Thursday, May 27, 2010

ReNew: The Green VBS moved to August 2-4 and 9th.

We still plan to have a great VBS this summer, only now it will be hosted at the church at the end of the summer instead of the beginning.  The theme will be the parable of the Sower, and it looks like great material.  You can find out more at the ReNew website.

Annual Conference begins Sunday, May 30

You can watch things happen live online at this link.

Our representatives are your pastor, Nathan Mattox, and Linda King, your lay delegate. If you want to see what we'll be discussing and deciding on, go here.  Worship is always fantastic at annual conference, so come on up to Tulsa and join us.  It's also great to hear about the ministries that are happening in our conference and beyond.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pentecost Sermon: Open Minds

Texts: Genesis and Acts from Pentecost

Motto: Open Minds. What does that convey? I’ve always found myself being attracted to other friends who I perceive as being “open minded.” I think “open mindedness” is a good thing. But, there are others who are skeptical about the value off open-mindedness. They see it, perhaps, as being wishy-washy, as being too relativistic, perhaps, as being unwilling to stake a claim.

Today we hear from two scriptures in which God opens minds to new realities. In the Genesis scripture, it seems like God is closing minds, doesn’t it, but perhaps God is doing something different.

From Babel to Pentecost: Open Minds see Unity amidst Diversity and Diversity Amidst Unity.

Unity is the real watchword for Christians, isn’t it? Unity is the goal, division is scandalous. More often than not, the divisions we experience in our lives are due to groups’ inability to be at the table with each other.

Perhaps God scatters the people in Genesis b/c of what we know about the wrong way to promote unity: Unity through intimidation, Unity through coercive behavior. What do we know about how things were built in the ancient times? Slaves were oppressed into the service of the elite. Sometimes unity isn’t so great.

So, God made the people diverse. God spread them to the winds and gave them different languages.

Pentecost, God makes the people understand one another and find unity in the midst of diversity. They begin speaking a language, in which people from all the nations can understand what they are saying

IN the first scripture reading, the main contention that God has with their unity project is that they are setting out to “make a name for themselves” by building a tower to the heavens.

In Acts 2, God reverses the decision at Babel because God wants them to make a name for themselves: The Church.
And while the people at Babel spoke with one another about their great power, the gift of the Spirit in Acts compels the people gathered there to speak in all the different languages about God’s great power.

If you’re intention is to do something in order to Glorify God, I have no doubt that you can do it.

New language: one in which we can all understand one another in the midst of diversity. Perhaps it is an unspoken language. Perhaps it’s a language of gesture.

Speech pathologists say that a large amount of our language is composed of gesture. We speak with one another in the way that speak.
New language uses gestures of love.

Preach the gospel wherever you go. If you have to, use words.

Dr. Seuss Book: On Beyond Zebra. Perhaps our faith is On Beyond Zebra. That’s what the first followers of Jesus were experiencing at Pentecost. Their experience of the Spirit was beyond words, so the Spirit gave them a language.

God’s gift at Pentecost, how do we uphold that tradition? In several instances in the book of Acts, the apostles verify that the gentiles are to be included in the church because they show that they have received the same gift that the disciples had received at Pentecost.

Some Christians say that we must display it by speaking in tongues too. That we must have a spiritual experience that causes us to lapse into a language that doesn’t seem to make sense to our ears, but does to our Spirits.

Our church tradition upholds that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit, but unlike some of our Pentecostal friends, we don’t think of it as being necessary to our salvation. But, we do think it is an integral part of faith to respond in some way to the Spirit being poured out on you. Perhaps we find ourselves more compelled to speak out in non-verbal ways. To communicate to others “God’s deeds of power” through gestures of love, through maintaining an open heart, an open mind, and an open door.

Perhaps God has blessed this church with open minds so that we don’t miss the Lord’s prayer as it would have sounded coming out of our Lord’s mouth.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mother's Day Sermon: Open Hearts

Sermon Texts:
Ezekiel 36: 24-27
Acts 16: 9-15

Sermon Notes:
Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. You’ve most likely heard our church’s tagline and motto on television or the radio, and today, we hear it, or part of it at least, in our lesson from Acts.

Actually, looking over the scripture readings for the next 2 weeks as well, it is interesting to me that the rest of our motto is referenced in scripture as well. We’ll get a little out of order for next week, since it has more to do with open doors than open minds, but the following week, we’ll hear about the Pentecost narrative in relation to the minds that were opened on that fateful day.

Today we hear about the conversion of Lydia, and some other women who started the church at Philippi, which from the letters given to it is said to be “Paul’s favorite church.” With the story today, you can see why such a group of disciples came to be Paul’s favorite—after all, immediately after she and her household were baptized, Lydia provided a home for Paul and his fellow evangelists.

There are three things about Lydia’s conversion that stick out to me, especially in relation to the baptisms and professions of faith that we were privilidged to hear today from Wyatt and Shelby.

I imagine many of you have had similar experiences to me in my own life in that your baptism has been challenged by friends or acquaintances because it wasn’t what they call a “believer’s baptism.” Some of our friends in other denominations insist that the person being baptized must make the decision to become baptized, and it is only by receiving such a “believer’s baptism” that one may be saved.

Today’s baptisms were joined by Wyatt and Shelby’s “profession of faith,” and we United Methodists believe that a profession of faith is important and a necessary part of a journey of faith. We believe it is so important, that when young people who have been baptized as infants reach a certain age, they should go through a period of claiming the name “Christian” for their own, and should respond to their own baptism by making their own profession of faith. When you hear how many United Methodists there are in the world (It’s around 10 million) that is only the number of United Methodists who have made a profession of faith, or who have transferred their membership from another church where they made a profession of faith.

But, we are different from many of our friends and family in that we baptize infants. Sometimes, when a family comes forward to join the church, they want to join as a whole family, and so anyone who hasn’t been baptized thus far is baptized, regardless of the age or ability to answer for themselves. We do this because we think differently about baptism than most of our Christian neighbors here in Morris—and we root that thinking in the scriptures that we have been given to guide our lives as Christians.

You might have noticed today in the reading from Acts that when Lydia’s “heart is opened” to Paul’s teaching, not only she, but her “whole household” receives baptism. The text doesn’t say that Paul goes to preach to the members of that household and they each individually accept the teaching on their own—the text says that Lydia’s heart is opened, and then her household is baptized.

Our practice of baptism dates back to the first converts to Christianity. Our church is the only one in town that holds the same ideas and practices around baptism that were in place at the beginning of the church. “Believers’ baptism” is an idea that came along later in what is called the “radical reformation” that happened in Switzerland about 20 years after the reformation had started in Germany.

Just as an aside, I didn’t choose the first scripture that we heard today to build a defense for our understanding of baptism, I was instead thinking about the part of it that speaks about God giving us a new heart in relation to Lydia’s “open heart,” but just in case you’ve ever been castigated by other Christians because we don’t exclusively practice immersion baptism, you might point your friends who have all that friendly and helpful advice for you to Ezekiel 36:25, where God states, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” This is as adequate and accurate description of baptism as the scriptures that are no doubt flung your way about Jesus going “down into the water” etc. etc.

Secondly, How was Lydia prompted to receive baptism? The text says that Lydia was prompted to receive baptism and join the movement of the Spirit by the “open heart” that God had given her.

Open Heart is all that God needs. God doesn’t need belief. God doesn’t need someone to understand all that there is to know about God in order for that person to be incorporated into the life of faith and into saving Grace. Our salvation only comes by God’s grace. It doesn’t come by our efforts or by our beliefs. It comes through God’s radical act of salvation that we are all blessed to receive. It isn’t about us or what we want or subscribe to. It is about God and who God is and what God subscribes to. Our allegiance to the covenant is and always has been imperfect. God alone abides by the covenant—and if God chooses to start molding us by the covenant when we are only 1 or two weeks old, then, as Peter said last week—“who are we to stand in the way of God’s grace?”

It is an obstruction to the movement of the Spirit to pretend that a person needs to have everything sorted out and all their beliefs in order for them to receive baptism and be saved. Being saved is a process as much as it is a specific moment in time, and thank God for that. God opens our heart, perhaps just a crack—just enough to let a little light in, and we celebrate that opening with baptism.

I really like our commercial tagline, “Open hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It has really become a calling card for people to know what we are all about, and I’m glad that it begins with “Open hearts.” Open hearts conveys that the point of living a life of faith is to approach God and our neighbors with open hearts. Being guarded in our heart leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to despair. Jesus calls us, even if it hurts us, to have open hearts, and if we ask God for anything, it should be for that gift.

An open heart, as Ezekiel says today, is a new heart. Bearing our hear to God for Him to open is sometimes as significant and radical an act as open heart surgery. And if we recognize what is happening when God opens our heart, it is truly a heart transplant. God takes our heart of stone, and replaces it with a living, beating heart.

Lastly, the gift of the open heart and the gift of the sacrament of baptism that follows in this scripture that we hear today is followed by the gift of hospitality.

In our tradition, we understand baptism to be the incorporation of the person receiving the sacrament into the family of faith. We, as the Christian community, are doing what Lydia does in the text—we are inviting the newcomer into our house.

However, the person receiving the sacrament is doing the same with us. By joining the community of faith, the recipient of baptism is opening themselves to the new family of faith as well. It is a mutual agreement, and it is not only a covenant between the person and God, but between the person and the family of faith. This is why I would never baptize someone alone. This sacrament must include the church.

The gift of hospitality is perfectly illustrated by a story I read in the UM Contact a couple years ago:

By Emily Sims, Weatherford Daily News
On June 5, Mychel Brooke Neuman, a college student in southern California, loaded her vehicle and set out to see her parents in Missouri.
She made it to Oklahoma. A fatal accident on Interstate 40 near Weatherford prevented her from making it home.
The collision introduced her family to members of Weatherford First United Methodist Church, who were there to help in the moment of need.
"We have an inordinate number of fatalities on I-40," Pastor Lynn Brack said. "It makes us sad, but we rarely ever know the story behind the people who were involved. Her family was grasping for straws, someone to help them. Even though they were Jewish, they reached out to us, and we were happy to help them in any way we could."
Father called from Missouri
All of Mychel’s belongings were strewn across the highway, Rev. Brack said. Then the wreckage was moved inside a security fence at a Weatherford business. Mychel’s father, Howard Neuman, reached out to Brack on June 12.
Neuman was desperate to retrieve his daughter’s belongings.
"Mr. Neuman was quite upset," the pastor said. "Everything had been handled very well by all officials in Weatherford involved with his daughter’s death, but he needed additional assistance in getting Mychel’s personal belongings shipped back to Missouri."
Brack learned Mychel was an English major at San Diego State. She was returning to her family’s home in Chesterfield, Mo., after completing her first year of course work.
"Mr. Neuman told me Mychel was also a very talented sketch artist and writer," Brack said. "He told me their home was adorned with her work."
The wrecked car was full of her journals and original artwork, Brack said.
Open hearts
"It was important to the family that as much as possible be salvaged and sent back to them," he said. "Her father searched the Internet to see if there was a Methodist church in Weatherford. Mr. Neuman asked, ‘Aren’t you the open doors and open hearts church? You people do things like this to help others, don’t you?’"
Brack assured Neuman the church members would do whatever they could.
On June 16, several members met at the wrecking yard.
"They sorted through all the belongings with loving care, respect, and dignity," Brack said. "We looked for things that may have been missed, and we found her passport. That’s when this became real. It really made an impact on us."
Using a truck and trailer furnished by member Arlen Hamburger, the group moved the items to the church’s fellowship hall. In all they prepared about 20 large boxes for shipment. At a Weatherford glass company, church members Stacy and Brian Fox stacked the boxes on two wooden pallets and secured them with shrink wrap. Helen Swearengin assisted her daughter, Stacy, with the pallets.
"The Methodist members assisting in the project all signed a sympathy card, with personal messages from each for the family," Brack said. Members also took photos of the project to create a record for the family that showed how Mychel’s effects were treated and prepared for shipment.
"Mr. Neuman has written us many lengthy e-mails" since that time, the pastor said.
Brack continued, "He said, ‘I will think of Mychel every day of my life. I hope at some point I will stop being selfish and allow myself to celebrate her life rather than mourn her death. Your church has helped me very much in the process. But I will always wonder. Why would you do this for complete strangers from Missouri?’
"I told him, ‘That’s just what Christians do for all God’s children."
May we be that church! Amen!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

May 2 Sermon: Eating Like a Christian

Sermon Texts: Revelation 21 and Acts 11


I’d call myself an adventurous eater.  Especially in comparison with Lara, anyway.  It’s either pork, chicken, or beef with her.  At my bachelor’s party, we ate alligator tail.  I’ve eaten swordfish steaks, gazelle, and elk.  It even grosses Lara out when I order a buffalo burger.  For this reason, I’ve taken to pointing to the menu silently when I decide to get something out of the ordinary.  I think if Lara doesn’t hear it, it’s okay. 

One time, Lara and I went out to a Japanese steakhouse with a good friend’s sister and her fiancé.  The fiancé was from Texas, and wanted to impress everyone (as Texans seem to always want to do) so he picked up the tab for everyone at the table (his fiance’s parents were also eating)  Before he did this however, he ordered the big sushi platter for everyone, and it included raw quail eggs.  You can imagine Lara’s face as my brother in law and I and this girl’s fiancé all downed them like shots. 

Perhaps the gentiles similarly grossed out Peter and the first Jewish disciples of Jesus.  Much of the early church’s attention was on the eating habits of new converts.  The kosher diet included prohibitions against shellfish,  and animals without  cloven hooves. 

Deuteronomy 14:3-20

It may be that if not for this strange vision of Peter’s we wouldn’t be sitting here in this church today.  If not for Peter advocating along with Paul for the mission to the gentiles, the followers of Jesus may have remained, and perhaps fizzled out, as a small sect of Judaism.

It may seem like an antiquated argument over an issue of identity that no longer applies to us, but think of all the distinctive diets that are part of our lives. 

Vegetarians, radical political vegetarians, and those who tend to poke fun of all of them.  I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker “Save a cow, eat a vegetarian.”  What is it about people who choose not to eat meat that so annoys people who do? 

One of the little known facts about John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, was that for most of his adult life, he was a vegetarian. While it was true that Wesley was concerned over the suffering of animals and their participation in the future redemption of the world (see his sermon "General Deliverance"), it does not seem to be the case that Wesley refrained from eating meat for moral reasons, as some modern day vegetarians have suggested. He wrote to the Bishop of London, who criticized his vegetarian ways, mentioning that he did return to eating meat for a while in order to demonstrate to his detractors that moral scruples had nothing to do with his diet (quote below). It is also important to note that Wesley never encouraged others to become vegetarians.

Rather, Wesley refrained from meat and wine because of health concerns. He wrote in the same letter to the Bishop of London, "Since the time I gave up the use of flesh-meats and wine, I have been delivered from all physical ills."

He states the matter at length: "By 'extraordinary strictnesses and severities,' I presume your Lordship means the abstaining from wine and animal food; which, it is sure, Christianity does not require. But if you do, I fear your Lordship is not thoroughly informed of the matter of fact. I began to do this about twelve years ago, when I had no thought of 'annoying parochial ministers,' or of 'captivating' any 'people' thereby, unless it were the Chicasaw or Choctaw Indians. But I resumed the use of them both, about two years after, for the sake of some who thought I made it a point of conscience; telling them, 'I will eat flesh while the world standeth' rather than 'make my brother to offend.' Dr. Cheyne advised me to leave them off again, assuring me, 'Till you do, you will never be free from fevers.' And since I have taken his advice, I have been free (blessed be God) from all bodily disorders."

In addition, Wesley encouraged other behaviors related to health. He promoted moderation in food and drink and he discouraged the use of certain medicines (e.g. opium and quinine). Wesley recommended two hours of walking a day, he believed the sick should exercise in the fresh air, and he made a connection (virtually unknown in that day) between cleanliness and health.

Wesley understood the connections between health, diet and exercise, even though some of those particular connections he made may now be understood as tenuous. Nevertheless, since Father John believed Paul's claim that the body was a temple to the Holy Spirit, he also knew that health was a matter of discipleship.

In any case, Peter’s vision isn’t just a trump card for those who argue with vegetarians that they should eat meat.  It is saying something about God’s priorities.  God prioritizes our fellowship and willingness to love one another and make his message of grace known to the world more than he cares about cultural laws making a distinct community.   God wants us to sit at the table with one another, not on the high horse looking down our noses at each other.

Paul also speaks to this issue in the church when he’s writing to the Romans (and the Corinthians).  There are some in the community who are vegetarians because they don’t want to risk eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols

Fellowship if more important than dietary identity. 

Chocolate summary.  Pere Henri's (the young priest) Easter Sermon: “I want to talk about Christ’s humanity, I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”

Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.