Sunday, October 19, 2014

what kind of community are we?

What kind of community are we? 101914
Matthew 22:15-22; I Thessalonians 1:1-10

Letter writing has become something of a lost art.
A communication is likely to be short and terse in an email, or mass distributed like our Christmas letters.  Once in a while, like one of our staff appreciation letters, it’s thoughtful and significant.
When I was growing up, I was expected to write a thank you note at the latest the day after I got a gift.   I trained our children to send thank you notes, though they have now complete amnesia that any such training occurred.
In ancient days,  letters had a specific format to be adhered to and todays letter to the church at Thessalonica follows it pretty precisely. 
And I got to wondering what would St Paul write to me, to us?

Dear Margaret and Fairport UMC,
I am so thankful for your response to the good news of Jesus! Your faith has led to work, your love has led to effort, your hope in God has led to perseverance when times get tough.
The words of God’s good news didn’t just stay as words for you, but are empowered into action by the power of the Spirit of God, and it’s wonderful to see you becoming imitators, not just of all those who are Jesus role models for you, but also of Jesus himself.  And this means you’re becoming an example for people outside the church, way beyond your walls!
This is because your life becomes the word, you become the message, with faith that is active, love that labors and hope that strengthens.
The church in Thessalonica can be an example for you, for they too were under great pressure to cave in to the culture rather than stand out and be different.  But they turned from the idols of their culture and lived out who really is Lord of life, something the religious leaders of Jesus’ day could learn from.   I remember hearing the story of how the Pharisees and Herodians tried to catch him out.   An unholy alliance, like politicians crossing aisles against a common threat.  The Pharisees, very concerned with the details of the law, and the Herodians, upper middle class elites whose power was all tied up in collaborations with the Romans.
It happened in the Temple remember, where there were currency exchange booths so that no Roman coin with a human image on it would enter the holy space.
So when Jesus asks for a coin, and they produce a Roman one, two things happened:  first, it becomes obvious that these guys, probably the Herodians, had brought a forbidden coin into the temple-which would set the Pharisees off against them, dividing this alliance….and secondly, Jesus using the word ‘image’ showed the Pharisees immediately that ‘give to God what is God’s’ wouldn’t mean divide up your income between Rome and God; for everything was God’s.  There’s a word play in the original language, around image and face and idol, the word that appears in my letter to Thessalonica.  The Pharisees knew it was in God’s image all were made.
The issue for you in Fairport is the same….who’s really Lord?  In whose image are you made?  Is your lord a national flag?  Or a political party?  Perhaps its’ your cultural lifestyle or your competitive upbringing of your children.
Turn from YOUR idols, Fairport UMC; stop bowing to anything lesser than God.
Let your life be the message of good news; become imitators and examples of the Jesus way.
It’s foolish for me to say it’s easy.  Of course it’s not.
Those new Christians in Thessalonica were under a lot of pressure to bow to the culture just as you are. But there are ways to make it easier.
Be in community….community whose faith is active,  where love is working and hope is strengthening.
Dear friends in Fairport, become that kind of community: 
A community with a faith that is active and growing intentionally
a community that puts God’s love into practice
a community of hope that strengthens the hopeless
Re-learn the art of letter writing yourselves:
Write a letter to someone who is a Jesus model for you, saying why you thank God for them
Write a letter to you state legislation to advocate for God’s weakest children
Live the good news, for YOU are the message.
Your brother Paul.

message from our co-lay leaders

With our church now fully engaged in the new program year, I hope that we have a feeling of excitement as we build on the past to move forward toward our shared vision of bringing God’s love to all the world. This past year, we have indeed been blessed to be a blessing to others. Just some of these blessings are highlighted on the screen. With Chris settling into his new role here, we have the potential to provide further inspiration and support for additional ministries that can reach even more members of our congregation, the community, and the world.
But for these new ministries to be achieved, we will need your participation, talents, and resources. Certainly, we also hope our membership will grow as others choose to join us in our journey. Unfortunately, Fairport United Methodist Church may be one of the best kept secrets in town. We need to be intentional about letting the community know that our church is a vibrant and active force for God and for good in this area, and that we host and sponsor a wide variety of ministries that support individual spiritual goals as well as community needs.  One of our organizational challenges this year is to have a more coordinated communications effort to inform the community about programs; however, as individuals, I would encourage all of us to share with others the many activities and ministries of this Fairport church. Encourage others to explore opportunities of interest here. And please, consider where you yourself may help fill vital roles in our ministry.
As we strive to achieve our vision, to live out God’s dream in and beyond these walls, we are experiencing a time of transition. While both exciting and challenging, we as a congregation need to seek both stability of purpose and stability in our financial affairs. As you may recall, we moved forward with the addition of a second full time pastor even though we did not have the pledged financial commitments to fully fund all current programs and a second pastor. Thus, we are operating under a deficit budget and will likely have a year-end deficit of over $20,000. In the short term, our excess Fund Balance from prior years has enabled us to move forward and handle this projected deficit, but we will need to increase church revenue if we are to maintain the two - full time pastor model for the longer-term. The Finance Ministry team is taking steps in the short-term to conserve cash to ensure we have sufficient funds on hand to meet our operating expenses for the rest of this year. One of the consequences will be that for the first time in many years, our church will not be able to meet its full apportionment obligations to the Conference in 2014.
For 2015, we will need to increase our revenue by around $40,000 in order to balance the budget and meet all of our expected obligations. While there are certainly a variety of ways we can potentially increase our revenue, our 2015 pledge campaign will be especially critical this year. We ask that you prayerfully consider how you can invest in our vision and in our future with both your talents and your resources. Information regarding opportunities in both these areas will be forthcoming soon. For example, the Finance Ministry team hopes to make donating easier with options for use of credit cards in addition to electronic funds transfer, stock donations, checks, and cash.  
In the upcoming weeks, we will let you know about new efforts and plans for changes to help us achieve God’s vision for the Fairport United Methodist Church and the financial stability necessary to maintain and expand our programs. So, on behalf of the Stewardship and Financial Ministries, I encourage all of us to consider what additional talents and resources we could potentially contribute for 2015. While we do face financial challenges, together we can move forward and be an even greater force for God and for good.
      Thank you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

all the world

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Dylan could have written his version of the Fall, his great song of isolation and estrangement to the modern church. We have all heard the reports of a seismic shift in church attendance. We have all heard that today’s young people are more than twice as likely to have no church affiliation as their parents and grandparents. And many people would say that big expensive buildings such as the one we’re in right now belong to an earlier time when going to church was just what people did. While all of this is true, and may sound like bad news, I say the opposite is true—this is actually great news. When times are uncertain or maybe even a little shaky—when we’re isolated, estranged, alone, and we know it---there is an opportunity for us to take a good look at ourselves. And that is what I see the churches needing to do. With his parable of the great feast, Jesus is asking all of us to look at ourselves—with his parable of the great feast Jesus is asking all of us to see ourselves as we actually are, to see ourselves as the Christ sees us. Why might Jesus think we need to look at ourselves through his eyes? Consider the following quote from Einstein: and I apologize for the male-centric language.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.

It is interesting that all of the world’s great faith traditions agree with Einstein. You see, all of the great religions have one thing in common, they all suggest that there is something a little or maybe a lot wrong with the way most human beings see the world. They express this in culturally specific ways, but at their core they are all saying a very similar thing. Islam says the world is in the state it’s in because we have forgotten our divine origins (Gaflah). Buddhism and the Hinduism it came out of both say a kind of ignorance shrouds our minds. Judaism and Christianity say we have fallen away from God—and this is often expressed as a kind of blindness. Jesus said we needed to deny ourselves in order to correct this situation—because this blindness is synonymous with self-centeredness.  All of these religions are saying there is something wrong with the way we see the world because we are cut off or estranged from the divine or ultimate reality due to self-centeredness. As Einstein said, We are separated, cut off from the whole and suffering from an optical delusion of consciousness that amounts to self-centeredness. In divinity school when I first began studying Jesus’ parables in depth, I kept asking myself, what is Jesus essentially trying to do with his parables? And the answer was simple: correct our vision by reconciling us to God.
There are three versions of the parable we heard this morning—2 in the NT, Luke’s and Matthew’s, and one in the gospel of Thomas. All three are similar in most respects. At their core they all involve a King or a rich man inviting people to a big feast of some kind. Imagine being a poor first century Jew listening to Jesus. When you’re not sure where your next meal might come from, the story of a great feast would surely grab your attention. And this is why it is such a great metaphor—in other words, Jesus is not literally speaking of a great big meal—he is speaking of a spiritual experience (metaphor for spiritual experience). And if you’re a poor first century Jewish peasant, what does his choice of metaphor tell you about spiritual experience? It is beyond your wildest dreams, and Life giving in the extreme because it reconciles us with one another and God. In the version of the story we heard this morning, there is another important metaphor. That of a wedding party. At weddings two seemingly separate individuals come together and make one couple. Wedding parties celebrate a coming together, a union. In Matthew it is the wedding party of the King’s son that people are being invited to—in other words, it is Jesus’ wedding party. Jesus was a first century spiritual teacher who taught his followers how to experience union with God, the God he called Alaha.  That is what the metaphor of a wedding party is pointing toward, the human being’s Union with God through the teaching or way of the Christ. And that is the reason for the church’s existence—to wed the human being to God—it is the church’s role to facilitate such a spiritual experience. And, generally speaking, I am afraid the church finds itself where it is because it has not done a very good job of this. Why not? The parable gives us a clue…in all three versions a king or a rich man invites people to his wedding party/slash feast and in all three versions the people decline the invite. In our passage this morning we hear that they paid no attention and went off to their fields and businesses. In the world of the parable these people represent the comfortable elite. And the fact that they paid no attention is very telling—when you don’t pay attention to something, you don’t see it very well. This gets us back to the faulty way of perceiving or spiritual blindness noted by the world’s religions. Why didn’t they pay attention? Because they were preoccupied with what some might call the things of the world—and what I’ll call self-centered pursuits. In many ways, The church has been no different. The church is the culture. It is full of people who are full of the culture and so for this reason The church has been used to support the culture—the culture that depends on self-centered ambition. Consider the so-called protestant work ethicwhen the churches became so identified with the larger culture they ceased challenging it, they ceased speaking prophetically to it. When the church and the culture are identical the church cannot see the culture objectively. And again we’re back to spiritual blindness—we’re like the person Dylan is addressing in his song—we have no direction home. We, and I include myself in this, too often support and defend our culture so we don’t truly challenge it—we usually seem most concerned with pumping its values into our people—even when those values are having a disastrous effect on other cultures—and ourselves. For example, the average child born in America will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime as a child born in Brazil. The average American drains the same amount of resources as 35 people in India. The United States comprises 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of the world’s energy. Right here at home we have a huge gulf between communities. Many people have way more than they need while children go hungry, and men and women live lives many of us can barely imagine. The church has too often been a church of charitable gestures not transformation. And charitable gestures are not what Jesus had in mind when he said love your neighbor. Too often a counter-cultural church has been little more than an idea. But there is another way—as we heard, Jesus likens it to a wedding-party, a feast…
In the parable, the well-to-do people ignored their invitation to spiritual experience, to union with God, because of their self-centered pursuits. They said sorry, I have to go off to my business, to my land, I have to go look after my possessions. By doing this they, even though they didn’t see it, remained estranged from God, they missed the great feast. If we summarize all three versions of the story, The King next sends his servants out to invite outsiders and poor people to the wedding party. In Matthew, Luke, and Thomas’ versions, the outsiders and the poor seem to accept the invitation. This is consistent with the rest of the NT. It is not that the poor or outsiders are by nature better or more spiritual than people who have many possessions. It is that they symbolize human beings who are poor when it comes to the things of the culture. To be free from the need to accumulate outward riches, there must be the realization of inward poverty—then we receive the untold riches that union with God brings. People who have realized this state have emptied themselves of what the NT calls the old self. And so they are truly free—free in Christ as Paul said. They are free of all the suffering that is the result of self-centered fear. And being trapped in self-centered fear equals what our parable calls being bound hand and foot in the farthest darkness. To be free in Christ is to be freed from the estrangement and isolation of the outer darkness, from self-centeredness, it is to be poor in spirit, it is to realize a state of inward poverty which, paradoxically, mysteriously, brings about the treasures of a blessed state.
To transcend this old self, this cultural conditioning, is to transcend the culture—it is to be an outsider—and only this kind of an outsider can see the culture objectively and  be consciously open to or one with Einstein’s universe, Brahman, Allah, and the God Jesus called Alaha—an Aramaic word for the divine meaning sacred oneness. In verse 11 of Matthew’s version of the parable we get a clue as to how this transformation happens. In Jesus’ world, and the world of the parable, the wedding robe was a metaphor for a profound spiritual or meditative experience and such an experience allowed a person to be beyond the outer darkness or old self.  In our world, the outsiders Jesus welcomed equal those folks who see clearly that our culture encourages materialism and rabid ambition which really means rabid self-expansion.  Because they see this clearly they transcend their conditioned self and challenge their culture. At times, they might sound like trouble makers or discontented pains in the neck. But, at times, Jesus was a trouble maker and a discontented pain in the neck. Like Jesus these people have opened their eyes to the unimaginable beauty and peace that is union with God in this great feast we call Eternal Life. To go back to Dylan, We, the church, were long ago shown the direction Home—we have been invited to a great feast—to a wedding party. It is time to accept the invitation. Amen.

Monday, October 06, 2014

God's handiwork

God’s handiwork 100514
Psalm 19, Matthew 21:33-46

Ps 19....the heavens are telling---speech without words in creation, thru God's teaching, warn us...which brings me to the challenging gospel... 

the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian writing that didn’t make it into the Bible, is primarily a list of Jesus’ sayings, without narrative or editorial additions.   In Thomas’ gospel, this parable about the absentee landlord ends with the tenants’ killing the son, and the words, let those who have ears hear.
Matthew’s version however, speaking to his own late first century situation, adds the bit about Jesus asking the religious leaders what would happen next, and naturally they answer with what in reality would happen.  In Matthew, Jesus then goes on to quote an ancient scripture and condemning the religious leaders for their failure to be good stewards of God’s handiwork and what God had given them.
Unfortunately, this addition has taken a parable and made it an allegory:  God is the landowner, the Jews failed in their job and the Christians got the kingdom….leading to centuries of anti Semitism and an image of a God of retribution. 
Today we might think we’ve softened that interpretation, and perhaps need to say the Church hasn’t taken care of the vineyard, and others outside the church are being given the kin-dom of God.   Or we might say that we as Christians individually have failed to be good stewards, at home, at work, in community, globally.   But its still an allegory.  And it doesn’t fit with the God of Israel then, the early Christian experience, or the God we experience now……this isn’t a God who wreaks divine retribution on those who rejected even the son….this isn’t a God who gives up trying when the world has done its worst.   We know, as the early Christians knew, that God doesn’t wreak retribution, and doesn’t give up.  Indeed God answered the worst we could do with the resurrection, and God continues to speak, as the psalm says.
So lets go back to its being simply a parable in its original form (as best we can guess)….

If the landowner is simply a landowner, we get a whole new perspective, without the lens of thinking it’s about God.
(thanks to a web post for this perspective-I just can't remember whose)
The landowner doesn’t live on the land, doesn’t work the land, but uses, in fact misuses, sharecroppers like migrant workers to do his work – and he doesn’t send his servants out of any love for the people or the land, but simply to get what he needs as a return for his investment so he can continue to live the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.  And according to first century culture, what he takes doesn’t leave much for subsistence for the workers…no living wages here either.
The first and second time, the tenants send them packing; they’ve had enough of slavery to another’s greed, even if it’s the way of the world.  You can almost hear some of Jesus’ listeners cheering at such rebellion against an unjust system.  Then here comes the son; and they get rid of him with equal violence.  More cheers.  Let those who have ears, hear.   Even without Matthew's addition, those who can hear would know what would happen next.

The culture of violence escalates, and simply leads to more violence….the tenants are destroyed and the work is given to other poor suckers so that the landowner can continue to get what he wants.
As a simple parable, this story wreaks havoc on my soul, for it is so relevant to today.

Like the landowner, I depend on the exploitation of others to get what I want to live my life of relative ease.   I too consume and consume with little thought for those on whose backs I get my coffee or my clothes.    Like the tenant farmers, how are we willing to do, or allow, wrong to achieve what we think is ok.  How do we perpetuate violence by violence, and allow conflict to escalate?
Jesus confronts 21st century Fairport.  

 We all know the alternative, Jesus has preached it for 2000 years to us:  the kin-dom of God, the reign of God in our lives, instead of the reign of greed and injustice. 
Jesus challenges us to co-create a world, or a little part of a world in our homes and businesses and congregations, where the earth is cared for, and not full of our glorious toxic and electronic waste, so it still may speak of God’s handiwork as in the psalm
… where we care for all of God’s children, including the ones who make our clothes and pick our cotton, as well as the ones we buy all that stuff for, for they too are God’s handiwork.
….where we do not answer violence with violence, but work peaceably to end oppression so that all of God’s handiwork is free
…where our security is in God instead of in our wealth or our jobs
…where faithful stewardship is what we do with what God has entrusted to us

This is the kin-dom, the culture, the world, we are baptized into…the world we promise to co-create with Wesley and his family as we make our vows at his baptism today…..
Let’s do it!