Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Transfiguration Sunday Sermon

II Corinthians 3:12-18, Matthew 17:1-13

When I first imagined the tents in this passage, I was brought back to my days when we pitched canvas tents that I used to spend a couple weeks under as a Boy Scout at Camp Orr, along the Buffalo River in NW Arkansas. These tents weren’t like the well ventilated, lightweight tents that we have today. I think they were left over from Vietnam. The dark canvas soaked up the Arkansas 95 degree sun. They were musty from the humidity and rain that accompanied the heat in the summer. Despite these defects, I have a fondness in my heart for those tents.
To the modern reader, Peter’s suggestion to build three tents on such an occasion seems like an interruption in the flow of the story, and to Mark and Luke, both gentiles, the idea of erecting tents on such an occasion must’ve seemed equally silly, because they both make excuses for Peter. Mark comments on Peter’s idea by saying, “he did not know what to say, because he was terrified.” Luke shortens Mark’s comment simply to “not knowing what he had said.” Matthew seems to be the only gospel writer to think Peter is up to something worthwhile, because he leaves out commentary entirely.
When the disciples react like we would react to the sight of the transfiguration unfolding before their eyes, God appears in a cloud. Perhaps this cloud is a visual ignorance--A veil of missed comprehension. Christ stands before us transfigured, and all we can do (through Peter) is to suggest our tent-building. God doesn’t seem to be too interested in our tents. God seemingly interrupts Peter without justifying his idea with a response. Instead, God is bubbling over with adoration. “This is my son, IN whom I am well pleased.” Should we make a tent for him then God? No---“Listen to Him.” Listening to him involves us confronting our fears. Are we afraid to live our lives the way that he perceives is possible in us? Matthew tells us that 6 days before Before the Transfiguaration event, Jesus confronts his disciples with the question, Who do you say that I am? I imagine that the emphasis is not on the “I” but on the “you.” Christ’s love for us can make us quite uncomfortable. Jesus loves us outside the tent. Jesus walks through the cloud of our ignorance and touches us.
I believe that these tents in some ways symbolize our impulsive response to the divine. When the divine becomes apparent, we try to build it shelter. Instead of basking in the light of the transfiguration, we want to put it under canvas. Sure, we think this is best for the divine. God is in need of our protection!
We want to protect God under the tents of our dogmas, our customs, and our explanations. Humans are naturals at tentmaking. Douglas John Hall writes in a book I’ve been reading, The Cross in Our Context….“One suspects that our Western concepts of God are the answers that we give to depth experiences that are too basically unsettling to remain undefined, unnamed. Better name it straightaway—otherwise what control can we claim?”
The tents that we build as a response to the divine experience are our attempts to define and name the divine. Our human tendency is to feel uncomfortable with the divine. We can’t just stand with our mouths agape. Though ignorance breeds fear, the inverse is true as well: We are afraid of our ignorance—or at least I am anyway. I don’t like to think that “I don’t know.”
Far superior to “I don’t know” is to pretend I know. Many of us latch on to a few ideas that are comfortable to us, then we construct our self-centered realities around these comfortable ideas. God hates this or that is a lot more comfortable because it takes the spotlight off me.
The world is just so much more manageable if I can stake my claim on the idea that God hates something rather than the idea that God loves everyone. If I can build my identity around something I might find in scripture that God “hates,” some abomination that doesn’t apply to me, then I can point my finger instead of claiming my own sinfulness. Building walls to keep the “other” out is a lot easier than letting Christ in. Why? Perhaps this is why in Romans, chapter 2, after describing the apparently sinful culture the Christians find themselves in, he asks those disciples, who are we to judge—perhaps we should just leave that up to God and concentrate on loving our neighbor.
Christ isn’t waiting for us to put a box around Him so that we can define and control Him: the Christ of the Transfiguration grabs our hearts and wrings them out. Sometimes Christ approaches us with arms open—other times Christ overturns our tables.
Christ’s love is a transformative love, it is healing love. I can’t open myself to Christ’s love without being transfigured myself, and frankly the sight of that scares me to death. The transfiguration burns our worldly eyes. IN a later experience of the transfigured Christ, Paul experienced this transformation as so reformative that it blinded him. After seeing a bright light and being questioned by the Risen Christ, Saul “could see nothing, and had to be led by the hand to Damascus,” where he was healed by Ananias and scales fell from his eyes. Our eyes are burned by this vision as well. The love of Christ transcends our worldly vision. Of course we hear and nod our heads that the Christ is present in the whole world—in the “least of these,” but the actual vision of that reality has the power to dumbfound us.
When we open our hearts to the transforming, transfiguring love of Christ, we’re blinded by the light—when we recover from this life changing event, it oftentimes means that we may find love in our heart for the very people we THOUGHT God hates. Saul knew with all his heart that God hated the Christians. The scriptures tell us that he held the coats of those who stoned the early Christian martyrs. He was right there cheering them on, and probably even participated. Then Christ shows up, blinds him with a vision of love he can’t quite wrap his mind around, then when the scales fall from his eyes, he loves the Christ so much that he ends up finding him in groups of people that the early Christians didn’t even imagine could be possible! Do you recognize this?! Are we ready and willing to be changed by and then bear the transforming power of Christ in the world? I’m not talking about Christ’s blinding power changing other people—I’m talking about that blinding power changing you!!!! And me!!!!
We don’t have any business saying someone else should be changed and healed and transformed by God until we step up to the plate and take a swing at what that means for us---for our rigid notions and our usual habits and our sacred cows. God smashes those things up and makes them into ashes and smears them on our face. That’s what we’ll do this Wednesday—swallow our own finitude and accept God’s gracious everlastingness. Grace lasts forever—walls crumble!!!!!
For Matthew, the tent probably symbolizes the Tabernacle, where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud of the continuing presence of God with the people that dwelt over the Ark of the Covenant, is kept. The Ark is the container of the Tablets containing God’s Law. The tabernacle is a symbol of God’s presence with the Jewish people while they are on the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land. Even when the people of God are settled, God prefers the mobility of the tent, perhaps as a suggestion to Israel that their people are going to be on the move throughout their collective history.
Paul realizes that Christ is the tabernacle—the reality of God’s abiding presence with us. Putting Christ in our heart is the same thing as building a tabernacle in our heart—but one difference. We had to build the tabernacle. God gives explicit instructions for a few chapters of Exodus; meticulous details of the tabernacle are given. An artist is selected because of his ability to detail the tabernacle.
Instead of building a tent and carefully putting Christ in our hearts, we open our hearts to Christ’s presence. Christ coming into our hearts is God’s doing, God’s grace. Christ explodes into our hearts. Are you afraid to live your life the way that I perceive?, Christ asks us. That’s how Jesus enters our hearts: that introspection that causes us to see what Christ perceives is possible in our lives. Christ challenges us to do all that he has done. He perceives greatness in us when we perceive weakness. Christ is the fulfillment and potential for all humanity.
Paul writes about the transfiguration in 2nd Corinthians “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Christ perceives Christ in our hearts, and that’s how Christ enters. The law is written on our hearts. Christ’s coming into our hearts isn’t a move into empty space, it is an unveiling.
Jesus shows the disciples the glorious nature of the Christ. Even though we are Disciples of Christ, we can never quite wrap our minds around the simple light and beauty of the transfiguration. It is out of the ordinary. Right when we think we have the right answers to the question “Who do you say that I am?” the reality of the Christ melts our minds and envelops us like a cloud. We try to build appropriate shrines, and we don’t even begin to get it. The cloud forces our knees to buckle. What is this grand vision? This awe inspiring light? Is it a taste of some transcendent deity? No—it is pure humanity. It is fearless, unbounded love. Christ never lets us disciples off the hook—He asks us if we would like to join him on Golgotha. He tells us that we will do all he has done and more. Christ’s radiant face is the potential for all creation.
Are you willing to believe the miracle? Are you willing to look for the shining face of Christ when you look in the mirror? With the awesome beauty of our true nature comes an awesome responsibility, an awesome task on this earth. We walk down the mountain with Christ—back into the valleys of the shadow of death. But with this vision stamped fresh in our minds, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with us! Christ’s presence is just as divine when he is tenderly touching a prostitute or a leper as when he is in the company of Elijah and Moses. Christ shines brightest in the world in the company of those we think are unworthy to be brought to light. Christ may blind us and if we go and seek out the aid and counsel of those who are compassionate enough to receive us, we may just find ourselves loving those we don’t think God loves. In so doing, we may even uncover the beauty of God’s love for us! Amen.

Transfiguration Midrash

I wrote this a couple years ago as an exercise to "get inside the scripture." Later I found out that this practice of "fleshing out the details" of a Biblical story was practiced by Jewish Rabbis in an art called "midrash." When we give ourselves the opportunity to put into words or on a canvas what our mind sees when we read a scripture, it sometimes illuninates more of the truth of that particular passage in our devotional life. I recommend doing this yourself as a discipline of Lent. Here's an example:

Transfiguration Mountain
One evening, a week after our master had asked us who we believed he was, we were all slumbering in a grove of trees outside Cesarea Phillippi. The night had the chill of crisp air and I had not yet drifted into sleep. I was still imagining if I would be one that Jesus spoke of when he had said earlier, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Lately, I could see that Jesus was beginning to get frustrated about something. He kept telling us that we weren’t getting the point of his stories. Then, as my eyelids were growing heavier, I heard the Master say out loud, “Who will accompany me up the mountain to pray?” Most of the disciples were asleep, but next to me James snapped out of a dream. He said to me, “Brother John, Am I dreaming? I thought I heard the teacher ask if someone would walk with him up the mountain, and I saw he was wearing a crown made of thorns!?” “You’re dreaming,” I answered, “but he did call for us to accompany him up the mountain, let’s go!” All of us usually argued over who of us would get to accompany the Master on walks alone. I relished the chance to walk at his side. Peter had been standing against a tree, away from the fire, so he could watch the woods and warn us if we were being approached by intruders. Jesus, James and I walked down to Peter and Jesus asked him if he wanted to come with us on a hike.

We were camped halfway up the mountain already, so the climb became tedious quickly. We were climbing around large rocks and the ground was not stable. Our feet kept stepping on loose areas and little landslides of rocks and dirt would slide down the mountain in clouds of dust. Soon we reached the snow. Jesus was walking a few paces ahead of us, and in the moonlight I saw that there were sets of footprints on either side of his! When I looked up, it seemed as though the moonlight had left the rest of the world and all concentrated on him. Then, I could see that in the light reflected from the Master, the owners of the other footprints had appeared! I could sense, much like you can hear your father’s sneeze in a busy marketplace, but in this same way I could see—I knew that the other footprints belonged to Moses and Elijah! They were speaking with one another, and I could tell by the looks on their faces that Moses and Elijah felt about as proud to be walking with Jesus as we did. I wondered if all the prophets and angels argued, like we did, over who got to accompany our Master different places.

We were all stupefied. Peter seemed to be the most effective at fishing his voice out of his stomach and stammered: “Master, it is most fortunate that we have come with you….I, I, I can pitch three tents for you and for Elijah, and for Moses.” Moses looked at Peter fondly. He understood that we were homeless and on the run with Jesus like he and his followers were homeless and on the run from the Egyptians—with Yahweh on the run with them in a tent of His own. It seemed that the tents were no longer the right idea---but the cloud of our unknowing grew thicker, and actually seemed to materialize around us. From it, I could feel the words surging through my body like I was standing inside a thundercloud and the lightening was entering my ears and grasping my heart. The words confirmed what Peter had exclaimed to the Master’s question a week earlier—“Who do you say that I am?” “My Son…My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” the voice uttered. “Listen to him!” I could not even turn my head to look at James, but I felt him grab my hand, and through it, I could feel that he was seeing and hearing the same thing. The voice sounded like the sweetest notes from the lyre—and like a person’s dying breath. We were all stuck, hearts pounding, breathing heavily. We began to pray the prayer that our Lord had taught us to pray. My knees hit the snow, then ----------I could feel his hand burning me like the electric words that had burned my heart. Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” It seemed that the cloud evaporated as I took in what I thought was going to be my last breath. I saw Jesus standing in front of us with his hands on our joined hands. The night was dark again, and in the moonlight I saw that a host of footprints were all around us in the snow. Jesus started back down the mountain, and we quickly followed. He turned his head and said, “Tell no one about this vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The questions were popping in my mind like a rabbit darts into her hole. As the rabbit feels safety and contentment in her hole though, the questions seemed to be put to rest as soon as they entered my mind. Peter, though, asked him question after question. He needed to hear from the mouth of our teacher what I felt in my heart. We were walking with the Savior!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sermon for Feb. 19, 2006--The World is my Parish

Matthew 28: 16-20
Isaiah 49: 1-6

This past Wednesday, after an early morning prayer breakfast, talking all day to two discussion groups, choir practice, a weather change and allergies, my voice started sputtering out until it was lost completely. Perhaps God is telling you something when you lose your voice! Silence is something that may come easy for some of you, especially those with Joseph like spirits, but for most ministers, it is something pretty tough.
If nothing else, it did spark an idea for this sermon, which is perhaps my favorite quote in all of Christian tradition, and one that applies quite well to our United Methodist heritage of mission work—St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel wherever you go….IF you have to, use words!” Amen brother Francis! I suppose it is a lesson that is sometimes learned the hard way!
During the past century, this saying of Francis’ could have been a motto for our mission outreach throughout the world.
Many in the Anglican church, the church to which Charles and John Wesley always remained devoted, felt threatened by John’s ministry among the common people. Shut out of preaching venues, Wesley resorted to preaching in the fields, in some cases drawing as many as 20,000 people. It is during this chapter in Wesley’s ministry when he uttered those words that are now celebrated by the church, “The world is my parish!” When Wesley was shut out of even his home church in Epworth, he preached from the top of his father’s grave, right outside the front doors of his birthplace and where his father served as a priest for 40 years.
Our theological father was relentless and creative in his passion to “make disciples.” He saw opportunities and organized a mission to meet the needs of a community which wasn’t being met by the church. It is in his legacy that we continue to grow and meet the needs as “mission outposts” of the one true church.
Our gospel lesson is the mission statement of the United Methodist Church. Christ wants us to share the good news with the world. During the sermon on the mount, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to look at it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” This passage, translated by Eugene Peterson in the Message, illuminates well that the gospel we bring is salt, it is light.
So often we think mission is about going and teaching inferior natives why they are wrong and we are right about cultural customs. This is not mission—that approach leaves the taste of bitterness, not saltiness. That doesn’t pick up the “God-flavors” of the earth, it tastes like imperialism.
So many times, people quote today’s scripture and leave off the last half of verse 20—they envision “making” disciples as something similar to making my cats refrain from using the bathroom in the house. First you hold their noses down to the mess they’ve made, then you give them a good swatting. So often we forget the “God-colors” that the light of the Gospel helps us see. The “Great commission” holds hands with the “Great Promise.” “For I shall be with you until the end of the age.”
This is the Light—this is the saltiness. Without the Great promise, the Great Commission is a futile endeavor. Unless we breathe the breath of God when we spread the Good news, we are sowing seeds on the rocks.
The United Methodist Africa University is a light on a light-post. At the main campus in Zimbabwe, Africans from many countries come to attain degrees in resource management, public health, peace and governance, and much else.
The $62 million dollars contributed by United Methodists to UMCOR for hurricane relief by the end of 2005 is a salty figure if you ask me. Roland Fernandes, treasurer of General Board of Global Ministries, said “Year-end receipts from the annual conferences pushed the figure far, far beyond what we anticipated in the late fall.” When we respond to those in need, we live the statement that “The world is our parish.”
The United Methodist Community-Based Malaria Control Program, a denominational campaign to eradicate a controllable disease that kills a child every thirty seconds, formally launched at United Methodist Church maternity and Health Center, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on December 5, 2005. I hear the Gospel being preached in wordless wonder!
The HIV/AIDS Ministries Network and Covenant to Care programs were launched in 1989 by Health and Welfare Ministries, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church.
HIV/AIDS poses one of the most significant health risks of our time. Many United Methodists have been in the forefront of ministry with persons living with HIV and AIDS in the United States and around the world.
A Covenant to Care congregation publicly declares that people with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones are welcome in all facets of the church's life, leadership and ministry. Hospitality to all of God's children is the message of the Good News which Jesus brought and challenged the church to live. For a group of people who often feel stigmatized by society, this program truly communicates the love of a Christ who held lepers in his arms, touched them and healed them.
We have an opportunity to support many missions and ministries through our participation with various arms of the church. Inside your bulletin, you’ll find an invitation to contribute to the “Catch the Vision” offering, which funds new church starts in the Arkansas conference. Through this fund, we are reaching new people with the fresh possibilities of a life in Christ. In the beginning of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s preaching attracted the emerging culture of manufacturing and industrial laborers, who would become the middle class which would come to dominate the Methodist church. Through the “Catch the Vision” fund, our church continues the tradition of tapping into emerging cultures in our state. Churches grow where populations grow, and our conference set the goal in 2003 to start at least 3 new churches every year for the next 10+ years. We have the goal that by 2013, there will be 3 Hispanic churches with an average attendance of 350 plus and 1 with 500 plus. This past year, the Methodist church reclaimed a property that had been sold to another denomination in Ft. Smith. Though this new church isn’t in the “growing” or “affluent” side of town, the church is growing and making disciples. These new churches are finding ways to shine the light of Christ in new communities and opportunities.

On this same line of thinking. I find it hard to say “The world is my parish” without thinking about the responsibility we have as stewards of the Earth. God blessed us with reason and skill, and made us uniquely powerful with these gifts. We can use them to bring devestation to the ecosystem that God has so lovingly created, or we can use our reason and skill to facilitate a responsible use of the Earth’s resources, one that leaves a better world for our future generations. Wesley learned to appreciate the power of preaching out doors. He realized that nature is God’s sanctuary open to all. As we are currently exisiting in the world though, we are making it difficult for human and non-human species to inhabit this world of ours. Why? Because we want to consume more, we want to have everything at our fingertips, we believe we are entitled to it. We believe we are entitled to $1.50 gallons of gasoline, and even when the companies that make record profits off of us by charging twice that, we still buy in and say “fill ‘er up,” because we don’t know any other alternative. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner in that department. In the past two weeks, Evangelical organizations have made headlines by publicizing a statement signed by some 80 leaders that Global Warming is a reality, and that humans have a responsibility to stem the tide of Climate change. The United Methodist church has been pointing to this reality for more than a decade now, but when the powerful political block of evangelicals says something, it usually gets noticed in this day and age. And thank God they’re saying it!
Wesley said “the world is my parish” in part because he was being forced outdoors to preach and do ministry. We should be saying the same thing because it is our legacy to look out these doors for opportunities for ministry. Ministry extends not only to human creation but also non-human creation. Those that say “the conversion of souls is more important than the environmental crisis” miss the point that the environmental crisis is as endangering to human souls as the “powers and principalities” that embody evil in this world. ……Back of the sanctuary……. The world is our parish. It’s through these doors. That’s where we spread the word about the great news that we’ve heard. God is with us. To the end of the age. As Isaiah lamented, sometimes it seems that we labor in vain, like the problems of this world are too huge for us to change. But God doesn’t just want us to be a servant. He tells Isaiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." God doesn’t just want us to subscribe to some ideals, God wants to shine THROUGH us! If we sit around and are lazy with our faith and our witness, if we aren’t responding to Christ’s promise to be with us, we are hiding that light under a bushel! Thank God we can be inspired by our church to do as Christ calls us and to “let it shine!”

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Goddard UMC Ft. Smith to host Seniors retreat

Goddard UMC in Ft. Smith will be hosting Rev. Buzz Stevens from Phoenix, AZ to lead an all day workshop for Seniors. The cost for the day is $8.50, which includes lunch. Sessions begin at 9:15 and include "Honoring our single encounters," "Born to Love outsiders instantly," and "Love thy Neighbor...Once!" The day will end at 2:15 with communion in the sanctuary. Let us know by Friday, Feb. 17th if you want to attend. waldronumc@yahoo.com

Hendrix College to host Ministry Inquiry institute

Do you know any high school juniors or seniors who are interested in ministry? Hendrix College , the alma mater of this minister and many others, is hosting a Summer Institute with Bible study, shadowing clergy, spiritual gift inventories, mission work, and reflection. The Lilly program at Hendrix funds many ministry related trips, workshops, and speakers, and would be a good choice for any high schooler considering college and ministry. The institute is June 5-9. Admission is free. Space is limited to 20 students, so give us an email at waldronumc@yahoo.com if you have someone in mind.

Young Christians weekend at Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City will be hosting a special day of fun in the park march 31-April 2 in Branson. Registration before March 24 can be secured for a price of $33 for ages 12+ and $28 for ages 4-11. The park unleashes 10 new rides this season, and there will be fun in the amusement park, faith filled workshops and worship, Christian comedy, and even Grammy nominated Audio Adrenaline will be there! Find out more here. If we'd like to go, we need to begin organizing a group now!

Bishop's Day with Confirmands

We have a great opportunity to let our confirmation aged youth (6th-8th grade, and any other youth who haven't been confirmed) to meet the bishop. Saturday, March 11 from 9:30 to 3pm, Bishop Charles Crutchfield will be joined by recording artist Matt Neely at St. James UMC in Little Rock to have a retreat with confirmands from all over the conference. If you are interested in attending, give us an email at waldronumc@yahoo.com There will be time with the bishop, interactive stories and song, and a gameshow based on our Wesleyan heritage.

What is confirmation? It is a process of discovery and claiming the name "Christian" for young people who are approaching the period of life when they begin to make decisions for themselves. Confirmation will begin in our church on March 5 at the Sunday small group hour of 9:45. Youth who are interested will covenant to be there for a time of discussion about the nature of our faith with the pastor and other leaders of the church.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


We will be sending three youth to Veritas March 3-5 at the convention center in Ft. Smith. If you are interested to see how their experience was, ask Katy, Jarica, or Matt!

Three-Fold Grace, Feb. 12

2 Peter 1: 1-9
Luke 15: 11-32

Grace—It’s probably the most important word in the language of Christianity. It is just one syllable, but it is so hard to wrap our minds around. Swirling around the idea of grace are the ideas of salvation, sin, forgiveness, atonement. Many of these words we’ve heard and think we understand, but which do not occupy the modern mind like they did the mind of Luther, Calvin, or Wesley or any of their contemporaries.
One difference in the thought of Wesley and other reformers is that the basis of many reformers’ ideas about sin and salvation is based on “objective truth.” Concern was more for the overarching idea about God’s relationship with humanity. Wesley was concerned with sin and salvation from the vantage point of subjective experience. Unless the idea of sin and salvation became effective in human life it remained abstract and useless. He constantly examined his own experience and that of others to see whether and how the Biblical teaching was realized.
Wesley was interested in loosening the idea of grace from a single experience of justification or salvation, to instead be conceptualized as a stream of experience, a whole lifetime of salvation. A path of human and divine relationship that led toward humans realizing and manifesting the image of God—what Wesley called utter sanctification, or perfection.
Our scriptures today illustrate three very important aspects of Grace. We believe that humans have fallen into a state of Sin. But we are never so far from God that he can’t reach us. This is prevenient Grace. We believe that this God grabs hold of us, either in a dramatic change of life, or in a gradual process. This is justifying grace

We believe that God molds us after the moment of justification. This is sanctifying Grace.
This parable of the prodigal son is what Charles Dickens called, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It is Christianity in a nutshell. IF you understand the meaning of this story, you understand the heart of Christianity.
In our story, Jesus tells of a son who misunderstands what his father has to offer. He thinks of his father as an ATM machine, and he doesn’t want to wait around for the old man to die to get what’s coming to him.
Too often we think the problem is that our desires are just too strong. The church seems to take on this dreadful task of stamping out desire. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out on the radio back in 1948, the problem isn't that our desires are too strong, rather, our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased. We settle for mere trifles like money, sex, glory, when God wants to give us true wealth, genuine intimacy. We were not made for the far country, however enticing it may be. We aren't pigs. We are sons and daughters, and we dare not settle for less.
First thought of returning to father while he’s wallowing around in the mud with the pigs. Prevenient grace. Wesley said that prevenient, or preventing grace is responsible for “all the drawings of the Father, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world’ showing every man ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God,’ all the convictions which his Spirit from time to time works in every child of man.” Grace accomplishes much before justification and sanctification occur.
The earlier Reformers had attributed collective guilt to all human kind. In Adam’s sin the whole body of humanity sinned. Hence they emphasized universal human guilt accompanying universal depravity. The fate of an individual was not determined by personal sins, and all people deserved nothing but punishment. So in principle there was no reason to deny that infants too are guilty and deserving of eternal punishment.
Wesley drew back from this conclusion. He agreed that physical death is a punishment for the sin of Adam who was in some way the representative of all human beings. Therefore, death afflicts all people, including infants, independently of their personal sin. But spiritual or eternal death is inflicted only for actual sins. Wesley wrote, “I believe none ever did, or ever will, die eternally, merely for the sin of our first father.”
Wisdom is when we recognize the empty place inside for what it is. God calling us home. T. S. Eliot put it like this: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It was not unheard of for sons, younger sons especially, to try to make it big in the burgeoning mercantile economy of Greco?-Roman world. But you were supposed to invest, to save. The money this boy squandered was his father's, his family's social security. By wasting his inheritance, the son in effect says to his father, "You don't matter." Common wisdom said you don't tempt your son this way, they'll only take advantage of you. This father let himself be taken advantage of. George Balanchine got it wrong in his ballet, which debuted in 1929 in Paris; the son, groveling, the father, austere. No, Jesus says the father ran. Now running is regarded as cool in our culture, but in Jesus' day men just didn't run; to run was a sure sign you had lost all dignity. But this father, who let himself be taken advantage of, cares more for the boy than for his own dignity. He could have given the boy a thrashing, required heavy penance, sackcloth, fasting, ashes. But he ran.
Return to father’s arms and coming to terms with his sin. Admitting his sin. Justifying Grace. Grace of father.
Justifying: For Wesley, it is like going before a judge, and declaring your guilt. You are in that very moment justified because of the atonement of Christ, and in that instant, you begin on the road of sanctification—a real as well as a relative change. in justification, sin remains, but does not reign
Experience of admitting my guilt. Freeing experience. Admitting means “letting in.” When we admit our sin. When we “let it in” and accept that it is our condition, we also admit God’s grace that had equalized this sin. It is being embraced by the arms of a tearful, happy father.
Sanctifying grace is participating in the feast. It is where the older brother, who resents his father’s welcoming spirit, falls flat on his face. The author of 2nd Peter tells us more of this “growing into grace” through the association of grace with the process of sanctification, or “participating in the “Divine nature.” We are told to support our faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. Peter reminds us that we keep these things by the grace of God to keep us from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus. So that we don’t forget the cleansing of past sins.
Wesley believed that sanctifying Grace began at the same moment of justifying Grace. The actual result of the new birth then seems to be that the perception of spiritual reality which had only flickered before becomes established and what is seen is truly recognized and affirmed. This establishes the love of God and neighbor as the real basis of the new life. But the unregenerate nature, with all of its perceptions and habits, is far from obliterated. It resists the newly dominant love.
The closest term in the contemporary vocabulary to what Wesley meant by sanctification is spirituality. Many Christians feel a hunger for something more than their present participation in Christian life provides them. They understand themselves to be believers, and this status is important to them. They do not feel God’s condemnation or condemn themselves. But their lives still seem fragmented, aimless, empty, without sufficient purpose, shallow. They seek some structure or discipline that can respond to their needs.
Wesley agreed that being a Christian was crucially important, but it was not enough. Justification and the new birth initiated Christian life. But the living of that life was much more than simply claiming the status of having been saved at some point in the past. The focus should be on what is happening now. And unless what is happening now is sanctification, it does not suffice. This is why I suggested that we explore together the Christian disciplines and daily practices.
Some forms of spirituality today focus on moral behavior. More are quests for inner serenity. For Wesley the separation of these two would prevent either from being Christian. His account of sanctification was shaped by both concerns. IF time, talk about the midpoint between Moravians and Lutherans.
We, too, need to find a way between claiming too much and too little of the life transforming power of grace. We need to have enticing but realistic expectation of what our lives can become. We need to understand our role in the realization of those expectations without supposing that we can bring them about by our own strength.
So, in what way can you give voice to your experience of salvation? In what way do we build upon the grace given us? If you don’t know how to speak about it, how do you think you can share the good news of it? How, in your own language, do you convey those words that John Newton, a scoundrel and slave dealer, shared with the world upon his conversion. “I once was lost, but now am found—was blind but now I see.”
One thing that used to be a distinctive element of Methodism was the testimony. This was a time when people stood up in front of their brothers and sisters in Christ and shared with them their experience along the road of salvation. Wesley didn’t believe that salvation was one lone event, but instead a whole lifetime of journeying with God. I challenge you to think about your experience of salvation.
Somewhere along the line of Christian history, common thinking of salvation evolved into a focus on the next life. We have seen that the belief that what happens beyond death is supremely important has led at times to people doing for the sake of otherworldly salvation, things that were harmful to people here and now. Wesley did not understand salvation to be something otherworldly. Wesley wrote that salvation “was not a blessing which lies on the other side of death, or (as we usually speak) in the other world. It is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.
Grace is unfolding and it is enfolding. It is a journey and it is a sudden experience. Grace is God’s gift and our responsibility. I say responsibility because Grace demands a response from us. The response is repentance, it is turning around, it is journeying on and accepting our gifts.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sacrament Sermon Feb. 5

Romans 12: 1-2
Luke 24: 13-35

Over the past half century, there has been a movement within the United Methodist church to re-invest our attention to the sacraments of the church. If you look at the hymnal published in 1964, you can see physical evidence of this ongoing movement. As you can see, the services of Baptism and Communion in this book are located here, in the back of the hymnal. In the most recently published hymnal, the services of Baptism and Communion are found here, in the front of the hymnal.
Over the past 10 years, church wide studies first on our understanding of baptism, and then 8 years later on Communion were presented and enthusiastically accepted at our General Conference. In fact, at the 2004 General Conference, after the comprehensive statement on the theology and practice of Communion was presented and adopted, the conference stood and applauded the action. The delegates recognized and celebrated that God’s Spirit had used their action to address a deep hunger among UM”s for more meaningful understanding and experience of the Eucharist.
Baptism and communion have been celebrated since the birth of Christianity. In fact, we count these as our two sacraments because they were instituted by Christ himself. Within these practices, Christians throughout the century have received the presence of the Holy Spirit in unique ways that cannot be quite understood with the mind alone. You might picture the sacraments as prisms that refract the light of God’s grace and love into colors that we can plainly and visibly see.
What we call the “sacraments” were first called “mysterion” in the Greek language of the early church. “Mysterion” communicates in Greek a Holy Mystery, aspects of creation that communicate to us very deeply God’s love and acceptance of us. In Latin, the word was translated to “sacramentus,” originally meaning “a signed and sealed pledge.” This Latin word was probably chosen because of the understanding that the sacraments were God’s “important message” to humanity. Eventually, the word came to mean “a consecrated thing or act,” or “something holy.”
John Wesley was profoundly inspired by his understanding of the sacraments. Wesley adopted the traditional Catholic and Anglican understanding of the sacraments as “An outward, visible sign that conveys an inward, spiritual grace.” The sacraments were so important to Wesley because he knew them as “channels,” or streams of Grace. Today, this is still a beneficial way of approaching the sacraments. Combining words, actions, and physical elements, sacraments are sign-acts which both express and convey God’s grace and love.
United Methodists believe that these sign-acts are special means of grace. The ritual action of a sacrament does not merely point to God’s presence in the world, but also participates in it and becomes a vehicle for conveying that reality. God’s presence in the sacraments is real, but it must be accepted by human faith if it is to transform human lives. The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which god has chosen to make grace available to us.
Wesley identified baptism as the initiatory sacrament by which we enter into covenant with God and are admitted as members of Christ’s church. This sacrament is to be administered only once in a lifetime, and we do not discriminate between baptism in the Methodist church and any other Christian church. He understood the Lord’s supper as nourishing and empowering the lives of Christians and strongly advocated frequent participation in it.
Neither Baptism nor communion is necessary, or sufficient for salvation. The sacraments are expressions of God’s grace, but God is not limited to the sacraments alone to persuade us into His love. United Methodism shares with most Protestant denominations that the proclaimed word is also sacramental in nature. A convicting word may lead us to an experience and acceptance of grace as much as the sacraments of baptism and communion.
You could say the Methodist church was born because of the sacraments, and the unavailability of ordained priests in the American colonies who could provide the sacraments to a spiritually hungry people. Throughout the mid 1700’s, Wesley was insistent that the Methodists remain a revival movement within the church of England. However, by the 1780’s, it was obvious that the American Methodists were hesitant to partake of the sacrament in the American Anglican churches, and there weren’t enough Methodist clergy to provide the sacrament (in fact, all of the Methodist missionaries to America were layman.) So, out of desperation, Wesley ordained new clergy who would in turn ordain other American clergy so that the sacraments could be celebrated among the quickly growing Methodist movement. The newly ordained clergy in America formed the Methodist church as a separate entity from the Church of England, and such was the birth of the church you sit in today.
The Evangelical revival of early Methodism was fueled by the Wesleyan heritage that the sacraments are open to all who seek them, regardless of where they are on the path of salvation. All who respond in faith to the invitation are to be welcomed. Holy Baptism normally precedes partaking of Holy Communion. Holy communion is a meal of the community who are in covenant relationship with God through Christ.
Beginning early in its history, the Xian church divided its worship services into the Liturgy of the Word, in which all participated, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, which was the celebration of the Holy Communion. Those who were not yet baptized were dismissed before the celebration of the sacrament.
John Wesley stressed that baptism is only a step in the salvation process and must be followed by justifying faith and personal commitment to Christ when one reaches an age of accountability. He referred to Holy communion as a “converting ordinance.” For this reason, we celebrate an “open table” because we believe it is Christ’s table. As we read in the Gospels, Christ invited all to have fellowship with him—so who are we to draw a line around His table and say only some can participate? For me, the open table is one of the chief reasons I have chosen to celebrate Christianity through the expression of United Methodism.
It is deeply moving to offer the sacrament. It is why I am called to the order of Elder. I believe the sacraments empower us to be alive. I believe they help us see the holy in the everyday things.
In our Gospel story, Jesus was “unveiled” in the breaking of the bread. The sacraments reveal Christ’s real presence in our midst. By discerning the sacred in the mundane—in things as simple as bread and the juice of the grape and water, we “conform not to the standards of this world,” where things are given quality by their material composition.
The sacraments give us a glimpse of what is good and acceptable and perfect. They are channels of God’s grace because they transform us by the renewing of our minds. Every time we share in a sacrament together, we’re renewing our minds to look at God’s creation with awe and reverence, with a sense of tremendous mystery. This is why the early church called our shared meal and pouring water over our heads “mysterion.”
Every time the McGaughs bring the loaf and the cup down the aisle and put it on this table, it becomes an offering. In the shared experience of this simple loaf and juice, it becomes for us the real presence of Christ. Likewise, when I come to fill up the baptismal font with warm water, I pray that the water that I put over the person’s head might be an opening in that person’s life of a new life in the Body of Christ. One reason I so love bringing the newly baptized member of our family and showing him off to you is because I believe we are witnessing the true nature of our relationship with one another as Christians.
I am so happy that last week we welcomed Cameron into the life of faith through the sacrament of Baptism. As a brother in Christ, he is on the road with us toward the fruition of the Kingdom in our midst. We are together on the road home. Along the way, God offers us nourishment and strength through the sacrament of Communion, which we celebrate today. The table is open to all who desire it. It is offered freely and enthusiastically by a God who wants you to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Thanks be to God that we are refreshed and emboldened in this journey of faith. Thank be to God that it is a meal we share together. Amen.