Sunday, July 24, 2011

If God is For Us...

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Romans 8:26-39


I donʼt know about you, but for me, the hymn “In the Garden” is not about Easter and the resurrection, but is more closely associated with death. Whenever I hear it, it transports me to one funeral or another where I have heard the hymn sung. Perhaps most prominent in my memory was when we sang it together at the funeral of my grandfather. Whether or not it was its intended purpose, for at least our current generations, this hymn calls to mind funerals, and grief, and death.

So too does today’s scripture from Romans. Though I have done no formal study, I think it is safe to say that this scripture appears at funerals perhaps even more often than “In the Garden.” It is of course a very appropriate text- it speaks of the Spirit helping us when we are at our weakest....when our grief is so profound that it will not allow us to speak. It speaks of a God who will never be apart from us, even, and perhaps especially, when we are in the midst of tragedy.

Can you remember a time when you heard “In the Garden” or this passage from Romans at a memorial service? Take a second and think back to that moment. What did you see, feel, touch? Were you overwhelmed with grief at the time? Perhaps some of you still are.

Though you may have held it together on the outside, what kind of emotions were swirling within? Did you find it hard to speak? To carry on a conversation with others about your loved one? Did it difficult to pray to God in those moments?

If you did, know that you are in good company. Almost all of us struggle and go into a phase of almost shock following the death of someone around us. In an initial stage of acute grief, the severe emotional trauma experienced can manifest itself in actual physical responses- Tightness in the throat, shortness of breath, fatigue, and a lack of muscle strength. Is it any wonder that words are hard to come by in that moment? Thus, it should be a particular comfort that Paul tells us that we have no need for words in those moments. When we are racked with grief, when we canʼt form a word, let alone a sentence or a prayer, the Holy Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

In those moments, God knows our hearts, and the Holy Spirit within us prayers on our behalf. Those prayers could be shouts of anger, screams of grief, or groans of misery, but God intimately hears our prayers. In the midst of death, we are surrounded by the love of God, and the Spirit is acting within us even, and perhaps especially, when we cannot sense it. We should praise God that we cannot be alone in those moments. The God whose love was demonstrated in Jesus Christ cannot bare to see us suffer alone. In these moments, we can rest assured that, we need not understand, we need not be able to explain why a particular death occurred.

But eventually, through time, through prayer, through talking with a pastor or loved one, through going to a grief support group or seeking professional counseling, we move from those initial stages of grief and begin to resume the normal patterns of life. And at some point, whether it be weeks or months or years afterward, we begin to regain our words. If we are honest with ourselves, perhaps the first word that we are able to form is - “Why?”

Now, its important we donʼt try to answer that question too quickly. We have to give ourselves the time to go through our wordless agony. This especially goes for those who care for someone wrestling with grief. In our legitimate desire to comfort, we sometimes will say things like “God needing one more angel in heaven,” or “that it was Godʼs will for that person to die” or that “this life doesnʼt matter.”

These generally arenʼt well-thought theological statements, but almost sweet nothings whispered to try and comfort. But we ought to be particularly cautious about speaking lightly of God and Godʼs will here. At best, it can be a cold comfort to someone experiencing loss. At worse, it can seriously disturb or even destroy their faith. We, and those in grief, are much better served when we simply hug them and express our sorrow than when we try to pontificate about our theology of God in those moments.

But the time does come, however, when we are obligated to begin wrestling with why. When we have to consider a Christian response, or theology, to death and dying. This last Wednesday, we had a social issue forum that explored the “Rights of the Aging.” One of the conclusions we drew was that so many of the issues raised required us to have frank conversations about death and dying, about the importance of quantity or quality of life, about funeral planning, and about end of life care. These prove to be sticky subjects for us in the United States. We tend to be particularly immature about death- look at the uproar that occurred in the country over the supposed death panels- merely suggesting people meet with doctors to discuss end of life care created a national uproar.

We struggle, in part, because we do not understand. After all, if God is for us, who could be against us? After all, isnʼt God the most powerful thing in the universe? If God really loves us, and if God is really powerful, why doesnʼt God stop bad things from happening?

That is the fundamental question, isnʼt it? We canʼt reconcile a powerful, good God who allows things like the shooting in Norway. Why allow such evil?

I think the primary reason we struggle with this question is that we misunderstand the power of God. In this country, when we think of power, we generally think of the ability to manipulate, to dominate, to control. It is the ability to bend the world around you to your will. We think of politicians as powerful when they are able to bend congress, or the country, to their will. We think of a country as powerful if its military or economic prowess can force other nations or leaders to make changes to the way they govern their country.

But what if thatʼs just a base, common misunderstanding of Godʼs power. I mean, is raw power really a holy and awesome thing? If I could physically force you to do more mission work, would that be a Godly thing? If I tricked you into giving more, and then used that money to feed those who are hungry, would that be a demonstration of the love of God? If we believe that power is this raw, sometimes violent expression of control, and if we believe that God is the ultimate expression of power, why would we be surprised when people draw the wrong conclusions about God. Mildly, we might ask, if God just manipulates the world in that way, why wouldnʼt God prevent evil? And, in a more pernicious misunderstanding, if God represents raw power, why wouldnʼt God, and Godʼs followers, strike out against “Godʼs enemies?”

This was the kind of power the crusaders believed in when they marched into the Middle East and slaughtered Muslims and other non-Christians. Though it is still early, it appears to be the kind of power
that the man who on Friday killed at least 92 people in Norway, Anders Breivik, believed in. Based on posts on his facebook page and anonline manifesto, he considered himself to be a modern Christian knight,
“charged with driving out Islam and immigrants and the political correctness that he said had been wrongly invited into Norway and was thriving there.”
“manifesto, entitled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” equates liberalism and multiculturalism with “cultural Marxism,” which the document says is destroying European Christian civilization.”(NY Times)

This idea of armed defense of Christianity, of our God, is born out of the equation that God equals power. But this is not the God to which scripture largely testifies. Though you can scrape together a few bible verses to justify about anything, Jesus speaks of the power of God differently. It is the power that allows a tiny seed to grow into a large tree. It is like a yeast that almost magically turns flour into life-sustaining bread. This is a different kind of power. The mightiest of powers cannot make a seed turn into a plant. This isnʼt a power of raw dominance, it is a power of life and of growth.

When Paul tries to answer the question “If God is for us, who is against us?”, he does not speak of Godʼs might. No, Paul speaks of a God who would send his only son into the world to bring about reconciliation. He testifies about Jesus, who willingly sacrificed himself at the hands of the dominant, powerful Roman empire, in solidarity with and to bring about reconciliation with the weak and lowly to whom Jesus loved intimately. Godʼs power was not one of dominance, but one of self emptying and sacrifice. Godʼs power was not in flexing muscle, but in demonstrating all consuming love. Even unto death.

If we understand God in those terms, how does that help us answer that question of why? When we begin to understand that we are not pawns who God manipulates at will, we can release ourselves from the notion that God caused a car crash or allowed a shooter to pull the trigger. Thatʼs not how God works. The power of life is not in manipulation, but in bringing forth new life out of tragedy. Jesus Christ was crucified, so God brought forth new life by resurrecting him. Godʼs work cannot be seen in the killing of 92 people in Norway, Godʼs power of life will be revealed through the outpouring of love and the recommitment the people of Norway, and Christians throughout the world, make in seeking to fan the flames of tolerance and love rather than bigotry and hate.

God does not work by preventing death or tragedy. Such exercise of raw power, even for seemingly good purposes, would be a violation of free will. No, God works in the same way that Jesus did. By being present with us so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God will be with us through it all. And should we open ourselves up to Godʼs healing love and life sustaining power, we too will see hope, and love, and life flourish out of our grief.

Monday, July 4, 2011

New Social Issues Forum

John Wesley was a firm advocate of personal and social holiness.  Personal holiness meant learning how we each individually needed to grow in perfection so that we might conform to the image of Christ.  Social Holiness, however, went beyond the individual.  Social Holiness embraced the idea that we had to change more than ourselves-  we had to work to change our societies so that it was more in line with the Kingdom of God that Jesus had proclaimed.  As such, Wesley decried slavery, argued for more human prisons, and took on the rich for their mistreatment of the poor.  He encouraged his followers to search their heart and consciouses and to seek to transform the world through their actions and their voices.  Thus, they would apply scripture, tradition, reason and experience and consider the important issues of their day.
As spiritual decedents of John Wesley, we are called to do the same.  Through a spirit filled and democratic process, the United Methodist Church has taken a position on a whole range of social issues including immigration, human trafficking, global climate stewardship and more.  Starting Wednesday July 13th at 7:00 pm, we will begin the process exploring the UMC position, how it was arrived at, and learning to discern for ourselves what God’s will might be in our contemporary society.  These forums are not meant as debates so that we may sway one another, but opportunities to learn to share how the Holy Spirit might be working in our own lives.  The first meeting will be an introduction to one method of discerning God’s will in community while the rest will tackle a specific subject.  Our initial schedule, subject to change, will be as follows:
7/13- Discerning God’s will in the Wesleyan tradition
7/20 Rights of the Aging
7/27 Persons living with HIV & AIDS
8/3         Genetic Technology
8/10 Rights of Immigrants
Join us as we seek to discern the Spirit’s will for the world.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reflections on a year in ministry

Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
In some ways its hard to believe I have already been here a year.  I can distinctly remember moving into my office and beginning the process of feeling out the congregation.  I remember panicking internally as I searched for names during the sharing of the joys and concerns and visiting many of your houses for some initial coffee chats.  And yet, in other ways, I feel like I’ve known some of you for years.  I am so grateful for how warmly this congregation has received me and I look forward to relying on your support and leadership in the year to come.
Though I thought I had a fair idea of what I was getting into when I accepted my appointment to Independence UMC, several things happened that I did not expect.  I have been stunned at just how flexible this congregation has been-especially when it comes to worship.  You quickly accepted that I do not wear a robe, you’ve seem to have gotten used to my penchant for asking questions in the middle of the service and you’ve enthusiastically embraced when I do something altogether different after the sermon like burning our sins or washing one another’s feet.  This was perhaps most reflected in the enthusiastic response to an entirely revamped Holy Week.  Thank you for your flexibility!    
I also have been encouraged by how warm and friendly we are to visitors.  I know it will embarrass her to say so, but if every congregation had an ambassador as warm and friendly as Alice Deyling, we’d all be bursting at the seams.  This openness to new people has resulted in increased attendance and having 12 new members join since last July.  Finally, I have found that this congregation takes pride in maintaining what we already do well.  Our trustees are constantly buzzing about the church and the congregation has responded generously when needs have arisen.  
Good job of maintaining what is here
As we begin another year of shared ministry together, I hope to see us grow in a few different ways.  More and more members of our congregation have stepped up to take leadership roles in vital, active ministries.  Because of this, we were able to launch a new prayer group, engage in hands on ministry with Nehemiah Mission, and explore working collaboratively with other Methodist churches.  I hope this leadership and renewed commitment will also help us to expand the programs that reach beyond the walls of our congregation to demonstrate the love of Christ through both our words and our actions.  Thirdly, I hope to work with Pam Young and others to build on the good work of the Work Mission Trip as week seek to enliven our youth and young adult ministries.
Though those are some individual areas, there is one bottom line goal that we must keep in mind.  God has a plan for this congregation.  Its bigger and bolder than anything we might imagine at the moment.  Let us have the courage to dream big about the opportunities God is going to set forth for us.  Let us willfully embrace the challenges we might face.  Let us truly be the body of Christ in this world so that all might come to know God’s love and forever be transformed.
Pastor Jared