Sermon Transcript 9.11.22 Community in God's Temple.
So, we're talking a bit in the series about faith and health. I mentioned before, many of the resources I'm sharing were organized by the United Methodist Health Fund and the Healthy Congregations program that we are a part of. This series is not about telling you what you *should* do – it’s about what God desires for us. We get plenty of advice on what we should do for our health. And very often that advice comes loaded with guilt. And one of the things we struggle with is that advice that might be good for me is not appropriate for you in your health condition. And we get these mixed messages and of course the TV commercials are filled with simple pills. Solve all our problems… or not. What works for one may not work for others and yet I don't dismiss that for some problems, pills truly are life changing.
It's somewhat ironic that as I begin a series on health, I spent last week being as sick as I have been in a long time. and I'm sure now, it's just allergies, but one of the things I think that has come good out of this pandemic that we are still struggling to get through is that a lot of us are a lot more cautious about “just allergies” and we are slowing down and taking better care of ourselves and others. I could have pushed through this week. Even though I felt miserable. But I didn't have to. I sat down. I looked at the calendar. I said what is essential? What do I have to do? and at risk of undermining my role here, there really wasn't that much I had to do, at least not that week. Things could slide a day or two. There was one meeting that I thought, okay, my participation in that meeting is truly crucial. but everything else… other people could handle, it could wait. It's not all about me and so I took the time to rest. I slept a good portion of Wednesday and Thursday. And I took home COVID tests and they kept coming up negative and I started remembering to take my allergy meds that Robin always reminds me to take and I never do because I'm stubborn. And I'm fine… really. Until all of a sudden I wasn't. And then those little pills really helped. I have other friends that have chemical imbalances and pills make them able to function better. You know, I don't want to dismiss pills and vaccines and things but I also think sometimes we rely too much on those kinds of things. We don't focus on our wholeness and our health overall – instead we mask symptoms.
Of course, we gather today thinking about wholeness… and 21 years ago was the attack on 9/11. DC and Pennsylvania, and of course, New York. A day of infamy. I spent some time talking with the youth this morning. It dawned on me this week. They're fourteen. They weren't here.
I started thinking about what happened seven years before I was born and the heart of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Doctor King four years before I was born and how did these things affect me? The moon landing when I was months old. I have no memory of that even though somewhere there's a photo of me in front of the TV.
How do we build community around these kinds of mountaintop and valley experiences? How do we remember appropriately without getting stuck in old patterns of violence and hatred? A couple weeks ago, I talked about remember as bringing back together, as building up as a literal opposite of dismember, of division, and acrimony. We remember best when we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.
Some of us remember September 12th, there was this incredible sense of unity in this country and around the world. and then for good reasons and bad, our nation again chose the path of war. and for 20 years, we were at war in Afghanistan for seventeen, we were at war in Iraq.
A whole generation grew up with those wars but those wars. I got to reflecting how it didn't really affect our daily life. For example, like the war of my childhood, Vietnam. Where the draft changed our society and we were personally affected. You know, those of us that have members in the service, maybe we knew …my youngest brothers unit did two tours in Iraq and you know, I was focused in and paying attention then… but for day-to-day life, it didn't affect us the same way. Certainly those of you who remember World War Two and how that dramatically affected day-to-day life.
How do we remember? I was talking with the kids a little bit. You know, September 11th is foremost in our minds. You know, even those of you who served in the military, I don't know that we spend a lot of time pausing for December 7th anymore. It's a day that will live in infamy but it doesn't focus our society like it did.
That's both good and bad. Yeah, I remember when nationally, we would pause to remember mass shootings but now, there been so many of them that they just kind of blur together. And other than maybe Sandy Hook, we don't remember specific dates.
How do we remember in the face of division and tragedy?
And much less seriously… but Ron Wood and I as lay member and as your pastor, we spent yesterday morning at a special called Annual Conference session. The Annual Conference is how we United Methodists organize ourselves on a regional basis. All of the pastors and lay lay members from Kansas and Nebraska, the Great Plains Conference, shared in a special session to do some administrative work.
The bulk of which was to formally ratify the 55 congregations are leaving our denomination. A total of 67 have chosen to over our debates over human sexuality and yesterday was kind of that final moment and yet yesterday wasn't all about that.
We’ve done a great job here in the Great Plains, despite some real division. We've avoided for the most part the kind of acrimony we've seen in other jurisdictions. Other places over this. Our leadership of various factions, even in our disagreement, have been very civil and kind. Yesterday around that vote. Leaders of various factions joined in prayer. Sharing verses of the prayer. Sharing leadership. Even as we were dissolving our connection with those 55 churches. Those churches and a handful of others that use a different process to depart, represent about 6% of our total church congregations in the Great Plains and about 4% of our membership. Most of the churches leaving are quite small. There are few a little bit larger than First, but most of them are quite small.
But then we went on. We also did the work of the church, of this connection We remodeled the Governance for Great Plains Camping Ministries. A project their leadership has been working on for a couple of years, to make them more flexible, to learn the lessons of this last couple of years, to engage camping ministries beter in local congregations. There's some opportunities I'm looking at that would bring some of what they do here to Fort Scott. to make us more effective in making disciples, in offering what we have as United Methodist to our communities.
And that got me thinking all of these memories and dates and events. I was writing the newsletter article about how joyful I am that we've got clear glass on those two outer front doors and how I think it transforms the building. Makes it more welcoming. And I hadn't taken in, for all of my talk of new eyes and looking around the building. I hadn't really taken in the front facade of our building.
Up above those doors, it says, First Methodist Episcopal Church. Most of you are old enough to remember that we weren't United Methodist. We were Methodist Episcopal. For your childhoods, 1906, up above, you can't really see it on the screen but there's an oval that says 1906. That's when this building was built. This congregation was organized in 1855. Those of us living in Fort Scott probably know that date is real close to the American Civil War.
Not just our church but our nation divided over the issue of human rights and slavery. If you're a bit of a student of history, our building says, Methodist Episcopal Church. It does not as one of the buildings at my seminary did, say Methodist Episcopal Church, South. See, my seminary was in Missouri and the ME South founded that building. We're in Kansas the Methodist Episcopal Church North founded us. After we were founded, it was still after this building was built. It was still 30 some years before those two factions of what is now the United Methodist Church came back together. We split over slavery in the 1850s. We didn't come back together as one Methodist Episcopal Church until 1939. And then in 1968 we had merged with the Evangelical United Brethren and became the United Methodist Church. Old news.
We don't we don't spend a lot of time debating our church's stance on slavery anymore. But at one time it was the focal point of our denominational fights. So, yesterday, even as we wished, 55 of our fellow congregations well as they go forth into other settings. Some of them are joining a new denomination called the Global Methodist Church. Others are going independent. but we did the work of the United Methodist Church and we did that work knowing that we are just one facet, one face of the universal church that we've never all agreed on everything and yet the Spirit is moving among us. Together, even in our differences, maybe even because of our differences, we truly are the church, the body of Christ.
So, I want to switch to our Scriptures focus today. Where does your food come from? Most of us probably don't spend a great deal of time thinking about that. I'm just enough of a city boy to know that the answer to that is the grocery store. When Robin and I were first dating, she was just appalled. The Sedgwick County Zoo has cows in it. Why would you put cows in a zoo? She said. You can see cows anywhere you go. Now, there's good reason. It's a breeding program. It's stocks that aren't around. It's cows from around the world…but at the face of it, why, why would you have to go to the zoo to see a cow?
Some of us, where does our food come from? Some of us engaging in larger cities in New York where my brother now lives or in Chicago and LA, you can forget where your food comes from. where the meat that graces our table is processed, butchered, raised and many of you are old enough to remember when we truly did eat seasonally.
We are wealthy enough, even here in Bourbon County, which is one of the poorest counties in the state of Kansas, but collectively, we are wealthy enough that if we want an orange or a tangerine, or a grape, or a strawberry, we can get those anytime. G & W, Walmart will both have those on the shelf almost year round. It didn't used to be that way. It used to be you only have those that were a delicacy when they were in season and then you didn't have that.
Where does your food come from? Who's involved in growing it, harvesting and collecting it? How are they paid? Where does their food come from? What's their income? There is justice work to be done in food. but the debate in our scriptures today is actually much more basic than that.
This is a mural in Jerusalem of the Cardo marketplace as it may have appeared in the first century and one of the things I really love about this mural, if you look in the lower right-hand corner, there is a native, a Palestinian girl handing a fruit to what looks like a modern tourist. We have bridged the history, the gap, the years. We are still in the same marketplace. We are still sharing the same food, the bounty of God's abundance. We are connected even across great distances and great time.
Where does our food come from? The debate in the first century, especially for Jews, was, has it been sacrificed to an idol? See, much of the food and especially the meat. But even the vegetables would have been processed not the way we do with chemicals and additives. Some of which are a great bounty to humanity and some of which frankly have made some of our foods not very nutritious at all. Much of the US lives in what scientists call food deserts.
I have for a variety of reasons basically been without a car for about a month. We've had some things go on. We loaned my son a car, his truck's broken down, and I live in Fort Scott and I a block from the office. I don't really need to drive. But the other day, I needed to get to Walmart for something and I started to go and I thought… No, I don't have a car. And then I laughed at myself because Robin and I just spent some time in vacation on in Chicago. And the distance from this building to Walmart in Chicago, you wouldn't even think about bothering to get on the L. It's just a mile and a half, no big deal.
My mental map of Chicago and how far I'm willing to walk for something is very, very different than my mental map of Fort Scott, Kansas. But I'm the same person…
Anyhow, you know, I was thinking, I'm not sure there's a sidewalk to Walmart? And I'm in reasonably good shape. But what if I weren't in so good shape… and I didn't have a car? Where does my food come from? How far is it to G & W? Who can get me there?
Robin and I spent the four years before we came here in a wonderful little town called Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Pretty Prairie, Kansas has one restaurant that is open Wednesday through Saturday and the nearest grocery store is in Kingman. It's a solid 25 minutes away. Where does my food come from?
Before that, we lived in Wichita and we were literally around the corner from the Dillon’s and I used to joke, we could be making tacos. Okay, she could be making tacos… and we would realize that we were out of sour cream and I could go get sour cream and be back before the meat was done browning. My food was right there. We moved to Pretty Prairie. We had to start planning because if we ran out of sour cream, there wasn't any sour cream. It could take an hour to get some sour cream.
But if you don't have a car… Where's your food come from? And there are large sections of our state and our country that are food deserts because there's not an accessible source of food. We're not bad off here in Fort Scott but even then, there are challenges.
Back in the first century, food had been processed by worshiping one of the Gods. So, of course, we know there is only one God. None of that really mattered. They're just stone carvings. It doesn't make a difference. But it does. Especially if you're concerned about whether what you're eating is somehow worshiping a false idol. An idolatry is sin and what we eat matters. and how it was process matters. That's the essence of the kosher law. Is how was the food handled? Has it been handled in a way that is worthy of and worshipful to God? Well, if you're in a culture where there are numerous Gods and other people have used that food to worship their God, inherently, you consuming it worships their God which is forbidden. But Paul says, but there's one God. We know there's one God. None of that matters. You're free. Grace has made you free from the law of sin and death. Don't worry about it. Unless, your doing so would cause someone else who doesn't quite understand grace yet to stumble.
See, what we do matters deeply, even to Paul but the moment we make doing it our way the qualification of faith, we've rejected God's grace. It's tricky. It's hard. We debate. What do we believe? How do we live it out? How do we share it with others?
And I don't think we understand in our culture what it meant to eat with others. Yeah, I'm just old enough to remember family dinners at grandma's house. Something perhaps lamentedly that our culture is largely losing or even family dinner. but who you meet, who you eat with mattered in the first century. Who was around the table? How often did Jesus get in trouble for eating with sinners? By which the Pharisees were accusing him of sitting at the table with people who were not worthy to sit at the table. Now, Jesus made a point of sitting at those tables and there were cultural rules about what position around the table had what kind of honor. You know, don't seek the head place for your host might move you down and you'd be embarrassed. Take the lowest place and wait for your host to move. You remember these stories? These stories are deeply rooted in the culture of the time. Now, maybe at a fancy banquet, we have a head table or a wedding but most of the time, we don't think about it.
In fact, in our culture, this is an image from my childhood from McDonald's. That's two tables, ladies and gentlemen. You can sit at those two tables and be completely disconnected from the other person. No conversation, no acknowledgement. That's a whole different table. Because you see there's a there's an inch and a half gap there. Even though they have same leg. Our culture treats who we eat with very, very differently than the first century. Peter had this vision, Peter kill and eat the unclean foods that led him not to reject the dietary laws but to recognize that Gentiles could be included but then in our readings today, we read that Peter and Paul had an encounter, a dispute in Galatia.
See, Peter had had that experience. He'd gone, as I read at the beginning of the service, back to the saints in Jerusalem. He told them about the Spirit falling on the Galatians, about the Gentiles being baptized together, recognizing our commonality in Christ, but then by the time he got to the Galatia, he kept eating with Gentiles and then James people showed up and he was embarrassed. Sorry, I'll only go with my group. Gotta respect that boundary. Maybe he just didn't want to upset James. It was easier… but he upset Paul.
No, this is this is a rejection of God's grace! Saying that you can only eat certain food in a certain place with certain people. You've rejected God's inclusive love. Our debates matter…. Some of us are wrong and it matters and yet when we get too full of our own self-righteousness, of our own answers, even when we're right, we reject the grace of God.
We stop seeing the person we disagree with as a beloved child of God. You know, 9-11 was the horrific example of what happens when that kind of zealotry goes too far. We can disagree on important matters but we can't turn into fundamentalist. We can't turn into zealots. We can't, as Paul once did, decide that our understanding enables us to persecute others….
which makes us weak God's glory is revealed in weakness.
We've talked about God's glory is revealed in the transformation of the cross and the breaking of the bread. One of the reasons Peter and Paul's disagreement is so sharp that we have again lost is we think of communion as a once a month thing that we do. A little bit of bread, a tiny bit of juice… but in the first century, communion was the meal.
Yes, there were a specific ritual around some bread and the cup but it was the meal that was shared. That's why so often in Paul's letters, he writes about the importance of the shared meal. You know, in our culture, we'll often hear people quote that “let them who will not work not eat.” And we think it's about the poor or the “lazy.” But it's not. We'll probably come back to this in a few weeks because it's so important. When Paul is writing that, to the church, what's happening is the rich or gathering during the day, early, they're sharing the meal, they're sharing communion, the poor and the working class are still out in the fields. The rich are actually becoming drunk. They're eating all the food. There's nothing left. So, by the time the workers get off work and they get to the to this Christian celebration, the food's all gone.
“Let those who are not working not eat… yet.” Wait, wait to share communion. It's one of the root reasons that we in the United Methodist Church have elders preside at communion. My responsibility is to make sure we're all gathered. That people aren't being excluded.
How we do things matters. Last week, after I preached Kristen Bishop wrote me a note and said, you ought to read this book. “Have a Little Faith” by Mitch Alban. I'd read several of his books and I'm still trying to figure out. There were three chapters of this book at different places that I was very familiar with but I had not read the book. I must have read a summary at some point when it was published back in 2009 or something. Anyway, Mitch Albom, if you don't know, he was a writer for the Detroit Free Press. He was a sports columnist, a general columnist, brilliant writer, had become fairly famous in the 80s and the 90s. Well known, on TV a lot, books published… fairly well off. Spend a lot of time in New York and Detroit. He'd go back and forth. He'd grown up in New Jersey and he goes back and he makes a speaking event after one of his books is published and his childhood rabbi comes to the speaking event and after the event, he comes up, reintroduces himself and says, “will you do my eulogy?” Mitch at that point hadn't been back to synagogue for decades. and the rabbi of his childhood asked him to do his eulogy and it throws him for loop. The book is all about them becoming reacquainted and Mitch's own wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith, a man of God. and to write this eulogy and they wind up taking eight years. The rabbi when he asked, isn't anywhere close to death, but he he's doing something for Mitch. and for himself. Then the book is intertwined with the story of Pastor Henry Covington ex felon, recovering drug addict. He runs a homeless shelter called I Am My Brother's Keeper” in an abandoned cathedral in Detroit with a big hole in the roof. and Mitch gets to know him and the chapters kind of interplay his own wrestling, his own decision whether he can trust this guy, who by his own admission has relapsed multiple times, was a drug dealer, was involved in a murder, went to prison for a while. Can Mitch afford to give him the funds to fix the roof or do other things that his contacts could easily arrange? Is Pastor Henry worthy… trustworthy… is it worth it.
And he winds up spending multiple years getting to know Henry and his wife and the people his life has affected and building trust. It's a powerful book but one of the things that struck me, I hadn't read this part of the book before but the Rabbi tells Mitch a story about heaven and hell. And this story is found in multiple different cultures with slight variations. There's some wonderful videos of it and tech was not cooperating this morning. So, I punted… but there was even a Sesame Street version in 1973. One of the first years of Sesame Street. A Geefle monster’s arms are stuck straight up and he can't bend his arms and feed himself. And the Gork's arms are stuck straight out. And he can't feed himself or reach the fruit.
But they figure out the Greefle will can reach the fruit and bend over and feed the Gork and the Gork can hold the fruit and feed the Greefle and they cooperate. That's the story.
The way the rabbi tells it is, there's a great banquet. The person arrives and there's this great banquet. They're excited at the banquet but everybody at the table has these long implements and they can't they can't feed themselves and they fight and they struggle… That's hell. The great banquet but you can't eat any of it.
Heaven is exactly the same scene but there, they're feeding one another. They're cooperating. They're sharing God's bounty. Exactly the same setting - but are we looking out for ourselves and fighting or are we cooperating even amongst our differences and our disagreements? That's communion. That's the church.
Sometimes, we do need to draw boundaries but we always need to remember that our boundaries are frail and temporary. Christ is the boundary function. Not us, not our preferences, not our understandings. Everyone we meet is a beloved child of God. Everyone we meet. We're wrong about some things and so are they. Everyone we meet is a beloved child of God. Worthy to respond to Christ's invitation to the banquet.
One of the best things we do here at First United Methodist Church is feeding families. Over 11 years, we've been hosting this meal. It started out literally a group around the table and there's some real advantages to that but it got so big and then Covid hit, we couldn't keep doing it in building for a lot of reasons but we kept it going. We moved to a to-go model. Where you come by and you pick it up. So, it was sanitary and distant.
One of the things that has struck me over the last year, being one of the minor volunteers in this effort that goes beyond our church. There's five other churches and a couple community groups that help out and then, countless people that donate in various ways to make this ministry possible, that we might feed others. One of the things that strikes me is it's so often not really about the food. Not really about the food.
Yes, the core mission is to feed hungry people. There are way too many people in our town that are food insecure. We might not be a food desert but they can't get to the grocery store, or where the money isn't there this month… but more it's about the human relationships.
I was talking with one man. He has the means but he never really learned to cook. There's some serious health problems in his family. It's just nice, once a week to not have to deal with it, to come to get the meal. He has, in his neighborhood, a couple other people that helped feed his family. They cook extra for their family and they bring it to him and he's so grateful for that and he barters with them in various ways. But one of those people was sick a couple of weeks ago and he was coming through the line getting his meal like he always does for himself and his family usually picks up three and he went… I wonder if they'd let me get one for her. Well, of course, we'd let him get one for her. In fact, Robin was talking with him and got out of him that the person who was sick had a couple of family members in town helping. There's so there's three in the household. So, you need three meals, not one. So, we gave him six that night and he took them over to this other family that usually cares for him and they were SO grateful. It was so nice not to have to cook… That neighborhood is now expanding their own little food ministry. They've learned other people that are hungry. He's picked up eight last week to distribute. And the other person is providing meals for a few folks that we have nothing to do with. But we sparked the generosity. We sparked the human connection. We created community in that neighborhood. For so many of the people that come through that line on a Wednesday night. It really isn't about the meal. It's about getting out of the house and talking with somebody. Because they don't have anybody else to talk to and a phone call isn't the same thing. It is just as much about stomachs as it is souls. Making human connections. It's not about whether you can afford a meal.
The other thing that happens, I cherish when people who come to that line that have a car that is maybe a little nicer. It's obvious that it's not money that is the issue. Because what that does… there is a stigma in our society of asking for help. And there are a lot of people in Fort Scott that maybe had the means 2 years ago, but they don't now, but they still like they do and they're afraid to ask for the help.
There are a lot of people in Fort Scott that are isolated and lonely and they're afraid to reach out because mental health has a stigma. Loneliness has a stigma. Isolation… not working all the time has a stigma. What do you do when you're retired and your family lives far away and you can't work because of health or whatever? How do you build connection? Feeding Families is one way we can do that and when that nicer car comes through, what it does is give permission for those who are just on the edge of desperation to come and see if they could get a meal too. And I am so proud of this church and this community that the answer is yes. Yes you can have a meal. Yes.
The other practical thing is if we drew a line because… we're up to about 400 meals a week and it's taxing our volunteers and it's a lot and it's expensive and we tend to fall back into that. Well, who really deserves one? Who really needs one? Who's taking advantage?
The problem is we need these connections. We need to serve. Others need to eat. If we try to draw a line and say, okay, you gotta have lower than this income. All the government program stuff. Do you have any idea the amount of paperwork we'd have to do to enforce that? And all of a sudden, we're spending tons of volunteer time doing paperwork instead of doing human connection. And that's the point.
Because it's the communion table. It's the church. It’s the community. Not that they have to be like us. Not that they have to worship like us… but that's the church, the breaking of the bread, the handing over of the meal, the sharing, the trusting, the being vulnerable. If we're not doing that, we're not being the church. We're not being the beloved community of God.
What we do on Wednesday nights should influence what we do on Sunday mornings and Monday mornings. Not everyone can cook that night. Not everyone can serve but all of us are called to be serving in some way. Some way that builds us up and builds others up. That nourishes us. Not drains us. That's what being the church is. We need differences of opinion, differences of practice, differences of call and gifts. We don't all have to do the same thing the same way. In fact, if we did, we wouldn't be the church.
That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.