Sunday, January 27, 2019

Dunamis








My 91-year-old mother lives in Portland, OR, in a small retirement home just outside the city. She’s lived in Portland since 1992 and moved there to be close to a sister and brother-in-law, now both deceased. She really has no one left out there and since I am her last living child, I am responsible for her welfare. She has very few needs and rarely asks for anything and when she does, it’s modest.

This week I received a text from her, yes, she has an iPhone, and she asked me to send her a copy of Michelle Obama’s new book, “Becoming,” which Amazon delivered to her on Friday. She’s an avid reader and will likely finish the book before I finish preaching this sermon! We’ll have a phone call soon and she’ll give me her synopsis and assessment of the book. She’s a big fan of the Obama’s so I’m fairly certain it’ll be positive!

I’ll ask her, though, before we go too far into the weeds of the book, to give me the gist in one sentence. Mr. Holt, my 8th grade English teacher, required this of us his students and it became a habit in my family.

It’s a powerful exercise.

What’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn about in one sentence? On its surface, [it’s] a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River; but underneath, is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism.

What’s Inherit the Wind about in one sentence? In the 1920s, Tennessee schoolteacher Bertram Cates is put on trial for violating the Butler Act, a state law that prohibits public school teachers from teaching evolution instead of creationism.

What’s Charlotte’s Web about in one sentence? The story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte, who, when Wilbur is in danger of being slaughtered, writes messages in her web praising Wilbur to persuade the farmer to let him live.

Last one: What’s the Bible about in one sentence?

This is often an opening exercise in Bible studies. Capture the meaning of the Bible in one sentence. So often folks want to know if they should focus on Hebrew or Christian scriptures, or drill it down to one book. Nope. The whole thing. All 66 books. All 31,102 verses. What’s the one story of the Bible?

Here’s my take: The Bible is the story of God’s relentless quest to be in relationship with humanity.

Here’s why it’s important to be able to distill the essence to a sentence: It’s the standard against which everything in the book is measured. It’s the plumb line.

Scholars say that about this section of Luke we read this morning. It’s referred to as the “key note” of the entire ministry of Jesus, the perspective from which the entire can be understood; the center of the Gospel; the overarching theological criterion. What we take as the heart of the Gospel will be the central shaping force of our faith.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s a lot of Bible jargon – and it begs the question, “what’s Jesus trying to say?”

Not unlike the Hebrew prophets, Jesus is unimpressed with ceremonial displays, of pseudo-righteousness, of grandstanding, and is only interested in acts of compassion and social justice. It’s been said that Jesus replaced an “Ethic of Legalism” with an “Ethic of Compassion.” In short, Jesus sees himself as an “agent of mercy to the downtrodden.”

So, if that’s the center of the Gospel – then it must be the center of the church – and don’t miss what else must be at the heart of the church: the Spirit. Jesus isn’t in this alone – something Luke makes very clear – Jesus is always accompanied and empowered by the Holy Spirit! It’s that power and energy, dunamis, that informs and fuels his baptism, his foray into the desert and temptation, and what compelled him to preach in Nazareth.

Joan Gray, a former moderator of the PCUSA, once said: Dunamis of the Holy Spirit is the only thing the early church had going for it. Had no buildings, no budget, no paid staff, and very few members. Reverse is true now. We have lots of money pits, a well-wrought budget, over-educated clergy and professional staff, cherished members – but have we held onto dunamis? Is it the power of the Spirit that continues to inform and fuel our ministry or is it the misguided quest for self-preservation?

We ask, on occasion, “how are we doing as a church?” Maybe what we should be asking is, “As a church, what are we doing for God and God’s people?”

Jesus’ mission was simply this: Filled with the dunamis of the Holy Spirit, he was anointed to bring good news to the poor!

Do we know our mission so clearly? Put another way, what’s the one sentence about First & Central?

Turn a few pages ahead in your bulletin to a page with the heading of:

THE MISSION STATEMENT OF FIRST & CENTRAL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

First & Central Presbyterian Church is a diverse, accepting, and open-minded Christian community growing to meet the challenges of our city.

The Mission of First & Central Presbyterian Church is to proclaim the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ by:
  • Ministering enthusiastically and compassionately to individual, congregational, and community needs;
  • Fostering spiritual, ecumenical, and intellectual growth;
  • Practicing stewardship of our church, our community, and our world.

THE VISION STATEMENT OF
FIRST & CENTRAL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

At First & Central Presbyterian Church, we continually strive to become a church that:
  • Welcomes without limits
  • Supports, affirms and loves all people
  • Uses our resources in service to the community
  • Demonstrates our commitment to compassion and justice
  • Nurtures growth and development of children, youth and adults
  • Provides a sanctuary from life’s trials and tribulations for the renewal of our spirits, and;
  • Offers an oasis in the city that emphasizes service and ministry to city dwellers and downtown workers

Using Christ as our guide, our worship, music and other programs provide us with the faith and inspiration to reach out and help others in need. We are committed to continual spiritual growth and ever deepening understanding of God’s will for ourselves, our church and our global community. We work and pray daily to make our vision a reality.

As you know, the church is embarking on a self-study called “Vision 2020” – Rich told us about it this morning and you’ll start the process two weeks from today at the Annual Meeting. Part of the process is to examine who and what the church is at this time and place.  The hope is that by focusing on what God is calling First & Central to be and do that the congregation will be able to set goals and direction for the foreseeable future – some of which may be very similar to what we just read and are doing, while others may be new and emerging.

As we all know too well – there are huge problems and frustrations in our country – from ego-driven confusion in the Oval Office to ego-driven politicking in Congress – we can’t do much about that other than lament, pray, advocate, and vote. But we can do much in our immediate context. We can do much in our context when we yield to the dunamis of the Spirit and, like Jesus, seek to be agents of mercy to the downtrodden and counter the complete lack of ethics in the executive branch of our government by practicing an ethic of compassion on our corner of Wilmington.

So…the one sentence about this church?

Our tagline is good: A church without walls that welcomes without limits – but that’s not enough. How about…

First & Central is a diverse, accepting, and open-minded Christian community growing to meet the challenges of the city by ministering enthusiastically and compassionately to individual, congregational, and community needs.

Here’s your homework: What’s the one sentence of your life?

Amen and amen!





Sunday, January 20, 2019

Accidents Waiting to Happen






Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in or to a wedding – yours or someone else’s.

Think back: did everything go perfectly? Was there a noticeable gaff? A flower girl or ring bearer or melted down or was too hammy or just froze? An officiant who forgot the couples’ name? A soloist that wasn’t ready for prime time? A musician that needed a tad more practice? A groom that should have had a little less to drink the night before? Anyone passing out? Tripping?

Weddings are often, maybe always, accidents waiting to happen!

The most memorable wedding here was the one in which the bride spoke “whale.” As a caveat – it was not a member nor anyone related to a member.

Remember the movie “Finding Nemo”? In it, Ellen Degeneres, who voices the character Dory, is fluent in “whale.” Sounds something like this…

One bride, who I’ll call Cleopatra, was calm throughout the ceremony until it came time for her vows, which should have sounded like: “I, Cleopatra, take you, Antony, to be my husband…” What came out was…

The room went absolutely silent until someone snorted, it quite possibly was the soloist, and the place erupted in laughter. That broke the tension and the bride was able to finish in terra firma English! The videographer said that scene is in their all-time “best of” file!

Weddings are accidents waiting to happen and that was true in John’s day and Gospel. Where’s the first place we see Jesus actually being Jesus? At a wedding – and, to the chagrin of the host, the wine was running low. My guess is that anyone who entertains, especially large parties, lives in some level of fear and anxiety about having enough to eat and drink. How many have made those last dash trips to the store “just so we have enough!”

Jesus didn’t have a Total Wine or Kreston’s handy, and so, after voicing some reluctance, solved the problem his mother pointed out. Moms are good at that – pointing out stuff we should be paying attention to…!

Yet despite their propensity for accidents, weddings happen, couples are married, and glitches become the stuff of legend and entertainment. What’s truly remarkable is not the accident that did or didn’t happen, but the fact that two people found each other and somehow crafted a life together. The odds of finding a life-partner have to be up there with the odds of Dory finding Nemo – infinitesimal; yet people seem to realize that miracle on a regular basis! Think of it – with the full complement of foibles and quirks – most folks find someone with whom to build a life together. In many cases, that reality is truly miraculous.

The essence of any miracle is that it shatters conventional explanations and expectations. It’s simply an outcome or an event that no rational person would expect.

In 1980, sportscaster Al Michaels asked the now legendary question, “Do you believe in miracles?” He asked it after the US Olympic hockey team beat the Russians in the semi-final match. You don't need to know anything about hockey to be moved by one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The David vs. Goliath matchup between the Americans (essentially a group of college kids molded into a team by coach Herb Brooks) and the Russians, professionals who had won four straight Olympic golds, was not expected to draw much attention especially since 13 days prior the 2 teams had met at Madison Square Garden, and the Soviet team beat Team USA 10-3.

Yet something happened, something miraculous according to some, in those 13 days and the United States beat Russia 4-3 and went on to defeat Finland to capture the gold medal. With only seconds to go in the Russian game, sportscaster Al Michaels spoke the question heard round the world.

“Do you believe in miracles?”

Sure—but maybe with a few fingers crossed for good measure!

Most of them can be explained, especially in this scientifically savvy society in which we find ourselves. We’re not feeble-minded first-century folks who chalk everything up to magic and mystery. We’ve walked on the moon, split the atom, and deciphered the genome. We can modify cells, communicate wirelessly, and clone DNA. We’re not ignorant and na├»ve, we’re sophisticated and enlightened. Do we believe in miracles—sure, when they’re about a lucky couple or a bunch of hepped up kids on skates. Sure, we believe in miracles like those!

But water into wine—who you kidding? We’re 21st century Presbyterians living in one of most scientifically minded cities in the world!

I personally like the steward’s response at the wedding in Cana—turned a miracle into a breach of etiquette! How could you serve the good stuff after everybody was a little tanked? Why serve the stuff with a cork after the guests have imbibed on the boxed stuff? I was at a wedding reception recently and went to the bar for a glass of red wine. The bartender, upon seeing my collar, reached under the table and pulled out a bottle and poured a glass while commenting, “for you, Father, the good stuff!” It was wrong on so many counts…

John would think that we were wrong on so many counts for spending so much time and energy on the details of this miracle, or “sign,” as he called them. Rather than wondering what really happened, rather than trying to explain it away, rather than trying to domesticate the miracle let’s leave it be for a moment, and wonder instead, “what’s it saying?”

When we see a “stop” sign most of us do what it says, we stop! We don’t examine the type of paint, or the gauge of the metal, or the height of the pole, or the chemical makeup of the reflective coating – no, we do what it says, we stop.

So if we take the same approach to John’s sign, we have to wonder, what’s it saying?

This is not just some ordinary sign: this is how John inaugurates Jesus’ ministry and he’s stingy with details in the preamble—we know little or nothing about bride or groom, or why Jesus and his unnamed mother were even in attendance. Yet when it comes to the actual transformation of the water, we’re told quite a bit. We know that there were six stone jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons – which is a lot of water! We also know that the water was reserved for Jewish purification rites – probably for washing hands and utensils, not bathing. An outrageous amount of water. Too much.

Too much water and way too much wine – somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons. If it was 150 gallons of wine, that’s the equivalent of 64 cases. Extravagant

New wine from the “old” vessels of purification. Old forms given new content. It would be inaccurate to interpret this story as rejection of Jewish custom; this story is the creation of something new in the midst of Judasim.

Maybe that’s John’s message.

The wine, and Jesus, give us a glimpse of God by looking where the sign points – the sign points to God doing new things in an existing context.

The disciples kind of get it! They see abundance as a sign of God with them. The miracle of the wine shatters the boundaries, the walls of the conventional world. The miracle challenges traditional assumption about order and control.

Jesus works an unprecedented act—the transformation of gallons of water into good rich wine. It’s a miracle of abundance, of transformation, and of new possibilities from old paradigms. Just like Jesus.

There is much we cannot explain. There is much that defies rational thought and understanding. Yet our inability to resolve mystery doesn’t make things any less real, it simply calls us to share in the wonder.

Most miracles for me are about people and why they do the things they do. What compels someone to do or say something when so many have had the same opportunity and let it pass? Why is it that some folks respond and some never really get it? What is that causes some people to risk and others to hide? Maybe the focus of this story should be the unnamed mother of Jesus, Mary, who spoke up? Or maybe it’s about people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who are the miracles of this era. The last place anyone saw King alive was in Memphis, Tennessee. He wasn’t at a conference, convention, or theological event; he was at a place he felt called to because the garbage collectors of that city needed him to stand with them. And standing with them, he was shot down.  

He was in Memphis because he was attempting to address the problem of poverty in America. He had been driven to confront the realities of life in America because of his continued relationship with Jesus, who, as we know, knew something about life among the poor. King was compelled to grapple with the question of what to do about poverty and unemployment in America. While he had not come to any absolutely clear conclusions at the time of his assassination, there was no question in King’s mind that poverty in American society—whether for black people or Native Americans or whites or immigrants or anyone else—would never be adequately addressed without the fundamental transformation of the political and economic structure of this society. What was needed was transformation, walls and barriers coming down, not going up. What was needed was the birth of new possibilities from an old system. What was needed was a miracle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a miracle. He challenged traditional assumptions about order and control. He shattered conventional explanations and expectations. He didn’t live to see his dream come to fruition. I’m not sure anyone has, but change is afoot. We have an abundance of challenges and setbacks, more so today than yesteryear, true, but more importantly, we have an extravagance of grace.

There are miracles around us at every moment. Most are ignored or overlooked. When we do see, so often we react like the steward in the story and get literal. But we’re called to look beyond the miracle, to see them as John sees them, as “signs” and then to ponder, to wonder, what it is that they point to. For John, that answer is clear and unambiguous: they point to abundant grace, they point to extravagant love, they point to transformed hearts, and they point to new possibilities born of old circumstances. That’s true for relationships fretted over, that’s true for a bunch of kids on skates feared defeated, that’s true for a wedding banquet feared run dry; that’s true for a country feared to have walled in its conscience.

Amen.