and their experience and their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.  And I deeply suspect that if we are listening with our hearts, we will hear God speaking into our next faithful steps. 

I suspect that every day, we have an encounter with someone, an encounter we might think of as a transaction – but if we are prepared, listening, alert – God might be speaking a new thing into our lives.

We are bombarded by thousands of messages each day – the news, the social media, advertising.  But we also receive messengers daily.  Those who bear news that matters to how we live our lives.  My prayer is that this week, I am watching for the Holy.  The people who bear the image of the triune God, who have something to say that I must hear, digest, reflect upon, live into.  And that our hospitality extends to deep listening, hearing, understanding.

Let’s do that together.

Amen.


Sources:
Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, exegetical commentary on Luke 10: 38 – 42 by Matthew L. Skinner. 
Commentary on Genesis 18: 1 – 15; 21: 1 – 7, accessed at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2554, by Roger Nam.