Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Stumbling Blocks

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
Mark 9:38-50

     Church, listen up!  Jesus is talking to the church through the gospel story.  This is a heart to heart for the future body of Christ.  His disciples throughout the ages have behaved just like his first disciples.  What he says to them, he says to us.  None of us have been very good at paying attention to him, either as individuals or as a body.  Today, let’s pay attention.
     Every group of people forms some kind of boundary.  They decide who is a part of their group and who is not.  Think about families, tribes, clubs, teams, and even national alliances.  The boundaries can move from time to time, but they do so with great difficulty.  The point is to say who belongs and who does not.  The individual pain of not belonging is felt by children on the playground, rejected fraternity pledges, and the spouse that never quite fits in to a family.  Churches have been trying to decide who is sufficiently prepared for membership or full inclusion from the very beginning.  In the gospel story today, someone outside the circle was healing in the name of Jesus and the disciples didn’t like it.  
     The disciples were behaving in a manner consistent with new learners.  I don’t know if I can describe this phenomenon very well, but I’ll try.  There is a time in a person’s development of a new skill when they know enough to begin to form a set of rules.  For instance, a child learning to play an instrument learns to follow the rules and needs sheet music to play a tune.  But after years of practice and music theory, that child may be able to improvise in a jazz band.  And then the growing musician will learn how to compose.  Conventions may be broken as the music becomes more interesting.  But in that process there is a time of having enough success to want to demonstrate your expertise and not enough information or life experience to be supple or creative in applying that information.  You hear it in college classes all the time, usually from older folks who have just enough experience in the field to want to impress the professor and the rest of the class—to set themselves above the real novices.  The disciples are wanting to impress the rabbi in this morning’s story.  And Jesus shuts them down.  The disciples want to draw the boundary of discipleship around their little group and they want to monitor what work is orthodox, acceptable, ordained, sanctioned, and commissioned by Jesus himself.
     This is also the source of the schisms in the church.  We’re pretty sure we belong.  We know that we are Christians.  We’re just not so sure about those others.  And here is the rule from Jesus that we ignore as if he never said it, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Look for the power to do good—that comes from God.  If a person honors God, they will not speak evil of Jesus.  If they speak in the name of Jesus, they are part of the same body, whether we like it or not, whether we agree or disagree, whether we accept them or not, in spite of how we may judge them unworthy.  Who is in?  Jesus says it is anyone who does what he does in his name, anyone who does good, anyone who is good to the people who serve God.  Now stop trying to play gate keeper and get on with pouring out your own life for the sake of others.  
     It’s not that the disciples were stupid.  They were at a particular developmental point on their journey to spiritual maturity.  When we do these same kinds of things in the church, it’s probably a sign that we have achieved a certain level of discipleship, which is good, but it is only just enough to be dangerous to Christ’s mission.  When we find ourselves being gate keepers or judges of other people’s Christian walk, we need to spend some time with the next couple of images.  
     Jesus is pretty free in his use of hyperbole here.  In case you’ve forgotten what you learned in freshman English, or haven’t gotten there yet, hyperbole is an extravagant exaggeration used as a figure of speech, for instance, he was as big as a mountain.  Jesus wants his disciples to understand the dire consequences of their actions.  When we stand in the way of a new believer, or a less mature believer, or a child, we are standing between them and Jesus.  You know what Jesus wants to do with us when we’re standing in his way?  He wants to tie one of those great big pieces of granite that people used to use to grind grain—the ones that are so big that horses or donkeys had to pull them.  He’d tie it to us and drop us in the sea because we’re doing that much damage.  When we get in the way—when we don’t make room for the new person, when we don’t value their gifts and let them use them in service to God, when we already have someone that is in charge of that job, when we don’t bother to get to know them—Jesus says he would like to drop us bound in cement into a lake.  He doesn’t actually do that to us—he just says it would be better for us than what happens when we play gate keeper.  We destroy the kingdom of God.  We destroy the community of the beloved by our lack of maturity.  
     So how do we become more mature so that we don’t do harm?  Jesus says, “Cut it off!  Whatever is keeping you from building the kingdom of God—cut it off!  Whatever is keeping you from the spiritual maturity needed to exercise freedom, creativity, and hospitality in the kingdom of God—cut it off!”  Is it your job that gets in your way?  Quit!  Is it your friends that pull you in a different direction?  Find new friends!  Are you wasting time on something that doesn’t have eternal value?  Stop it!  Figure out what brings life to you and others and pursue that with all your heart, mind, and energy!
     Hyperbole is saying “cut off your hand if it offends you.”  Jesus means “stop it now!”  But Jesus is not saying that if you don’t you will go to hell.  The word that you will find translated “hell” is the Hebrew word Gehenna.  Gehenna was a real place.  It was a valley in which ancient idol religions practiced child sacrifice and forced children to walk through fire.  The practice was abolished during the reign of one of the kings of Judah; he defiled the valley to make it unusable for such practices any longer.  But even after the evil practices had ceased, the history and images of death, fire and punishment were inseparable from the name.  Jesus says that it is better to quit your job, or lose your friends, or leave some idleness or ideology that you love behind to enter the beauty of the kingdom of God and to increase in love, joy, and peace as the kingdom expands.  
To stay connected to the things that cause us and others to stumble, blocks the coming of God’s kingdom and allows the horror of human self-destruction to continue.  If money makes us selfish, we need to give it away.  If keeping up with the Joneses or other kids at school makes us ashamed of the gifts we have, then we have to get rid of envy.  If a love of tradition causes us to reject new gifts brought in the wonder of new faith and budding discipleship, then we probably ought to throw out our traditions.  Whatever we have to do to allow our spirits to grow, we need to do, so that we don’t get stuck in that dangerous novice stage of spiritual development.  Getting rid of stumbling blocks is one of the first steps to moving on to spiritual maturity.  Those early disciples had to stretch in ways they never thought possible to become the body of Christ.  Their boundaries continued to be pulled outward to include everyone that God called to the table: Samaritans, gentiles, tax collectors, a eunuch, Paul, who had actually tried to kill Christians, oppressors, slaves and masters, women and children.  It takes maturity of faith to keep up with the ever moving, always surprising Spirit of God.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Same Song, Second Verse

Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22
Mark 9:30-37

     I thought we might have some fun this morning.  How many of you have sung all the verses of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”?  Find page 57 in your red hymnal and let’s sing the first verse.  It’s easier to sing standing up so if it’s comfortable for you, let’s stand as we sing.  Sing.
     You may be seated, but don’t close your book.  Six verses!  When this hymn fits the day’s readings, I usually choose the four verses that are the best fit.  Now turn to the next page in your hymnal—the one with no printed music, only verses.  These are some of the verses on the first page plus all the others.  Why so many verses?  Each verse is really about the same thing—how God through Christ transforms human beings and the appropriate response to that transformation.  Some verses are about who gets changed, some are about what that change looks like, and all include praising the God of new life.  My favorite verses are the last in the second column.  My friend and colleague, Bruce Smith, introduced these to me.  They originated in the Cornwall district of southern England where John and Charles Wesley took their preaching revival.  Cornwall was the home of the pirate trade—the ships that sailed from Cornwall returned laden with stolen cargo that was distributed and hidden among the households of the district to avoid detection by the law.  When Charles Wesley penned “ye murderer and hellish crew,” he was talking about pirates.  There are many British Methodist churches in the district today that testify to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.  It takes a number of verses to get from “ye murderers and hellish crew” to
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro’ all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.
     Mark tells us that the same was true for the followers of Jesus.  It took explanation after explanation, experience upon experience, for them to be transformed into disciples—from students into those who actually followed in Jesus’ footsteps.  Today’s reading is the second cycle of teaching about the way of the cross that leads to life.  Several of Jesus’ disciples have experienced seeing Jesus transfigured.  Jesus was standing on the mountain talking to Moses and Elijah.  His clothing was brighter white that could be described.  His face was shining like light.  And then it was over and Jesus descended from the mountain to find the rest of his disciples discouraged and frustrated because they could not heal a boy with epilepsy.  Jesus accomplished the healing and then sat down with his troubled disciples.  Why couldn’t they bring about the transformation that the child’s father so desperately wanted?  Jesus tells them that it is because they did not believe the implications of his teaching and actions.  Jesus grounds the power of transformation in prayer.  Some of the disciples have just witnessed the connection in a powerful way—Jesus took them with him to pray, he was transfigured, in the presence of Elijah and Moses, and then healed a boy from epileptic seizures.  The power of God’s kingdom is grounded in prayer—the kind of prayer that requires solitude and time and placing oneself within the light of God’s wisdom.
     So Jesus took the disciples away, through Galilee, into a place where there were fewer towns so that he could teach them.  This is the briefest and simplest of Jesus’ predictions about the way of the cross, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  Again, the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask him.  And so Jesus watched for another teachable moment.  He saw the disciples arguing along the road and when they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been arguing about.  Their silence did not hide them.  Jesus knew they had been arguing over who was the greatest.  Jesus gathered the twelve and found a new way to illustrate kingdom living.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
     Then he took a little child and lifted it up in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
     The theme of Jesus’ song is that the way to the kingdom is through becoming the kind of servant who serves everyone—even children.  The reverse is just as true.  When we welcome the ministry of children, we welcome Jesus and the One who sent him.  When we reject the ministry of children, we reject Jesus and the One who sent him.  You all make me so proud in how you lift up and receive the gifts of your children.  You are preparing them to answer God’s call on their lives.  And you are preparing to serve the children of our community through our new middle school after school activity program.  You are welcoming Christ and the one who sent him.  The first verse of the song of God’s kingdom we heard last week:  
If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
The second verse is also about self emptying.
Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me
but the one who sent me.
    The kingdom comes when we learn the mystery of self-giving.  It is so counter to the world’s message of success and greatness, of earning privilege.  We have been so steeped in the culture of achievement and status that we are as hard to teach as the disciples.  Michael Raschko writes, “Those caught up in the kingdom of God see the dynamics of life very differently:  how we measure out our lives for the sake of others determines how life in its fullness and greatness will be measured out to us.”  The kingdom comes when we pour out our lives for the sake of others.  It comes in welcoming and serving those that the world overlooks, those who are vulnerable, like children.  At the heart of the mystery is this truth:  when we welcome and serve one of the least, we welcome and serve God.  The message is as old as Abram and Sarai welcoming three travelers who turned out to be angels sent with a promise.  Jesus taught the story of the sheep and the goats—when did we see you naked and clothe you?  It is echoed in two disciples who welcome a fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus and recognize Jesus only in the breaking of the bread.  The author of Hebrews tell us that those who have practiced hospitality have entertained angels unaware.  When we pour out our lives for the least in this world’s kingdoms, the kingdom of God dawns.
     In a few minutes we will gather at the communion table.  While you are waiting to be served there will be images of children on the screen.  Let these images move you to prayer for the healing of this world through the coming of God’s kingdom.  How will you pour out your life?  How will you serve the least of these?  The feast we celebrate in Holy Communion is a foretaste of the great feast in the kingdom where all will be fed, where none will have more and none will go without.  I invite you to prayer now, and again as you watch images of children from around the world and come to the table.  May we sing the song of the kingdom that comes by way of a cross.

Let us pray.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Tuesday Middle School After-School Program Emphasizes Community

Ted Packard is the after-school program facilitator.
With the beginning of fall comes a free after-school program at Vashon United Methodist Church for junior high students that will be non-religious in nature and include a variety of activities. The program will be facilitated by Ted Packard, who is an experienced wilderness school youth instructor and holds a Master of Education degree.

“I am interested in working with youth and families to create a vision together for this program,” says Ted. “My experience is in creating a structure where groups of kids can gel together and learn how to work together.”

Ted grew up in Virginia and after earning a Bachelor’s degree in History and a Master’s degree in Education, spent two years travelling the East Coast playing music and facilitating community development. In 2011, he moved to Washington and completed a 9-month naturalist and wilderness survival training at Alderleaf Wilderness College. During that time he started mentoring youth in nature connection and personal growth.  He has worked with Wilderness Awareness School and currently works year round at Vashon Wilderness Program and Quiet Heart Wilderness School. At Quiet Heart, he is still working with the same cohort of students, now teens, that he started with 4 years ago.  He is passionate about the sharing of stories, music, art, filmography, games, basket making, primitive skills for foraging & hunting, and most importantly, feeding the passion in others.

The after-school program comes out of a shared recognition on the part of concerned community leaders that the island needs more programs for youth. Organizer Carol Butler hopes to create a network of alliances throughout the island to give more support for teens. “I was raised as a latchkey kid,” she explains. “But I had caring neighbors. We had a community of concern. Kids need to be able to feel safe in fun activities with peers, friends, and future friends."

“Youth is a very exciting time and a great time to discover potential,” says one of the organizers, Nancy Vanderpool, who is also active with VARSA and the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness. “This program is a way to open new paths to do that in a safe and caring environment.”

Program activities are designed to be fun -- with games, projects, and kinesthetic activies -- while offering new experiences and opportunities for enriching friendships. The program is based in the Education Building of the Methodist church, but will be non-religious. "We want to serve our community,” says the Reverend Kathy Morse, the church’s pastor. "Our parents suggested that our youth need a safe place to connect and that is what we hope to provide. The impetus comes from our call to love and serve our neighbors, but the program itself will not be religious is nature. We want middle school youth to have fun with their friends and maybe learn some new skills.”

The program starts Tuesdays in October at 3:15 when kids get dropped off by the bus and goes to 6:00 p.m. Snacks are provided. The program is offered at no cost and is held in the Education Building of Vashon United Methodist Church at 17928 Vashon Hwy SW. Students must register online.... 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Choosing Your Lens

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 116:1-8
Mark 8:27-38     

Last year, the United Methodist clergy in our Annual Conference gathered for our yearly session with our Bishop.  Our guest teacher was Paul Jeffrey, the United Methodist missionary assigned to photographer and interpret our missions around the world to the larger church.  You have seen many of Paul’s photos in our mission magazines.  Paul showed us the difference that choosing lens makes.  Those of you who are amateur photographers already know this.   You use one lens for a wide shot, another for a distance shot, and another for a portrait.  You choose your lens to tell the story that you want to tell.  The reverse is also true.  The lens that you use determines what you see and what you don’t see.  You can see a great distance with little detail, or you can see a small object magnified many times.  You can see a crowd of people, or the emotion on one face.  It’s the same in our lives.  Our eyes are incredibly sensitive lens that are adjusted by our mindset.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus is checking to see what lens his disciples are using.  He is teaching them, and us, how to use the lens of discipleship.  Jesus begins by engaging his followers in a question about his identity—through what lens is he seen by the people on the street.  “Who do people say that I am?”  They answer: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  Jesus says, “Yes, but who do you say that I am (What lens are you using)?”  Peter sees part of the truth, “You are the Messiah.”  But Jesus silences him—the Messiah is a powerful lens and not one that Jesus chooses to use.  Jesus will refer to himself as the Son of Man, a much softer lens.  Messiah is a pre-loaded acclamation that came with an expectation—save me, save us.  Son of Man says I am like you—I am one of you.
Peter got the answer half right. He is the first in Mark’s gospel to name Jesus as Messiah.  But Peter did not see clearly.  He was using too wide a lens.  In Peter’s world, Messiah meant king and deliverer of the Jews.  Moses had been a deliverer, but he wasn’t king.  David came the closest; he delivered the Jews from the Philistines when he conked Goliath smack in the forehead and he eventually became king.  Picture King David and all the expectations that came with the mighty warrior, deliverer king and you have an idea about what Peter meant when he declared that Jesus was the Messiah.  There were a number of people in Jesus’ time who claimed the title Messiah, modeled on the legacy of King David.  That’s why, instead of patting Peter on the back, Jesus warned the disciples not to tell anyone.  Their vision was blurred.  They were expecting glory, victory, and freedom.  Jesus had to sit them down and explain to them that his path was going to lead to suffering, rejection, and death.
He understood his mission as restorer of souls and reconciler to God.  He spoke forgiveness to just about everybody who crossed his path.  In fact, he made sure that his path led to folks who needed to feel a touch of compassion and hear a word of forgiveness.  He embraced the notion of being a deliverer, but with a twist.  He taught his disciples to pray “deliver us from evil,” but he prefaced it with “lead us not into temptation.”  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be led away from the temptation to think, and say, and do evil things.  He could not, would not rescue Israel from Rome, but he could teach people how to resist the temptation to give in to their baser instincts.  He could deliver us from destructive actions, from being the source of evil.  
       Being king—well, that simply didn’t fit with his understanding of God’s desire for human community.  If you remember, Israel was so desperate to be like other nations that the people begged God to relent and give them a king—and God gave them Saul—and they were sorry almost immediately.  They wanted a king to protect them from their neighbors; they wanted a prophet or priest to represent them before God.  They wanted someone out front to do it for them—save us, protect us they cried.  Does that sound familiar?  Isn’t that what we want from the Messiah?  Save me, save us; protect me, protect us?  
       Jesus, it would appear from this passage, didn’t think it was his job to provide security.  Peter got an earful when he tried to rescue Jesus and keep him safe.  “Satan,” Jesus called him.  Satan for using the lens of power.  Satan—for trying to tempt him to protect his life, to pursue a path of glory, to follow human wisdom instead of God’s call on his life.  Jesus was intent on giving his life away.  Not only that, he expected his followers to do the same.  You want to save your life?  This is the wrong team.  You want a profit?  This is the wrong company.  Jesus wasn’t a king and he wasn’t a CEO.  Instead he was a rabbi, or a teacher, and an organizer.  He gathered together some disciples and trained them to do what he did.  He taught, he forgave sins, he healed, and he restored people to God’s community.  You want to follow Jesus, then that’s what you have to do.  You give your life away without counting the cost.  Jesus invited his disciples down a dangerous path:  teach peace, teach passive resistance, teach love, teach inclusiveness, teach against power that oppresses.  And by the way, there may be a cross at the end of the path.  

Not the cross of your own suffering—everybody has to deal with their own problems, pain and suffering.  This cross is different.  It is the result of resisting the powers that oppress people.  We remember the violence of the civil rights movement.  We see the brutality of uprising all across the globe.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more faithful we are to God’s call on our lives—and this is as true for the Church as it is for individual Christians—the more closely we follow Jesus, the more faithful we are to God’s call on our lives, the more the world will want to crucify us.  Is that bad new?  No, it’s the salvation of the world not by one, but by many, through the Holy Spirit.  
You have been forgiven—now go forgive someone else.  You have been fed—now go feed someone else.  You have been healed—now go heal someone else.  You have been invited and welcomed into God’s community—now go invite and welcome someone else.  Look what happens when those “someone elses” who have been left out get invited in.  In Jesus day it was the sick and disabled, the Samaritan, and the Gentile (non-Jew like you and me).  In our day we know how dangerous it is to work for the inclusion and rights of African Americans and other people of color, immigrants, and gender minorities.  Zoom your lens in to see the beloved, unique child of God, and not the label.  You understand yourself to be a beloved, unique child of God, now treat your neighbor with the same love and respect with which you want to be treated.  Open your heart, and mind, and hands.  And by the way, there will be plenty of people who don’t like what you do.

Peter tried to tell Jesus, “Save yourself.”  But Jesus adjust their lens to understand the path and cost of discipleship, “Follow my way and we’ll pour out our lives for the world.”  You see, when Jesus heard the word Messiah, he understood, “Anointed One/Commissioned One” and responded, “Send me, send us for the life of the world.”  My friends and I, w e will give you our lives.  Will you follow Jesus and let God pour out your life for the healing of the world?

Let us pray.