Thursday, December 1, 2022

Christ was born!... so Methodists could vote?

     This morning, I woke up remembering how often I’ve said “A virtue of Methodism is it’s not in our DNA to wake up in the morning and think ‘We’re right, and everybody else is wrong’ – and how within Methodism, we can disagree without killing each other, or getting a divorce.

    This recollection probably drifted into my head because last night, like so many nights in recent weeks, I went to bed grieving questions that had come my way about some Methodist church or another ramping up to a vote on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. When I hear this, I shudder, and try then to recall the humorous truth of a clergy friend of mine who will snap a photo of the crowd during an especially tedious, cantankerous and dull denominational meeting, and text it to me across the room with the caption, “Another unintended consequence of the resurrection.” I saw a Facebook photo of church I love holding hearings to help them decide. Not what Jesus had in mind.

    An unintended consequence of the resurrection? or since it's Christmas, of the incarnation? Jesus came so we could… vote? Zealously, I advocate voting – in the United States. In the church, it’s hard to imagine a more destructive activity. Quakers, and a great many other Christian bodies, don’t vote. They discern. And the kicker here is: United Methodists don’t have to vote. And shouldn’t vote. “Somebody told us we need to vote.” You don’t, and if they told you this, or recruited you, they are well-meaning, but misguided. If your church is gearing up for a vote, you can and should back up, take a deep breath, and not forge forward into what will inevitably be a church division – the worst conceivable witness to a skeptical world, not what Jesus had in mind when he came into Mary’s womb or went to the cross.

    An analogy: Lisa and I have stayed married for 36 years. What if, for Christmas, we entertained speakers on the virtues of divorce (“I finally found the love of my life,” “No more socks on the floor”) vs. staying married (“He’s getting creaky but he’s a dear”) – and then we took a vote on whether to aim for 37 years. Thankfully, we don’t have to vote. We have disagreed with one another on a great many issues (as has our church) all along. What I find, with her, is that when it gets tense and I am sure I am right, I quite often am wrong. Being right is way overrated anyhow. As best I can tell, it only hurts the other person, and puffs up my ego.

    Some say to me “We have to draw a line!” Did Jesus say this? Here’s maybe the single most important reason not to vote to disaffiliate: at the 2008 General Conference, I spoke from the floor and said "We have for decades declared that ‘We do not condone the practice of homosexuality.’ This has not prevented one person from being gay. It has, though, alienated tens of thousands not just from our church but from any church." Want to talk about an unintended consequence of the resurrection or incarnation? The question isn’t Who’s right? but, as in my marriage, Who’s hurt? I meet them all the time: people who used to go to church, don’t and won’t now, and the first or second reason they give is because the church is judgmental, and specifically because they judge and exclude gays.

    Those who lobby churches to disaffiliate argue “It’s not about LGBTQ inclusion.” I’ve been wrong in saying they are wrong. I’ve been right, in that Methodists have strongly disagreed and stayed together over dozens of huge issues – but it’s this one that has created congregational votes. And yet, they are right. It’s about how to be the Body of Christ in this moment in history, when division is little more than a mirror image of what’s going on in our country politically. Instead of healing America, voting Methodists are letting themselves be ruined by America.

    On sabbatical several years ago, I found myself in a pub, sitting next to a guy. I asked what he does in life. “I’m a shepherd.” This piqued my attention, so I quizzed him about shepherding, including this question: “Why are there always sheep and goats, never just sheep, never just goats.” He glanced upward as he stroked his beard and said “We just find that they do better together.” That’s United Methodism; we're better together. Instead of a smattering of broken-in-half churches all over this country, none thriving while all claim they are right, if we simply don’t vote, and stay with the one who brought us to the point, we can still be better together – an intended consequence of the resurrection and, since it’s Christmas, the incarnation.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Hope: Saving 1 Life. A sermon preached in Krakow, Sept. 25, 2022

   Watch here. Text below.

    Jeremiah 32, beginning with verse 1. The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar.  At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard which was in the palace of the king of Judah.  Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Behold, Hanamel your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’  Then Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.  And I bought the field, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, and got witnesses.  Then I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch, in the presence of all the Jews who were sitting in the court of the guard.  I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’”

    Jeremiah. We know him as God’s great prophet during the darkest days of the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army, destroying cities and killing the Israelites. But during his lifetime, the Israelites mocked him, laughed at him, and tried to ignore him. Nothing was more laughable than his one and only business deal, purchasing a little tract of land in the small town of Anathoth, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

   Jeremiah had grown up in Anathoth. When I was a little boy, my family lived in Savannah, Georgia. My favorite place was an old brick structure on a little spit of land sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean called Fort Pulaski. And my school was called Casimir Pulaski Elementary School. Pulaski, you may know, was born in Warsaw. He fought for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against – yes – the Russians. Then he came to America and fought against the British, until he was shot and killed in my hometown, Savannah.

   In a way, Pulaski was a failure. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell. The battles in which he fought were losses. In America he had a few successes, but he died, only 34 years old, far from home. He had never married or had children. When he drew his last breath, he did not know if the war would be won or not.

   What is God asking of us? To succeed? To win? To see the fruit of our labors? No. God asks us to have some courage. God asks us to love. God asks us to hope. Hope isn’t some naïve belief that tomorrow ill be a better day. Hope is prepared is tomorrow is worse than today. Hope depends on God’s future. Vaclav Havel, when he was President of Czechoslovakia, said Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is right, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.

   In America, 70 years ago now, a Christian farmer named Clarence Jordan read his Bible and thought he was supposed to do what it said. So he created a commune where white and black people lived and worked together – in rural Georgia in the 1950’s. He got kicked out of his church, and the Ku Klux Klan (a racist terrorist organization) burned all of the crops just as it was time for the harvest. A news reporter stood in the burned out field with Jordan and said to him, “You have failed! What will you do now?” Jordan replied, “We’ll plant again. God doesn’t ask us to be successful. God asks us to be faithful.”

   About 800 kilometers from here is a small town in Lithuania called Birzai. Several times, I have visited there and stayed with my friend Regina. She grew up as an atheist, but then converted to Christianity as an adult. Her house is tiny, with no running water. I thought of her as poor. But one day she took me with her to the people she thinks of as poor, delivering food and medicine she could hardly afford for herself, praying with the poor, hugging them, reading to their children. The poor serving those poorer. I asked her, “Regina, why do you sacrifice what you really need for yourself for others?” She was puzzled by my question, saying “That’s just what Christians do, right?”

    Jeremiah purchased a field he couldn’t really afford, when no one was buying property, when its value would only drop lower and lower. He would get no return on his personal investment. It was a dramatic act of hope. His investment was in God’s future, not his own. He was revealing to skeptics that God was still God, that rough times were ahead, but in the end, God would reign. He was a man of tremendous hope. He didn’t need to see the return on his investment. But he knew it would come, someday, in God’s good time.

    The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope.” To the world, hope looks like foolishness. What fool would purchase land during the Babylonian invasion? What fool would re-plant crops, knowing they probably would be burned down again? What fool poor person shares with poorer persons? The apostle Paul wrote about the “foolishness of the Gospel,” urging us to be “fools for Christ.” It’s God’s wisdom, this foolishness. It’s hope. It’s joy.

    Two things in closing. Jeremiah signed the deed and sealed it up in a jar – and we read about it, 2,500 years later, in a very different language, on the other side of the world. Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples in a room in Jerusalem, and we have the audacity to believe we are there with him, with them, 2,000 years later, on the other side of the world. Next Sunday is, for us, World Communion Sunday. We are foolish enough to believe that, even though our group will be back in America, we will mysteriously and mystically be here, in this room with you at our Lord’s table. It’s a miracle. Skeptics may scoff. But we are one, across time and space. It’s God’s time and space. We are his Body, always together, separated only by miles and hours and language. We are One in the Spirit. Christ stretched his arms out to embrace you, and us, reaching around the globe, enveloping all of us in a love that cannot be crushed or lost. Foolishness to the world, but our good reason to hope.

   And then there’s this. Casimir Pulaski fought bravely, for a lost cause, and then for a winning cause he never witnessed. He probably saved several lives, but we know about one life he saved. At the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777 – which the Americans lost! – Pulaski saved the life of George Washington. If he had not saved that one life, America probably would have lost the war. America would not have had Washington as its first President. That one life mattered in ways Pulaski and the other Americans fleeing that battle just to survive could never have imagined. Jews often say that to save one life is to save the world.

    A few days after the Russians invaded Ukraine, I was talking with our Bishop here, Patrick Streiff. He reported to me that the Methodist churches in Poland were stepping up with great hospitality and courage to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Guests. Friends. He told me that a young woman got off a bus, walked into a Methodist church, and gave birth a few hours later. Everything we do, we together, the Body of Christ across this globe, our church and your church, really just one church in God’s heart, is about saving one life. That one child: who knows what that child will become? Maybe a future President of Ukraine. Maybe the one to bring peace to eastern Europe. Maybe a scientist discovering a cure for cancer. Maybe a pastor, or a parent. Maybe just a Christian, a faithful disciple of Jesus, another companion of Jesus, and my children and their children.

   I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt the other day that said “Hope addict.” We are hooked on hope. We invest in God’s future. We will be faithful. It’s just what Christians do. It includes all of us, and is bigger than us. It’s as big as just one child, like the Christ child himself, God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Young Karl Barth Preaching, Offending and Reassessing

     I laughed out loud a few times while reading Christiane Tietz’s wonderful new biography of Karl Barth. Once was during her recounting of his first pastorate in Safenwil. Full of Gospel zeal, he encountered (for the first time in his life) real people with profound social and economic troubles. His sermons began to veer toward what some regarded as “political,” and he was deemed by quite a few to be “socialist.” The common folk cheered all he had to say.

   But not Walter Hüssy, the grown son of the local factory owners who had financially paid for the bulk of the church building’s construction a few years earlier. He penned an open letter to Barth, published in the town newspaper: “Barth’s agitating speech was an attempt to sow discord between employers and employees. The owners after all are those who pull the cart, and need some elbow room.”

   Barth replied, in the same newspaper: “My honored sir, may I loan or give you a few good books where you can teach yourself some things? You address me in my role as pastor, that I should have a mediating effect. That would suit you! With your permission however, as pastor I set myself a different program, over which I owe no accounting to you. You may be older than I, but nonetheless you are still young enough to develop better insights. I sincerely wish you that.”

   The following Sunday, the church was packed beyond capacity! The slugfest was all the talk of Safenwil. The paper published an anonymous column entitled “The Red Danger in Safenwil,” noting Barth’s subversive agitation, and stating uncertainty whether he was really a good Christian or not. The Hüssys promptly departed the church – with their large donations.

   His professor of theology in Basel, Paul Wernle, corresponded with him, leading him to rethink not the content but the tone of his remarks. Wernle suggested he’d answered “crudeness with crudeness and rudeness with rudeness.” Pondering this, Barth admitted “When I read Hüssy’s attack, I didn’t feel any personal offense, but a desire to fight: take up the sword of the Lord and Gideon! I didn’t intend anything but to run down an enemy of a good cause. But now, fourteen days later, as the smoke has cleared, I must acknowledge that I behaved in an Old Testament-like fashion. My gesture appears less heroic now, and I can sense all the egocentric aspects that contributed to it.”

   He resolved to do better next time. On this, he never made significant progress. Preaching five years later, he asked out loud if Safenwil didn’t need a different pastor, “a pastor from whose sermons the love of God emanates with such power that you have to feel it, that you are moved. I apparently am not able to speak to you in such a way, because apparently in myself there is something very deeply not in order with God.”

   I am moved by these words, and hope they were genuine. Barth, I believe, trusted so firmly in the power of the Word to effect change that, when he observed a listlessness, a lack of response in his people and the town, he looked within seeking an explanation.

   Soon thereafter, he grew more acerbic: “You wish for me to be a false prophet, the pastor who pleases the people. To have a pastor in this village means to have eternal unrest in the village, a person who in the most uncomfortable way will continually question everything and give unexpected replies to all questions.”

   And so, also mortified by theologians who could curtsy to the German war efforts, he wrote his Epistle to the Romans, called by theologian Karl Adam “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” A new congregation gathered around him: countless young theologians and pastors around the world breathing in his fresh new life. And his pastoring in a small village days were over. Should we say … thankfully?

   For all of us screwing up the courage to say what we need to say, and searching for the right tone, in some little church somewhere, we want what is within us to be "in right order," and we want to speak truly - even if they do not ask or pay us to stir up eternal unrest. For me, noticing a titan like Karl Barth walked this same difficult road, is encouraging.