Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling”

Sermon: “A Spirit Filled Calling
Date: July 28, 2019
Scriptures: Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13

“We know through painful experience that
freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Let us pray:

God, give us the strength to approach You. Help us to be bold and to choose to listen to what you say to us. Bless us and keep us both now and forever. Amen.

I have spent the last week seeking wisdom. A few weeks ago an idea started spinning up in multiple people’s minds and spirits. I have been praying through not whether I should listen to God’s calling but how it will look in my life.

I read through a book by a church leader named Paul Nixon that was called “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.” I heard bold words about leadership, following God’s calling, and changing church culture. I dreamed through what it meant that my heart was warmed by Paul Nixon’s set of choices on how a person approaches leadership. Could I choose to be bold over being mild? Could I choose to ac kkt now instead of later? Could I choose life over death? As a leader, I have always had a calling, but this felt deeper.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the words in your bulletin that we read. He wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He wrote it to a group of white clergymen who insisted that Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham were unwise. Dr. King insisted that the oppressed must demand to call for their own freedom. He insisted that the people rise to claim their freedom.

I pondered these words as I thought about our world. Dr. King was talking about a far more insidious and evil problem, but the words still kept filling my head with thoughts and dreams.

I identify as a millennial and my generation is very spiritual but divided from traditional organized religion. I have had many conversations with people my age who have said “Church is boring,” “Church is hypocritical,” and worst of all “Church doesn’t bless me–all it does is hurt me and people I love.” I have also had these same conversations with disaffected people both younger and older than my generation.

The thing is that I know these things may be true for some people, but only because the church has often forgotten the mission or left it behind to be more comfortable. This reality is tragic.

Look at what the Colossians are told: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

When I think about what I was taught about Jesus Christ as a child, I remember being taught that Jesus loved me, that Jesus cared about what was going on in my life, and that I always had a place in God’s house. When I was a teenager, I gave my life to Christ because the Church had taught me that when everything went wrong, I had a Friend and Protector in Christ Jesus.

When I accepted that love, when I placed my identity in that strength, and when I learned more about Christ, I was thankful. I abounded in thanksgiving. Why? I abounded in gratitude because Jesus Christ’s love was closer than my right hand. When Paul says continue in the love the church taught me as a child, I see a love that means the world to me. There have been times in my life when I would rather have been separated from my arm than separated from that love.

People in my generation and people in general are oppressed by misinformation–the misinformation they have about God does harm. They do not understand how powerful God’s love can be for their lives. It hurts my soul to think people do not learn of this love because they think church is boring or irrelevant. This kind of good news brings joy and meaning to life! It breaks my heart to think people would come to church and see the church as some place harmful rather than some place beautiful. Such things are holding people in my generation down. Such things are breaking hearts and causing pain. Such things should not be.

I thought about the quote from Dr. King, I thought about what I was reading, and I wondered. What would it look like if we took the parable Jesus tells as a story with a message for us? If we were to believe that Jesus cares for our neighbors and if we were to ask God to lead us through breaking through those barriers, do we believe God would not answer? Would a parent give a child a scorpion instead of an egg for breakfast? Would a parent leave the door unanswered if their small child knocked on the door asking to come in? Of course not. I love my kids, I may love sleep, but if they came asking for something they needed in the middle of the night, I would get it for them. The same holds true for my friends–I may wish to stay in bed, but if they needed help, I would get up and help.

It is my belief that God wants to help too. As I have listened to God, respected friends in the church, and my own soul, I believe that God is preparing us for something new and exciting. I think we are facing multiple challenges and that obstacles are being thrown in our way, but I believe these are attempts to put something in the way of those who call out from the edges. I hear their cries: “Love me!” “Welcome me!” “Welcome my kids!” “Welcome my parents!” “Welcome my brokenness!” “Welcome my weirdness!” “Welcome me!”

It has become such a call in my thoughts that I am asking a question of myself: Who is knocking? Am I knocking on the door asking for help of God? Is God knocking on my door to ask me to pay attention to the least? Are the people knocking because they need something better?

The thing is that the things we believe divide people from the Jesus’ love aren’t there. Are they too loud or too lax compared to what they should be? Well if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they drinking too much at the bar or spending too much on clothes? Well, if those are sins, they have been nailed to the cross. Are they unlike the people we knew growing up in church? Well, if that’s a sin, that has been nailed to the cross.

One of the amazing things about Paul’s words is that the act of forgiveness described is always listed in the past tense. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well you were forgiven at the same time that people 200 years ago were forgiven. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well, the people down the street were forgiven at the same time. Have you been forgiven of your sin? Well the people who haven’t been born yet, haven’t done terrible things yet, and haven’t asked for forgiveness were forgiven at the same time as us. We have all been buried with Christ and resurrected with Christ.

When Paul speaks of not being taken captive by false ideas and puffed up ways of thinking, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to think of what Christ has done. People were telling them that eating non-Kosher foods would damn them, but Paul tells them to stop believing the lies. People were telling them that there were Sabbath rules that had to be followed, but Paul told them to stop believing the lies. Their salvation did not rest in the rules but in Jesus Christ.

I went to church as a young man at my father’s church on Grand Island. I grew up believing that I had to wear the nicest clothes, sit quietly, and always behave perfectly. When our church launched a contemporary worship service, we started to attend worship with a bass guitar, clapping during worship, and with people who led worship in jeans. It was weird and I kind of rebelled against it for a long time as I tried to come to grips with the differences. I had come to my own faith in Christ, but could worship take place in church with guitars and clapping? Wasn’t that a youth group thing for when the adults were all off having coffee somewhere and couldn’t stop us?

I came to realize that worship wasn’t about sitting perfectly still or being perfectly dressed. Worship was about God. I knew God loved me as who I was, but it took me a while to realize that the Sabbath laws of Sunday morning church did not make me a good Christian. Only God’s love made me a Christian in a first place. All of my salvation came down to the actions of Jesus Christ, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and the love my Creator. When Paul tells me to continue my life as I was rooted and built up in Christ, I find my own roots have strength not in tradition or historical accuracy. I find my roots only have life where they are connected to the love of God.

What is God calling me and others to do? Honestly, we’re still discerning what that looks like, but one thing is clear: If it will succeed, it will only be because it is founded on God’s love. How does that old hymn go?

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

Let us pray…

Sermon: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”

Message: “The ‘Stone’ comes with praises”
Date: April 14, 2019
Scripture: Luke 19:28-40
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Luke 19:28-40, NRSV

We are entering Holy Week this morning and we hear that strange story of the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem. We find Jesus entering Jerusalem and being hailed. We find angry religious leaders, excited disciples, and exuberant children of Israel. Today is a day of excitement and joy. We have been building up to this day since Jesus’ last liturgical appearance here. Jesus is born and enters the temple. Wonderful words of prophecy and hope. Going forth from next Sunday, we will see a new faith born out of the events of this week. There’s a reason this is called Holy Week. Holy Week is pivotal to the Christian faith.

“Palm Sunday in Spain,” 1873
by Jean-Georges Vibert French
Public Domain Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This week is pivotal not only in terms of church tradition but also it how it forms us. These stories change how we understand God. One of the reasons we encourage kids to attend Holy Week events is because they can change the way we see God and these stories in both their beauty and their sorrow teach us about the love of God.

Growing up, we were required at the Trinity United Methodist Church to go through a long confirmation process before we were offered membership. We were not alone as members of the church of all ages had several month process of education before you could join the church, but confirmands had to go through the whole Christian year together with their leaders before joining the church. We began in the fall during “Ordinary Time,” walked through Advent where we helped with Christmas programs for younger kids, took a retreat together in the season after Christmas, helped the church through Lent by taking part in helping lead Holy Week services, and finally entered membership on Pentecost.

The whole process was quite an experience, but in my memory this week was the most formative one. I remember trying to get my head around how you could receive such lavish praise one day and be crucified a few days later. When we stop to ask that question, there are a million and one reasons it might have happened.

  1. Was it a jealous religious leadership acting maliciously?
  2. Were the wrong people in Jerusalem the day Herod brings Jesus before the crowd?
  3. Was Herod sick and tired of dealing with the locals and literally washed his hands of them?
  4. Were Jesus’ teachings being heard by ordinary folks who realized they required a lot more than a welcome parade?

These ideas a few ideas of many and it may have been a combination of these things and more, but I remember looking on these moments of extreme difference and being puzzled.

I grew up near Buffalo during the years of Jim Kelly’s leadership of the Buffalo Bills, so I knew how fickle fame could be. Scott Norwood was a villain, Frank Reich was a hero, and the week before Norwood missed the kick during the Super Bowl he was awesome and the week before Reich led one of the greatest comebacks in history, he was riding the bench. I know that fame can be fickle, but this was more than that level of fickle behavior.

Something happens during Holy Week I have spent decades trying to figure out. In many ways, the curiosity and awe inspired by Holy Week led to me becoming a minister. I want to draw your attention to another passage. In Luke 20:17-19, we find these words:

“What then does this text mean:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

Luke 20:17-19, NRSV

Now, context matters, so this passage immediately follows a parable Jesus tells about the owner of a vineyard who leases out the property while he goes on a long journey. The owner sends to the people leasing the vineyard a servant after many years away. The tenants will not pay. They beat the servant and send him away. They beat the next servant who comes. Finally, the landlord sends his son. The tenants kill the son to try to benefit from the son’s death.

The religious leaders understand that Jesus is telling a story about them. They are furious and that upsets them, but what’s interesting is that old quotation. It comes from Psalm 118:19-22:

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;

the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

Psalm 118:19-22, NRSV

The religious leaders object to Jesus being given such praise on the day we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. The religious leaders question him and he refers to a coronation psalm. Jesus, being questioned about the goodness of his deeds and teachings, tells them that the gates should be open, that God’s salvation is near, and that the very thing the builders have rejected will become the chief cornerstone upon which salvation will be built.

Over the years, I have never really wrapped my head around all the events of Holy Week. I believe part of the Christian walk is this ongoing attempt to contemplate, ponder, and meditate over these days. I understand this though: today we celebrate the entrance into Jerusalem by Christ. Christ is who the people need and not who the people want. Jesus is the foundation of the future they need and a breaking from what the people imagined.

On this day, we celebrate Jesus entering a city built upon generation after generation of people doing their best. Jesus will enter a temple of ornate stone and beautiful worship. Jesus will smell the scents, see the people, see the abuses of the temple, and will teach. The very person the people need will be the one who is rejected. The very stone upon which the future will be built must first be rejected.

If this sermon seems like only a bit of the story of Holy Week, it is because this is only one part. As we enter Holy Week, I want to challenge you to come back to church before next Sunday. Come Thursday night and ponder Holy Communion over a meal. Come Friday to hear the story and empty the sanctuary. Come by yourself and read the gospel stories during one of the quiet days when Wide Horizons is on break and you’ll find Teagen and myself working away in our office. Interrupt me to ask questions. I promise I won’t mind as I may be pondering the same things myself. Grab your Bible and take a long walk with it. I invite you to enter further into the story.

Take time this week. Meanwhile, contemplate this: We often never know what we need until the moment is past. Like those people long ago, we may believe Christ is coming into our lives to do what we expect. If Holy Week teaches us one thing, it is that Christ comes and will be Christ. Let us welcome Christ into our lives. Let us pray…

Sermon: “Settling the Space”

Message: “Settling the Space”
Date: April 7, 2019
Scripture: John 12:1-8
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ “

John 12:1-18, NRSV

This season we have been looking at the Lenten journey as a journey into our own wilderness. We have explored the fact that Jesus found something out in the wilds when he fasted for forty days and we have joined in that journey. We have explored the idea the fact that there are frightening things out in the world when we look at our own hearts and at the world around us. We have looked at how we must sometimes clear out the broken parts of ourselves with God’s help. It has been quite a journey.

Today we continue that journey with an honest question: What happens when we walk into that wilderness and find our home? What does it mean to settle into that land? When the woods are cleared, the crops are planted, and we find a place to lay a foundation for our heart’s home, what does that look like for us today? We’ll take a look at that question through the lens of our passage from John, but first let us pray:

Holy Christ, we are less than two weeks away from Holy Week. Next Sunday the journey towards the cross intensifies as we read how you enter Jerusalem for that final week before the crucifixion. Be with us today as we go into this scripture which is our scripture for this moment. Give us wisdom and clarity. Give us peace and patience. Help us to understand what you might be saying to your church. Amen.

Today is a communion Sunday and we are doing something a bit strange after our sermon. Years ago, Penguin Books put out a version in its “Penguin Classics” series called “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” which was edited by Maxwell Staniforth. That work included in the translations of various letters and sermons written in the early church was a document called the Didache.

The Didache was one of the earliest writings and contains, among many things, a picture of how the early church functioned. Most interestingly today, the DIdache included a description of how to go about serving communion in church.

In the early church communion was vital to the community life. It was seen as a commandment of God to embrace this holy meal whenever the church gathered. As you will see, the service is short and straightforward. The responses are far more prevalent after the meal is served than before, some elements we use today are missing, and other elements seem eerily similar to parts of our own service.

The bread spread over the hills…

Why engage in this service today? There’s a very simple reason. We are gathered towards the end of Lent and Holy Week is coming. We have been seeking our way through this wilderness and we are using this very old service as a way of reminding ourselves of a very important truth: “There’s a place for us at the table.”

Nearly 2,000 years ago the table was prepared for the people. With chalice and bread the church was drawn to God. These truths have not changed. The table has been open for God’s children for nearly 2,000 years. This truth existed long before we were born and will be true long after we have passed on from this world.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we see our space at that table. Do we see how we belong to God in this world? Do we have eyes open enough to recognize that place in all of us which belongs with Christ? To use the wilderness analogy, do we open our eyes when we see that clearing besides the still waters of Psalm 23? Do we recognize the gift of the divine in all of our lives: the opportunity to belong without question to and with Christ?

This question is quite serious. It can be very easy to turn our eyes from God and forget our place with Christ. Can we recognize how easy it is to be blinded by the goods and things of this world? Is it possible that even our comfort in this world can blind us to our place with Christ?

Can there be life and space for us in a concrete world?

In our scriptures we see that temptation. Judas looks at the table before him in Lazarus’ home and sees waste. The scriptures tell us that he is a thief from the common purse, but there’s something even more fiendish going on in this place. Judas’ greed has drawn his eyes to Mary’s gift and in his quest to satisfy his desires Judas tries to come between Mary and Jesus.

Judas’ eyes are not on Mary as a person in grief. He does not see that she is coming from a place of love and possibly of grief. All he sees is what is in front of him. His lust for wealth has blinded him to God’s purposes. While Judas will serve a purpose, he has lost his way.

Strangely, while it appears that the disciples are continually ignorant of what will happen, Mary seemingly understands things are about to go terribly wrong. Mary’s eyes are not on the perfume and her thoughts are not on the cost of the perfume. Mary’s eyes are on Christ, who is right in front of her. Her eyes are focused on Jesus.

In Luke 18 Jesus shares a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The tax collector prays for forgiveness to God with humility while the Pharisee stands around thanking God that he is better than everyone around him. The Pharisee has his eyes on the world around him, but the tax collector is focused on God and asking for mercy. Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this [tax collector], rather than the [Pharisee], went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

When you read this story, who do you think goes to sleep that night justified? Is it Mary who comes to anoint the feet of Christ with love or Judas who keeps his eyes on the costly perfume? Who do you believe has a place at Christ’s table? In my opinion, Mary definitely has that place at the table.

Mary has suffered more than most. Scriptures tell us that Mary and her sister send a message to Jesus when Lazarus is about to die. They live through the grief when Jesus does not arrive before his death. They live through the shock of Lazarus’ resurrection. For that matter, even before this took place, Mary’s own sister chastises her in front of Jesus for learning from Jesus rather than diving in to help with the housework. Mary and Jesus have a rich history, but here in this place we find Mary understanding the truth that she has a place with Jesus that allows her to be intimate with her savior, she has a place with Jesus that allows her to expect Christ will protect her from those who might see these actions as too intimate (which is really important in a world where an adulteress can be stoned to death), and she has a confidence that she will be welcomed by Christ.

She knows her place. We who wander through the wilderness of Lent can forget that this is a season of practice. In our darkest moments and in our greatest triumphs, we never lose our place in God’s love. The spot at this table, the “bread spread over the hills,” and the juice in this chalice is meant for us. We have a home in the wilderness because when we wander into the wilderness we can find Christ, and once we enter into that love, nothing can separate us from that love in Christ Jesus.

We are using this old liturgy because it reminds us that this table has been open around the world for a very long time. Saints of old gathered to share their praises and eat this bread. The cup has been passed to people of every nation and people. The table is here for us as it has stood for all of God’s children for generation upon generation.

I invite you to prepare your heart for this feast. God comes to share with us again today. As we break bread, as we share the cup, and as we open our arms to each other in love, we do these things as a people who are welcome. Let all who need to ask forgiveness, come before God in the moments ahead. Let all who need to ask for courage, come before God in the moments ahead. I invite you into an attitude of prayer as we approach the throne. Let us enter into silence and then prayer…

“Foraging Hope” Sermon

Sermon: “Foraging Hope”
Date: March 31, 2019
Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary)
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them…”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV

We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:

Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.

We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.

Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.

It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.

The Prodigal Son, ca. 1496
Albrecht Dürer
Public Domain courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.

We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.

Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?

Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?

We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.

I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.

There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.

Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.

We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.

The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?

A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.

We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?

The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.

The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.

A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”

I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”

The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.

The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.

Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?

Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.

It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…

Sermon: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”

Message: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”
Date: March 24, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9, NRSV

Friends, we are in the midst of the season of Lent. This entire season we have been comparing our own spiritual journey to a journey into the wild. In this Lenten season we have faced some difficult passages and today’s scripture is no exception. Difficult passages can lead to messages that difficult to both preach and hear. Let’s enter these moments prayerfully.

Holy God, one of the early Desert Monastics named Abba Pambo said “If you have a heart you can be saved.” Give to us your saving grace this morning. As we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, give us the wisdom to hear what you are saying to the saints. We ask this blessing in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

What have you found during this Lenten journey? Have you found wild things in your hearts? Did those things frighten or exhilarate you? This morning we continue looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. There’s tough words here and some difficult theology.

Jesus challenges the people to think about the world and their own lives. In our text Jesus hears words of great tragedy. The ruler Pilate has executed some of Jesus’ people and then treats them barbarically. The story has a sense of being older than time as a hated public figure has done something terrible and it upsets the people. I am certain we can all think of figures who have done awful things in our day and age.

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” by James Tissot

Jesus questions one of the oldest theological misconceptions. Jesus attacks a theology which says that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to these Galileans it is because they are bad people. Just like the people who died when a tower collapsed in Siloam, the people are looking at these Galileans and asking why God let this happen. If they are good, wouldn’t God have spared them?

Jesus starts off essentially teaches the same lesson as the Book of Job. Bad things can happen to good people. Jesus takes it a step further and points out that all of the people have sin in their lives. WHen Jesus says “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” we find ourselves reading uncomfortable words. The words are very uncomfortable.

Jesus is teaching a truth though. Any journey into the heart like Lent will reveal a lot about our hearts and souls. There are wild parts of us we may encounter, there are dangerous things within us, and there’s also something else in there. Like every wooden wilderness, there are places where the trees are dead, the branches are broken, and the ground is covered with brambles. It is uncomfortable to say it, but there are places in all of our lives where we need to repent.

Thornbush by Les Hatfield, used under Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

For me, there are places in my heart where there are broken bits. I grew up in a house where I experienced physical abuse as a child. When I wander through my woods, I occasionally come across parts of my heart that are deeply troubled and angry. There are parts of my soul where I need to repent because I can grow furious when those parts are touched, poked, and prodded. There are places in my life where these words are true. I need to clear out those brambles, get rid of the deadwood, and tear through the thorns.

Do you understand what I am saying? When I hear these words I don’t hear words of condemnation. I hear Jesus saying that all have brokenness. I hear Jesus seeing a group of people trying to say these Galileans must have been sinners while turning a blind eye to their own problems. To use another part of Jesus’ teachings, I see Jesus looking at a people with logs in their own eyes judging other people for having what may have been splinters.

I am glad the parable follows this passage because I think it elucidates what Jesus is trying to say. The people are like a fig tree without fruit. The owner of the garden keeps coming to get figs and finds nothing. The owner wants to tear the tree down, but the gardener asks for more time. The gardener will fertilize it with manure, break up the ground so the roots can spread, and watch over the tree for another year. The gardener is doing everything possible to save the tree.

It bears saying that we are reading this in Lent and the Lenten journey ends at the cross every year. The people are broken in deep ways and on Good Friday Jesus will do everything possible to bring life to the very people who will stand around jeering and taunting him. It is important to remember that Jesus is acting like this gardener and will do everything for these people.

When Jesus says unless we repent, we will perish the words are very hard to hear. In honesty though, there are parts in all of us we know should not be there. There are broken places in our lives and they need to go. Our hope is in the fact that Jesus tends the garden in our hearts, and with Jesus’ help we can tend to our broken places. When we pull down the thorn bushes, it is with Christ’s hands and our hands. When we chop down the broken branches, we do not swing an axe alone.

The Good Shepherd statue at the Malvern Retreat Center in Malvern, OA

Also, sometimes there are places in us which we cannot deal with ourselves. In those moments, we have one we can turn to hoping God will bless us with all we need. Yes, we have to repent, but if we turn to God with honesty, we can find our way through even the most challenging of circumstances.

Will you have the courage to repent this Lent? Will you find your broken places and turn them over to the gardener? Will you let God break the soil of your heart, fertilize what is good, tend to what is hurting, and remove what needs to be taken away?

Sermon: “Wildness”

Message: Wildness
Date: March 17th, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Today we’re headed further into Lent. This season we’re looking at the season like a trip into the wilderness. We established last week that the wilderness is not always a place of deprivation. There is wisdom to be learned out there in the wilds.

Today we are looking at one of the harder realities of wandering into the wild. In the real world, the wild can be a dangerous place. In our own hearts we can come across some frightening things sometimes. What does Jesus’ journey teach us about those moments? Hopefully, we will glean some wisdom this morning, but first let us pray a prayer that is most appropriate for today. This particular version is from a book called “Irish Blessings” which I purchased in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It is one of the many versions of St. Patrick’s Breast Plate. I invite you to pray it with me:

Christ be with me,
Christ be within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

St. Patrick’s Breast Plate from “Irish Blessings

We are looking today at the concept of wildness. I live here in the town of Maine and I have been walking around a lot praying recently. I am not walking as a part of my Lenten devotions. I have simply had a lot to pray over with the events of the world and in my denomination.

At least several times a week, I don my trusty hat, head lamp, grab a couple of plastic bags to attend to my dogs’ needs, and head out around the block. Normally we go around three times: once for each dog and once by myself.

I sometimes wonder if the dogs get bored with smelling the same places, marking the exact same spots, and being forced to sit on the cold ground each time a car comes by in the dark. I wonder if they tire of the same dogs barking desperately from the same yards, but we keep on walking the same path.

Why? I would love to head up into the hills, but I have been warned. When I first got here, there were stories of wild cats up in the woods above town. I do not know about that, but there are hungry creatures out in those woods, and my sheltie would be an easy snack for most of them. He isn’t the most vicious of creatures. Let’s be frank: the dog is a pushover.

Not exactly the toughest dog…

We stay in the valley because it is fairly safe. Besides the occasional loose dog, car driving a bit fast, and that one rabbit that keeps driving my dogs crazy, the valley is a fairly tame place. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to go off into those hills.

I pondered this as I read this week’s text. We’re looking at the season of Lent as a journey into the wilderness. We are not talking about the wilderness outside ourselves. Lent is a journey into the wilderness of the soul. Just as Jesus wandered into the wilderness for forty days, we set aside these forty days to wander into our wilderness.

Here’s a simple truth: a journey into the wilderness will lead to personal challenge and difficult things. There are places in our souls that are often well worn, safe, and generally familiar if not routine paths. When we intentionally step out of our comfort zone, there are wild parts in all of us.

Let me give an easy example from my own story. Friday night I lay awake in bed. I am following John Wesley’s example and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays this Lent, although I am doing a partial fast. I do not eat chicken, beef, lamb, rabbit, or pork on those days. I also try to eat a little less than usual on those days.

Friday was a long day, and I found myself laying in bed dreaming of hamburgers. I lay in my bed with my phone and found myself googling recipes for potted anchovies to put on crackers. I was that hungry! I had eaten a few slices of cucumber as a snack only a few hours before bedtime. Surely that should have been enough, but my stomach growled. I wanted meat, and I wanted it right then. Enough of fasting, I wanted protein and I wanted it now. I was ravenous. I was hungry.

When we wander off of our normal paths by doing simple things even as small as cutting back, we find ourselves to be far wilder than we expected. If that’s what cutting back on a little extra food does to me, can you imagine how hard it can be when we come across the parts of ourselves that growl in our wilderness.

What happens when we come across a place in ourselves that needs to forgive? If a little of hunger can come across as an angry little sheltie barking at me for sacrificing something so small for Christ, what do you think the wolf of anger looks like as it slobbers in our wilderness? It takes a little more than saying “I need you to let it go” when those sharp teeth start slobbering.

The journey into ourselves will bring us across parts of ourselves that are not easy to deal with on our own. I am reminded of the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg wrote the following poem called “Wilderness:”

“There is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fox in me … a silver-gray fox … I sniff and guess … I pick things out of the wind and air … I nose in the dark night and take sleepers and eat them and hide the feathers … I circle and loop and double-cross.

There is a hog in me … a snout and a belly … a machinery for eating and grunting … a machinery for sleeping satisfied in the sun—I got this too from the wilderness and the wilderness will not let it go.

There is a fish in me … I know I came from saltblue water-gates … I scurried with shoals of herring … I blew waterspouts with porpoises … before land was … before the water went down … before Noah … before the first chapter of Genesis.

There is a baboon in me … clambering-clawed … dog-faced … yawping a galoot’s hunger … hairy under the armpits … here are the hawk-eyed hankering men … here are the blond and blue-eyed women … here they hide curled asleep waiting … ready to snarl and kill … ready to sing and give milk … waiting—I keep the baboon because the wilderness says so.

There is an eagle in me and a mockingbird … and the eagle flies among the Rocky Mountains of my dreams and fights among the Sierra crags of what I want … and the mockingbird warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone, warbles in the underbrush of my Chattanoogas of hope, gushes over the blue Ozark foothills of my wishes—And I got the eagle and the mockingbird from the wilderness.

O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.”

Wilderness” by Carl Sandburg

There is a wilderness inside all of us and the Lenten journey can bring it out. In the terms of Carl Sandburg, we run the zoo inside ourselves. To be honest, one of the reasons I believe that Lent is an important season is that it brings us into contact with that wildness inside us all. Lent teaches us about ourselves which is important because of a simple truth.

Everyone in the scriptures from Eve and Adam, to Sarah and Abraham, to Job, to Ezra, to Nehemiah, to King David, to Elijah, to Deborah, to Esther, to Paul of Tarsus, to Simon Peter, to Timothy, and even Jesus all faced moments where they had things go terribly wrong. We do not have records of all of those moments, but they all faced their challenges.

Deborah the Judge had to lead a nation unaccustomed to women in leadership. Esther was faced with decisions that could cost her life in order to save her people. Peter had to deal with shame after running after the cock crowed. Paul had to deal with the fact that he came to faith in Christ and was nearly shunned by his newly beloved family which he had harmed deeply. Each had moments where everything went wrong and it was by faith that each found their way through. Let’s be clear, sometimes they did not make it through without failure. King David clearly didn’t do well with women or the husband of one whom he sent to his death.

If the people of the Bible struggled with their own wolves, bears, and tigers, shouldn’t we expect the same? Lent is a season when we begin to explore the wilderness of our souls because sooner or later we will come across events that will shove us out of our valleys. When we come across the hungry wolves in our hearts, it can literally be life saving to have taken time to practice and learn our own strengths and weaknesses.

Spiritual formation may be over there… In the snowy woods…

So, how do we go about facing those challenges? I believe the first thing we must do is to stick to the course. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) that: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Our challenges, whether they be yappy shelties that want something to eat or wolves of anger–there is nothing so wild that it is unique to our lives. Some of the things we face may seem beyond our capability, but ask yourself this: What if Paul is right? What if you can overcome? What if we all could overcome?

Look at what Jesus is facing in today’s scripture reading. The Pharisees come to Jesus and tell him that Herod, the local king, wants him dead. They tell him to flee. First off, let’s be clear. This is coming from the Gospel of Luke and in Luke 23:8 we are told that Herod had long wanted to see Jesus so he could perform a sign. He and his soldiers mock Jesus along with the scribes and Pharisees, but Herod does not seem to want to kill Jesus at all. The Pharisees are lying to Jesus.

Jesus says he cannot die outside Jerusalem, mourns for Jerusalem, but still continues on his way. In the gospel of Luke it will be a long time until he reaches Jerusalem. He has a journey ahead of him, is already facing opposition, and will need to walk right into it.

One of the key truths passed down by the church is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. What that means in this case is that Christ is experiencing a human life. Do you believe that Jesus would not have faced his own worries in these moments? Do you wonder if he wouldn’t like all that power offered as a temptation in the wilderness when the very people he loves are trying to deceive and threaten him? As a human, I know I’d want that power in that moment. The wilderness temptation would ring in my ears like a gong.

So, here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t give in to desire or fear. He continues on his way. If Lent is the season of following the footsteps of Jesus, then we should note a few things about where Jesus’ journey goes from here:

First, Jesus remains committed to love. Even as he knows Jerusalem will be his end, Jesus is depicted as loving that city. She will be his end and yet Jesus longs to cradle her like a mothering hen cradles her chicks. Jesus does not react to those who will harm him with anger. Jesus responds with love.

Responding with love to a broken world is hard. When we go on our Lenten journey there are places where we will come across parts of the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves which seem dead set to foil us. Jesus responds with love. Should we seek to do anything less?

Second, Jesus goes forward despite the challenge: he doesn’t give up. There is a good deal of his journey ahead of him. He will face more trials and more tribulations. Despite the fact the pharisees threaten him, Jesus doesn’t give up on them. In chapter fourteen, the very next chapter, we find Jesus going to share a Sabbath meal with one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Jesus does not surrender to his fear but stays the course.

Third, Jesus remembers his journey isn’t a journey that he takes alone. Jesus walks the path with his disciples, who are not a perfect bunch of people. Jesus makes the journey with a community of faith and that is important for us to remember. The journey of Lent can often seem a lonely journey, but that is a misconception. It is easy to give in to the temptation to feel alone, but we are called to remember that we were called into community.

It seems strange to say, but one of the most important things we can do as a community during the season of Lent is to be together as a church. I am not simply talking about being together Sunday morning. Sharing a cup of tea with the person from another pew, praying for that neighbor who is struggling with cancer, or even stopping by the church office for a cup of tea with your pastor. All of these things can be important things we experience on this journey of faith through Lent.

I advise us all to remember that one of the worst things we can do on this journey is to cut ourselves off from others. I have seen many beloved family members in Christ either disconnect from community, become apathetic about remaining with their spiritual family, or “pick up their toys and go home” when life or community becomes difficult. Those approaches have almost never led to anything good for either the community or the individuals. The spiritual life is far better in community. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV) reminds us:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NRSV

Now let’s be clear, this is a season where we find the wild parts of ourselves, but the wild will come into our lives even outside of this season. These simple ways of following Christ’s example can be lifesaving ways of being even outside of these moments. So, even after this season, when the challenges of life snarl in your direction:

  1. Don’t react with panic–as much as possible respond with love.
  2. Stay the course despite the challenges
  3. Don’t isolate yourself: remain connected to God and church.

We all must face our own challenges. To go back to the source of our opening prayer and reference a likely apocryphal story, we may find ourselves in a land full of snakes. Like St. Patrick we are sometimes asked a question: Will the snakes drive you out of your island or will you drive the snakes out? As beloved children of our Creator, as followers of Christ’s example, and with the good counsel of our Advocate, the choice is before us.

Let us pray…

“Into the Wilderness”

Message: “Into the Wilderness”
Date: March 10, 2019 (First Sunday of Lent)
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Before we begin, there will be two quotes in today’s sermon from the book “Thou Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to say two things.

First, he was an incredible author and I recommend that everyone spend time reading his words. As a European white guy, I found reading “Letter from A Birmingham Jail” to be both moving and poignant.

Second, it is important to me as a minister that I do my best to bring voices into these sermons which do not reflect the way many of us look or act in the pews. I hope that you ask yourself why that is important to me and what I might be trying to teach through that example.

Let us pray: Holy God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today we are entering the season of Lent. Lent is the forty non-Sabbath days we celebrate between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a season of fasting and contrition. It is a season of learning about one’s own heart and soul through experience. It is a season in the heart.

Growing up, reading passages like this morning’s passage always reminded me of Lent. Lent was a season of loss and deprivation. Yes, the celebration of Lent is tied to the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, but I am not certain I understood wilderness in those days. I imagined endless deserts in the Sahara. I wondered what Jesus could have done for forty days sitting on a sand dune.

As an adult one of the most amazing experiences I had was going on two United Methodist Volunteer in Mission trips to learn with and serve with the Diné who were named the Navajo by the European Spaniards who first had regular contact with them in terms of Europeans coming across the oceans.

The Diné are a proud people, but the places we were serving were in and outside of Sawmill, Arizona. There were beautiful vistas, beautiful people, but I took a while to understand what I saw in that wilderness. Why would a land with so few trees be called Sawmill?

I learned the trees had been clear-cut and sold. I wondered why there were many older women but so few older men around until I learned about the uranium mines. I saw people working hard to make it through.

One of the people I met was a man named Pastor Curly. Pastor Curly was a person who knew everyone in his community but had a task well beyond his means. I mean no disrespect to Pastor Curly. The amount of poverty in the areas where he served where incredible and Pastor Curly was neither rich nor powerful. He still stood up, taught, preached, prayed, and loved richly.

As a young man, I thought wilderness was just dunes of desert. Now I see wilderness differently. Wilderness is where the wilds of the world continue to exist and thrive. Wilderness is not always a place of deprivation.

Jesus spends forty days in his wilderness. At the end of those forty days he is tempted with food to sate his hunger, power to change the world, and even the respect of the people who would one day help crucify him. Each time he is offered one of these things, he is firm that he won’t take them.

At some level, even with all that hunger, what would one loaf of bread do? At some level, even if Jesus impressed all the people in the temple, would that change the way things would go? The question that gets to me though is my own temptation: “What good would having all that power over the world do?”

When I went into the wilderness of Sawmill, Arizona I was full of ideas about how we could help. We could fix windows, replace rotten floors, and do good for folks who could not do it for themselves. That goal was a noble goal.

What I didn’t realize was how I would learn that despite all the power, influence, and strength I have as an educated, influential, European, male who was on his way to being told by a bishop to “Take thou authority,” I was not the richer person when I met some Diné. Pastor Curly was developing a depth working in the wilderness that wasn’t born out of having power or authority, but born out of being present with people who needed a voice and presence of hope. Pastor Curly helped me to understand what it means to learn from the wilderness.

Here’s our first quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Lord help me to accept my tools. However dull they are, help me to accept them. And then Lord, after I have accepted my tools, then help me to set out and do what I can with my tools.”

I learned in the wilderness that my tools were not as sharp as I once thought they were. I was an idealist and wanted to change the world, but when I looked in my toolshed, I found axes which needed sharpening and oiling, screwdrivers with broken edges, and sledgehammers with loose handles.

In the wilderness, I found myself longing and sorrowful. My own people helped cause some problems faced by the Diné and I was powerless to reverse them. I didn’t have the tools I needed, but I had tools. In the wilderness, I found my path further unfold.

Why am I passionate about the church be open to everyone? I am passionate because I have a voice and how that voice is used matters. I can stay silent and let others insist nothing changes or I can take my dull axe, sharpen as best as I can, and swing at the logs of injustice. I can take my busted screwdriver and re-purpose it as an ice-pick and try to break through the ice of loneliness and fear that freezes people’s hearts. I can take these dull tools of mine, accept them, and then set out to do something good with them.

Since I went on those trips to see the Diné, I understand the wilderness differently. The wilderness is not simply a place of deprivation. Yes, much like the season of Lent, being in the wilds can be challenging. It can be very difficult to walk into places that are beyond our comfort-zones, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth in those wilds. Out in the wilderness Jesus found something that enabled him to go forward on this journey.

The second prayer from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will lead us towards our conclusion. He once prayed: “God grant that you will choose your good self thereby mastering your evil self.”

In the wilderness of Arizona, standing outside the window rock, an ancient meeting place of the Diné I was faced with a choice that brought me to tears. I could stay the person I was at home, return to the life I lived, and forget about everything I learned in the wilds. Alternatively, I could choose my “good self.”

I did my best to choose my good self, but like most things worthwhile, it is hard. Nobody looks at what Jesus does in the wilderness and says “That looks easy.” Our own journey through Lent may not be easy. You may find that there are beasts out there in the wilds and there will certainly be temptations.

Friends, this season I invite you to step out into the wilderness. I invite you to do the risky thing and choose your good self. I invite you to leave what is comfortable behind and find what tools may await you in the desert.

May God help us all to choose our good selves and to master our evil selves. May God bless the people gathering at the Sawmill United Methodist Church this morning. May God bless Pastor Curly as he ministers through his life today. Amen.

Sermon: “Dear Sophia”

Dear “Sophia,”

Blessings to you, Wisdom personified in the name of God! For the last few weeks, we have been looking into your book during worship. We have pondered your calling on the streets, considered the powerful reminders you share to seek your face before calamity strikes, and have thought through some bits of your advice.

I wanted to write to you today because we’re dealing with one of the most powerful passages in Proverbs. We’ve been reading through the 31st chapter and this is a strange passage to consider, especially given all of the conversations around sexuality and womanhood in our culture as of late. Between conversations around the #MeToo movement and conversations around current events in the news, this is a weird time for Proverbs 31 to come around in the lectionary. I might not have chosen it on my own.

There is a challenge in approaching almost any scripture passage because the scriptures were written down long ago. We come to ancient passages and need to ponder their meaning both in context of their origins and our present. The challenge we face is that scripture is often interpreted based on our own perspective. On one hand, these words of Proverbs have created a vivid image of strength that has brought comfort to many people over time.

Interestingly, the passage speaks of a woman who does not find her value in ornamentation or in sensuality. The woman described is one who works hard and is appreciated by her husband. She is prudent and wise in many ways. She is charitable with what she has when she sees someone in need. She does not dismiss her handiwork as junk, but finds value in the work of her fingers. She is confident, strong, and dignified. Her family and her children see her worth.

For someone who sees this goal as an achievable one, this is an image of comfort. Some might say “If I am prudent and wise then I can be like that woman in Proverbs.” Some might consider the skill of their hands, the appreciation of their mate, or even their practicality as signposts of their similarity to the image found in scripture. That can be really comforting coming from that perspective, but let’s be clear. There’s almost always more than one perspective even when we read scripture.

Sophia, let’s be real for a moment. This is one image of femininity, but it also isn’t the only image of femininity. As much as I appreciate your wisdom, there are times when I look at what you say and question where you’re coming from in your words.

I understand that even these words in scripture come from a place of a particular context and cultural placement, but some of the advice you share occasionally just seems like bad advice. Just a few verses before this passage you encourage the wisdom one should have to “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.”

Seriously Sophia?

I appreciate a lot of your wisdom, but there’s something dreadfully naive at times in the ways in which people read these passages. They see this image of a talented industrious woman in the scriptures and then look into the mirror. They don’t always like what they see in the mirror and sometimes the very words your scriptures express can cause real harm. Sometimes the words of others from the past or the present can cause similar harm.

Sophia, my job is to share wisdom around these words today. How am I to share these words with someone who has lost control over their fingers? If a person cannot knit, or stitch, or even control shaking due to accident or illness, are they not as capable as this woman? You praise the generosity of this woman, but your own words can cause real harm sometimes. I have seen beloved children of God struggle with Parkinson’s disease and lose control. I have seen beloved children of God with neurological conditions that precluded learning to control their fingers with such dexterity. Sophia, these words can hurt.

What do I say when their fingers are capable, but they have other hurdles to face in their lives? Do I say that mental illness, language barriers, or even just their God-given personality is unfortunately a barrier? Are capable women always this successful or is there room for the refugee and the immigrant to live God-fearing lives? Is a woman less capable because she is born to a people under oppression?

What’s more, what do I say to address the capable woman who can have no children and is left by her partner? What do I say to the women who work long and hard to cultivate this personality only to never find a partner? Are they any less in the eyes of God? Are they any less in your estimation?

Now, I know that your words record the words of another. At the beginning of this chapter, these words are attributed to a king who was trying to teach his son the wisdom his mother once taught him. In many ways, the good king is trying to advise a son on how to choose a good partner. I understand that culturally, the words that are being used would have probably been good advice, but those days are not these days. People take these words to heart and at times it hurts them and drives them to tears.

Sophia, if I might interject on behalf of the women I know who I have seen hurt by these words. What’s more, if I might interject on behalf of all people who struggle with these words.

The woman you describe is someone who has confidence in herself. She sees that the work of her hands have value and does not let the world demean her. She believes in herself. You don’t have to weave garments to find pride in what you do. If God has made you a baker, you bake your heart out! If God has made you a singer, then sing with gusto. If God has made you a great listener, then share your gift with those you love. No matter what gift God has given you, believe in yourself and understand that you have been entrusted with a gifting because you matter.

The woman you describe has a healthy relationship with someone who does not take her for granted. Many people would love to have a healthy relationship like the one described, but sometimes things happen that go beyond our control. We act trustworthy but those we love cannot trust. We act lovingly but the ones we love cannot express love. If the intention here is to express that worthiness comes from the love of a partner, then I have to disagree. Too many people have looked in the mirror and seen bruises. “If I just try harder, then they won’t hurt me.”

Real value does not rest in the appreciation of others. Real value requires a level of respect that we see challenged regularly and rightly by things like the #MeToo movement. It might feel nice to be appreciated, but ultimately our sense of value and worth cannot rest solely on another human being. Occasionally our sense of value requires us to speak out against those who would take advantage of us or keep us silent in the face of past transgressions.

Sophia, the woman you describe is strong both in character and in body. She works hard and is never idle. Some of the strongest women I know have spent years with walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. They are worth no less than someone who can curl a full skein of heavy wool. Value lies in the reality of the person who bears the image of God throughout all of the seasons of their life.

Sophia, I do not wish to dismiss those who find value in your words. I know that there are many folks who do find value and praise God that your words inspire and uplift them. May they remain uplifted! I just wish the people of God to know that their value does not rest on one image of femininity. Folks who bear up life with integrity, respect their own worth, and seek value in right relationship–they all have value in the eyes of the God I know, no matter what gender they claim.

Sophia, as I seek to enter into prayer with the people of God, I hope you hear and understand my respect for you and your words. May your wisdom dwell within us all as we pray, as we go forward, and go out into the world.

Truly,

Rev. R

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”
Date: June 24, 2018
Scripture: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note: This is the manuscript that I am preaching on today. There’s always space for unexpected leadings of the Spirit. In other words, I often wander off script.

Once upon a time, there were three bored kids on summer vacation. They look all around and all they could find to play with was a single quarter. One of the kids started flipping the quarter.

“You know,” she said, “every time I flip this coin it lands on heads.” She flipped the coin three times and it landed on heads all three times. The second kid asked for the quarter, looked at it, and said “I bet every time I flip it, it will land on tails.” The coin was flipped three times and, wouldn’t you know it, it landed on tails all three times.

The third kid asked for the coin. He looked at it long and hard. He weighed it in he hand, flipped it around in his hand a bit, and made up his mind. “You know, “ the third child said, “it might seem funny, but I think I just made twenty-five cents,” put the coin in his pocket and walked off. Somewhere, their parents’ hair grew a little grayer as the arguing began.

Of course, that story is meant as a joke, but I tell it for a very serious reason. Three kids each looked at the same coin. Two of the kids saw that there were only two possibilities. They were bored, and the coin would land on heads or tails every time. The coin was a distraction on a boring day. The third child saw the coin and saw twenty-five cents. The way they viewed the coin changed the way they acted with the coin. Their outlook affected the way they acted.

As funny as our story was meant to be, it gives us a way into a very common fact of life. The way we interact with the world is affected by the way that we see it. One bad experience with a dog can make you less than thrilled with the idea of meeting a new dog. The words your parents used in your youth to describe your neighbors can affect the way you see them and their children today. We are affected by our worldview and our worldview has an effect on how we read scriptures.

Let me ask a simple question every Christian should ask now and again. How does your outlook on life affect the way you read the scriptures? How does the way you read scripture affect the way you look at life? The assumption of church is often that the scriptures affect the way we live, but do we ever stop to look at how our lives affect the way we read those scriptures?

Let’s take today’s reading as example. Most of us who are a certain age or older have an image of this story, the story of David and Goliath. The image was put in place when we were young by stories in Sunday school and church camp. For me, the image I grew up with was a giant man who was just covered in muscles. The Israelites were afraid of Goliath because Goliath was tremendous. In honesty, David did not stand a chance against the Goliath in my mind’s eye. Goliath was big, strong, and powerful. David was just the youngest child of a large family and didn’t stand a chance. David’s place was where he was as the story begins. David was sent to deliver cheese, because how much trouble can a small kid get into with cheese?

The image I took away from the story was one of David overcoming tremendous odds. What’s strange is that the scriptures themselves do not really line up with that image. At least, they don’t line up when you pay close attention to the science behind the story.

The tallest man alive, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is Sultan Kösen (K-ay-sen). He was, when measured in 2011, eight foot, 2.8 inches tall. The man named Goliath described in our scriptures had nearly a foot and a half on Mr. Kösen. He was really, really tall. Now what makes that interesting, is that every inch of Goliath has weight. There are several formulas used to calculate the proper weight of an individual by height, but assuming that Goliath was 25, Goliath should have weighed:

If based on the Robinson formula (1983), the ideal weight is 353.4 lbs
If based on the Miller formula (1983), the ideal weight is 301.1 lbs
If based on the Devine formula (1974), the ideal weight is 399.3 lbs
If based on the Hamwi formula (1964), the ideal weight is 445.1 lbs
All of this means, based on one healthy BMI recommendation, his recommended weight is 360.2 lbs – 486.8 lbs.

Think about that for a moment. Assuming the lowest ideal body weight, the body weight which would have the most muscle with the least fat, Goliath would have weighed more than 300 pounds, been carrying over 150 pounds of armor, had likely more than 20 pounds of weaponry with just his spear, and that isn’t counting other clothes, his leg-guards, his helmet, his javelin, or even his shield, provided his shield-bearer wasn’t carrying it, which seems likely as a shield would have really helped when David started launching stones.

What’s more interesting is when we apply another formula from modern science to the breastplate which Goliath wears. A study by the American Association of Physics Teachers suggested a surprising conclusion when studying backpacking individuals who carry large backpacks over a period of time. Let’s be clear, the weight would be carried on the back instead of the front in a backpacking situation, but the challenge of Goliath did take place over several days.

According to the article in “The Physics Teacher” entitled “Backpack Weight and the Scaling of the Human Frame” by Michael O’Shea, there’s a revelation about a common misconception. The misconception is this: one imagines that a larger person can carry more weight comfortably than a smaller individual. When a person at 220 pounds looks at a healthy individual whose Body Mass Index (their BMI) is not overweight, one would expect that they could carry more than a healthy individual with the same BMI who weighed only 132 pounds.

Unfortunately, the science of our assumptions do not add up. O’Shea studied people on intensive hiking trips for over twenty years and found that the 132 pound students on his trips tended to have an easier time carrying the weight than the healthy larger individuals who went into the woods. When he did the science, which I will not repeat here, he found that the weight of the individuals did not correlate with the amount they could carry. A person with significantly more musculature at 220 pounds than a person who weighed only 132 pounds struggled significantly with the same weight in their backpack.

You might ask how that could be. They have another 88 pounds which is composed primarily of muscle. How could they struggle to carry the same weight backpack as someone nearly two-thirds their size? The study showed that the extra musculature carried by the more heavily muscled individual decreased the amount they could comfortably carry and manage because the weight of their very muscles acted against them.

What does this have to do with Goliath? Goliath has people who can carry his armor for him, right? Consider the musculature weight needed to walk around with all of the equipment we’ve seen described. Think about how tall Goliath is described as being in the story. There are two possibilities here. Either Goliath carries all that weight because Goliath is an incredibly tall and incredibly lanky individual who uses his strength to carry all of that weight or Goliath is standing there taunting David because he likely has so little strength left that all he has left in his arsenal are verbal barbs.

When you look at the science behind Goliath, it is actually a strange story to have in our scripture. If you look at it in the eyes of a literalist, someone who believes the Bible is true word for word, you have a real problem. Goliath had to be not only freakishly tall but also freakishly strong. Goliath was so large, perhaps the word giant is the only way to describe a person who could carry that much weight with that height and still appear to be anything but a mess.

What if we looked at it differently though… What if the Bible is trying to make a point to us? Yes, Goliath is 9 and ¾ feet tall. Yes, he likely is carrying around enough weight that the ground, if not flattened by great use, would have likely sunk into the ground as he walked. Yes, Goliath is described in intimidating terms.

It also should be said that this gigantic man of inhuman proportions is dead at the end of the story. I hate to put it so bluntly, but the small shepherd boy kills Goliath. The scripture reading stops, but David walks up Goliath and cuts his head off with his own sword, presumably with Goliath’s shield-bearer just standing there slack-jawed. Goliath meets a brutal end at the hands of a young shepherd.

File:Guillaime Courtois - David and Goliath - Google Art Project.jpg

“David and Goliath” by Guillaume Courtois

So, what kind of coin is this? Is this a story out of the history of this man named David? Are we supposed to look at this image and say “Wow. I wish God were as present in my life as he was for David.” Are we supposed to look on a story like this with jealousy? Are we possibly willing to see ourselves as one of the Israelites who goes on after David to conquer the Philistines after Goliath falls? Are we seeing this story as an invitation to wait for our opportunity when our David shows up? Do we cry out to God for a hero as the Philistines stand there shouting out?

Such a response might be understandable. Look at the world we live in. There are children separated from parents within the borders of our own nation. Those kids are held by our own government. We sometimes think that it is not our problem, but those pesky scriptures keep popping up. Think of the words of Deuteronomy 10:16-21:

“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship; to God you shall hold fast, and by God’s name you shall swear. God is your praise; Jehovah is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.”

We hear words like these and the connections are hard to miss. We might not have been in Egypt, but many of our ancestors only left Europe because life in those places was challenging. Who would have jumped on a boat and risk the ocean except to seek opportunity or freedom in a new land? How many of them kissed the ground when they got off the boat? There are some in this place who have the blood of the original Americans within their veins and their ancestors survived hardship, challenge, and difficulty in the wilds of history even before Europeans came to this land. Europeans did not exactly make it easier upon arrival. Those of us who are in this room have been given opportunity and blessing and it can be easy to want to hold onto those blessings tightly, but the words of scripture… God calls for circumcised hearts, even as our minds scream out that there’s only enough for us. Even if our hearts are not stubborn, our own self-interest is often very stubborn.

Yet, scripture is clear. God is not partial. God takes no bribe. God executes justice for the helpless and for strangers. The Israelites were called to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt and a good memory would remind them of Abram coming with his wife out of Ur to begin the story of the people. They were called to remember God’s blessing because God blessed them in their need. Has God gone deaf? Has God gone blind? God is our God. Doesn’t that mean we should consider what the impartial God would want?

Yet, sometimes we act like those Israelites. We stand there and watch. If we wait long enough, David will come. If we wait long enough, there’ll be another revelation. If we wait long enough, we can distract ourselves. In college I was forced to read a book on the nature of popular culture. It was called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Maybe a fitting sequel could have been “Waiting Around with Ourselves to Death.” Yes, we believe God will bring justice for those strangers in our land. Yes, God will hear the cry of children. Yes, God will act. We just seem to be waiting for David to show up.

What if the whole point of stories like David and Goliath is for us to realize that Goliath isn’t what he seems? Yes, a strong man carrying that big armor at that height would be intimidating. Yet, could he really do anything to the people if they’d just gotten up and worked together? Who cares if he’s over nine feet tall if there are “two or three of you” gathered together? Who cares how much he can carry if he isn’t even wise enough to put the spear down and grab his shield?

What if we’re not supposed to wait for David? What if we’re David? What if you are David? You! Yes, you! Last week in this place, someone prayed for those kids. I won’t mention them by name, but I will say there were a lot of amens in the room. What if everyone who said “Amen” did something beyond just say “Amen?”

What if we insisted that those kids are cared for, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we know of how potentially hazardous it is to annoy a God who hears the stranger and cares about their well-being?

What if we didn’t wait for November, but we started pressing for change in the way our representatives act now. What if we wrote our representatives, shared our concerns, share that we are not interested in their political party, but insist that they work for change now? What if we showed up at the next event they hold in town and ask what they’re doing right now to help? What if we didn’t see such a huge problem and say “Where’s David?” What if we stopped and said “I am a child of God and this changes today!”

Do you know something, that story about the three coins at the beginning was meant to be humorous, but it also had several purposes. Did you laugh at that third child’s actions? Did you think he was being a bit unfair? If I was his parent, he wouldn’t keep that coin.

Someone is taking advantage of these kids. Someone has taken their coins. Whether these children are here seeking asylum, freedom, or are the children of parents who have broken the law, they are suffering. Heaven knows what’s happening to the elderly and the infirm who cross the borders out of fear or perceived necessity. It should cause us to act, for we were once a people who were strangers in Egypt, strangers on wilderness coasts, and faced with strange people from a far off land. We have been in their shoes and we should remember how God was present for us.

 

Let us Preach: “Living into the Mystery”

Date: May 27, 2018
Text: Romans 8:12-17
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note for those reading this online: Although I am certain that the quotes this morning can be found in the complete works of John Wesley, I relied heavily on “The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History” by Paul Chilcote (Cascade Books, 2017). Unlike most of my digital books, my Kindle version did not have easy access to page numbers to reference.

To begin this message, I would like to share a quote from John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and chiefly considered the primary founder of Methodism. He wrote these words on February 25, 1774 in a letter.

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

I would like to teach on our tradition as a people this Sunday morning. We are gathered here on Trinity Sunday. Today is a Sunday where we celebrate that God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We gather to celebrate that God is our divine Parent, our Brother, and our Advocate. We gather in the belief that God is in our midst in a very Trinitarian sense. God exists in a Trinity—three in one. God is the One who brought all things into being. God is incarnated in the person of Christ, our Redeemer. God is also our Advocate and our Counselor. God is present in our lives in the Holy Spirit.

God’s ongoing role in our lives through the Holy Spirit has had a direct impact on the history and nature of Christianity. God’s work in and through the church has taken on surprising and strange forms over the nearly twenty centuries we have been a growing and evolving church. God calls, God invites, and God has prodded us to live in strange ways.

Consider the words of Paul to the Roman church which we have shared this morning. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Again, Paul writes: “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

We are a church who claims to be joint heirs with Christ. We claim that God’s Spirit witnesses to our place in God’s family as heirs. As we gather on this Sunday when we claim the Trinitarian nature of God, we are reasserting a big claim—a monumentally large claim. Some would say that it is insane to claim that the God of the universe would draw us in, bring us into the family, and adopt us into an inheritance far beyond what we deserve.

We need to be clear on what Paul is saying before we understand how it affects our tradition. What Paul describes is not our being adopted into the family of God reluctantly. What Paul is saying is that we are given a place in the family that becomes through God’s own work both imperishable and unbreakable. What Paul is saying is that we have a place in the inheritance that will not be removed. What Paul is saying is that we have become inextricably connected with the divine God who is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. When we say that we are the children of God, we are not using empty words. We are the children of God for God has made us a part of the family.

In our history, our legacy, and our tradition, this adoption changes the way that we approach the world. Did you ever stop to think about how this belief affects worship? In a few minutes we will have time for prayer and we will come before God. Some of us will ask for healing. Others of us will give thanks for something good. Some of us will ask God to help us be better spouses or parents. We will all come before God and some of us will make big requests. The boldness to come before God ties into this legacy of adoption.

Think about it for a moment. If you were hungry and without food, you might walk into a restaurant and ask for something to eat even though you could not pay. Would you be surprised if you were turned down? No. The restaurant employee or owner is not “running a charity!” They have a business to run! Some of us might ask anyway, but there’s an understanding that we might be lucky to have a cold sandwich that’s going stale.

Think about the reality of what we do in worship. We come before God and we ask the big things. We ask for God to be present in the lives of the suffering with a certain level of expectation. Will God say yes? Maybe. I do not know if this is the moment God says “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet.” What I do know is this: A lot of us will make a big ask. Where do we get off asking God for help with employment, health, relationships, or a thousand and one things a lot bigger than a stale cold sandwich? Where do we get the audacity to make these requests? Where do we get the nerve?

I think we understand at a subconscious level that Paul is right. We have been invited into the family. I might not have enough to feed a thousand strangers if they show up at my house on a Sunday afternoon, but I can tell you that I will feed my children. My children are family and I do my best to always provide for my family. Worship is one of those places where our understanding takes on solidity. We ask because we are a part of the family. We pray because we believe God will listen. We speak to God because we believe that God will listen longer than we do when we hear a robo-caller ring us on the phone. We speak because we believe that God intrinsically hears us.

The belief that God has brought us into the family has a deeper impact than simply the way we go about Sunday worship. When Paul writes about having a spirit that is free of slavery and fear, we are invited to consider life in a different way. We are called to look at ourselves as heirs of God. Sometimes that means taking bold and radical steps including ignoring what the world tells us we should say, do, or be in the life. Sometimes listening to that Spirit means standing against what the church says we should say, do, or be in this life. Sometimes, we are called in our adoption to be bold, brave, and beautiful.

In anticipation of the sermon this morning, I collected a series of quotes from the letters of John Wesley, the chief founder of Methodism. I want to share them with you and then, after you have heard them all, I will tell you who received these words. For reference, these quotes were written in 1773, 1774, and 1788. The most recent of these quotes was written 32 years before either the Methodists or Congregationalists began meeting in the hamlet of Maine. The first two predate the Declaration of Independence.

“I fear you are too idle. This will certainly bring condemnation. Up and be doing! Do not loiter. See that your talent rust not: rather let it gain ten more; and it will, if you use it.” (John Wesley to Eliza Bennis in April 1, 1773)

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

“Whoever praises or dispraises, it is your part to go steadily on, speaking the truth in love.” (John Wesley to Sarah Mallet on August 2, 1788)

Who could the stiff, staid, often remarkably traditional John Wesley have been writing to in such a strange time? Could it be to the preachers in the Americas? John Wesley had been a preacher in Georgia and had opinions on the Americas, but that wasn’t the case. Was it to the preachers in another part of the British Isles? Well, some of the letters Wesley wrote were to preachers in Ireland, but that is not what makes these quotes exceptional.

The first quote, on not being idle but using one’s talents, along with the firm belief that God would grow those talents, was to Mrs. Eliza Bennis, a female preacher in Ireland who was sharing the Good News before the United States had declared independence. The second quote written by Wesley encouraging the listener to ignore anger and to speak boldly was to Mrs. Martha Chapman. The final exhortation to keep preaching steadily the truth in love was written to Sarah Mallet in 1788, which was a good thing, especially as the Manchester Conference of the Methodist Connexion freely stated the following a year before in 1787:

“We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet and have no objection to her being a preacher in our Connexion so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines and attends to our discipline.”

Let me be entirely clear. the Methodist Episcopal Church in the new world did not ordain women as equals into the ministry until 1956. The Evangelical United Brethren did not give clergy rights until 1889 when it ordained Ella Niswonger. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained Anna Howard Shaw in 1880. Sarah Mallet was welcomed as a preacher in Great Britain over a century before a woman would be welcomed into any of the branches of what would become the United Methodist Church. (source)

All of this took place before Antoinette Brown was ordained in South Butler, NY, as the first female minister in what would become the UCC in 1853. Now, we need to be clear. The Methodists in Great Britain were not ordaining folks as they existed within the Church of England and folks like Antoinette Brown were exceptional in the fact that she was fully ordained and fully educated as a graduate of Oberlin College. To a certain extent, comparing ordained ministry to the ministry of a circuit rider in Great Britain is like comparing apples and oranges, but in both cases it is absolutely clear. The growth of the call of the Spirit resulted in spiritual fruit-growing in the lives of women who were often dismissed and ignored by their society. These women responded to a higher calling that what their society would claim as their place and role.

Ponder what I am saying to you this morning. When God calls us into adoption, it is not a call to simply believe that we are simply okay with the Divine. We are called with boldness into a relationship with God which changes our relationship with the world. The Methodists were calling women preachers into ministry 133 years before the 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote in the United States and 173 years before the Civil Rights movement worked to help all women in this nation have the right to freely vote. This bold, brave, and beautiful move was the direct result of God at work not only in the lives of those women preachers, but in the preachers, crowds, and advocates who supported their ministry.

The bravery which called women of the late 1700s out of the place where their society would have shackled them is a part of our legacy, our tradition, and our character. To look at the world around us and say “They do not want us to be who we are called to be” is not in our nature, our character, or our being. To be blown about by the winds of this world is not who we are meant to be in this life. We are called to adoption, to freedom, and to relationship with God.

When we ponder our own lives, our future, our dreams, and our hopes it is important to remember that we are called to be an adopted people. We are called to look beyond the words of our birth world into the world that is still being created and restored both in and around us. We are called to become the children of God and that calling affects who we are and how we live our lives. Let us pray…

Let Us Preach: “Shepherds Act”

For two weeks in a row, people have asked me to put the text of my message online. This week I did a little extemporaneous preaching in the midst of this manuscript, but these are the bones upon which the sermon was based.

Date: April 22, 2018
Title: Shepherds Act
Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

We’re gathered in the season of resurrection. We’re gathered not in the shadow of the cross but in the light of Easter morning. The good Shepherd has come, has laid down his life for God’s flock, and has risen from the grave.

We are called to follow Christ not only through the season of struggle leading up to the cross but past the cross into resurrected life. We are called to lives of more than just speech. We are called to lives of action. Indeed, what does John write to us this morning from across nearly 2,000 years? In his gospel, John records Christ as stating:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

John records the words of Jesus as Christ lays out a vital part of who he is and what he will do. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but take note. Jesus is talking to a collection of the chosen people, the children of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is talking to a group of people who have belonged to the flock of God for generations. Before the 23rd Psalm was the world’s psalm, it had been their song for generation after generation.

The people of God gathered with Jesus that day were told that the flock must grow. The people of God were told that Jesus was going to reach out to people who were in other folds of sheep. They didn’t know it then, but some of those people would speak Greek and not a smattering of Hebrew. Some of those folks would speak the roots of what would become English, French, Gaelic, and German. Others would one day speak Russian, Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese. Some would one day speak Spanish, Portuguese, and the language of countless Indigenous tribes throughout Africa and the Americas.

I somehow doubt that the children of Abraham understood what Jesus was saying that day, but in hindsight it is incredibly powerful. The good shepherd will lay down his life and will take it up again. Jesus is claiming mastery over his own life, his own death, and proclaiming that he will take up that life again. He has been sent to care for the sheep who will respond from across the world.

This is a proclamation that should have rattled people. This is a proclamation that did rattle people. This is a proclamation that was bolder than bold. So, why doesn’t it shake us today?

Yesterday, the United Methodist Church throughout the majority of NYS and in two Pennsylvania towns gathered as the Upper New York Annual Conference to begin a journey. To be honest, I was dreading the meeting. I had no idea what was going to happen, what was expected of us, and I frankly assumed the worst. Call me a pessimist or call me a realist, but I have been to too many meetings where we talk being politically correct without choosing to do anything concrete. I believed in the intention of the meeting, but I was really nervous about how a church could change things.

Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church fought against alcoholism and helped to power the temperance movement. Once upon a time the Methodist Episcopal Church preached the gospel out on plantations and caused riots and lynchings for teaching the “property” of slave-owners to read. Once upon a time we empowered Sunday Schools to teach children to read when they were forced to help on a farm or in a factory on every other day of the week. We have had a legacy of power and change, but honestly it has been a while.

I walked into a room believing that nothing good could come out of that meeting, especially on a subject as broad and powerful as racism. I have to confess to you that I may have jumped to the wrong conclusions. I saw something as powerful and overarching as bigotry and wondered how we could ever even begin to face it. I lost hope for a moment yesterday. I admit that and confess my own sin.

So, I confess I was more than a bit skeptical as the leaders led and told us about heartfelt conversations that they had participated in while wondering how we could begin to face such challenges. The leaders told us about how there was no way a mandate could ever force churches to be different and that there was an understanding this had to come from the people. So, the leaders began to talk about their own journey of discovery, even admitting that at times they would assume this was everyone’s problem but their own. I saw reflected in their faces a struggle with something that was bigger than any one of them.

My heart broke a little bit as I realized that this was the church being sincere. I heard echoes of the passages I had studied all week and was convicted. If we are a people of many folds, if we are a flock of many ethnicities, if God has called to all of us, then should we not seek to live at peace with other people in the fold. When they hurt, don’t we hurt? When they struggle, shouldn’t we struggle? When they cry out, shouldn’t we hear?

John wrote in his letter “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I heard leaders speak about how we have done wonderful work at saying the right words, but rarely have followed them up with concrete action. It remained to be seen how we could do something concrete, but I heard John’s words echoed. Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

So, we’re gathering to begin to talk about racism, privilege, and what we face. Soon, Pastor Dave from Union Center UMC, Pastor Taylor from Nanticoke and Killawog will gather with pastors and laity from Apalachin, Newark Valley, and other surrounding areas to start to look at how we can work together to begin to see beyond ourselves. Soon, I’ll be headed up to Syracuse to help lead the sessions in our group, partially because I was the one in our group willing to go and partially because it gives me tools to later have those conversations in churches. This will give me tools to bring here.

Soon, we’ll begin a journey which is intended to not just inform the clergy and active laity on how to see what’s going around us, but to bring that knowledge home to our churches. Soon, there’ll be opportunities for you to join in our work, and this is a work I believe can change the world because it starts at the right level. This is a work which begins with the journey for people to open their hearts, to learn tools for their daily lives, and to begin to work together.

These are the kind of movements that have changed the world in generations past and we are capable of doing right. We are the people of God, called in the image of the one who lays down his life for the sheep, and we, with Christ, can pick up our life and enter into the ministry with Jesus.

In his book “Strength to Love,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a chapter named “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” He wrote in that chapter on Matthew 10:16, which read in the King James Version he preferred “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Rev. Dr. King wrote that good Christian people need to work to have a heart that is tender enough to love others and treat them like people and a mind that is tough enough to realize the difference between what is right and righteous from what is undeniably wrong.

Speaking on the need for us to have strength of will and solidity of mind, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following: (pg. 5)

“There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

Friends, we are a resurrection people. We believe that God is in the process of remaking our hearts and minds. Can we have the courage to be like the good shepherd and live with both conviction and love? Can we have the will to look in the mirror and ask difficult questions of ourselves, our society, and what we receive without realizing it? Can we be brave, bold, and love with more than words? Can we become tough-minded enough to break our shackles even as we remain tender-hearted enough to love?

I invite you to be in prayer with and for me over the coming months because I know this will not be easy personally. I invite you to be in prayer for what God might be calling you to do in the coming months. I invite you to hear the call of God and to respond.

Let us Preach: “A Different Kind of Audit”

This open letter to St. John was shared from the pulpit this Sunday morning. Several folks requested I put it online for them to read again. Improvisational changes that were made on the fly are not included here. This is the manuscript that I read and adapted from this morning.

Date; Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Message: “A Different Kind of Audit”

April 15, 2018

St. John
Patmos Island
Greece circa the end of first century CE

Dear John,

(No friends, this isn’t that kind of letter…)

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ. I am writing this letter to you today from the community of the saints found many centuries and many miles from Patmos. Tradition tells us that you spent your last days in exile in Patmos, although people wonder if you are the same John who scribed the book of Revelation. In fact, to be entirely honest, many scholars wonder if you wrote the three letters which have been ascribed to you. Did your students write those letters after your death?

To be entirely honest, while authorship is an intriguing discussion for a Bible study, I’m writing today because our community is celebrating the season of Eastertide. We’re looking at stories of the resurrection, pondering the words of 1 John, and wondering what is expected of us. We live in a different age, a different time, and in different circumstances. It has been nearly two millennia since you witnessed Christ’s death and resurrection. It has been nearly two millennia since Jesus told Thomas that those who did not see but believed would be blessed. It has been a very long time.

I’m the pastor of this flock and that means a lot of different things in this time and age. I am here to encourage and to train people in the ways of faith. I am here to educate and inspire people to seek after Jesus. I am here to proclaim mysteries that seem ancient to many of the people in my church. I am called to witness to the life, the teachings, and the blessings of life with Jesus. I am called to witness to the life, the warnings, and the challenges of life with Jesus. I am called and ordained to baptize, to share the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim the word of God.

Yet, I wonder… What must it have been like to have seen Christ in the flesh? What must it have been like to see him take fish and eat after he had died? It must have been much easier to say to people “I have seen these things with my own eyes!” How much power rested in your lips when you proclaimed these truths which are now considered practically ancient to people for the first time? How much did it change their lives?

In a world with such high infant and pregnancy mortality rates, did grieving mothers and heart-broken widowers weep with joy to hear of one who had shown there was life after death? In a world without modern medicine, scientific method, or basic understanding of things like germs, was it awe-inspiring to see people be changed by stories of Christ’s healings? Could you see the hope show in their eyes?

The people I minister with have their own struggles. We’ve figured out a lot about germ theory, but cancer has become a faceless horror in many life. We’ve learned many mysteries about the human brain, but we have people who are still lost in the midst of depression, anxiety, and grief. War still remains and I sometimes wish we had swords to beat into plowshares instead of bombs, bullets, and grenades. We still face a world filled with challenge, sorrow, and pain.

John, how did you get the people to understand? Was your personal witness enough or was it an insistent, consistent, and powerful reminder of who God was in their lives? When the world would not recognize them as God’s children, did you invite them to remember God’s claim on their lives? When they themselves lost hope, did you remind them that even the darkness of the grave could not overcome Christ? How did you get them to see? Was it all God’s work in their lives or was there something they needed to claim, to grasp, to believe in order to find hope?

John, I’m a Methodist and our founder John Wesley believed that God gave grace to each person to help them come to a place where they could encounter Jesus. He called it prevenient grace and it was a grace that was poured out on all people. He taught God’s love was a source of light to all people and to me that grace is hope. The world can come to know a God who can change people.

The letter we read invites people to become pure as Christ is pure. The letter we read invites people to understand that they are invited to live lives marked with righteousness and goodness. The people are invited to live lives which are desperately needed in my world John. How do I convince them to see the truth of this life? The world is dark, but they are being remade into the likeness of the invisible image of God. Jesus told them that they are the light of the world and sometimes it seems they forget that concept.

In our day there’s something called an audit. An audit is a very close examination. For many folks, this word makes people especially nervous around the date I am writing you this letter. Today is traditionally the day that taxes are due in this country and occasionally the tax collectors will audit what an individual says they owe. Yes, tax collectors are still unpopular nearly 2,000 years later. Some things must be cross-cultural.

I bring up the idea of an audit because audits are meant to keep people honest. A tax audit is a close look at how one calculates what is owed to the government. Do you remember when Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? A tax audit is meant to make certain that our Caesar is getting what our Caesar claims for things like roads, protection, etc.

How do I convince people that we all might need to do a different kind of audit for our own sake? If we are made to be in relationship with you, if our hearts and souls are meant to be filled with love for God and neighbor, if we are meant to be remade in the image of God, doesn’t it make sense to slow down and see where we are on our faith journey? Does it not make sense to take a close look in seasons like this one?

To put it in practical terms, let’s look at a scripture Jesus said he came to fulfill. Jesus said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). If we were to take a close look at our lives, do we see ourselves in the midst of Christ’s mission as people who are being remade in Christ’s image?

Christ came to proclaim good news to the poor. Poverty is about more than money. My people and I live in a world where substance abuse is claiming lives all around us. People are addicted to alcohol, opioids, narcotics, and a host of other substances. Some of the people who are in the midst of these addictions open their eyes in sobriety and only see hopelessness and death. When we look in ourselves, do we see people who have experienced the risen Savior? Do we see in ourselves children of God who walk in hope? Can we dream of a world remade in your image where the hopelessness they feel is overshadowed by life? Can we share with them a world in which death has been overcome by life? Can we dream of a world where people look at one who should be dead or a ghost and find a Savior who is alive?

Christ came to restore sight to the blind. Blindness is about more than sight. Blindness is a way of life. The blind are often forced to trust others with their safety, their wellbeing, and their journey from one place to another. The blind are vulnerable in ways people with sight are not. Can we proclaim a world where people truly see the way and find hope beyond death, a place where none of us can truly see? When we examine ourselves, do we see beyond the curtain of death? In other words John, how can I invite people to ponder resurrection beyond their sight?

Christ came to set prisoners free, to break oppression, and to proclaim the Lord’s favor. John, how do I invite people to take a close look and see if they are shackled to things that just drag them down? John, you knew favor. When we celebrate the Lord’s table, we do not often draw attention to the fact that you were right there, sitting by Jesus’ side as the powerful words we remember were spoken…

Actually, that’s not true. You were not just sitting by Jesus’ side. You were reclining with Jesus. You were at peace with a teacher you loved and who loved you back. For all the oppression of Romans and pressures from religious leaders that might stand outside the door, you were at peace with Jesus. For all of the people who were planning to bind up Jesus in chains and for all of the challenges ahead, you were at peace with Jesus. You, John, of all people, knew what it means to be at peace with the person who was revealed to be the very image of God made flesh.

How do I invite people to be at peace like you? How do I find ways to cultivate that peace within myself? There are so many things we let take us captive John. We live in fear of war and sorrow. We live in fear of cancer and heartbreak. We live in fear of loss. We have been taught that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As one who reclined with perfect love, saw that love resurrected from the grave, and as one who spent his life teaching others about that love, how do we believe like you believed? How do we live as you lived?

John, I realize that you cannot really write back. Patmos is another time and place isolated by nearly 2,000 years and a world of cultural differences. Still, perhaps the Holy Spirit can help us with answers to these questions. Your gospel did tell us that Christ would leave an Advocate who would teach us on God’s behalf. While I await God’s response through the Holy Spirit, I will say that I look forward to seeing you at the resurrection on the final day. Until then, may you rest in God’s peace.

May all honor, glory, and power be given to the God we both love,

Rev. Robert Dean
Maine Federated Church
Many miles and years in the future.