Monday, June 27, 2011

Division, Diversity, and Oneness in the Church: A Conflict Drama

Taking the place of the sermon this week was a drama presented by members of the Youth Work Mission team.  The drama was written by the Rev. Edward Markquart, Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church and only lightly adapted for our context.  I highly recommend Rev. Markquart's website, Sermons from Seattle.

Prologue:  The sermon for today is based on the epistle lesson from I Corinthians 12. To briefly remind you, there were many divisions in the church in Corinth … between more conservative Jewish Christians and more liberal Greek Christians, between the politically enslaved and the politically free, between those who emphasize speaking in tongues and those who emphasized speaking boldly about Christ, between the followers loyal to the teachings of Paul or Peter or Apollos. There were many feisty factions in this church and they wrote to the Apostle Paul for guidance, asking him, “What shall we do with all these divisions in the church?” Chapters 12-14 of the book of I Corinthians are a cohesive unit in which Paul addresses the issue of diversity and division with the church. This sermon and conflict drama grows out of chapters 12, 13 and 14. I have taken the situations and conflicts of the church in Corinth and transformed them to conflicts found in the church today in our time and place. You will soon see what I am talking about.
It was about ten years ago that Pastor Paul-son arrived in Cleveland. He stayed there a couple of years and established a congregation. Pastor Paul-son was a great teacher and brilliant theologian. His theology was erudite and profound, as he taught about grace. But to be honest, he was not much of a preacher. Nor was he eloquent. Nor was he especially good at pastoral care. He tended to bristle and be argumentative when people disagreed with him. But he was a great theologian and knew the Gospel well. And like all founding pastors, Pastor Paul-son left town.
The second pastor was a woman by the name of Pastor Apollos-son. Now, she was a charismatic preacher. She was eloquent. There was a passion to her preaching, and the church really grew under her leadership. But, to be honest, she wasn’t the theologian and teacher that the founding pastor was, and like all second pastors, she too left town.
Now, there was another pastor, a Pastor Peter-sen who also influenced the congregation. Pastor Peter-sen was a real traditionalist. He said, “You have to do it the old way, the way it back done back in the old country, the Midwest, back in the Holy City, as in the past, when truth was truth.”  His motto was, “The Gospel and tradition.”
Now, for sometime this congregation in Cleveland was without a pastor, and there were several deep divisions in this church. Some people liked the way that Pastor Paul-son did it; others liked the way that Pastor Apollos-son did it; and still others like Pastor Peter-sen’s traditional style. The divisions became deeper and deeper, and so they finally called a congregational meeting, and all the Christians from this congregation in Cleveland came. They came to share their convictions and “tell it like it is!”
At this congregational meeting, one person stood up and spoke quite righteously. 

(Person 1 stands and comes to microphone and speaks into the microphone.) I am a Christian. I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I love the Bible. The Bible is a guide for my daily life. It is clear in the book of Genesis that God designed the world so that there is male and female, that marriage is to be between a man and a woman. It is clear in the Old Testament that God condemns same sex relationships and same sex marriages. Leviticus 18:2 clearly states: “You shall not lie with a male as a woman. It is an abomination.” The New Testament clearly states that God condemns same sex relationships and same sex marriages.  Romans 1:26-27 says, “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men also gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” The overwhelming evidence of both nature and the Bible clearly embrace heterosexual relationships and both nature and the Bible clearly condemn homosexual relationships.  Yes, we Christians are called to love the sinner but hate the sin.

(Person 2) But not to me. You and I think differently about these things. I too am a Christian and love the Gospel and the Bible. When the Bible was written, its authors believed many things that we no longer believe today. For them, the earth was flat, slavery was endorsed, women were inferior,  and homosexuality was automatically condemned. But the world has changed from those ancient days. We now know that the earth is no longer flat, that slavery is wrong, that women are different than men but equal. And homosexuality? Well, for my brother and many like him, homosexuality is like being born left-handed. He was born with it. My brother didn’t choose his sexual orientation. His sexual orientation is as deep within him as your sexual orientation is deep within you. Jesus invites us to love all people, including loving those people whom society often condemns such as gays and lesbians. Don’t ask me not to love my brother. Don’t ask me to condemn him as a sinner.
You could feel the tension in the air and between the people. Here were good, loving Christian people who felt so deeply but differently about issues and situations. The divisions began to mount:
(Person 3 stands and speaks into the microphone like at a congregational  meeting.) I am a Christian. I love the Gospel. The Spirit of Christ lives in me, and I know for sure that nuclear weapons are an abomination of God. The stockpiling  of nuclear weapons is the greatest sin of our century and violates every principle of Jesus. These weapons destroy innocent civilians, unborn babies, and the land for generations to come. Christ and his followers would never sanction the use of nuclear weapons.
(Person 4 stands and speaks to the microphone.) I too am a Christian. The Spirit of Christ lives in me. I love the freedom of the Gospel. God made us human beings to long for human freedom and hate slavery. The Bible lays the foundational principles for freedom…for both religious and political freedom. For political freedom to survive in our generation, it takes a strong defense.  In today’s real world, the threat of nuclear weapons helps to preserve peace and freedom. Attempts to abolish nuclear weapons increases the possibility of their use.  YOU!!!, in your religious self righteousness, contribute to nuclear madness.
(Person 3 stands and speaks to the microphone.) Clever arguments but you are wrong. 
And so immediately, there was division at this congregational meeting in Cleveland. The feelings ran deep and the convictions passionately held. There were other polarizations that day.
(Person 5 stands, approaches microphone.) I am a Christian. I love the Gospel. The Spirit of Christ lives in me, and I know for sure that abortion is an abomination in the sight of God. Do you realize that hundreds of thousands of fetuses are being murdered, and we the church are doing very little about it? The Bible is so clear. God in the Old Testament says, “I put you together in your mother’s womb. When your bones were being formed and carefully put together, when you were growing secretly and silently within her, I knew that you were there. I saw you even before you were born.” God is aware of our humanity before our birth. That the church is safely silent about abortion is evidence that we have given in to the power of our satanic culture.
(Person 6 stands, approaches the microphone.) I can’t justify it too easily, but I know that abortions are sometimes necessary. My daughter got pregnant. She was way too young. She had been on drugs. The fetus could have been severely retarded. My daughter couldn’t handle the pregnancy. We weren’t ready to rear  the child for her. I am a Christian. I love the Gospel.  The Spirit of Christ lives in me, and I advised my teenage daughter to get an abortion. I didn’t sense it was right, but necessary. I am glad that we had the legal right to do it and didn’t have to have the abortion illegally which we would have done. There is forgiveness with God. YOU!!! (pointing to person 5) need to be more understanding and forgiving of people like me and my daughter who are caught in this nasty situation. Don’t throw stones until you have had a daughter in a similar situation.
(Person 5 stands, goes to microphone) God would have given your daughter the strength and wisdom to handle what the world calls “an imperfect child.” And YOU arranged for a premie baby to be murdered in order to protect your  middle-class happiness. 
(Person 6) YOU don’t get it, do you?
And so there were many Christians at the congregational meeting in Cleveland who knew and loved the Gospel, but didn’t know and like each other very much. These Christians felt their own point of view was the right one, the one that God agreed with.
(Person 7 stands, goes to the microphone.) Nobody is mentioning the important issue here, the authority of the Bible. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. I know that some of you want to get rid of the word, “inerrant.” You want to be able to twist the Bible so that the Bible will endorse your prejudices:  abortion on demand, divorce on demand, pro homosexuality, pro evolution, no concern for world evangelization. You don’t take the Bible seriously and you don’t read it devotionally. Pretty soon, you will say that the resurrection of Jesus is a parable or some figure of speech. For you and your group, the Bible is  ‘manipulated to endorse the latest cultural trend.
(Person 8 stands, goes to the microphone.) That’s not fair, you literalist. The Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God for us. Our lives are nourished by the Gospel. The Bible is our source of salvation, our guide for living, food for the Spirit of Christ in us. But you…you use the Bible to condemn homosexuals as modern lepers, force couples to remain married in violent marriages, and push an outmoded view of creation as science, all in the name of religion. You snap people that you don’t like with passages in the Bible, as if the Bible were a whip to whip them with.  (Person 8 sits)
And so the divisions became worse and worse. There were many other divisions. Some wanted their members to excel in a spirit filled prayer life; others wanted their members to excel in speaking boldly for Christ.
(Person 9 stands, goes to the microphone.) I would like to say something. Please, I need to speak. Some people don’t realize it but this country is very unchurched. About 55% of our neighbors don’t go to church regularly. We all argue all day about nuclear wars; we can fight all night about abortions and the Bible, but the primary mission of the church, the mission above all other missions, is to go and make disciples. The first thing that Jesus said to the twelve was, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” and the last thing Jesus said before he ascended to heaven was, “Make disciples of all people.” Let’s stop arguing about nuclear war. Let’s stop arguing about abortion, homosexuality and the Bible. The real mission of the church is evangelism of our neighborhood and the whole world. We know what the great commission is!!! Go and make disciples!!!
(Person 10 stands, goes to the microphone.) That man there wants to save the souls of billions but he doesn’t say anything about their bodies and bellies. The great commission? How about the great commandment?  Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. We need to be concerned about justice in the world. Do you realize the average Methodist gives only 2% of household income to charity?  Of that 2%, only a fraction is given to the truly poor. What do we give to the poor? 2% of a mere 2%. What a joke. That is crumbs from the rich man’s table. … Ours is a God of justice. God wants all nations, ours included, to stop spending billions of dollars for weapons and armament and redirect government economic power to care for the poor of the world.  Did you read about it in the papers last week? More than 900 billion dollars for weapons? Our God wants justice for the poor. YOU may believe in the great commission. I believe in the great commandment!!!
And so, the tensions got worse in Cleveland. A problem was this-  Deep down inside, everyone thought that the Spirit inside of them was the correct one. These Christians had a private disdain for those who didn’t think, believe, and feel as they did. What to do? Well, finally, at the conclusion of this tense and lengthy congregational meeting, they decided to write a letter to their founding pastor, Pastor Paul-son, this great theologian and teacher. Pastor Paul-son wrote back to the congregation at Cleveland. Believe it or not, I have a copy of his letter here with me. I would like to read a portion of it to you.
There is one Spirit, but a variety of gifts.
There is one Lord, but a variety of ways that people serve.
There is one God and Father, but a variety of ways that people work for the kingdom.
God gives different gifts to different people.
Some, a passion for peace;
Others,  a passion for political freedom.
Some,  a passion for life and its sacredness,
Others, a passion for forgiveness and mercy.
Some, a passion for a more closed interpretation of the Bible,
Others, a passion for a more open interpretation of the Bible.
Some, a passion for evangelism,
Others, a passion for justice.

All of these people who spoke to you this morning are working for the common good.
Each and every one of these people this morning are inspired by the one and same Spirit, the Spirit who gives to each person their unique and different perspective.
For just as the human body is a unified whole, composed of millions of different parts, so is Christ and his body.
The human body is miraculously complex,
With 60 million cells,
With 36 million heart beats every year,
With 300 billion red cells produced every day,
With 60,000 miles of blood vessels in each body.
Just as the human mind cannot begin to fathom the complexity of its own body, so it is with us, with the body of Christ. Our minds cannot comprehend the complexity of the body of Christ. 
Christ is a living body, composed of billions of parts, miraculously complex, with billions of members, located in millions of different settings, with thousands of different languages, with thousands of unique cultures and billions of expressions of the true faith…throughout all the centuries of recorded time.
The human mind cannot begin to fathom the complexity of the body of Christ, anymore than the human mind can imagine the 60,000 miles of blood vessels in one’s own physical body.
If you have these gifts, if you have these passions in your heart, these workings, these ways of serving God’s kingdom; but if you don’t have love inside of you for your brothers and sisters who think and feel differently than you, you are nothing. The greatest gift that God has for you is love. Love for people who don’t think like you. Love for people who do not share your point of view on specific issues. You are to make love, your goal, your aim, your greatest purpose for life.
And so, the words from Pastor Paul-son were read to the church in Cleveland, on that special day when all the diverse members of the church were together. On that day, the church members at Cleveland realized that they were part of this mysteriously complex, living organism, the body of Christ. They all drank from the same Spirit, and were joyful and glad, that they were one, one in the Spirit of the Living Christ who unified them in love.

Work Mission Photos

The work missioners returned back from a wonderful trip to Corbin, KY.  If you are interested in checking out photos from the experience, you can find them here.  (You need not be a member of facebook to view the album).  Here are a few to wet your appetite.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Check out our Work Mission Blog

Our Work Mission trip keeps a separate blog.  Check it out throughout the week to see as our youth and adults update as to their experience.  You can find it here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wednesday/Thursday Annual Conference Report

On Wednesday morning, Bishop Julius Trimble was the featured morning speaker.  Before Trimble was the bishop of the Iowa Annual Conference, he was an East Ohio pastor and was formerly the district superintendent of our own North Coast district.  He warned us that the message he was going to give wasn’t very warm and fuzzy.  It instead was to be a frank reflection on the relationship between the poor and the church.  In short-  “We don’t give a damn about the poor.”  He said if we look were we invest our time, our money, and our attention, where we plant our churches, and where they flourish, its hard pressed to say that the poor are in any way a central focus of the church.  
He questioned whether we were truly willing to be “broken for God.”  Our God is a God of brokenness.  The supreme act of our faith is our savior being crucified on the cross.  God is not calling us to be comfortable, Jesus is calling us to get down and dirty, to be infected with the Holy Spirit in such a way that we can never relax comfortably in our pews again.  In fact, getting people in the pews, so they can relax, seems to be our central focus.  To that, the good Bishop declared “We need to worry less about getting butts into the seats, and more about getting our assets out into the streets.”
Sometime, the Bishop continued, we begin to doubt whether God will answer prayers.  However, there is one prayer God will always answer if we offer it up sincerely.  If we dare, God will always answer this prayer-  “Lord make me an instrument of thy peace, of thy love, of thy reconciliation.”
One of the highlights of the business session was the presentation by Brian Sheetz of the United Methodist foundation.  He spoke about the problems many churches face in their stewardship.  However, he argued strenuously that the problem is not that our church doesn’t have enough money, the problem is that it doesn’t have enough vision.  We come to people and beg for money to fix the roof, but can’t say how we are going to impact the community.  He asked if someone came into your church and offered to give you $10,000, could you clearly and concisely articulate how you would use the money to transform people’s lives?  
In the afternoon session, we voted to accept the closure of Broadway UMC and Brooklyn Memorial UMC.  Loosing two North Coast churches in the city of Cleveland is certainly a blow.  I believe strongly that we Methodists who live in the suburbs need to redouble our mission efforts in the city of Cleveland.  Should we continue to abandon the city with our resources and our attention, I believe we will be turning our backs on God’s will for his people.
Four more resolutions were adopted by the annual conference.  One was submitted by Youth Annual conference and called for the church to invite youth to serve on all of the committees in the church and be proactive about recruiting them.  A second resolution called for churches to honor MLK jr. day by closing their offices and engaging in acts of mercy.  A third resolution accepted nearly unanimously was a resolution encouraging congregational support of food banks and a call for vocal advocacy at all levels of government to ensure their continued funding.
One resolution that generated a bit of controversy was a resolution that reminded the conference of the UMC’s support of collective bargaining and a call for all to educate themselves about Senate Bill 5 and to vote their faith.  Though the resolution did not endorse the ballot issue, a minority felt it was overly partisan and that the church should stay out of the process.  Resolutions require a 2/3rds majority to adopt.  This one was adopted, but with few votes to spare.
One important piece of business on Wednesday was the “fixing of the appointments.”  In addition to my officially being appointed back to Independence UMC, there were several other appointments announced that may be of interest to our congregation.  Don Kuntz, pastor of our partner church North Olmsted UMC, has been appointed to Lodi UMC.  We will miss his spirit on our work trips and will wish him well in his endeavors.  Rev. Mark Steiger, associate at Church of the Savior, will be taking his place.  I have met him and he is excited to be involved with our church and our mission trip.  Also, we must say goodbye to Pastor Karen Oehl at Brecksville UMC, who is becoming the District Superintendent of the Mid-Ohio District.  Rev. Clark Stein, formerly of Mentor UMC, will be taking her place.  
On Thursday, we heard the last of the board reports and finished our final rounds of balloting.  In the Board of Trustees report, the bishop challenged each local church to look beyond their immediate needs and plan proactively for the building needs in the future.  He also challenged us to be more open and generous about opening the church to the usage of the community.  If we are not using our church in mission, than we might as well not have a building.  One suggestion made was that every local church ought to make arrangements to host GED classes at their facility.
The final clergy and lay delegation to general and jurisdictional conferences were established.  We prayed over the members who will be attending on behalf of our conference.  The General Conference will be in Florida in April while we will host the Jurisdictional conference in Akron.  We’ll talk more about what happens at these conferences as we get closer, but feel free to ask if you are curious.
And thus we concluded another annual conference at Lakeside.  It was a long but fruitful week.  Dee Nemeth, Linda Short and I will share further reflections about the conference during the July 3rd worship service.  I will conclude this blog post with the same song that was the theme and was the conclusion of annual conference.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wednesday report

Because Thursday is a light day, I'm going to hold off Wednedays report and publish a joint one tomorrow.


East Ohio Annual Conference- Tuesday Report

Each day at annual conference, we open our day with worship.  This is generally my favorite part of conference because it is usually designed creatively and executed excellently.  The service focused on the poverty and hunger that is hidden all around us.  I learned that the second meaning behind the “If we are the body...” theme is that we must engage in work with the poor.
The guest preacher that morning was Jorge Acevedo, pastor of Grace Church in Flordia.  Grace church is a multi-campus church that worships over 2,000 in a mostly impoverished area.  They truly live out the mandate of working with the poor because the congregation itself is also poor.  Rev. Acevedo joked that his spiritual gift was that of “agitation.”  In fact, he said that this is precisely what the Holy Spirit does.  God wants to wreck your life by disturbing your comfortable life with a call into life-giving ministry.  He argued that the church exists for no other reason than to show God’s love.  Living out this calling comes in three stages-
“We love our neighbors by giving immediate aid”
“We love our neighbors by giving ongoing advancement”
“We love our neighbors by giving continual advocacy.”
The challenge to doing this is that many churches have lost touch with their communities.  The people inside the church do not look like the people of the neighborhoods.  When questioned by Bishop Hopkins how to do this, he encouraged churches to strip down to the basics and admit your flaws.  If the pastor can admit to struggling with control issues, if your lay leader can openly discuss her alcoholism, if your choir director can cop to her quick temper, people will learn that this is a church where you can feel safe to bring your whole sinful self to God.  Its exactly when we pretend we are all prim and proper that people are turned away.
Later in the morning we heard about the vital ministries a number of other churches in East Ohio were doing.  Fresno UMC noticed that people had access to clothes and food, but not to cleaning supplies.  Thus, they launched “Martha’s cupboard” to give people access to cleaning supplies for both their bodies and their houses.  Another church learned to get over their fear by allowing an outdoor rock concert to use their bathrooms in the evening.  After turning it down the first year for fear of theft and vandalism, they finally opened their hearts and learned how rewarding it could be to allow the community in.
We then received reports from a number of committees and boards within the wider church.  One of the particular concerns expressed was the need to recruit and retain young clergy.  Only 4% of clergy are under the age of 35, and the median age of clegy in East Ohio is 55.  Several new initiatives were announced to help recruit promising young candidates through tuition assistance and paid internships.  I do hope more focus will continue to be given on mentoring and providing support for we young clergy once we are actually in the pulpits.
In the afternoon session, we received and voted to accept a resolution advocating for passing anti-human trafficking laws in the state of Ohio.  The area of Toledo has had the most per capita arrests for modern slavery in all of the US.  While I don’t have time to go into details, modern slavery is the 2nd largest criminal enterprise in the world and involves individuals forced into sexual or physical labor by force, fraud or coercion from human traffickers.  It is estimated that over 27 million people are still enslaved today.  Please let me know if you want to know more and we will have a presentation at IUMC.
Scattered throughout the day’s business sessions were 3 more ballots to elect clergy and lay candidates.  Through the days voting, the laity were able to select 11 of their 14 representatives, while the clergy only managed to elect 5.  While their are certainly no political parties in the church, some candidates do receive endorsements from the faith and justice coalition (representing progressives), the evangelical fellowship (representing conservatives) while the vast majority are unaffiliated with either group.  Through the current round of balloting, in my humble opinion, the laity group seemed to be leaning to the progressive side while the clergy group was leaning more conservative.  Once the election process is completed, I’ll try to go into more detail.
In the evening, we had the honor to see five people ordained into lifelong ministry in the United Methodist Church.  One individual, Paul Wilson, was ordained as an elder and serves at Ridgewood UMC and Pearl Rd. UMC.  Our outreach committee is currently exploring an opportunity to partner with Pearl Rd. in some ministry in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood.  
Linda McCowen, a frequent IUMC pulpit guest, was ordained as a deacon.  We have the honor this Sunday of having Rev. McCowen lead worship with us.  As this will be her first service since being ordained, we should feel especially blessed to be witnesses to it.
In conclusion, I wanted to leave you with the most thought provoking statement of the day.  It is both exciting and scary.  I hope it causes you to rethink what we do in church- 
“We are the body of Christ.  Therefore Christ is judged by what we do”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

East Ohio Annual Conference- Monday Report

“Hello Church”
With this (somewhat) traditional greeting, Bishop John Hopkins called the 2011 East Ohio Annual Conference to order.  For at least the last three years, the first official action at annual conference is primarily rooted in the past.  We commemorate the ministry of the various clergy members, clergy spouses and lay members of annual conference who have passed in the last year.  For each of the 53 individuals who died, a candle was carried forward from the back of Hoover auditorium and placed on the alter as a bell was rung and their name read.  Many of the individuals who passed had been attending annual conferences at Lakeside for the entirety of the denominations 50+ years of existence.  Two deaths that we commemorated were particularly notable:  Bishop James Thomas- an African American who was elected Bishop while the church was still segregated and led the East Ohio Conference in the 80s.  Also, Robert Dieterich Jr., the pastor of Bedford UMC up until his death this past summer.  His death was a tragedy not just for his family, but for his church and the conference.  I imagine the church is still reeling from his death even though it has almost been a year.
The theme of the opening sermon, and indeed, the entirety of the Conference, is “If we are the body...”  The theme is taken from the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  Bishop Hopkins especially highlighted the way that we are called to recognize our diverse gifts, both as pastors and laity, churches rural and urban, small and large.  We cannot afford to faction ourselves off and despise those who are different, we must instead remember how it takes all of these unique parts of the body for health to ensue.  This is a particularly important message given that we were shortly to begin the contentious process of electing delegates to General Conference.
Following the opening worship, all of the laity were called together to receive instructions about the voting process and to receive nominees from the floor of conference for lay delegates to annual conference.  As the clergy were not involved in this session, I instead attended a lunch gathering for young (under 35) clergy held by the lake.  It was refreshing to catch up with some of my fellow young colleagues and to celebrate with those who would be commissioned later that evening.  Two of our younger clergy, Curt Bissel and Erik Marshall, announced that they were launching a young-pastor driven network so that we could try and support each other in our ministries.  I look forward to visiting with, and learning from, many of my young colleagues.
Following lunch, we clergy attended the “clergy session” of annual conference.  This is a closed meeting in which issues of ordination and discipline are voted upon.  Generally, this is fairly routine, but their was one fairly poignant speech that was the talk of the session.  One pastor was removed from membership in the annual conference because they had transferred to a new denomination.  After the vote to confirm the removal, this pastor asked for an opportunity to speak to her reasons for leaving.  She expressed that she had been a life long Methodist, had been loved by God before she could walk, had been called into God’s service before she had even received her first kiss.  She had received her calling into ministry here at Lakeside and was ordained into ministry in the United Methodist church a number of years later.  She was leaving the denomination, however, with a heavy heart.  She was leaving not because she didn’t love the church, nor because she didn’t love Methodism, but because her sexual orientation meant that she could never be fully accepted within the Methodist church.  Our current discipline indicates that she would have to choose between her sexual orientation, or her calling by God as a Methodist pastor.  Thus, she announced she was transferring her ordination to the Episcopal church where she could “come before God fully” just as she was.  No matter where you stand on this issue, you couldn’t help but feel moved by the pain that she expressed.
The clergy and lay delegates were finally reunited for the afternoon business session.  Two particular parts of this session deserve mentioning:  our conference treasurer, Jessica Vargo, gave a presentation on the “State of the Conference.”  In my three years here, this has never been the most positive parts of the week.  Generally, giving and attendance are down while spending is up.  However, this year Ms. Vargo was “moderately hopeful.”  Though membership and attendance had decreased by approximately 1%, the decline was quite slight given the demographics in our state.  She brought the good news that there would be no increase in clergy health care expenses for 2012 and that the conference had once again paid its apportionments in full.  Independence UMC was highlighted for making significant improvements in the paying of their apportionments.  Congratulations church!
The second item of note is that the clergy and the laity cast their first ballots for delegates to the General and Jurisdictional conferences.  We will elect 7 lay and clergy delegates to each this year.  The General conference is where much of the direction and rules of the church are set while the Jurisdictional conference is where bishops are elected.  Since each only meet every four years, these are particularly important elections for the future of the church.  These elections will continue throughout the conference (we have to vote upward of 13 times!)
In the evening we had a service of recognition of Clergy who were retiring from Pastoral Appointment and a Commissioning service for Provisional members.  Literally and metaphorically, a mantle was passed from the generation who was retiring to the generation who would just be beginning their ministry.  I was commissioned last year in a very similar ceremony.
That’s the update for Monday!  If you have any questions about the above or about specific activities at conference, leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them as well as I can.
Good night church!
Pastor Jared

Monday, June 13, 2011

You can't contain the Spirit

Pentecost Sermon
I’ve hemmed and hawed a bit over the last few years about a very important decision.  It is a costly decision, one in which I had to weigh whether to invest my time, talent and treasures into a decision that could significantly affect my life and my reputation.  After wrestling with the options for some time, I finally made my decision.  I bought an iPhone.
Now, like any person, my first task upon acquiring it has been to learn its ins and outs so that I can maximize my efficiency....oh, who we kidding, I’ve been playing with it this week.  I’ve been looking for cool apps, trying out the new camera, did you know this thing could make phone calls too?  But in my playing, I actually had an insight about Pentecost this week.
Scripture says that when the disciples were filled with the spirit, they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  They were able to rush out and communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to people who, up until a few minutes before, were blocked from hearing the Gospel simply because they did not speak the same language.
So boy, was I excited to find out that with my phone, I could replicate that part of the Pentecost experience right here.  One of the amazing features in our new technology is its ability to cut across previously insurmountable language barriers.  Is there anyone in the congregation who speaks another language?  Even if its not well, call it out!
So, lets test it by trying to share the message the choir lifted up today-  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”
Demonstrated Google Translate as it translated the above into Spanish and spoke it back.
So there we go-  Pentecost recreated courtesy of the iPhone.  So if the point of the Holy Spirit was to translate for us, I guess we can just tell God were good now right?  That it was great to have the Holy Spirit, but we can do it ourselves, so thanks, but no thanks!
Granted, we have to pay hundreds of dollars and use some separate device, but close enough, right?
If indeed, the purpose of the Holy Spirit was simply to translate for us, I suppose we could say that.  But there is a problem here.  Equating the Holy Spirit with Google translate puts it’s purpose into a very narrow category.  It causes us to see the Holy Spirit as one-dimensional.  It lets us explain this co-equal part of God in just a few brief sentences.  It narrows our expectations.  But if there is anything that scripture and history has taught us, however, its that when we try to limit God, to contain the Holy Spirit to our expectations, its going to burst forth and be bigger than we can ever imagine.
In our Gospel reading today, we found the disciples literally cowering in fear in the upper room.  Jesus had just been crucified and they were afraid they were next.  Now mind you, this is the same upper room in which Jesus had given them instructions to carry on his ministry and warned them of his coming death.  Despite their advance knowledge, they still huddled up locked behind closed doors.  But if death wasn’t going to stop Jesus, neither are a few locked doors.  In the midst of their fear, Jesus comes to bring them peace.  The disciples doubted that God could work amidst death and locked doors, but the spirit wouldn’t be contained.
So, now we come to Pentecost, and the situation has changed.  They met with the risen lord, seen Jesus ascend into heaven and choose a replacement for Judas.  So, where do we find the disciples?  Gathered all together in one house.  Now, at least this time we don’t think the doors were locked.  But by gathering together in one house, they were in some ways a closed community.  They were a small sect of Hebrew speaking Jews, gathered from the region around Jerusalem and Galilee.  They spoke the same language, likely had the same customs, and all believed together that Jesus was the Messiah.  Now, maybe they fully intended to get on with that ministry in the world thing.  Maybe they were just resting up and building strength.  But the spirit wouldn’t wait.  The Holy Spirit bursts into the room and transforms this stationary mono-language group sweeps them into action.  They burst forth into the streets proclaiming the Gospel in not one, not two, but all of the languages of every Jew from every nation under heaven.  The disciples were limited to their little group and their common language, but the spirit wouldn’t be contained.
If we move further into Acts, we begin to see the disciples engaged in the Jewish community.  They take care of the Jewish widows from both the Jerusalem area and those in town from throughout the world.  They begin to share everything in common.  This is truly a Jewish renewal movement!  But then, suddenly Peter gets a troubling vision.  In the dream he is hungry and is offered reptiles and birds and pigs and shrimp, all the things a good observant Jew would not eat.  In fact, we learn in a different book of the Bible that Peter was so observant he wouldn’t eat with non-Jews.  Surely, this is what God wants, right?  Jesus only had Jewish disciples, so naturally this is a Jewish movement.  But God had other ideas, and Christianity began to spread among the Gentiles like wildfire.  Peter was limited by the careful observance of his faith, but the spirit would not be contained.
Many of the first people to cross the Atlantic to come to the United States were Christians.  In addition to their faith, they brought with them their farming techniques, there trade skills, a government responsive to people, and, they brought slaves.  Many of the settlers were both faithful, bible believing Christians, and slave owners.  They saw no conflict.  Now according to Nancy Koester’s Introduction to The History of Christianity in the United States, these observant Christians “did not look to introduce Christianity to the slaves-  afraid of Baptism as it declared people to be children of God rather than the property of this or that owner.
To address the problem, laws were passed-  1667 Virginia Statute-  “Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”  (p. 14)   Sure that they had resolved their conflict, they began to allow missionaries to preach the Gospel to the slaves.
Now, the “Masters wanted Christianity to reinforce paternalism by teaching slaves to be grateful, obedient, and submissive.  Christianity was often twisted to this purpose, but even so, many slaves sensed that Christianity was at odds with slavery.  Christianity taught that all believers are children of the Most High God, redeemed by Christ.  If one were bought by the blood of Christ, how could one still be owned by a human master?  Many black Christians felt the contradiction between the claims of slavery and the claims of Christ....Converted blacks felt their infinite worth as children of God, no matter what slaveholders thought and taught...”  (p. 81-82).  Now these white Christians believed that all of the benefits of God’s love belonged with only their race, but the spirit could not be contained.
This past Monday, I had the opportunity to attend the founding convention of the Greater Cleveland Congregations at the Masonic auditorium downtown.  You might have read about this group in the paper this week-  they are a group of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian congregations who have banded together “to organize and campaign for good jobs, accessible and affordable health care, safe and productive schools for our children, fair and equal treatment in our criminal justice system, and sustainable and healthy food."  (Plain Dealer).  The highlight of the event was having the 2000+ people present roar in appreciation each time one of the congregation leaders pledged their support and announced how many people from each congregation had attended.  While Christians may have been slightly in the majority in this group, there was a very sizable presence of committed individuals of other faiths.  And yet, with the energy and the commitment in the room, I truly discerned that that Holy Spirit was alive and at work in the hearts of each and every individual in that room.  We think at times that the Holy Spirit is just a Christian thing, but the spirit will not be contained.
Brothers and sisters, on this Pentecost Sunday, we commemorate the outbreaking of the Holy Spirit on one particular day in one particular region of the world amongst one particular people.  But the Spirit of Pentecost cannot be contained in so narrow of a way.  Today we are called to celebrate and invite the Holy Spirit’s presence into this community, into this congregation, and into each of our individual lives.  We are called to prophesy, or speak clearly for God’s justice.  We are called to have a vision, a vision of where God wants to lead each of us in his service.  And we are called to dream dreams.  Dreams of a congregation revitalized and reaching out in unbelievable ways to this community and beyond.  Of people who dare to step beyond their comfort zone to show God’s love.   Of mission groups that will come forth from Cincinnati, that will go to Corbin, Ky, and will not stop until they see a bit of the kingdom of God established here on earth.  But my friends, know this-  no matter how limited our justice, how narrow our vision, how foggy are dreams, we can always be assured-  that the spirit will not be contained.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Reading

James 1:5- “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

As the school year ends, there is one gift that teachers often give students before they leave for the summer vacation. Just as they are about to head out the door, free of all responsibilities, they get the summer reading list. So much for all their free time! Actually, I find that books stretch me and help to inspire new understanding about my faith. Reading will often spark a series of ideas that help me to truly discern the direction God might want me to go. Knowing that summer is almost upon us, I wanted to provide you a suggested list of books that you might curl up with in the hammock this summer. I promise if you give them some time, God will open up your heart and mind in new and unexpected ways.

Peter Gomes- The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (353 p.)- I came across this book as I began to seriously consider going to seminary. Gomes helped the Bible come alive to me by taking seriously difficult issues like race, gender and sexuality while also exploring what scripture says about joy, suffering, evil and goodness. I would recommend this book to any who struggle with the Bible and wonder how it can address the contemporary issues that face us every day.

Tony Jones- The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (220 p.)- Something seems to be going on in the world. People, in the churches and outside, are questioning authority, forgoing traditional worship experiences and seeking to understand God on their own terms. In small pockets across the country, faith communities are responding in unique ways as they seek to explore God in ways relevant to the modern generation. This new way of doing church has come to be called “Emergent worship.” Jones book is very down to earth and helped me to discover new ways in which people are experiencing Jesus and to begin to rethink just what it means to “do church.”

Peter Rollins: The Orthodox Heretic and other impossible tales (183 very small pages)- Jesus taught his disciples through stories because they helped to inspire thought and imagination. Rollins tries to capture this dynamic by offering 33 new parables that teach critical lessons about exploring faith in the 21st century. Though each of the parables is only a few pages long and can be read in minutes, they can inspire hours of thought and conversation by coming at concepts of faith in a different way. If your not into long novels but just want to inspired in little bits and pieces, this is the book for you!

Lisa Dodson- The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert and Unfair Economy (211 p.)- This book was recommended to me several years ago and I found it compelling. Though it isnʼt a Christian book persey, it explores the difficult moral dilemmas we can face when -if- you work in the corporate world. The book uses the voices of ordinary Americans to try and explore the difficulties of trying to live and work with compassion in a “bottom-line” corporate world. It would be great for any one who struggles with how to live out their faith and values while working in the corporate world.

I have these four books and many more that Iʼm always happy to lend out. May God bless your reading with new insights and inspiration!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jesus's Will?

On Sunday, June 5th we were honored to have guest pastor Holly MillerShank preach and lead worship.  Below is the text to her sermon.  We were honored by her presence.

Acts 1:6-14

John 17:1-11


So, I’m sure Pastor Jared has taught all of you well. What major church holiday did we celebrate this week? Ascension day- that’s right. 
Ascension Day, the day when Jesus rises up into heaven. Ascension Day is an important day in the life of the church. This day marks the end of the Easter season, 40 days after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. The day also notes the start of the 10 day waiting period between the close of Easter and the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit gives birth to the church. 
Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday and as such it is not a regularly observed holiday in the life of most of our local churches. I just moved here to Ohio from Central Pennsylvania and back home a lot of stores and businesses are closed in observation of Ascension Day but I didn’t see anything closed downtown Cleveland or Rocky River on Thursday. 
One of the places that we can recognize this particular religious holiday is the plethora of art work reflecting this biblical event- of Jesus being raised up in the clouds but, if we’re being honest, we can articulate little about that beautiful painting or stain glass window of Jesus rising skywards has to do with our lives as contemporary followers of the Risen Christ. 
If you really stop to think about it, these few days that follow Ascension day really can be the loneliest in the church calendar. It’s one of the few times we’re ever really alone. Jesus has left, but the Holy Spirit has not yet arrived, we’re in a spiritual limbo, a period of transition, of unknowing. 
We experience these indeterminate states of being at other times in our lives. Think about the time between graduation and getting a job, between having a medical diagnosis and receiving treatment, between a loved one’s death and the settling of the estate. These are all times of insecurity, when not all has been revealed and we have little control which makes them all the more anxiety producing. 
I’d like us to push that last example a little further as we think about our lesson from the book of Acts today. Perhaps it would help us to think about Ascension as Jesus’ last will and testimony, his final instructions to his heirs on how his legacy is to be fulfilled. 
This makes sense, after all a will is a living document that records the final wishes and desires of one who is about to depart from this world. Wills are written to specific individuals or communities and give instructions on how to carry out the assets and desires of the departed. 
Even the timing is appropriate, wills generally go through a probate period where the reality of death sinks in and people prepare themselves to move on in the world without the physical presence of their loved one. 
Same thing with Jesus. The scriptures tell us that he was killed and resurrected 3 days later. We’ve now has the entire Easter season to let this reality sink in, to focus and prepare ourselves for a life without Jesus physically by our sides. 
Now I personally have had little experience sitting in a lawyer’s office waiting to have a will read, but what I do know is that it is a very anxiety producing experience. That there is an awful lot of tension and expectation in that room. 
In my understanding is that this is exactly where we find the disciples this morning. In his earthly existence Jesus might not have accumulated an exorbitant amount of wealth, but from his increasingly recognized status as God’s son he certainly has a lot of power. And remember, the disciples have up everything to follow him. There have got to be some entitlement issues beginning to surface. Jesus did after all promise them a reward for their service and there’s already been disputes among the disciples about who sits on which side of Christ the heavenly king. 
No wonder the disciples now ask Jesus “Is this the time when you restore the kingdom of Israel?” 
They want to hear the details of that will revealed, they are anxious to see who gets what and to finally have something to show for their many years of hard work and service. 
Can’t you just imagine what’s going through the disciples’ minds? Jesus is going to rebuild Israel, we are going to live like kings, we will sit and judge the people from thrones of gold and God will bless us beyond compare. 
Ah, this may be the disciples’ desires but not Christ’s intent. 
Jesus in the midst of his ascension does promise his disciples power- just not in the way they anticipated. It’s like a wealthy business man willing his fortune to a charitable organization and ensuring his child has a permanent seat on the Board of Directors- wealth- yes, power- yes, what the recipient expected? No. 
So too with Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. He tells them to return to Jerusalem, a place of fear and ridicule and hardship for his followers. And it is there that they are instructed to pray and study while waiting for the revelation of God’s Holy Spirit. 
Can you see the crest-fallen image of the apostles as Jesus’ will is revealed? Can you blame them for their questions of the messiahs’ desires? But where, they ask him, and why and for how long???? 
Jesus’ response is vague, leaving the disciples with unanswered questions- just as we often find ourselves after the death of a loved one. But after the will is read and we give ourselves time to step back there is usually something deeper revealed about the character and nature of the one departed captured in the their final instructions.
In Jesus’ case we discover a deep commitment to the communal rather than the individual. As noted in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary- Jesus instructs his followers to live in a community of solidarity. The apostles do not scatter and go their separate ways to await a private spirit- filling or a personal experience of divine faithfulness. Instead they were joined together in a specific place and task to await God’s action on them all. 
It is as if Jesus was a loving mother wanting to be assured her children would stay together after her departure. 
We also learn in Jesus’ final instructions that holy gifts of power are not about force, control or violence. Instead power is illusive, a wind of change rooted in prayer and service. Revealed not on command but in God’s own time. 
Finally we learn that the kingdom Christ promises is not restricted only to those who have heard his voice on earth. Those gathered as witnesses to the Ascension are not the sole heirs to Christ’s legacy but rather they are commissioned and empowered to spread the good news of Christ’s resurrection to the ends of the earth. 
We as contemporary Christians are co-heirs not only to the gifts of the Holy Spirit promised to the disciples on the day of his ascension but equally inheritors of Christ’s command to share the good news. Each of us are thereby challenged even in the midst of uncertain times to live up to the calling Jesus bestows upon us in his final revelation- to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the word. So go, not as ungrateful children wanting power for self-interest but rather as a community of believers empowered by the Holy Spirit and willing to witness to the good news of Christ our risen lord. Amen.