Sermon Transcript 1.15.23 What Great Thing I Know...
Before we get to the hymn of preparation, I want to invite you to recite our mission statement with me. Our mission is to share the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to exemplify the love of God by knowing Christ, growing in Christ, serving in Christ, and sharing Christ.
Today is one of the six special offerings designated by General Conference of the United Methodist Church and there is quite a bit more information about those special offerings in the newsletter that was emailed out yesterday and is available for pickup. This is something I haven't always been very good about as a pastor and one of my, I suppose you could say resolutions, although I made it way back last fall, was to do a better job of sharing these opportunities and explaining how we do church as a connectional structure. How our little, from thousands of congregations across the country and around the world, combine to make profound differences in the life of the church and it’s mission. The dates for these offerings are set by General Conference, although there is local flexibility. If a particular date just doesn't work with what you're doing, you can move it. I'm also taking advantage of that freedom this year to move a couple that frankly never land in a good spot. For example, we collect the student day offering on Thanksgiving Sunday – seems odd to me. We have way too many other themes going then – so let's do that, you know, when we're thinking about school, in May or August. So, I've got more in the newsletter on that but I do want to call attention this day to Human Relations Sunday and the special offering. John Wesley believed that our personal holiness and our social holiness were deeply connected. We cannot be church by ourselves. Christian faith *is* personal. We have a personal relationship with our Savior. It is also inherently communal. We need each other. Even those we disagree with. Peter learned this - and I’ve preached on this several times recently - when he has a vision and he has sent to the house of the Cornelius, a gentile. He sees the Spirit fall on them. The boundaries we try to draw, even as United Methodist, are generally not God's boundaries. They're ours and sometimes they're important and necessary, but we must always hold in humility that God is working beyond our walls, beyond our understanding. We Methodist have taken this to heart. We have always been a social religion working for holiness of the communities we are in, the nations we are part of. I recognize you can't read this on the screen, but as early as 1908 in the United States, we had a social creed. In addition to our theological beliefs and our religious beliefs, we had statements of how we live those out and address the issues of the day. We spent some time with some of those in the contemporary context in a series last year on membership, but very briefly, in 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church, of which we were a part - this building was built in 1906. We stood for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.” Now, we might say that as persons now, but we were seeking justice for all. We stood for principles of arbitration and industrial dissension. That shorthand means we thought labor could strike and that management and labor should talk to each other, not just have management impose answers. We called for “protection of workers from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injury, and morality. For the abolition of child labor. For regulation, particularly where it came to women working, so as to safeguard physical and moral health of the community. For the suppression of the “sweating system,” that is gradual and reasonable reduction of hours of labor to the lowest practical point with work for all. And for that degree of leisure for all, which is the condition of the highest human life.”
United Methodist were deeply entrenched in the battle for forty-hour work week, for the idea of weekends. That wasn't the norm in this country in 1908. We worked for “a living wage in every industry, for the highest wage each industry can afford, and the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised. And the recognition of the golden rule and the mind of Christ, as the supreme law of society, and the sure remedy for all social ills.” Our social holiness is rooted in our faith. We believe that if we treat each other as Christ taught us that most of the social ills of our world will be redeemed and repaired On Human Relations Sunday we collect a special offering to further that kind of work in the world and as United Methodists, we have the freedom to disagree with particular projects, particular stances, but we are United in a sense that we do not stand alone, that we must work together with people inside and outside our walls and so that, in brief, is why we collect Human Relations Sunday special offering. There are six special offerings. We use the same one same envelope for all six through the year. You'll find those around the church. If you are so moved to make a donation to one or more of those six, we will forward it to the conference and ultimately to various denominational entities. If you'd like more information, feel free to let me know.
Human Relations Sunday and it’s special offering is held every year the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. And as a nation, we hold Martin Luther King up as one of our heroes, one of our role models. It wasn't always that way. He was despised in his lifetime by the majority of the population, including quite frankly, the majority of United Methodists. He was stirring the waters. He was seeking that kind of social holiness that requires difficult change and accountability. He spoke prophetically. He was seeking equal justice under the law for all persons, for all socioeconomic classes. We remember him for his stirring speech, “I have a dream,” but we only really remember the last stanza of that. The speech itself is a catalog of an American nightmare, not a dream. He called out this brokenness of our society. He did that repeatedly throughout his life. He was arrested repeatedly. He was jailed repeatedly. One of my own regular practices and I haven't done it yet this year but I was reminded when I was preparing for today, is to read his Letter from Birmingham Jail. If you haven't read it, or maybe it's been a while, maybe you never have, it's a worthwhile read.
How do we live out our faith? How especially we who are relatively well off, we who are relatively comfortable. How do we engage the brokenness of our society? Doctor King was assassinated in Memphis as you well know. He was there not solely for racial reconciliation but for socioeconomic justice. He stood with striking sanitation workers, black and white. That's why he was in Memphis. He writes in his own letters and sermons. How much more difficult he found the task of civil rights the farther north he went. Because the social mores and the discrimination was overt in the deep South. There were signs, “whites only.” That's easy to point out. That's relatively easy to challenge. When he got farther north, even in Memphis, it was quite frankly much more insidious. We have all sorts of justifications for our divisions, for our racisms. We don't like to think of ourselves as that… and yet our society is rife with it. Our call as Christians, our call as United Methodists is to wrestle with these injustices and do the same kind of work Doctor King did in his lifetime.
And his work was rooted in his faith. He was a Baptist, not a United Methodist, but his life, I believe, was lived in a very Wesleyan way. He rooted himself in scripture and prayer, in tradition. He rooted himself in the experiences of his own, his society, his people, and he rooted himself in reason, God's gift, of imagination, and seeking order, of exploration, of seeking of fairness, equity and justice.
John Wesley wrote in the late 1700s, “my fear is not that our great movement known as Methodist, will eventually cease to exist or one day die from the earth. My fear is our people will become content to live without the fire…”, without the passion, without the engagement with the least and lost. The early Methodist movement was known for standing against slavery and servitude, for feeding the hungry, for healing the sick, for sitting with the prisoner. We founded schools and hospitals. We spent very little time in our buildings. We spent a great deal of time out in the world. That is what being a United Methodist is about. This series is about our identity as Methodist and how we know how we grow, how we serve, how we share. We root ourselves in Scripture and interpret it through the lenses of tradition, and in experience, and reason and uniquely, I think, is our understanding of grace, through which all things are possible. Christ's grace equips us, calls us, and sends us forth.
Over the next few weeks, we will be working with the definition of spiritual formation That is “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God's spirit for the transformation of the world.” And with all that said, I invite you now to join in singing our hymn of preparation, thy word is a lamp. Number 601 in the red hymnal…
Thy word… I have long loved that hymn I think I first consciously encountered it… I'm sure I heard it in Lutheran, Episcopalian and Methodist Churches as a child - but my first conscious memory of it was Amy Grant's recording in the early 1980s. I remember being struck in the midst of my wandering between not believing much of anything, doing a fully Catholic Catechism, going back to not believing much of anything. Beginning to dabble with the Wesleyan theology that would shape my life The second stanza, “my heart is prone to wandering.” and yet, Christ holds me. I live in constant amazement that I get to do this now for a living. I never want to preside at a funeral, but I live in constant amazement that that's what I get to do. I’ve done it perhaps too often lately, but I get to gather with people in their darkest moment and proclaim resurrection hope. I get to learn from the saints that have gone before us, who share that hope, who proclaim it with all they do. The flowers in the sanctuary are just a handful of the leftovers from Barbara Wood's funeral and I didn't get a chance to talk to Ron but I'm assuming since those were left, they're more than you can handle. Would you like people to take those? Yes, I guessed right. We’ve got a bunch of beautiful flowers here. If you would like to take those home, share them with somebody. Maybe share your hope of resurrection, that's an opportunity That's why we gather.
(Hymn of Preparation: UMH 601 “Thy Word.”
How do we know? The older I get, the more I am privileged to get to do this, the more I recognize how incredibly academic, how head-centered I was as a child, as a young adult. Knowledge was about what I thought, what I could prove academically. But knowledge, as we talk about in our mission statement, is really about relationship. About being with Jesus on our journey.
I began the service with a reading from Proverbs that I wrestle with. We're called to remember commandments, to not lean on our own insight. and many people will read a verse like that and go, “I have to suppress what I think and go with what I'm taught by my church, by my school, by whatever authority figures I grant.” That the task of religion is to stop thinking and just do what I'm told. I've never been good at that.
In fact, one of the things I cherish about the brief time in my childhood when my mother took me to an Episcopalian church, they were in the middle of an ad campaign that was all about how faith was not about turning off your brain. Now, I wasn't quite ready to deal with all of that right then, but it stuck with me. Our reason is a gift of God, our ability to be creative, to have insight, to ask questions, to do science - it is a gift of God, to us. Our being made in the image of God isn't so much about our physical shape. We get really caught up. Is God a boy or a girl? That's not the point. The point is our ability to love. Our ability to create, to reason, to play, to rest. Proverbs promises that if you follow the commandments and the teachings that your path will be made straight. John proclaims, make a path, make the road in the wilderness straight. A straight path is much easier to walk.
I don't know about you, but my heart is prone to wandering. My path looks a lot more like this most days (photo of winding road). I've been thinking about this path lately. See, while the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, it's not always the best or easiest road. I chose this picture intentionally. It's the road up the side of the Mount Tabor in Israel. I've had the privilege of walking and riding that road to get to the top of Mount Tabor. It is the traditional site of the story of the transfiguration. It is incredibly steep. Coming up out of a plain, it is a mountain. If you try to walk up the side of that straight, it'd be a difficult trudge – but using switchbacks, it becomes manageable. The Transfiguration, of course, told in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Jesus calls Peter and James and John to go up the mountain with him and while he is praying, he is revealed to them as divine. His clothing is bleached whiter than a human could cause. He's speaking with historic figures – Moses and Elijah - James and Peter and John are overwhelmed with wonder - and yet Jesus tells them not to speak of it yet and they go back down the mountain They undoubtedly go back down the mountain by a winding path because it's far too steep for humans to walk in any normal way… but the switchbacks, the winding path, allows you to go “straight” down. Back into the world, having had this experience, being told by their teacher not to speak of it yet. They're not yet to understand what they've been shown but they have been gifted that presence, that inkling of an understanding that Jesus is not merely human but truly is the Word made flesh. They will come to understand this more fully after the crucifixion, after the resurrection. Who this Jesus is and they will continue to struggle to put words to it. We struggle to put words to it. Our opening hymn does a nice job of that though.
“Ask ye what great thing I know” It's a song of trust. A song of confidence in Christ, the crucified one. We talk about Christ the crucified. Paul writes about the crucified one, Yet, we also talk in that moment, in that proclamation, about Christ the incarnate, the Word made flesh, drawing all people to him. We talk about Christ, the risen, breaking bread with us even to this day. Christ who calls us into discipleship, who calls us to follow him, who calls us to come and see.
John the Baptist is one of the earliest people to understand this and our reading from John's gospel today, he points his own disciples, his own source of power and authority away from himself - to Christ. “I saw the Spirit of God descend on him”, he says. The next day, he says, “behold, the lamb of God.” That is not idle language. That is sacrificial language. He is proclaiming that this person that he is pointing to is the perfect atoning sacrifice. That Jesus will break the binds of sin. He is foreshadowing the crucifixion and the resurrection. Bucause it's not about suffering and death. It's about life. Abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. Life that cannot be contained by this reality. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world says to us, “come and see.” Experience my presence. Be in relationship with me, not just an intellectual ascent, not just mouthing the right creed at the right time, but lived faith, transform life. Rooted in Scripture, illumined by tradition vivified by reason and experience - rooted in grace that goes before us, before we're even aware of it, that enables all that we do, even our response to God. Grace that holds us loosely enough that, like myself, we are allowed to wander even to try and say no. Thinking we can fill this hole in our heart and mind with other things.
Going on to recognize that all we truly need is God. Christ's presence. Christ heals. Christ who redeems the sinful and broken. Rooted in Scripture. Not that we blindly and rotely apply every verse that we read literally. We take Scriptures seriously, not necessarily literally. We recognize that Scripture has conflicts, not mistakes, but tensions. One of my favorites I point out from Proverbs. Proverbs 26:4-5. “4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Then the very next verse…
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
We can’t do both in a single moment. We have to discern when the right time to challenge and when the right time to let go is. We have to realize that we don't have to participate in every argument we're invited to and yet we do need to proclaim our hopes, our trust, our faith. We don't have to make people look and think the same way we do, but we do have to live our life in such a way that people see Christ through us.
I'm eternally thankful for those people in my own great cloud of witnesses who live their life in such a way that I wanted the peace and the hope they had with them even in the midst of danger and suffering and sorrow. They equipped me to be a pastor. They equipped me to be a person of faith. They sent me forth on this great journey and not all of them called themselves Christian - but they were deeply rooted in what I understand to be the revelation of Christ. My vocabulary for the presence of God, for the wholeness that we are called to.
Tradition helps. The way we do things here at first is important. Even as we recognize that not everyone has to do them the same way. Lighting advent candles, passing the light. Christmas Eve, it draws people even people who don't consider them part of themselves part of our congregation but there is something about that tradition that night, that story. Our task is to live our lives in such a way that people are drawn to the story by all that we say and do.
We celebrated on Jan 1, an Agape Feast, an ancient tradition of gathering around the table of breaking bread together, of bearing witness to our hopes, our fears, and our faith. I used this image on the first, it is a depiction of Agape Feast around the tomb in the catacombs of Rome, Our hope is eternal. Suffering, and death do not have the final word. We still break bread with those who have gone before us in Christ.
I had the privilege, as I've shared with you, of touching the River Jordan – and of recognizing that the water there is the same water that flows through the rivers here in Fort Scott. The science of the water cycle, the miracle of life, of creation, It's all the same thing. Our task is to be fountains of living water for others.
Reason, I've already spoken about our ability to create, to wonder, to question, what more next week about growing. We're not supposed to be stagnant. We're not supposed to reach a point where we think we understand everything. We are to grow, to be like Christ and as I said last week, if we are growing to be like Christ, when are we done? Our ability to reason is part of that growth.
To go deeper into Scriptures we thought we fully understood and yet here they speak to us in a new way. To encounter the wonder of creation. through science, through art, and through faith - to encounter more deeply the light of creation that is Christ.
Paul, we heard in a reading from Philippians, had it all. In his culture, as a Roman citizen, as a Jewish male, well educated, he had every advantage. He could brag with anybody about what he had been given, raised the right way, upholding the law, trained, and yet he counts it all as loss.
He spends the rest of his life not imposing his understanding. Although like all of us, he falls back into habits sometimes. We think we're right and we can get pretty adamant about what we think… But he wrestles in his letters with what it is to be a person of faith in Christ - Christ who invites all to the table. He spends the rest of his life, a Jew, a Roman citizen, preaching inclusion, radical inclusion of despised outsiders, of Gentiles, of those who do not practice the law, who do not understand the tradition and yet the Spirit falls on them just the same.
He spends the rest of his life proclaiming Christ and him crucified and Christ and him risen. I read at Barbara's funeral this week from 2nd Timothy. “This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it is now been revealed to the appearing of our savior Christ, Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Bear in mind, Paul writing before Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. when he says gospel, he means Christ’s presence, the good news for all people, not a story about it, but a lived reality. “For this gospel, I was appointed to Herald and an apostle, and a teacher, and for this reason, I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust. I know the one in whom I put my trust, and I am sure he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” This is a lived faith. This is a faith in resurrection of Christ, of us, of wholeness, of life, even as we wander, even as we take winding roads, those roads are made straight in faith, not literally, or simply, but we find that a way is made where we thought there was no way. We are transformed. We are equipped. We are sent forth back down the mountain into the life of this world.
Our bulletin cover this day is the Christ window at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. It's one of the largest stained-glass windows in the world. And it is remarkable. Christ is at the center, both crucified and risen. It's a story of three gardens, the Garden of Eden, Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden of Re:creation. The window depicts figures throughout faith from the Bible, from this lived reality, United Methodist and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Catholics. It depicts some folks from beyond our tradition. It depicts the wholeness of creation. Christ’s redeeming suffering. Christ inviting us back to wholeness. Away from brokenness and sin and selfishness. And to an inclusive love. A re-creation that begins here and now. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(Hymn of Response: UMH 369 “Blessed Assurance”)