Food for Thought-A Funeral Sermon

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Death forces us to ask difficult questions. Like the distorted reflection of an itinerant alchemist, death calls us to combine the most precious elements of life to make something we do not want to believe can or will ever exist; the finality of our mortal lives. Unlike the alchemist, vainly hoping to turn base metals into gold, year after year, we are never surprised or overjoyed at our eventual success. The inevitability of this moment, while so real in theory, is so foreign in practice. Death wasn’t supposed to come to us, today, or ever.  Most of us, rightly or wrong, live as if death is something that happens to other people.  Tonight, this delusion, rooted so firmly in visions of our own temporary immortality, is gone forever.

Why? Why did Jolene die? I cannot answer that question. No one can. Doctors can offer immediate causes. Despite our best intentions, our plans, our money, our efforts, or anything else we can’t know why now. Why now, at this place, and at this time, these are questions no one can possibly answer. However, I can say this: there is not a book, a plan, a decision making process where the creator of the universe simply decides “it’s time to call us home”. You and I don’t have countdown timers on our lives and when the time is up, God dials a number, and we get called to “a better place”. God doesn’t have a human resources department who calls him up multiple times a day, when people die in accidents in North Carolina or war in Syria and says, “Lord, we have need of new people (or angels) in heaven.” People don’t die because God “needs” people in heaven. You may think it makes people feel better to say things like that but it doesn’t. I don’t know much about death but I do know that.

In the world God created, a world of sunsets, home runs, apple pie, and snow flakes we also we received childhood cancers, tragedies, and senseless killings.  Life came with death.  Eventually, God was forced to come to terms with the reality of death in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you believe as Christians do, God allowed himself to die on a cross. The only way to conquer death was by facing death itself. This wasn’t the appearance of death, this was what you have come to know all too well. So begins the essence of the Christian message.

At the end of Mark’s gospel, two women go to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. Mark, ever the storyteller, leaves the reader with the one of the great cliffhangers of western civilization. The reader is only told the body is gone. “He’s not here,” says a young man. There is no resurrected Jesus who appears to the disciples. There is only the absence of a body and an empty tomb. Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the four stories of Jesus’ life and work and probably the most accurate. It has always amazed me that in this gospel, the first sign of the resurrection is not a body, or a resurrected Jesus, but the absence of a body, the absence of life. Jesus’ absence is the first indication that resurrection is a reality. Absence is the beginning of resurrection. Absence is a sign that death, as we have defined it, isn’t as powerful as we once believed.

This evening, acknowledging Jolene’s absence, we stand in the presence of the resurrection and the life. There is something unfinished about the word absence. The lingering second syllable leaves open the possibility of fulfillment and return. Absence is underscored, however faintly, by the idea of hope. The dangling strands of absence, dancing about our days, are waiting to be brought together. What will you do with yours? Will you weave them together in the hope of life beyond life, living each day to its fullest, in strands of love and compassion which honor Jolene?

Food for Thought-How Often Would Jesus Have…

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1. Checked his email…he didn’t have email. If so, maybe once or twice a day.  I can’t see him chained to his desktop, laptop, or mobile device.  Can you?
2. Prioritized his day…Jesus didn’t know the meaning of triage; he removed obvious distractions and met with everyone.
3. Checked his Facebook page…again no Facebook in first century Galilee. Maybe of a couple of times of day at most. Jesus liked to rely on word of mouth information. His core audience wouldn’t be likely to be able to check their phones or computers for updates on a regular basis.
4. Spent time alone…at least once or twice a day. Jesus knew when he needed to step back, be alone, recharge, and regroup.
5. Eaten with other people…Jesus never ate alone. Community wasn’t a buzz word. It was a reality. Meals were events, people sharing, preparing, eating, and being together. There is spiritual value in the act of eating a meal together.
6. Have taken pictures…all the time. I can see Jesus with a small digital camera taking pictures of everyone he meets. Would these go on Facebook or Instagram, I don’t know?  I think they’re more likely on the divine hard drive we call creation.

Food for Thought-5 Good Ideas for Today June 25th, 2015

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1. Watch someone be amazed at something you take for granted. What does this remind you about joy?
2. Are there myths you are accepting as reality? What happens if you examine the myth? How can your reality change for the better?
3. Does fear, boredom, or negative inertia drive you to act in ways that aren’t courteous, kind, or filled with empathy? How can you redirect the negative inertia in you life?
4. Create a “To Don’t” list to go with you “To Do” list. What are the habits, thought patterns, and emotions which might fill such a list?
5. Is hope an open-ended grasp at an unseen future, or is it a something you can help forge and create for yourself and others?

Life is a whirlwind of change and many emotions.  Please remember, that in the middle of everything you face, you are loved. ‪

Food for Thought-Richard’s Take on Marriage Vows

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In my ongoing reflection of the premarital counseling process, I want to say a word about “the vows”.  A few years ago, I started affording people the opportunity to write their own vows.  You can thank television for this decision.  That’s how they do it on TV.  Name me a popular sitcom in the past 15-20 years where the love interests don’t spend an episode trying to “write their vows”?  The guy can’t do it, because guys don’t write touchy emotional stuff.  Watching football, drinking beer, they wait until the last minute before trying extemporize their feelings.  The woman writes a sequel to war and peace.  Hilarity ensues.  People came to me wanting to duplicate this experience.  I began to offer and mention the possibility of writing vows early on the counseling process.  Most couples don’t go this route.  They are comfortable with and drawn to the traditional language of “having and holding”.

Writing your vows isn’t a bad exercise, even if you don’t intend use them.  You do, however, force yourself to think about the promises you’re making.  The act of putting pen to paper gives one pause to think, “What am I committing to in front of God and these other people?”

If I had to rewrite the marriage vows of the United Methodist Church to reflect what I’ve learned in my own life and 16 years of full time ministry, this is what I would say:

Do you take this person…
In their bad habits,
In their annoying moments,
With their pre-existing baggage,
In times when they will let you down
In times when emotional distance is a frightening reality,
In times where you cannot deny their abundant imperfections,
In times when they say the dumbest, most hurtful, careless things,
In times when you have to look through couch cushions for money,
In those times that your body and mind cease to work at all,
-as long as you both shall live?

Food for Thought-Dying Was Possibly Part of the Deal

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Dying was possibly,
Part of the deal,
When I signed up,
To follow Jesus,
Not for meetings,
To hear people squeal,
At mediocre praise choruses,
And marvel at sound bites poorly delivered,
but to die,
if need be,
part of following Jesus,
is being called to die,
that’s one the big reasons,
we knew it when,
we knew it then,
martyrdom was what he asked,
to bear a cross,
and die with him,
it’s become too easy,
to live this,
Americanized sin,
21st century Christianity,
Sanitized worship,
A deodorized Jesus,
No different from Santa Claus,
Where no one remembers,
Or gives a moments pause,
At what he said,
Or what he taught,
How he lived,
From the day he commenced,
Forgive and you will die,
The kingdom of heaven,
Making no earthly sense.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-This Is Why I’m Frightened, Jesus (Reflections on Mark 4:35-41)

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The disciples are in a serious storm, somewhere in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. This is a real storm. While countless preachers will turn this real world meteorological event into a metaphorical moment, Mark is seeking to describe a moment when an actual boat is about to sink. The disciples feared for their lives. The boat in question wasn’t their “lives” in the sense of an overwhelming sense of obligations, stress, and financial debt, addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. They were in a sinking boat. Jesus, also a passenger in this boat, seemed oblivious to the danger. It was as if he didn’t care if they (or he) lived or died. Recognizing this fear, he posed a question, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

I want to step back from the inevitable boat metaphors and storm analogies. It’s Jesus’ question that I want to try and answer. May I, as a Christian, preacher, teacher, trained theologian, believer, and imperfect follower of the Christ try to answer the question he posed?

I’m frightened because of the world we live in. I’m frightened because I live in a world where people can be minding their own business, having a Bible study on a Wednesday night (as I often do), and be murdered in their church. Point blank Jesus, this is why I’m frightened. I’m frightened because the world remains in a perpetual state of war. I’m frightened because of the blame everyone is willing to place on each other while no one is willing to look toward you for honest answers. I’m frightened, not because of some natural phenomena, but because I know how easy it is to be killed for being a Christian or a pastor in this sometimes hateful world we call home.

Yes, I have faith. And sometimes, it’s shaken when people get killed for no reason at all. It gets shaken because I am normal human being. I’d be worried if my faith wasn’t tested by these recent events. But I have faith, Jesus, I have faith. I will continue to have faith.   It may be faith with scars, bruises, and dings but Jesus; I will have faith.