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Food for Thought-Are You A Christian? Reflections on #Umpqua @UMInsight — October 6, 2015

Food for Thought-Are You A Christian? Reflections on #Umpqua @UMInsight


Last Thursday, when a shooter entered an English composition classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, nine persons were executed by a lone gunman. According to various news reports and eyewitness statements given by survivors, the gunman asked his victims, “what their religions were” and “if they were Christian”. Those who answered in the affirmative were told, “they would be with their God soon enough,” said survivor Anastasia Boylan.

Christians are not a persecuted minority in our country. What we witnessed in Oregon would be typical in Syria or Nigeria. In the United States, this is not symptomatic of larger persecution toward persons claiming to be Christian of any denomination. Some might pretend it is but we must be honest. People are not regularly executed for their faith in this country.

I’ve been thinking about one question over the past few days. I wonder what it was about Christianity the shooter despised so much. What form of Christianity had he encountered which made him so angry at those who call themselves followers of Christ? No one will ever get the chance to ask him. We will never know. I cannot believe he ever encountered a community of forgiveness, grace, and love. I can believe he probably encountered so called followers of Jesus who offered mercy with guilt, grace with judgment, and love with strings attached. Clearly, the shooter had some sort of belief or understanding of God. It was a distorted, twisted image of Christianity, God, and faith taught by many. It is still believed by millions and is eating away at the Good News of Jesus like a cancerous tumor. Had anyone answered Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim would he have executed them all the same? Who knows? Or was it all about Christianity? I believe it was all about Christians.

Christians are not bad people. We are also incredibly flawed and sinful human beings. Though as a faith tradition, we have a serious image problem in this country and around the world. We say and do stupid things inconsistent with the words and teachings of man who founded our faith. Take this recent Facebook post from the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee; offered in the wake of the Oregon shooting. To those with indifference or even hatred toward organized religion, what message does this send about the priorities of the followers of Jesus?

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Shouldn’t people interested in getting serious about their faith turn to the Bible?  This (from a public official) says Christians (the dominant religious tradition in America) are not who Jesus proclaimed us to be. An inherent conflict has been created, is Jesus a gun toting American or a peace loving Rabbi from 1st century Palestine?

This places little confidence in scripture’s ability to speak for itself.  The idea that serious Christianity is equated with handgun ownership is a horrific distortion of Jesus’ teachings.  Somewhere, our priorities went wrong. We thought we found Jesus and we only found ourselves.  Where do we find a relationship between Jesus, a man who never a carried a weapon and our world today?  They are not found in the Bible. Would arming ourselves with the Sermon on the Mount be a better place to begin?

When one reads something like Lieutenant Governor Ramsey’s post, one understands how easy it might be for someone to get the wrong idea about their friendly neighbor who is a Christian.

None of this is a justification for this tragedy. The church has an image problem and it didn’t begin with the crusades. People held distorted views of Christians and the church before last Thursday in Umpqua.  The church’s image crisis begins anew every Sunday morning when we ignore Jesus’ words, do more judging than listening, and decide our version of the truth is the only way to avoid a place some can’t let go of called “Hell”.

Food for Thought-Suffering is Serious, Job is a Joke — September 30, 2015

Food for Thought-Suffering is Serious, Job is a Joke


Christianity faces a strong temptation to say suffering is good and redemptive.  This idea is part and parcel of our culture and our religious tradition.  I think before beginning any reflection on the book of Job it’s important to state, I don’t believe this is correct.  As I start down the “Job” road, I’ll say again there is no intrinsic goodness to suffering, grief, and loss.  To try and make our square pain fit the round hole of some divine plan is a task bound to meet in failure and disappointment. If we attempt to understanding human sufferings on the basis of an ancient near eastern fable, a man-made attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people, we will walk away more confused than when we began.  Before we begin, we must realize Job is not a real person.  If Job is not real, then a wager making Satan and a wager taking God are not real.  Three elements of the story are real.  Job’s pain, loss, and suffering are real.  Secondly, a real question is raised.  Is God on our side?  Thirdly, there is no value redemptive value in suffering.

Suffering may not be good or redemptive, but it is real and as we see in Job, suffering originates somewhere within God’s identity.  Suffering exists within and beyond God.  This is what we observe in the opening chapters of Job.  Like a 16th century drama, suffering appears as a major, yet unseen character who will define the essence, being, and actions of every character walking across the stage.  In the dramatic dance of heavenly figures, where human morality is nothing more than a wager between the cosmic forces of good and evil, Job’s suffering arises in the amoral debate between  good and evil.

The possibility of suffering comes from the potential of removing Job’s tangible economic assets and thus causing him to spiritually blame (curse) God for their removal.  This is not an abstract discussion.  There is a clear belief, on the part of the adversary, that if Job’s possessions are removed, if his quality of life begins to suffer, Job will doubt his allegiance to God.  The adversary probably makes this approach because it’s worked numerous times in the past.  This tells us that even in the distant an ancient past, people held a belief, “that the more stuff I have, God must really love me more than other people.”  His logic is pretty sound here.  He’s seen people say this kind of thing.  I’ve heard people say these words.   If you believe you got your blessings from God and your entire relationship with is a quid pro quo, then by removing the stuff (the tangible blessings) you’ll come to believe the blessings are gone and you’ll have no need for God.  I’m going to be with you as long as I get what I need and when you stop getting what you need.  Of course you’ll turn on the hand that was doing the feeding.  This is the adversary’s basic logic in beginning to test Job.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The adversary’s logic is easy.  It’s not the problem.  The problem is God.  Why would God propose such an outlandish idea in the first place?  It’s not the kind of thing one associates with a loving God.  The Golden Rule tells us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  How does the Golden Rule apply to the 1st chapter of Job?  Make a side bet with Satan on how you can screw up one man’s life and then force us all to use it as a template for suffering for all eternity?  I think it’s a fair question.  Is it so we can get to the narcissistic speech about creation at the end of the book and have nothing ultimately resolved about why it’s important to show God unnecessarily ruining a man’s life? Again, this is a fair question.

Why would God set Job up with the possibility of failure?  Why put Job in a place of unbearable pain?  If I could answer that question, I would know why the doors of Auschwitz were opened.  I would know why pediatric cancer centers remain full.  I would know why madmen fly Germanwings Airbuses into the French Alps.  Why would a good God allow an innocent, faithful man from Uz to suffer for no good reason?  Yes, it’s the theodicy question.  Why does God permit evil and suffering, but more importantly, in Job, how do we understand suffering and pain coming directly from God’s actions?  God isn’t just permitting Job’s suffering; it’s essentially God’s idea.

This is the second real question raised by the author of Job.  If making humanity suffer is God’s idea, is God on our side?  I’m reminded of Psalm 124.  Think of how bad things were, even with the Lord on our side.  The Psalmist goes on to ask, “Think of how bad they could have been, despite how bad they were, knowing that we had the lord on our side.”  For Job and the Psalmist, simply being alive is the only difference “having the Lord on your side” made.  The only way you know God was on your side is that you’re alive.  Was God not on the side of the people who died in Psalm 124’s battle or Job’s sons and daughters?  Is that any different from the bargain the adversary wants to make, the “as long as I got mine I’m on God’s team” deal?   In Job, is God on our side?

Job has been misinformed about the nature of God.  The God Job thought he was worshipping will turn the circumstances of Job’s suffering into something ultimately wrong with Job.  Perhaps this is because God realizes gamble he made with Job’s life was wrong.  I would love to see God apologize and make right with Job without the final scenes of passive aggressive rage.  It will become clear, much later in the book, that Job can’t appreciate the death of his children or any of his suffering because he didn’t create the Earth.  Because he doesn’t have the cosmic context of the creator, his pain is really meaningless.  And who brought this on Job in the first place?  How hard would it have been for God to say, “I’m sorry, this whole thing was a mess.  You’re faithful and we don’t need stupid bets with Satan to make a dumb point in the first place.”

Job forces readers to ask hard questions about the nature of suffering, pain, evil, and what redemptive value can be gained by experiencing such situations.  When things go bad, where are we and where is God?  If Job is all we have to go on, I hope God and I are in two different places.  His is a vicious cycle of death, suffering, and guilt I would hope to avoid.

Food for Thought-Jesus Is A Bad Christian (Mark 9:38-50) — September 25, 2015

Food for Thought-Jesus Is A Bad Christian (Mark 9:38-50)


Jesus would be a horrible Christian. Aside from the fact he was a 1st century Palestinian Jew, by today’s standards Jesus wouldn’t be “church” material. I doubt he could become an ordained a United Methodist Minister. His lack of experience as a youth pastor and his online rabbinical ordination surely would have disqualified him.

This passage from Mark 9 illustrates how poorly Jesus would have fit in with contemporary Christians. The disciples have come to Jesus with a complaint. “We’ve seen others doing things in your name, people casting out demons. But here’s the things Jesus. We don’t know the guy. He doesn’t hang around with us. He seems to be someone who’s simply heard about you and is now off doing is own thing.” Speaking like good church bureaucrats and keepers of the institutional flame, the disciples want to know why this man is doing Jesus-y things without going through the board of ordained ministry, our conference system, or a litmus test of theological orthodoxy. Maybe he bought his ordination over the internet? Who knows?

Jesus’ answer gives him away. It’s what tells me he wouldn’t be a good Christian or United Methodist. Jesus says, “Don’t stop him.” The United Methodist Church would have stopped the anonymous man. To preserve the integrity of the Book of Discipline, letters charging him with any number offenses would be sent to his district rabbi in Capernaum. He’s diluting the integrity of his own faith tradition by not upholding the sanctity of his own ministerial practice and tradition. It gets worse. Not only does Jesus want the disciples to refrain from hindering this man, he reminds them, “whoever isn’t against us is for us.” The apathetic masses, Jesus says, those millions who don’t go to church and don’t care about church or possibly do church in a different way are actually for us. How can those who are indifferent to us do any tangible good (for the kingdom) in the long run? People who aren’t against us may be for us, yet they don’t pay our apportionments or paint our sanctuaries. Now I’m certain Jesus would not make a good United Methodist.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Jesus makes a series of declarations concerning the mutilation of the human body. If you don’t know who said these statements, were you not aware I was reading the words of Jesus, you might believe these words came from someone describing the practices of Sharia law in distant Islamic country. In defending the actions of those who believe in him (beyond the traditional center of power) to be left alone, unmolested and unhindered by his team of “orthodox” disciples, Jesus says its best you let people who believe in Jesus “be”. We should let them “be” instead of forcing them to trip and fall in humiliation.

Here’s where Jesus takes a turn which might make those who stir up hatred against Islam and Muslim Americans a bit anxious. He calls for extremely severe punishments, similar to some in Sharia law, for those who “cause these little one who believe in me to trip and fall into sin.” First, he says, it’s better to have a stone hung around your neck and be dropped in a lake than to “cause someone to fall”. It’s better to be tortured to death by drowning than make the mistake the disciples just made. If Jesus wanted an extreme example to illustrate his point; I think he’s found one. Those words sound more like a radical ISIS imam than the Jesus we’ve come to know and love. What kind of Christian is Jesus after all?

Jesus doesn’t stop there. In an attempt to illustrate this example, Jesus tells a story about amputation. “If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out.” Again, if you didn’t know Jesus was speaking, who would you think I was quoting; the Holy Quran or the sections from the Holy Bible? I’m willing to guess not a Christian and certainly not the founder of Christianity.

Amputation is one of the punishments triggered by Hudud crimes. In Sharia law, Hudud crimes are crimes against God and certain punishments are mandatory for specific crimes. Amputation is usually reserved for robbery or theft. Is Jesus describing amputation as punishment for “robbing” someone of their joy, ability, or opportunity to witness? Even if this is an example of extreme hyperbole, how Christian does Jesus sound? How Christian would I be if I suggested such an option?

The amputation imagery doesn’t stop with the hand. Jesus moves on to the foot. If your foot causes you to sin, it’s better to cut your foot off than walk into hell with two feet. Personally, I think Hell would be equally loathsome as a one-handed, one-footed amputee. I believe the handicap facilities in Hell probably mirror those of Soviet-era train stations. Long story short, I don’t want to go to hell handicapped or with all my limbs.

In the words late TV pitchman Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more!” Why go to Hell with just one hand and one foot when you can also go with one eye. “If your eye causes you to sin,” Jesus says, “tear it out because it’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than be thrown into hell with two.”

Who is this guy talking about an orgy of self-mutilation? I’m having trouble recognizing Jesus amidst the blood and gore. He certainly doesn’t sound like a Methodist or Christian. I’ve never been told it’s better to have a mutilated body in heaven than be physically fit when I arrive in Hell. Has someone kidnapped my Jesus?

All of this because the disciples wanted to know, “how do we handle people who are different from us?” Does it take a journey through maiming our bodies for us to answer what should be a simple question? Too many of us are the walking dead, wandering wounded, and amputated spiritually. We’ve accepted the flawed premise. The simple questions are too hard to answer. So to guarantee my procession to an afterlife, I will live a spiritually mutilated existence. I would rather hobble on one leg, with one hand, and be blind in one eye than recognize the simplicity of Jesus’ message. It’s easier for us to hurt ourselves than to follow Jesus’ ordinary requests.

No, Jesus doesn’t sound like a Christian, Methodist, Catholic or anything else. He sounds like a Jesus. He’s none of those things. We can’t tell who he is because we’re in too much pain to listen. Shouldn’t we stop amputating and start living?

Food for Thought-God Is A Passive Aggressive Bully (A Sermon on Numbers 11:4-29) #Bully #Sermon #God — September 22, 2015

Food for Thought-God Is A Passive Aggressive Bully (A Sermon on Numbers 11:4-29) #Bully #Sermon #God


We romanticize the past. A pile of feces looks better in the rearview mirror. I admit it’s an easy thing to do. One might call it human nature. However, deep within our misremembering there’s always a shade of truth. This is why I believe that even in Egypt; the food must have been awesome. You don’t get a “food channel” degree of description if something isn’t partially true about what you’re remembering. Egypt might have meant slavery, bondage, and torture. But the melons were to die for!

Since they left Egypt, they’ve been on a diet. They’ve had nothing to eat but “manna”. No meat, no salads, no buffet bars, nothing remotely tasty, enjoyable, or filling. It’s been about bland survival eating. And despite God’s provisions, this daily routine has gotten old.

Moses realizes his people are unhappy. Moses too is frustrated with his inability to effectively lead God’s chosen people. And yes, he’d like the occasional steak. But more than that, why has God placed upon him the burden of caring for such unhappy, miserable people? Why couldn’t he have a team leadership? It seems like an impossible task for one man. (Shouldn’t God have anticipated this instead of forcing Moses to beg for help?) In an attempt to reframe and understand his task, Moses puts it before God this way: You want me to take hundreds of people into a wilderness, disconnect them from everything they’ve known or understood, feed them weird food, and expect them to deal with it just because God says, “I’m God and I say so.”

To this, God essentially says “yes”. Even though everything about human nature, people, reason, common sense, and history says, “one might expect some pushback along the way”. No one would expect the Exodus to be an incident free, with no complaints, worship filled endeavor except a God who held standards so high they could never be realistically attained. One would also think that people being normal people in extreme circumstances wouldn’t be called “rejecting the Lord”. In Numbers, God appears as an out of touch bully, a passive aggressive parent, ready to send the wandering Israelites on a hunger fueled and anger laced guilt trip.

Moses’ God is quick to start packing for the guilt trip. The Israelites will get what they want but severe, long, and painful strings will be attached.  Reading through Numbers, I also notice how easily God becomes “angry” and “outraged”. Unlike other parts of the Hebrew Bible, God becomes angry exceedingly quickly. The world around me also becomes angry at the drop of a hat. I need God to be stable. In my own community, only last week, a man was beaten severely with a shovel. This was anger fueled by alcohol. In the same week, an angry man nearly beat his 13 year old son to death in an alcohol fueled rage. Anger is at home and abroad. I need God to be better than the anger I live with everyday. I don’t need to be lectured about God’s righteous anger. Anger and the desire for righteous anger (vengeance) are infecting my community. Scripture passages that speak of an angry God make me want to close my Bible. An angry God helps no one.

That’s what happens. God goes overboard. No dialogue, no discussion. Moses gets his committee but at what price? Has an angry God made anything better for anyone? God’s going to give them meat until they’re physically ill. God’s going to give them so much meat it’s going to be coming out their noses. “You want meat? I’m going to give you so much meat that when I’m through with you’ll never eat meat again.” Like a vindictive, abusive parent, God says, “now you’ve complained and now you have to feel some extreme form of punishment.” That’s a game I no longer want to play. I’m not sure I want to hang out with someone who plays mind games with the people He loves this way. Isn’t this the textbook definition of an abusive relationship? It’s sadistic and I hope to God that the God of Numbers 11 is not who God really is.

Food for Thought-7 Habits of Highly Annoying United Methodists on Social Media — September 21, 2015

Food for Thought-7 Habits of Highly Annoying United Methodists on Social Media


We all do these to some degree (regardless of faith tradition).  However, some seem to pop up worse than others.

1. Anne Lamott is like Marmite. You either love her or dislike her. Stop forcing her “wisdom” on everyone. Most of us have made up our minds by now.

2. We’ve all been on mission trips. We all have the same photographs of smiling United Methodists holding shovels or serving soup. I don’t need to see your pictures. I have my own.  I’m sure they are virtually identical.

3. Twitter debates about the minutiae in the Book of Discipline attract seekers to the United Methodist Church like tax cheats to IRS offices.

4. Don’t call yourself a monk unless you’re in a religious tradition that has monks and you take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

5. The joy, joy, joy I’ve got down in my heart today comes from a Vacation Bible School I attended 30 years ago, not the recycled quote from John Wesley (George Whitfield, CS Lewis, Charles Wesley, Mike Slaughter, or Leonard Sweet) you just shared.

6. Tweets and Facebook posts which mock our brothers and sisters in Christ (other mainline denominations) and act as if we’re the first denomination to ever face monumental social issues show how out of touch some of us really are.

7. The holiday season is approaching.  Advent is busy, Christmas is crazy, and life can get out of control. We know this. Find theologically appropriate ways to deal with it beyond acknowledging this shared and understood reality.

Food for Thought-Exploring the Messianic Secret (A Sermon on Mark 9:30-37) — September 19, 2015

Food for Thought-Exploring the Messianic Secret (A Sermon on Mark 9:30-37)


Rare book rooms and bookstores have the unique ability to tell the story of the peoples and cultures which created the books holding the knowledge they offer. It is as if they carry a wonderful secret. It’s not your typical secret. A secret no one is supposed to know. It is a secret, which if you reach for the book, can be yours. Once you read that book you become a guardian of its knowledge. You’ve been given a choice. I can hold onto this knowledge or I can share it at the right time and place.

You and I are privy to the “Messianic Secret”. That’s simply a fancy way of saying, “we know who Jesus is and what his ultimate reality will look like; to a degree.” This idea of a “secret”,Jesus’ true purpose an intent being hidden from most of the people Jesus encounters is one of the three dominant themes in the gospel of Mark. First, Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God. Second, he’s healing everybody in sight. Third, he’s got this secret about his identity and role as the Messiah. Those first two are easy to grasp. The third, we get but we don’t understand. Why would Jesus want to keep anything secret? Isn’t this the “Good News” we’re talking about? Why is Jesus so reluctant to spread the news about his impending death and resurrection? Doesn’t this run contrary to the idea of evangelism and witnessing? Like Jesus’ early followers, when first presented with this information, we don’t understand this “kind of talk” and were “afraid to ask him” about it. What are we missing? Obviously this plan makes sense to Jesus but runs so contrary to our own ideas of how to do things.

Jesus is aware that the content of his message of disturbing and unsettling. The ideas of death and resurrection aren’t concepts most people are comfortable confronting in their own lives. We are afraid of death. Violent death is drives our modern media. Jesus is talking about his own violent death at the hands of the legal authorities. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to be killed by the police”. That would make me uncomfortable.

When we do speak of death, we do it metaphorically. “He scared me to death!” “You’ll be the death of me!” Jesus’ move to the literal, a description of his own death at the hands of the authorities, confounds and confuses his disciples. Why would anyone be upfront about something so tragic? It’s a human tendency to look beyond such statements. We change the channel. We see this in the way our world confronts suicide and mental illness today. Statements like, “who knew he was so unhappy?” are all too common. Or, “we didn’t realize “that’s what he meant”. It’s much easier to ignore the references to death and move on. We pretend they didn’t occur and hope for the best down the road.

Jesus also knows this part of his message might impede his ministry. He knows about our aversion to confronting the reality of death. It’s possible, Jesus realizes, if people get too focused on “the Messianic secret” they might miss the big picture of the kingdom of God. Hence, you can’t let what’s going to occur at the end of the story dominate the overall message: Jesus is proclaiming God’s new way of doing business with humanity in the here and now. Nothing should get in the way of hearing and seeing the kingdom of God unfolding in the world. This “Messianic Secret” is what will make the unfolding Kingdom of God a permanent reality. The message is about how God is healing and changing lives in village after village. The message is about how God is out of the temple and come down to the dusty roads of the Galilee.

Are we like the finder of a rare book, trying to release knowledge into the world at the right time and place. Is the world ready for the information you’ve acquired? You need to be aware of your audience. If you’re not aware of others, you can’t share your words with anyone. An awareness of the world around you is central; if you want to take the knowledge of the kingdom of God and share it with others.

As the disciples approach Capernaum, they have lost all awareness of others. The world around them has faded out of views. They are arguing amongst themselves. When they are arguing with each other, how aware can they be of anyone else? They can’t. They are wrapped up in their own ideas of power and glory. Heaven is for no one else but them.

The disciples inwardly focused discussion on themselves renders them unable to respond to Jesus. Their own needs have left them unable to respond to Jesus. Have our own needs left us in a place where we’ve been deaf to Jesus’ call?

Jesus uses their argument to make a point about the message not about the secret. In this topsy-turvy kingdom which God is creating what we call first (by this he means given place of honor by virtue of money, power, birth, race) will to become last. And those who have historically been last (and by this he means neglected, forgotten, abused, rejected, humiliated) will be allowed to become first. In order to make this example, he asks a child to come and stand among them.

Small children were considered an economic liability, an extra mouth to feed. They were more likely to develop illness and die. Children had no rights in 1st Century society. Essentially, they were slaves. Jesus wasn’t being “cute” or trying to make a point about children. In this instance, a child was the “least” of these and standing in for all of those who had absolutely nothing.

The least, Jesus says, embody God. If you welcome what you see in the least you’re welcoming the physical and spiritual embodiment of God. This requires an awareness of the world around you and then all of a sudden you realize you are participating in the unfolding kingdom of God. You see God embodied in the most unlikely and unexpected of places. Our challenge is to start looking for God at work. Look outward, be aware, and prepare to be surprised.

Food for Thought-A Socialist Manifesto on United Methodist Capitalism — September 15, 2015

Food for Thought-A Socialist Manifesto on United Methodist Capitalism


1. Religious practice, in United Methodism (and other Protestant traditions) has become a tangible asset. Many forms of religious experience are treated like a tangible economic commodity to be packaged, branded, and sold.

2. A monetary-like value is attached to certain forms of religious expression and experience. These “valuable” experiences become the gold standard for determining the value of all other religious traditions, expressions, and experiences throughout the global religious marketplace.

3. As with the free-market capitalist system it mimics, competition for the most valuable resources leads to scarcity and uncontrollable market driven forces. Some churches are seen to “have” certain commodities and resources while others do not.

4. Churches with the majority of resources have the ability to define the value of the faith experience, thus monopolizing the ability to grow their churches even in a so called free-market religious environment. A small number of large churches determine the practices to be followed by denominations and churches all over the country.  This forces small churches to spend money they don’t have to keep up with new trends.  In many instances, the products which the new faith experiences are marketed and sold by the larger churches themselves.  Thus the resource and income gap grows wider.  As these trends quickly change, so does the need for small churches to spend more of their limited resources.

5. When the United Methodist Church is entangled with the status quo, one which treats faith as another socio-economic commodity, we cease all prophetic witness and ministry. We become mirrors for the income inequality and economic divisions demanding our prophetic voice.  How can we call out a system we’re helping to maintain?

6. The church is called to be a counter-cultural alternative to the consumer driven norms dominating our society. It doesn’t matter how wonderful our programs are if we’re implicated in the economic dysfunctions haunting America’s middle class.

7. The economic stratification our faith and religious resource inequality is destroying the church’s ability to witness to the love of Jesus Christ; not because God’s love requires money to be shared. Instead, our churches are churches are paying too many salaries for too many people who they’ve never met.

8. We’ve bought into the lies which say money feeds missions and Christian service costs money. How much did you spend on your last mission trip? Will the mission money be freed up from elsewhere if we weren’t marketing a product, fighting over distribution, and ultimately who will reap the profits? Someone always makes a profit from the product. If our religious practice has become a material commodity, who profits most. Who suffers? Whose voice is never heard?

9. Jesus rejected the wealth we seem bent on embracing.  His grant application process was notoriously brief.  What money came his way went back out again very quickly.

10. The packaging, branding and selling of his own religious tradition was of great concern to Jesus. Shouldn’t it be for us?

Food for Thought-You Mean Dying and Suffering, That’s the Good News (Mark 8:27-38) — September 12, 2015

Food for Thought-You Mean Dying and Suffering, That’s the Good News (Mark 8:27-38)


I do enjoy words. The right words, said in the right way, at the right time can change the world. From the right person telling you they love you to Winston Churchill telling the British people to “Never Surrender”, words have the power to inspire. You don’t need me to tell you that words also have the ability to harm, hurt, or destroy. In an age of instant communication, where words can be shared at the speed of thought, so can anger and rage. The wrong words, said in the wrong way, at the wrong time can also change the world. It’s too easy to say things to a keyboard we would never utter to another person’s face. You can’t hear or see someone’s state of mind, context, their emotions, or feelings when we hide behind computer screens. We only see their words. We see, and then interpret, what they say. What they meant becomes interwoven with “what we think they meant”.

Jesus wants to remove the filters separating himself from the crowds. No screen names, no applications, no devices, and no phones; Jesus wants to know from the people, “Who do they think he is?” He wants to know what people really think about what he’s up to. It’s customary in this era for a person like Jesus to be compared to other prophets from Israel’s glorious past. Those comparisons between then and now will tell us much about how they people of today understand who Jesus is and what they hope he will accomplish. They believe the past will inform the present. There is continuity in Israel’s prophetic life. To whom are they comparing Jesus?

The disciples tell him outright. The people we encounter are comparing you (Jesus) to an array of people. Some think you are the recently deceased John the Baptizer. Others see you as Elijah (from the distant past), while others view you as “one of the prophets”. Public consensus seems to be that Jesus is a dead man, newly returned to life.  Jesus is not dead. This is an important fact, especially for one of the points Jesus will make in a few moments. However, there seems to be swathe of public opinion that he is already a resurrected dead person; perhaps (i.e. Elijah) one who’s been dead for 800 years. John was a trailblazer, a man on fire for God. Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in the history of Israel. You would think to be compared to either of these men would be a great honor. In one way, these people are saying Jesus’ work is firmly in line with everything we know about the greatest men who stood up for God in Israel’s most challenging times.

However, there is a more subtle message at work. It is as if they’re saying, “Jesus is no more or no less than the best thing God’s ever done up to this point.” When asked who Jesus is, they are saying, Jesus is God’s recycled trophy because that’s as far as we can picture God going, that far and no further. Don’t you think that sells God short? Are we guilty of the same short sighted prophetic blindness? Talking about all the great things God has done in the past then asking, “This is where it ends?” Uttering, “What we have received is all that God can ever be.” That is the reasoning behind the answer which says Jesus is Elijah, John the Baptist, or another prophet. This answer says Jesus provides no new words to talk about God.

If that’s what the others believe, what do you believe? Jesus turns and says, “Tell me your words about me?” Who do you say I am? What do your words and experiences reveal to you? Peter seems to get it uncharacteristically right. You’re pretty cool Jesus. There’s no one quite like you. You’re not like the ones who came before. You’re a stand alone, unique figure in human history. Peter makes each of these statements by using only one word. One word says it all. One powerful all encompassing word: Christ.

But there’s something about that word Jesus doesn’t like. He gets the word, Jesus understands it, but he doesn’t want his disciples throwing the word around too loosely. It is as if, from what Jesus says, they may not fully understand the full implications of following one who is called the Christ. Being a Christ follower is serious business and comes with serious implications. It’s one thing if some people up in the backwoods of Galilee think you’re Elijah. After a bit of moonshine, they think any boat carrying more than two dogs is Noah’s ark.

Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “don’t get so worked up, this is just a week to week fantasy discipleship league.” The chief priests, scribes, and elders don’t care about our words. We’ll cash out and do it all again next week. These are Peter’s words.

Jesus responds so strongly because Peter doesn’t get the level of commitment Jesus is preparing to make and Peter will eventually be asked to offer. Peter earlier words are meaningless. He has no idea who Jesus is.

Jesus wants no ambiguity about what it means to be a Christ follower. That’s why, in these moments of exasperation, you’ll see him gather both disciples anyone else in earshot to listen. What follows are not secret teachings, Bible codes, hidden parables but the essence of the Gospel as the early church intended it to be heard. Jesus calls the “crowd together” and says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

The first step in becoming a Christ follower begins with saying a word of self-denial. A single word leads to a multitude of “should I, must I, is this, and may I” questions each and every day. A life of self-denial isn’t Lent on steroids. Do my words, choices, actions, habits, purchases, deny the living reality of a compassionate savior? If so, I need to modify those things, I need to deny what I’m doing because it’s ultimately denying the true identity of Christ.

Take up your cross. Like Jesus, we actively choose our destiny. No one puts us on a cross without our permission. We have a choice whether or not to follow Jesus. We aren’t passive victims in some cosmic conspiracy.

Go where Jesus goes and do what he does. When he’s teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum or feeding 5000 people, these seem like easy things to do. Following Jesus down a path of suffering and self-denial are less attractive options. These ugly options are the Good News. Dying and Suffering is what Jesus offers. Everything else is on Faith. That’s the deal.

All roads lead back to suffering and self denial. It’s not the path we’d prefer but it’s the one that’s been made ready. As we stare down this road, like Peter, we cannot imagine a crucified Messiah, a dead savior, and our part we might play in any grand plan. So we stop. We urge him to go no further. We stand in place. We cannot move. Now imagine a different story, a different, even daily ending. Where we moved down that road, to the cross each day and the suffering of those we encounter on the way to the cross is lessened, each day. In our suffering, others find relief. From self-denial others know abundance. From death, life emerges. All this happens on the way to death on the cross.   Sisters and Brothers, welcome home to the warm embrace of the counter intuitive Good News of Jesus the Christ.

Food for Thought-We’ve Made Jesus Into A Toy (Who Do You Say That I Am?) — September 10, 2015

Food for Thought-We’ve Made Jesus Into A Toy (Who Do You Say That I Am?)


Who do you say that I am? In our ongoing national and cultural debates about things being “Biblical” or “Christian” this seems to be the one question rarely asked. Who do you say Jesus is? If you can answer that question and do so honestly, the debates about what is “Biblical”, “Christian”, “United Methodist”, or “American” disappear with as much ferocity as they emerged. If you know who Jesus is, Jesus provides a way to answer every subsequent question. If you are heavily invested in the “Biblical”, “Christian”, “United Methodist”, or “American” debate you may not like Jesus’ means of arriving at the truth. His answers will appear to ignore the obvious geopolitical realities such as militant Islam, nuclear weapons in Iran, denominational decline, and rampant godlessness running across the fruited plain. Instead, Jesus will focus on love. His love extends to anyone and everyone despite our well-formed reasons to hate, kill, or excommunicate them. This is who Jesus is in relationship to who we are. Who we say he is and who we think Jesus is often has no bearing on the reality presented in scripture. Yet each and every day, we get away with stealing his identity, and passing off someone else as Jesus Christ.

Sometimes United Methodists call Jesus the “Book of Discipline”, sometimes to Americans Jesus is the “Stars and Stripes”, and sometimes we simply equate Jesus with the entirety of the “Bible” itself. When asked, who is he, how do we answer? Is Jesus an inanimate thing we put more faith into than the gospel writers depiction of the man himself? Sadly, for many Christians, Jesus is a toy. A bobble-head, an action figure, even a bumper sticker which reduces belief to love or hate principles easily digested and shared in one hundred forty characters or less. Like a flexible toy superhero, this Jesus can be what you want him to be at any point in time or space. Void of any connection to reality, his values are your values. Your mind is his mind. The holder of the toy, repeats the well-worn lines, calls out the catchphrases, and decides who can and cannot play with this most valuable of toys. Rowan County Kentucky Clerk of Court Kim Davis’ press conference following her release was case a prime example. Chanting over and over, “He is worthy!” Who was worthy Kim? Who? Jesus? God the Father of Jesus? Which Jesus? Which God? Your idea of Jesus? Your version of God? Who do you say is worthy? Who do you say that Jesus is?

Look at the Jesus toys crafted and sold by United Methodists. Our toys are nice, well mannered, and usually get along together. We try to put them away when we’re through playing. We’ve told the world, even if leave a bit of a mess, that’s ok. We call this “rethinking church”. However, all is not well. We are like a child with Asperger’s Syndrome playing beside someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s too easy (and too often) that things go horribly wrong when our Jesus is left out of place. Someone wants to take their Jesus toy and go home or play elsewhere.

Our toys may not be as aggressive but some can be as harmful to Christian community as anything implied by a fundamentalist. Is it any wonder people seem hesitant to come into our spiritual day care centers (i.e. churches) and be told by those already present how to properly play with the Jesus toys? It’s difficult for us to allow people to explore and find out who Jesus is without establishing parameters. How do we change our expectations and pose another question? Can we firmly identify what Jesus would not be? What Jesus would be against? Might we knock killing, fighting, war, violence, bigotry, racism, homophobia off that list? If we know who Jesus isn’t, we’ll begin to see a bit more clearly who he is. If he’s not those things, he’s certainly not like so many of us.

Food for Thought-Border Crossings with Jesus (A Sermon on Mark 7 and James 2) — September 5, 2015

Food for Thought-Border Crossings with Jesus (A Sermon on Mark 7 and James 2)

The Place Where I Got Off The Train in Serbia
The Place Where I Got Off The Train in Serbia

Mark 7:24-37

James 2:1-10, 14-17

There are hard sayings of Jesus. Then there are passages like this. This one is a hard passage of Jesus. There’s nothing easy, nice, warm, or fuzzy about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. This is why I think God works through the lectionary. I sometimes tremble at the power of the Holy Spirit working through these assigned texts. This week, of all weeks, we are given a passage about a foreign woman with a dying child willing to suffer great indignation and harm to save the life of her child. When we turn on our televisions, open our newspapers, and look at our computers we see children drowning in the Mediterranean, parents suffering the greatest indignations possible, and it is as if God is saying, right before our very eyes, what more do I need to do get you talk about and respond to what’s happening in the world around you? Just because they are not walking up on our lovely beaches (versus the lovely resort beaches of Greece and Turkey), doesn’t mean it’s not our concern as members of the church universal and this thing called the body of Christ.

Both the gospel and epistle lesson tell the story of the world we inhabit and offer guidance for how people of faith can move forward. James, in particular, is describing the church in his own day. When you read it, you can almost feel the tension. It is not because he’s that good of a story teller but because we know exactly what he’s talking about. We’ve lived through it, we’ve been there, done it, got the t-shirt, and for some of us, we know we need call a meeting with God about our actions.

James sets a definite cultural, social, economic, and religious scenario. Two people come to our church. One is dressed very well with gold rings and in the finest clothes. The other person is in rags. How do you treat that person? Of course, you say, we’re not going to treat them any differently. Each person would be equally welcome. No one will openly admit to favoritism. That’s our assumption. What if that person sits on your favorite seat? What if they reek of alcohol and body odor? What if they don’t speak English? And the English they do know is littered with expletives? Would you then start to think, “This is a little uncomfortable?” Would you then start to think, “Maybe they have a service where they speak their language?” Might you look for a translator to say, “This is my seat?”

In theory, we’re not going to fall into James’ trap of playing favorites until our comfort zones get invaded. When our comfort zones get challenged we have to ask ourselves, is this stuff we say we believe really what we believe? This is what’s been happening all week in Europe. Comfort zones have been challenged. On the border between Hungary and Serbia, in the waters off Greece, and in some far away tavern in Tyre where Jesus was having a moment of Sabbath; human constructed comfort zones have been challenged by the invading and challenging power of almighty God. A power, asking in no uncertain terms, will you let my grace go to work on people in great need. People, James says, “that God has chosen as the heirs of his kingdom.”

The Syrophoenician woman simply wanted the same respect and love that Jesus offered to God’s Israelite children. Mark tells us the story to say to us that even Jesus needed to be reminded God’s grace is not bound by ethnicity, race, or gender. God’s love transcends all existing boundaries. Name a boundary, God’s love jumps. Build a wall, God’s love will go around it.

I once walked from Serbia to Hungary. I was using the bathroom on the Serbian side of the border and the Hungarian train left me. I think I a drink purchase might have been involved as well. This was in 1994. The Serb border guards said if I walked fast enough, I could catch the train at the first station inside Hungary. The Hungarian guards would have to check the passports of everyone on the train. This might buy me some time. So I walked. It was June. I had luggage and I was hot. I knew I could get on another train somewhere along the way. I needed to get to Budapest so I walked to the Serbian checkpoint. It wasn’t that far, the actual international border, between the fences was maybe 6 miles. I can’t imagine doing it with children, fleeing a war or with everything I own on my back. I wondered, as watched people on those same rail lines this week, where was the kingdom of God breaking through.

It’s breaking through in the actions of those trying to help the most vulnerable people. Those who’ve given the refugees water, food, and supplies are the visible evidence of God at work amidst the chaos.

James says it is one thing to tell people to “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal! What good is it if you don’t give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity?”

What can we do? We can begin to move beyond our comfort zones. We can start by asking this question. What would it be like if when people considered generosity (of all shapes and sizes) on this island said, “Those Methodists are the most generous people around.” Or if we begin hearing expressions like, “that sure is a Methodist thing to do.” I heard that often this summer when I was passing out water at the ferry docks. Do you know how proud that made me? I’d like to hear that about everything we do as a community.

God is breaking through amidst the chaos of our lives. There are ways we can respond and I’m not just speaking about refugees in Europe, I’m talking about the refugees from post-modern culture who wander roads of this island. Young people whose live are dominated by little more than video games and casual substance abuse on weekends. They are refugees as well. People need the church. They don’t need us to tell them they’re going to hell or tell them how sinful they are. They need us to do something for them. We do these things together. We give of our lived out faith not of our shallow words, says James. We must remove the self-imposed limits on how God works and allow the Holy Spirit to take charge of what we think we’re about to do.

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