Saturday, May 26, 2012

Babble Fish and Barriers

Acts 2:1-21

May 27, Pentecost, 2012

In Doug Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, one of the tools available to galactic travelers is the Babble Fish. This fish, when placed in one's ear, allows one to understand, and be understood by those who speak any of the languages in the galaxy. Wouldn't it be great if there really were a Babble fish? Today is Pentecost, the day the Christian Church was born. This is the day the Holy Spirit removed the linguistic barriers that separate humankind. It is sometimes thought that this was a gift of tongues, but it was equally a gift of ears. Like the space travelers with their Babble fish, all of those present heard the Apostle's speaking in their own language.

Speaking another language not only crosses linguistic barriers, it crosses the cultural barriers as well. It is language that allows us to think, and language that limits our thinking. What makes science and mathematics so difficult for some is the inability to think symbolically—to understand the language. In the same way, it is hard to imagine a phenomenon, if there is no word or words to describe it. That's one reason prophetic and apocalyptic scriptures are so hard to understand, and so easily misinterpreted. The writers are dealing with concepts and ideas for which their language has no words.

Pentecost is about not just crossing, but tearing down barriers. No longer need we be separated by language, culture, race, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other barrier. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God's grace is now available to any and all. And that came as a surprise not only to those gathered outside that house, but to the apostles as well. For the next 2000 years the church would, and still does, struggle with the idea that God's grace is open to everyone—even those we may think are unworthy.

Within the book of Acts, Pentecost takes place shortly after the ascension of Jesus. We might think of the Ascension as a spectacular event that filled the disciples with awe. They experienced it as a profound disappointment. They thought the resurrected Jesus would bring in the kingdom and their work would end. They asked, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" They didn't realize the gritty, dangerous, exhausting work of bearing witness lay just ahead of them. After the Ascension, two men in white robes ask the disciples why they stand staring up into heaven. Maybe even divine messengers can ask dumb questions! I wonder why the disciples didn't respond, "Well, because Jesus just floated up to the sky in a cloud, that's why!"

Even before the disciples became the church they misunderstood the mission, and they longed for the good old days when they could depend on Jesus' leadership. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost changes everything!The Apostles had several thousand years of “chosenness” behind them. They were Jews, the chosen people of God. They had carefully separated themselves from the gentiles; clinging to their own traditions, restrictions, and laws. Only Jews could be part of God's chosen race they had been taught, but now all that was being turned on its head. If God's grace and love were for all humankind, then the Jews were no longer “chosen.” They were no longer any more special than anyone else, and they would spend the rest of their days convincing other folks that they were special and loved by God.

Pentecost set the Apostles on fire. O that he Spirit would set us on fire! O that we would proclaim the gospel as boldly as Peter standing before the crowd. O that we would get out of our pews and into the world every day, like we did last Sunday. O that we would tear down the blockades that keep us from listening to one another. O that we would each hear the Word of God in our own language—in a way that makes us understand and respond. O that we would quit waiting for the ascended Jesus to come back, pick up our mantles and follow where the Spirit leads us. O that rather than complain that no one comes to church we would give them reasons to come to church. O that we would proclaim the gospel not just with our lips, but with our lives. For that is the empowerment of Pentecost—to send us into the world proclaiming and living out the Gospel. It's what the disciples did, and it's what we are called to do.

The story is told of Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), the world-famous violinist, who earned a fortune with his concerts and compositions, but he generously gave most of it away. So, when he discovered an exquisite violin on one of his trips, he wasn't able to buy it. Later, having raised enough money to meet the asking price, he returned to the seller, hoping to purchase that beautiful instrument. But to his great dismay it had been sold to a collector. Kreisler made his way to the new owner's home and offered to buy the violin. The collector said it had become his prized possession and he would not sell it. Keenly disappointed, Kreisler was about to leave when he had an idea. "Could I play the instrument once more before it is consigned to silence?" he asked. Permission was granted, and the great virtuoso filled the room with such heart-moving music that the collector's emotions were deeply stirred. "I have no right to keep that to myself," he exclaimed. "It's yours, Mr. Kreisler. Take it into the world, and let people hear it."

The good news is not ours to keep, but to share. As the old hymn says:

I love to tell the story, more wonderful it seems

than all the golden fancies, of all our golden dreams.

I love to tell the story, 'tis pleasant to repeat,

what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.

And when in scenes of glory, I sing the new new song,

it will be the old old story, that I have loved so long.

Let us tear down the barriers and tell the story: long, loud, and often. AMEN.


Friday, May 11, 2012

my sermon for May 6th 2012


Acts 8:26-40

Easter 5, May 6, 2012

Hope UMC

In 1983, when the compilers of the Common Lectionary assigned this text for today, they had no way of knowing just how appropriate it would be in light of the United Methodist General Conference gathering in Tampa this week. While the delegates struggle with questions of reorganization and whether clergy should be guaranteed appointments, they also, once again, found themselves embroiled in a debate over the place, if any, of gays and lesbians in the church. For many years it seemed clear, based on such passages as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (which requires not only that gays be banned, but stoned to death—are you ready for that? I'm not) it seemed clear that there was no such place. And, in the First Century, as the persecuted church moved into the world, it was clear that there was no such place for gentiles and other groups.

God's angel spoke to Philip: "At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza." He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah. [Acts 8:26-28 the Message] As he ran along beside the chariot, Philip heard the Ethiopian reading from the scroll of Isaiah; he asked the official if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian answered: “No, I need help.” and invited Philip into the chariot. The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah's description of the suffering and death of God's servant. “Who is the prophet writing about? The Ethiopian wanted to know; Was Isaiah speaking of himself, or of someone else.

And so Philip launched into the story of Jesus. (Act 8:36) As they traveled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, "Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptized?"

What is to keep me from being baptized? Well, to start with, the Ethiopian is a gentile, and, at this point, the Christian church only existed within Judaism. And then there's the matter of his gender, or lack thereof. The Ethiopian was a eunuch, and “1 No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God.” [Du. 23:1 the Message] It's about as plain and clear as one can get. Philip's response was quick and easy: “They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot.” [Acts 8:38 the Message]

Nowhere in the scriptures of his day did Philip find authority to baptize one who, according to the law, could not be part of the congregation. No apostolic pronouncement allowed such a thing. Philip acted strictly on his own authority and that of the Holy Spirit. And amazingly enough the church didn't split: there was no mass exodus of angry members; there were no charges brought or threatened; the church simply continued to grow, and grow, and grow. Which leads me to think it may just be time for us to again consider what it means to be a part of the church, and who has a part and place in the church.

In 1939, when the Methodist Church, The Methodist Church South, and the Protestant Methodist Church reunited, the knottiest issue was the place of African Americans in the Methodist Church. It issue was decided by the creation of a non-geographical Central Jurisdiction for those congregations—in short, black Methodists were a church within a church, with the appearance of equality but the reality of segregation. This dreadful miscarriage of Christianity remained until 1968 and he union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren formed our United Methodist Church. During the union talks, the EUB's, God Bless them, made it clear that no union would occur unless the Central Jurisdiction was dissolved and African American Methodists became,in all ways, equal to other United Methodists. There would be no discrimination in the new denomination.

And then came the demands of the gay and lesbian community for an equal place in society. For hundreds of years they had been the target of violent oppression and open discrimination. Gay bars and gathering places were raided regularly, and homosexuality was declared illegal in many states. It was time, members of the community and their supporters said, for gays to be a part of society, too. And society meant the church. Gay denominations had been formed, but gays were pretty much out of place in most Christian churches—and the more they sought inclusion, the more strident the voices of exclusion became. And this past week the United Methodist Church proclaimed that we can no longer even agree to disagree.

Like many people, Christian and unchristian, around the world, I have struggled with this issue. I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle; I have dear friends who are gay or lesbian, and dear friends who are straight. For most of my pastoral career I have been in agreement with the church's position that all persons are of sacred worth, but that homosexuals should not be ordained or appointed to the churches.

And Phillip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Speaking only for myself, and only for myself, I think it's time for me to give serious consideration to who has a place in the church, and what that place may be. I don't know if I will ever change my mind, I only pray that I can keep my mind and my heart both open—open to the voice of others; open to the voice of the Spirit; and open to the voice of Jesus who has set this table. This table is prepared not just for us, but for all those whose place is in the church—even those we may not think have a place in the church. The Lord who died to provide this meal, died not just for me, for you, but for all of humanity. This is a celebration for and of all God's people. Come, join the party. AMEN.

For Mother's Day this Sunday, I offer my congregation these memories.


Mother's Day, 2012

Hope UMC

I am one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with three mothers in my life. Not only did I have my biological mother who reared me and loved me for her entire life, and I was further blessed with an equally loving mother in law whom you also knew. You've heard stories about both of these remarkable women, whom I love and miss. But I don't believe I've ever told you about my third Mom, Margaret. I have told you about her husband, Roger Adams, the Baptist pastor who was one of the folks responsible for my answering my ministry call; Margaret was his wife. Margaret Adams was the quintessential 1950's and 60's pastor's wife. She played the piano, sang in the choir, and did all the things expected of a pastor's wife in that era. But the most important thing Margaret did was to extend the love of her Lord, Jesus, to everyone with whom she came in contact. It didn't matter if you were trying to see her a vacuum cleaner, or were a lonely GI a long way from home: you were welcome in Margret’s home. For Fay and I, both while we were dating and after we were married, that home became a haven.

Margaret was a musician, a cook, a seamstress, and a spotless housekeeper. Cleanliness was clearly next to Godliness at the Adams household. When the dishes were washed it wasn't enough to rinse them in hot water—they were to be scalded with boiling water from the teapot. Once, when I needed all the insignia sewn on a new set of fatigues, Fay and I went to the Adam's so Fay could borrow a sewing machine. Margaret quickly took over the operation and my uniform was ready just in time for us to join the family for dinner. Those dinners were wonderful occasions, not just because the food was good, but because of the love with which it was shared. It was a table covered with joy and laughter. Especially the time one of her daughters made tacos for the family. Margaret had no idea how to eat such a contraption, and when she was shown how to tilt her head and eat it she said: “They're won't be too many tacos served around here.”

As a pastor's wife, Margaret learned frugality. On one of our first visits, Fay commented that all the furniture had been painted black. “When your a pastor's family.” Margaret said. “You learn to be economical. Some of the parsonages we lived in were partly furnished, and I found that by painting my furniture black it matched everything, wherever we were. On another occasion, her 6 year old granddaughter said: “Grandma, what a pretty dress you have on! What garage sale did you get it at?”

It would be accurate to say that Margaret was a bit too conservative to be comfortable with the social unrest of the 1960's. I remember well the time when Fay, Peggy (Margret’s daughter) her fiance, Ken, and I were at their home watching the Pink Panther on TV. Margaret found the movie a bit to risque', and kept insisting we come into the kitchen for ice cream, or to play Monopoly, anything but watch that dirty movie!

Like all good mother's, Margaret could embarrass me from time to time; though seldom intentionally. One day Fay sent me to the Adams' home with a plate of fresh baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies—the ones my mother used to make. Of course Margaret just had to have the recipe,even after I explained to her that it was a secret family recipe that Fay was given by my mother. “Well I'm going to ask her, anyway.” Margaret said picking up the phone. “Yes. OK. I understand” she said and hung up. “Fay said the recipe is on the oatmeal box.” And, while Margaret never mentioned it again, Fay has made sure I will never live it down.

Margaret was about family—not just her husband and children, but the extended family that included who knows how many like Fay and I. She loved us all, kept track of us and stayed in touch as best she could. In her journal she wrote reams of poetry about her love of Jesus and her family.

One night, after a long, involved, and fun theological discussion it was Margaret who asked if I had ever considered the ministry. I recall giving her a rather blank look and wondering what just planet she was from. But she clearly recognized something in me that I had not yet seen in myself. Years later, when we stopped to see the Adams' on our way home from my first year in seminary, she was thrilled that I had finally answered the call she has seen so long ago.

Unlike so many folks who compartmentalize their life and faith, Margret’s faith in and love of Christ was part and parcel of who she was. She could not even imagine a Sunday without church or a day that didn't start and end with prayer. She clung fiercely to (Rom 8:28) “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.” When her husband was taken by ambulance the the ER and they were in the third of 5 days without insurance she told the hospital: “I don't know how, but you will be paid.” Many was the time Fay and I arrived at her home to meet with Peggy and hear Margret's beautiful voice singing hymns as she went about her work. As a child, Margaret was adopted twice. It was her second adopted father who made sure she had voice lessons. As a young woman she had her own radio show, singing in Cincinnati. She was offered a contract in LA, but not wanting to be a part of that lifestyle chose instead to enroll in the Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago where she met her seminary-student future husband. Even inn her last years, as she descended into dementia, Margaret continued here witness. When Peggy asked one of the nurses din the care center where Margaret lived how they kept her calm. She was told “we ask her to sing a hymn, and that always calms her down. In December of 2008, at the age of 97, my third Mom finally went to be with Jesus. And on this Mother's day I miss her: but I rejoice knowing that I'll see here again, when we meet at Jesus' feet. See you then, my thee moms!