Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Visit from Grace (Luke 1:39-56)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! 47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. 48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

We are used to hearing the parental stories of Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the weeks leading up to Christmas as we prepare for the birth of Jesus.  The story we’ve read today, however, comes around twice a year in the Christian calendar.  That’s worth paying attention to!

If you use December 25 as your birth date of Jesus, and then back up the other events according to the timeline in the story, you end up with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth taking place right about this time of year. It’s a beautiful story of gracious hospitality and persistent hope, and it points us to the promise of God’s preferred future.  May we pray.

We were barely back from our honeymoon when the questions started, “So, when are you two going to have some kids?”  It’s always baffled me that people are so comfortable asking such a personal question about someone else’s reproductive practices.

Last week, we were down at the beach for a couple days for a wedding Ashley was doing.  We were waiting for the elevator in the hotel, when a little boy of about four looked at us and said, “Do you have kids?”  And I said no, to which he replied, “Why not?” and I was thinking, “Because of Exhibit ‘A’ talking to me right now!” but his Mom said, “Because maybe they actually want to enjoy themselves when they come to the beach!”

I don’t ask people about their plans for children.  For one, I figure that’s their story to tell, and when they are ready to tell it, they will.  For another thing, I have come to realize what a deeply personal and sometimes painful topic that can be for folks.  I think of those I know who desperately want to be parents, but for some reason can’t be.  I think of those who have made an intentional decision not to have children.  I think of couples where one partner desperately wants children and the other doesn’t, and it’s a source of constant fighting between the two.  I think of those who are struggling with issues too painful, complex and difficult to talk about.  I think of those who waited for years to adopt a child, only to have the whole thing unravel at the last minute.

Kids, and the issues around having them, can be complicated and difficult, to say the least.  If anyone knew that, it was the two women we’ve met in today’s Scripture reading: Mary and Elizabeth.

Mary, a young girl between the ages of 12 and 15, from a backwater village in the middle of nowhere, handed off in an arranged engagement to a man twice her age, and now, she was pregnant.

Elizabeth, an old woman, unable to have children, which, in her day was embarrassing.  She had endured a lifetime of whispers, speculation, hurtful comments and advice and questions of a rather personal nature.  Now, she too, is mysteriously with child.

They are an odd pair to have chosen to be the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus. One seemed too old to have anything left to give to God. The other too young, to be wise enough or mature enough to offer anything of value to God.  One well past her prime, the other with plenty of living and learning left to do.

However, God doesn’t see as we do. In this story, God reveals again that God is on the move irrespective of age, gender, or status. God is always showing up in the most unlikely and ordinary of people, people like Elizabeth who seemed to be left out of “normal life” (whatever that means-married with 2.2 kids with a 2 car garage and a midsize SUV or Minivan...) Certainly she was too old to be a soccer mom now! 

At the other end of the spectrum, God is always surprising us by choosing people like Mary, who at the age of 12-15, was chosen to be entrusted with the most important work God has ever asked anyone to do-bear the incarnation, bear God for the world! A 12-15 year old! You know your teenager, you barely trust them with a car.

What does God see in both the old and the young that we might miss? Where we look for something great to come from people in power, or people with fame and influence, or only men, or only women, or only up-and-coming-20 somethings who can navigate this digital age, or only 50 somethings who have had enough life experience to be wise but are young enough to still have some energy...they’re the ones who can be trusted to do something great! We have all these caveats about who can do something great.

God doesn’t have these same hang ups. What we measure as greatness, God declares foolishness.  What we elevate, God knocks down a peg.  God is recklessly indiscriminate, appearing to and working through all kinds of people: slave, free, young, old, refugees, foreigners, non-religious folks, widows, the divorced, women, men, fisherman and lawyers. What do they all have in common that allow them to do something great for God?

Each of them willingly say “yes” to partnering with God to change the world.

In the Old Testament, Abraham says “yes” to partnering with God to be a blessing to all nations and goes to a new country/new land. Moses, at the burning bush, says “yes” to partnering with God to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Deborah says “yes” to partnering with God to be a righteous judge over the people. Jonah finally relents and says “yes” to proclaim repentance to his enemies in Ninevah, saving their lives. Isaiah says “yes” in worship to being God’s prophet proclaiming God’s longing for repentance and new life in Israel. Esther says “yes” to partner with God, using her status and position as Queen to help save God’s people.

This narrative continues in the New Testament. Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph...later Matthew the tax collector, Peter, James, and John the fishermen...Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus...all very different people...but the one thing they have in common...they all say “yes” to partnering with God by becoming disciples of Jesus.

This is what all the major players in scripture have in common – they say “yes” to God.

How about you?  When your life is said and done, as someone is writing the epitaph on your tombstone, your obituary for the paper, the eulogy for your funeral – how do you want to be remembered, as one who said, “Yes” to God, or as one who said, “No, thanks”?

Mary and Elizabeth were two people who said, “yes” to God.  Theirs is a beautiful story of hospitality and grace lived in the midst of difficult and threatening times.  It happens sometimes that hard times or a hard life can harden a person’s heart.  They become ill-tempered, angry, and short.  We excuse it easily enough, knowingly saying, “That’s just their way,” or “You’ll have to excuse so-and-so, but they’ve had a hard life,” or “Nobody ever taught them any better than that.”

What I love about Mary and Elizabeth is that they didn’t let a hard life or hard circumstances harden their hearts.  They were open, flexible, pliable to the new thing God was literally doing within them.  In an unkind and difficult world, they were hospitable and gracious, open to each other, and open to God.

Both women have an unshakable faith in God’s ability to do extraordinary things, and an openness that God would do those things through them.   Mary wasn’t too young.  Elizabeth wasn’t too old.  The only thing to say “no” to is our excuses.

Like Mary and Elizabeth, be a person who says, “yes” to God.  Will you do that?  Yes to the presence of God? Yes to God within you?  Yes to God working through you?  Yes to God changing you and changing the world through you?

Say yes, and open yourself up to visit from grace in your own life.  May something jump for joy within you, may a new song be on your lips, and may you find yourself pregnant with the hopeful promise of God’s preferred future.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Praying with Wildfire (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Today, we are celebrating Pentecost.  Pentecost is the conclusion of the great Easter season, and it occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday.  Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church, because on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the followers of Jesus, and the Church began.  Every year, the Church continues to celebrate Pentecost, and pray for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us, just as it was on the first followers of Jesus.

A young man visited a prominent church in his town.  Let’s just say he didn’t fit in.  He was “different” than the majority of people who attended that church.  After worship, he greeted the pastor on his way back outside, and said, “Pastor, I really enjoyed worship today.  I think I’d like to join this church!”   The pastor was visibly agitated by this – anyone could see that this young man was “different,” and the pastor didn’t need the headache of what people might say if someone like this young man joined the church.  But, trying to be diplomatic and pastoral, he said, “Well, joining a church is very serious business.  Why don’t you go home this week and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance about this very important decision?”

The young man walked away, and the pastor was surprised to see him sitting in the congregation the next week.  As he left worship, the pastor said, “Did you pray about what we talked about last week?”  The young man said, “I sure did, and I’ve decided not to join your church.”  The pastor was visually relieved that this undesirable person would not join his church.  The young man continued, “I did what you said, and the Holy Spirit told me I shouldn’t bother; she’s been trying to get into this church for the last ten years!”

I’ve known plenty of folks who speculate about whether or not the Holy Spirit shows up in Methodist churches.  My friend, Oliver Box, says, “The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church.  He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”  And, perhaps that’s the problem.

The United Methodist "cross and flame"
Take a look at our denominational logo, our trademark “cross and flame.”  That red thing beside the cross is supposed to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Even on our logo, it looks like a pretty controlled burn, doesn’t it?  Not getting out of control, burning quietly, never really flaring up too much.

We are good with God the Father, whom we have experienced as a loving parent, whose creation we see and are struck with awe and wonder.  We are good with God the Son, because we can see and understand the life, teaching, and example of Jesus Christ.  When it comes to God the Holy Spirit, we aren’t quite sure what to do there.

We’ve seen that the Spirit can be wild and unruly and unpredictable, and we’re not sure we want the wind and fire of God’s presence blowing through our tidy and neatly-ordered lives.  We’ve worked hard for this, we’ve put everything where we want it, we like it how it is – and the last thing we need is the Holy Spirit getting loose and going wild and messing everything up.  And so, we invite the Holy Spirit in, but with a list of conditions: “Sit in the corner.  Don’t make too much noise.  Don’t draw attention to yourself.  And don’t mess with our stuff.”

We want to experience the Holy Spirit as a controlled burn, as tame as the pilot light on your water heater, as contained as candle flame on the altar table, as easily-extinguished as a cheap pocket lighter.  We want a Holy Spirit we can control.

But friends, the Holy Spirit is not a controlled burn.  The Holy Spirit is wildfire.  When we pray for and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are praying with wildfire!  We are praying for fire to fall from heaven upon us and ignite something within us we would never light for ourselves.  We are praying to be blown out of our comfort zone, out of our control zone, swept up in a holy consuming fire we did not start and can never hope to extinguish.  Who in the world would want something like that?

The followers of Jesus, that’s who.

In the Scripture we’ve read, when the first followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit, they found themselves getting into all sorts of things they never would have on their own.  They were speaking in languages they’d never learned, prophesying about things they didn’t know anything about, not bound by a spirit of fear and timidity but boldness and courage – all because they received the Holy Spirit.

The same is true for us.  Having the Holy Spirit in our lives means giving up control and opening ourselves up to things and people and experiences we would never seek on our own.  It means getting out of the drivers’ seat and letting the Holy Spirit set the course.  It means getting caught up in the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.

The power and presence of the Holy Spirit is the difference between going to church and being the church – the living, breathing, body of Christ, the real hands and feet of Jesus in the world – if we’re going to do all that we have been called to be, we need the Holy Spirit.

We’ve got to get fired up.  The first car I bought was a 1986 Honda Prelude, and it was everything you would expect from a first car a high schooler bought for himself with what he had saved over a couple years of a part-time job.  On cold mornings in upstate New York, it had trouble getting fired up.  You had to turn the ignition and then mash your foot down on the accelerator, hoping it wouldn’t die right away.  The goal was to increase the RPMs on the engine and let it run long enough that it would warm up enough to not stall out when you let it idle.  There were some mornings I had to turn the ignition 20 times just to finally crank it up enough that it would continue to run.

With that car, if it didn’t get fired up in the morning, do you know what happened?  It didn’t go anywhere.  Likewise, when the church fails to get fired up with the Holy Spirit, we don’t go anywhere, either.

Or, to put it another way, we need fire in our belly.  When we see someone with passion for something, we say they have fire in their belly.  We need passion for the things Jesus was passionate about. 

We need to get fired up.  We need some fire in our belly.  We need passion for the things God would have us be passionate about.  We need the wildfire of the Holy Spirit.  Without that wildfire, without that passion, without that fire in our belly, we just sit on the curb like my first car on a cold morning; all we do is sit there and occupy space, but we’re not taking anyone anywhere.

Friends, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the difference between just going to church and being the church. 

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist.  But I am afraid they should only exist as a dead church, having the form of religion without its power.”  “My fear is that our people will become content to live without the fire, the power, the excitement, the supernatural element that makes us great.”

Too often and too easily, we settle for a faith experience devoid of the Holy Spirit.  Tidy, neat, predictable, under control – and completely powerless to change our lives, let alone change the world.

The worst thing is not that we would cease to exist.  No, the worst thing would be to lose our vitality, to have the outward form of religion without its power.

Every weekend – sometimes on Saturday, sometimes on Sunday morning – I walk through the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and I touch every seat, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill the hearts of the people who will sit there and kindle in them the fire of God’s love.  I do the same thing for every outside door, up and down every hallway, pausing at the door of each room, praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon each person who walks through them, down these halls, and into each room.

So, when you show up on Sunday morning, I have prayed for you.  As you sit in these seats and walk through these doors, I pray you feel the power of those prayers and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit upon you and full within you.

But remember, that’s just the beginning.  I want you to remember what those first followers of Jesus did as soon as they received the Holy Spirit.  They unlocked the door and boldly went out to share God’s good news with the world.  The first thing they did was take a mission trip.  They didn’t build a building, they didn’t have a worship service, they didn’t create a budget, they didn’t have a stewardship campaign, they didn’t create any programs, and they most certainly didn’t form any committees.  They boldly went out in mission.  The very first thing the Church did was to leave the building, because their passion for the Gospel was greater than their personal preference, comfort, and control.

If you keep reading the book of Acts, you’ll see that those winds of the Holy Spirit kept right on blowing.  The wind that first blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, beyond their locked door and into the street with God’s good news kept blowing.

Today, I’m praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured upon us just as it was poured upon the first followers of Jesus so many years ago.  Our faith is not just the story about what God did once upon a time, to some people we don’t know, in a land far, far, away.  God’s story is still being written, and it continues in us, so long as our hearts are open and receptive to the warm winds of the Holy Spirit.

There are times when the work of the Spirit is imperceptible, but there are other times when you can see it, hear it, and feel it. To this day, every time I see the color red or a fire burning, when I feel the wind stir or hear the flap of a dove’s wings, I think, “Holy Spirit!  I wonder what wild and unpredictable and wonderful thing God is up to today.”

I don’t know when or in which direction the Spirit might blow.  I only know that it will.  Let’s be open enough to get caught up in the fiery wind when it comes by.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers (2 Timothy 1:1-5, Acts 2:16-17)

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, to promote the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.

To Timothy, my dear child.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness. I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.

Mother's Day is a tricky day for the church to navigate. While it’s a day of celebrating for many, it is not a picture-perfect Hallmark for many others.  For a wide variety of reasons, Mother’s Day can be a painful and difficult day.  Every year, I make an intentional decision that we will not recognize today in a way that adds insult to injury to those for whom today is hard.

In worship, we celebrate who God is, what God is up to in the world, and the various ways God invites us to participate in that good work.  And so today, we glorify God by lifting up the leadership women have given our Faith since the time of Jesus.  I’m grateful for Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers, for God’s Spirit poured upon both our sons and our daughters, and to be part of a faith tradition that celebrates this reality.  May we pray. 

Anybody have an idea how many women are mentioned in the Bible?  188 women are mentioned by name through the Old and New Testaments, and the stories of countless other women whose names we don’t know are also told.

The first woman mentioned, of course, is Eve, in the creation story that includes Adam and Eve.  God creates humankind in God’s own image – male and female, God created us, and we see that God’s intent for the relationship between men and women was one of partnership and equality.  How do we know?  The story tells us that God created the woman from the man’s rib.  That’s important.  If God had intended the man to rule over the woman, then he would have created the woman out of the man’s feet, so he would trample over her.  If God had intended the woman to rule over the man, he would have created the woman out of the man’s head.  But God created the woman from the man’s rib, right at his side, and made us as equal co-stewards over the earth – it wasn’t until after the fall that Eve’s equal role was diminished.

The Bible shows us women operating in somewhat expected roles: nurturing roles, hospitality roles, mothering roles.  But, the Bible also gives us stories of women leading armies into battle, and women serving as judges over the people.  I love the story of Jael – who led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites after killing their captain in his tent.  While he was sleeping, she drove a tent peg through the side of his head.  I love the Bible!  You can’t make this stuff up!

Over the centuries, women were subjugated more and more, and by the time of Jesus, were treated as little more than property.  And so Jesus did something quite radical for his day, he treated women like people rather than property.  In a time when they were intentionally uneducated, Jesus taught women about the kingdom of God.  When only men studied with a rabbi, Jesus invited women to be his disciples, and Jesus commissioned a woman to preach the most important sermon of all time: on Easter Sunday morning, Mary Magdelene proclaimed, “He is risen,” and her message continues to be central to our faith.

Women were leaders in the early church.  St. Paul, the prolific writer of much of the New Testament, included greetings to women as leaders in his letters to the churches.  He supports women praying and prophesying in the public service of the church (Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5).  Phoebe is greeted as a pastor, Junia’s name is listed as an apostle, and Paul continually gives thanks for women he considers “co-laborers in the Gospel.”  Co-laborers, not subordinates. Equal.

It happens, sometimes, that someone from another faith tradition wants to take issue with me on that.  They advance a theological view called “complementarianism,” basically meaning men and women have different roles that complement one another, which is just an institutional and theological way to enshrine a male-dominated patriarchy.  This person will typically quote 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 at me, which says:

34 The women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Then, they quickly turn to 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach, nor to have authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

These Scriptures are pulled out as “clobber passages,” because they function as a sort of blunt tool to beat down an opposing view.  The person usually becomes very confused when I start to explain that the way they are reading the Bible is called proof texting.  A proof text is when you isolate a verse or two from its context, and lift it out to prove a point.  When people do this, usually the only thing they’ve proved to me is their own ignorance, and I don’t usually argue with them, because while you can always tell a fundamentalist, you can’t tell them much.

But I know, even in churches that teach “women ought to be silent in the church” don’t actually practice it.  You mean to tell me women don’t teach Sunday School or Bible study or sing in the choir or talk in the foyer?  At my last church, Clara Hedberg talked through the sermon every week; I would have LOVED for that woman to keep silent in the church!  I didn’t have a problem with women, generally, speaking in church, I had a problem with one particular woman whose mouth ran constantly, yet to whom no had ever turned around and said, “Shhhhh.”

That’s what Paul was getting at.  In one church, a particular group of women were wailing and carrying on to the point of distracting the rest of the worshipers, others who were interrupting the teaching of the apostles with Q and A while they were trying to teach, and to these specific women, Paul said, “Be quiet in the church.”

Reading the letters that comprise the majority of the New Testament are like reading someone else’s mail.  These are very specific instructions to a specific group of women in a specific church.  “The problem with taking these texts as commands for all churches for all time is that they don’t harmonize with the hundreds of other biblical examples of women prophesying and leading the church. In the majority of cases, women had positions of prominence. Lydia was a church leader in Philipi, Priscilla led three churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus as well as discipling Apollos.” (James Watkins)

Friends, we can’t build an entire ethic around a few proof texts.  Dr. David Thompson of Asbury Seminary asks, “Do we read the entire Bible in light of these two problematic texts, or do we read these two texts in light of the rest of the Bible?”

Women continued to hold leadership positions in the early church for several centuries.  It wasn’t until the year 494 A.D. that Pope Gelasius declared that women could no longer serve as priests in the church.  That means they had been serving as priests up until then.  For nearly the first 500 years of Christianity, women had been in leadership in the church.  That church leadership became a boys’ club and stayed that way for over a thousand years had more to with Roman cultural norms than with anything in the teachings of Jesus or the experience of the Holy Spirit in the early church.

Susannah Wesley
During the 1700s, John Wesley relied on the gifts of women in the early days of the Methodist movement, in large part, because of the strong, faithful women in his own life, including his own mother, Susannah, and his older sisters.  We got away from that for awhile, but thank God, there was an important anniversary celebrated this week among the people called Methodists.  This past Wednesday, May 4, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of granting full clergy rights to women in the Methodist Church.  I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition that celebrates and affirms God’s call upon the lives of both men and women into the ordained ministry.

The Scriptures witness, and our experience confirms the reality that God’s Spirit is poured upon all people – old and young, men and women.  God’s Spirit is poured out, and God’s people prophesy – they lead, they teach, they preach, they use their Spirit-given gifts for God’s glory in the world.

The Bible only lists one sin as unforgiveable, and that’s blaspheming or grieving the Holy Spirit.  If God’s Spirit has been poured out on someone, be they a son or a daughter, and we reject that person using what God has given them, that’s called denying, blaspheming, grieving the Holy Spirit.

I continue to grieve with and for friends who are not welcomed into their ministry settings simply because they are women.  Three years ago, our friend, Dana, was appointed to Bethel United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, and on her first Sunday, was invited to sit in with one of the adult Sunday School classes, who demanded to know why she, as a woman, was qualified to be a pastor.  She stayed one year.

Last year, another friend, Katie, was appointed to a church where she was told, “You’re the second Lady Preacher we’ve had in a row; you just don’t understand how difficult that is for us to have two back-to-back.”  Never mind that under the leadership of the previous pastor, this church had 31 professions-of-faith out in the middle of nowhere.  31 people who did not previously know Jesus came to know him, the church grew, they paid off debt, heaven forbid they have to go through something like that again!  Katie stayed one year.

It's one of the concerns we had before Ashley arrived at Stokesdale - every move brings a series of unknowns, and one of the things we wondered about was whether or not people would give her problems simply because she was a woman.  As you can see from the previous examples, it still happens today.  Thankfully, they had no issue.  They didn't balk at her being a woman, or part of a clergy couple, or young.  They called her "Pastor" from the moment she arrived, and there are now 50 or so men the age of our fathers or grandfathers who love her dearly and will follow her leadership anywhere.  With those guys around, God help anyone who ever tries to give her trouble!

Our bishop tells us every year that he receives letters and phone calls from local churches who say, “We’re just not ready for a woman pastor, yet.”  To those who would say that to me, I’d say, “You’ve had 60 years to get ready.  It’s time.”  Or, in my more diplomatic moments, I’d invite them to enroll in my bridge-building course, in which I teach participants how to build a bridge so they can get the hell over it.

Or, sometimes, I’ll simply ask, “Then why do you continue to attend a United Methodist Church?  We recognize, as the prophet Joel foresaw, that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all people – young and old, men and women, and as such, they would prophesy, teach and lead.  We’re into that here, and if you’re not, this may not be the church for you."

The problem is not strong and gifted and Spirit-filled women in the church.  Rather, the problem is weak men who are threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even dubious biblical interpretation, to keep them from exercising their gifts. (Ben Witherington)

I'm proud to part of a church that celebrates and lifts up the leadership of both men and women.  Especially for your daughters or granddaughters, it's important to me that they grow up in a church where they can do and be anything God calls them to.

Friends, may we never deny or reject what God is doing, simply because of who God is doing it through.  May we not grieve the Holy Spirit by denying the gifts of those upon whom the Spirit is poured, be they sons, or be they daughters.

Today, I’m grateful for Faith Mothers and Lady Preachers.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Healing in the Body (Matthew 6:9-15)

“[Jesus said] "Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.[c]
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,[d]
        but rescue us from the evil one.[

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Today, we are concluding a series of messages on “Living as the Risen Body of Christ.”  One of the most pervasive metaphors used to describe the Church throughout the New Testament is a human body – comprised of many individual parts, joined and knit together into a living whole.  Over the last several weeks, we’ve been exploring what it means to not only call ourselves the body of Christ, but to live like it.

Relationships are what hold the body of Christ together – our relationship with God through Christ, and our relationship to each other through Christ.  Since we’re talking about relationships, I would like you to hear wisdom on relationships from children.

Alan, age 10, says, “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff.  Like, if you like sports, she should like that you like sports, and keep the chips and dip coming.”

Kids have some great thoughts on what people do on a date.  Lynette, age 8, says, “People should use dates to get to know each other.  Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough.”  Martin, age 10, says, “On the first date, they just tell each other lies, and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date.”

And how do you make a relationship work?  Ricky, age 10, says, “Tell your wife she’s pretty even if she looks like a truck.”

Life is all about the relationship, and so is our faith.  The Christian faith is not built on rules, it’s not built on rituals, it’s not built on being right – it’s about relationships: our relationship with God, and our relationships with each other.  The primacy of relationship is why Jesus told us the greatest command is to love God and love our neighbor.  It’s why he said we’d be known as his followers by our love.  It’s all about the relationship, and today, we want to focus on what it takes to have health and wholeness in our relationships.

Did you know there are six words at the center of every healthy relationship?  So whether your relationships are already healthy or are strained and in need of healing, you’ll want to use these six words frequently to maintain optimal relational health. 

And actually, they’re not just six words, they’re two sets of three words each, and contrary to what you’re thinking, the first set of three words is NOT “I love you.” If you’re still trying to figure out what the first three words are, here’s a hint:  About ten years ago, the University of Michigan healthcare system taught their physicians and administrators to start using these three words whenever there was a patient or family complaint about hospital services or treatment.

Do you know what the three words were?  I am sorry. I think that’s sorta counter-intuitive.  We live in a lawsuit-happy society, and it’s drilled into us to NEVER admit fault when there’s an accident, lest someone sue us!  We don’t like to show weakness, lest someone else get the upper hand on us and exploit our shortcomings and mistakes.

Interestingly enough, however, the result of saying “I am sorry” in the Michigan healthcare system was that in one year’s time, letters of intent to sue for malpractice dropped from 262 to 130 – more than a 50% drop in just one year, and the amount they paid simply in legal fees dropped from $3 million a year to $1 million.  We have some Michigan taxpayers here this morning, I’m sure that’s good news to you!  Such a drastic change, all from being willing to say, “I am sorry.”

Those three simple words are huge, and if you’re going to succeed in life, these words are going to have to flow regularly from your mouth.  A study conducted by Success-Motivation, Inc. found that successful people regularly apologize when they’ve been wrong, and unsuccessful people rarely apologize or admit they were wrong.

That’s true for success and health in our relationships, too.  Maybe you’ve heard that saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  I used to think, ‘Yeah, that makes sense!’ and then I got married.  I found out that, in actuality, love means having to say “I am sorry” all the time!  If someone ever says to you, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” you look them straight in the eye and tell them, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”

When I lived alone, what did it matter if I left my socks on the floor or my dirty dishes on the counter for a day or two?  Who cared if I didn’t change the roll of toilet paper but just propped up the new roll on the empty one?  Even just absent-mindedly whistling around the house or drumming my fingers on the table was no big deal, but now, I started to realize just how annoying that could be.  I learned to say, “I am sorry.”

And of course, the reality is that everything we do has an effect on those around us, for good or for ill.  The human family is like a giant tapestry woven together of a whole bunch of different threads – your life represents a thread, my life represents a thread, and the closer we look, the more we see how we are woven together, interdependent, and inseparable.  To tug on your thread or mine necessarily touches all the others.

That’s why it’s important to be mindful about the ways our behavior affects other people, especially when what we do has a negative effect on them.  When we hurt others by our words or our actions, whether intentionally or by accident, it’s so important to be willing to say those three simple words: “I am sorry.”

But what if we are the one who was wronged or hurt?  That’s where the other three words come in, and so we also have to be intentional to say, ”I forgive you.” In healthy relationships, those six words are used frequently: I am sorry, and I forgive you.

Couples who use these six words regularly and genuinely are about half as likely to divorce as couples who do not. And Christians, members of the body of Christ, who learn to say these words regularly, are much more likely to have healthy ties with others in the church, that can withstand the bumps in the road and misunderstandings that are natural and inevitable in living in community with others.

No surprise that Jesus had a lot to say about forgiveness.  It’s an important part of the Lord’s Prayer Christians pray every Sunday, and which we read today.  It’s right there in that part where we say, “Forgive us our debts, or our trespasses, or our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  Essentially, we’re sorry for what we’ve done wrong, and we won’t hold it against other people for the ways they’ve wronged us.  We are both seeking forgiveness from God and from those we’ve wronged, while we extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. 

True enough, forgiveness doesn’t always come easy.  Sometimes, it takes awhile to forgive.  The deeper the cut, the longer it takes to heal.

That is, of course, something altogether differently than intentionally withholding forgiveness or nursing a grudge.  There are people I know – some of whom I am related to – who can hold onto a grudge like no one’s business!  You cross them once, and you go on the list, and once you go on the list, the sweet Lord Jesus himself couldn’t get you off of it.  Anyone else know anybody like that?

Now, let me ask you this: do you enjoy hanging around people like that?  You see, for some folks, maybe even some of us, forgiveness is a bitter pill to swallow, but when we withhold forgiveness, the result is that we become bitter, ourselves.  Angry, resentful, hostile, negative.  And when we do, we are hardly a fit vessel to carry God’s healing love and light to the world around us.

There are a number of studies that link hanging onto an attitude of resentment with a number of physiological symptoms, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart attacks, weight gain, and diabetes.  It’s said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison, yourself, and hoping the other person dies.  Holding onto a grudge is holding onto someone else’s baggage.  Holding onto a grudge is letting someone else take us for a ride on the bitter bus.  Holding onto a grudge is letting someone else live in our head rent-free.  When we hold a grudge against someone, the truth is that it hurts us more than them.

I used to think that we only had to forgive someone if they specifically asked for forgiveness, and otherwise, we were justified to hang onto those ill feelings toward them.  But friends, Jesus said when we forgive, God forgives us.  When we don’t forgive, we’ve called into question our own forgiveness.  Better to let it go, and be people who extend forgiveness as freely as God extends it to us.  For your own sake, and for the love of God, quite literally, better to let it go.

Friends, holding a grudge doesn’t make you strong, it makes you bitter.  Forgiving doesn’t make you weak, it sets you free.

When you’re finding it difficult to forgive someone else, start by praying for them.  Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Just naming them before God, asking God to help us let it go, asking for healing in the fractured relationship, asking God to bless them even when we’re still sort of upset with them is a great step toward being reconciled.

I remember a situation in which someone had wronged me and hurt me deeply and I prayed for them – I prayed for them nearly every day for six months.  Then I ran into them one day and you know what?  I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore.  Because while I was praying for them, something happened.  God did something in my heart, and I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore.  There was still work to do in fixing that relationship, but at least my walls had finally come down, and that was a good start toward healing.

Friends, today’s message couldn’t be any simpler, and it comes with a simple invitation: as members of the body of Christ, to regularly say those six words that bring healing in our relationships.  What are the first three?  I am sorry.  And the other three?  I forgive you.

Every week we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Today, let’s not just pray it.  Let’s actually do it.  It’s a great day to seek and extend forgiveness.

Let us pray.  Lord, put on our minds the people to whom we need to say, “I am sorry.”  And put on our minds the people to whom we need to say, “I forgive you.”  Help us to be people who put what we say we believe into action.  Help us to not only talk about forgiveness, but to seek it and extend it.  By your grace, may we demonstrate mercy, and compassion, and love, and forgiveness to others.  Help us to forgive, as we have been forgiven.  Amen.