The Three Word Pentecost Sermon (1 Corinthians 12:3-13)

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Pentecost is Pentecost. There are tongues of fire. The Holy Spirit is no longer a transient visitor. Jesus’ promise appears to be finally fulfilled. As with our yearly Christmas texts and Easter texts, Acts 2:1-21 comes right on schedule. Unlike the disciples, no matter how often we proclaim ourselves to be a Pentecost people; we are never taken by surprise. We know what we’re getting on Pentecost morning. Peter and the eleven are mistaken for a group of bumbling, drunken Galilean fishermen, who play a little fast and loose with a Joel quote from the Septuagint, and end up speaking something that sounds like Latin to the Romans, Greek to the Cretans, and Arabic to the Arabians. That’s Pentecost for Methodists. No surprises. No windows are broken, no tongues of fire are seen, and none of us will be confused for drunken fishermen. Pentecost, like every other Sunday, will be an orderly affair with red paraments, red flowers on the altar, and who knows, I might even wear a red stole. Our Pentecost will be nothing like the first Pentecost, and that, my friends, will be our loss. If we need anything, we need some of the unstructured spirit-driven informality.

Paul also writes at length about the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Unlike the day of Pentecost, where the crowd only assumed Peter was high on hooch, people showed up to the Eucharist drunk in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11: 20-22). Paul wanted to refocus the Corinthians’ attention on the Holy Spirit, not the consumable, alcoholic spirits. He segues from talking about people being carried out of church because they’re too drunk to walk to make this statement: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” He’s about to launch into an extended discussion as to how the spirit equips people with different gifts for ministry. Paul wants everyone to know we’re all not gifted to play quarterback. Somebody has to be the water boy, someone is the coach, while others are on the sidelines drawing up plays or cheering on the team. Everyone has a unique role to play as defined by the spirit. We get that part. That may be the easiest part of any of Paul’s letters to grasp. We’ve known this idea since we were kids in little league. I’m more interested in that first sentence; we cannot proclaim Jesus as Lord except by the Holy Spirit. What does he mean?

We can say, “Jesus is Lord” as easily as we make any offhand comment about anything or anyone. We can say it three times fast, repeat it like a mantra or prayer, shout it out loud, or whisper it under our breath. Paul seems to indicate this confession of faith means little unless it’s done in the right spirit, with the right focus, and directed toward the right priority. That’s where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes in. Unlike the flash-bang Hollywood special effects we read about in Acts 2, Paul paints a more subdued but equally important image of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. The Spirit is that which gives our confession meaning, direction, and priority. Without the Spirit, “Jesus is Lord” are three words. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit does more than enliven our worship. The Spirit points us where, when, how, and with whom to serve. With the Spirit, we are directed outward from our safe spaces toward sometimes uncomfortable places of service, helped to prioritize how, when, and where to build the kingdom of God on Earth and create meaning in a world that thrives on meaninglessness. Our sermon need not be long. We only need three words but we must have the Holy Spirit to connect God’s vision with God’s people.

–Richard Bryant

Inerrancy and Christian Nationalism: You Can’t Have One Without the Other

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Scriptural authority: two words driving the disaffiliation crisis. Methodists who advocate for denominational unity are depicted as God-less liberals, believers who don’t really believe, and woke zombies with no respect for the word of God. Yet, informed by centuries of historical, archaeological, literary criticism, and classical scholarship, countless Christians reject appeals to scriptural authority.

The term “scriptural authority” is simply another way to say the Bible is inerrant. This idea lies at the heart of America’s political polarization and democratic decline. So, how does the intersection of Biblical inerrancy and Christian nationalism undermine democracy and Christianity? First, it’s essential to define our terms.

Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is without error. The Biblical text must be read and interpreted literally. Many conservative Christians in the United States and worldwide hold to some form of this doctrine and see the Bible as God’s authoritative and infallible word for all aspects of life.

What is Christian nationalism? It is an old idea, an AR-15 held by a man in a tactical vest outside a polling place, mobs carrying the Christian flag, a fiery sermon, a speech on the floor of the US Congress, and more. It is a movement once considered part of the right-wing fringe now normalized in large swathes of American evangelical culture. Christian nationalism is a political ideology trying to change American society by legislating civil and criminal laws inspired by an ahistorical interpretation of America’s founding narrative, a literalist interpretation of scripture, and advocating for an oversized role for religion in political life.  Recent debates, notably at the state level, concerning abortion access illustrate this intersection between faith, scripture, nationalism, and politics. Christian nationalists often claim that America is and must remain a “Christian nation” based on their interpretation of scripture and the country’s history when making public policy and writing new laws.

Biblical inerrancy feeds Christian nationalist ideology because it fosters the same rigid attitude that rejects diversity and pluralism. Biblical inerrancy leads to problematic conclusions – a distorted view of reality, a divisive view of society, and a dangerous view of political authority.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of polarization.

Christian nationalists, fueled by their understanding of inerrancy, tend to see themselves as God’s chosen people, and thus called to defend the United States (and their denomination) against God’s enemies. Unfortunately, these enemies often include those they identify as progressives, persons of other faiths, LGBTQ+ people, or anyone else who does not conform to their Biblical, moral, or political agenda.  This creates a hostile and intolerant atmosphere that undermines social cohesion – or, as some define it, the woke versus everyone else.

Biblical inerrancy is one of the primary foundations of Christian nationalism because it justifies a mindset that encourages Christians to reject pluralism and, ultimately, democracy. By holding a corrupted view of reality, a conflict-driven perspective on society, and an unhealthy vision of (scriptural and political) authority, Christian nationalists who accept Biblical inerrancy undermine the common good, endanger the nation, and willingly contribute to destroying America’s democratic and denominational fabric.

I reject the cult of Biblical inerrancy and all its accompanying theocratic political baggage. Academically, it cannot be defended. Politically, it inspires fear. The trauma it has created is too significant, and its overall threat to society can no longer be ignored. We will become a smaller denomination when United Methodists stop reading the Bible through the distorted lens of brutality and discrimination to pursue political holiness. So be it. To paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick, “The fundamentalists shall not win.” The future is too important. Who among us is willing to tell them no?

–Richard Bryant

Gardens of Stone

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Shortly after sunrise, I walk through our church’s cemetery each morning. I look forward to my daily walk. It has become central to my routine, and I miss it if I don’t get to walk on any given day.

This is the best time to walk among the monuments to the dead. At that time of day, it’s usually just me on the path, maybe a few deer, and the road in front of the church is quiet. The commuters are still about half an hour from leaving their drives.

Because I take this walk every day and have for almost two years, I know these stones and the names engraved upon them very well. I know who rests where, the husbands and their wives when they lived when they died, who was a veteran, who died young, who lived full lives, and even a few who died from the Spanish flu over a hundred years ago. In a way, they have become my friends. I look forward to seeing them each morning. I greet them as I approach the cemetery’s edge and wish them a “Good Morning.” I am still waiting for someone to return my greetings, but I feel no reason not to be polite. These are also my parishioners. They live beyond the sanctuary walls and inhabit our memories and minds instead of seats and pews. 

The springtime and Easter flower arrangements decorating the tops and fronts of some headstones add color to the otherwise gray rows of stones. It’s nice to see who’s been by and had their family pay a recent visit. I wonder how this makes the deceased feel. Do they feel proud that someone cares enough to place an arrangement by their headstone? Are they watching their remains decay in the red clay of central North Carolina? Perhaps they’re distracted by some erupting supernova or another cosmic delicacy we mere mortals cannot imagine. These are the questions I ask myself on my morning walk.

This morning I noticed a new stone where previously only a ground marker lay. A darker stone depicted a man fly fishing on one side while sharing his name, birth date, and date of death on the adjacent side. He died too young. On the opposite side depicting the fly fisherman, someone had left a pair of flip-flops and sunglasses on the bottom ledge of the stone. I’m always amazed at what gets left by stones in cemeteries (not just ours but the tradition in general). It’s a practice that links us back to our most ancient ancestors when we began burying each other some 50,000 years ago. There’s nothing explicitly Christian about this practice. In the West, we see it most noticeably practiced in Egypt, where the Pharaoh’s tombs were stuffed with objects they were thought to need to make their way to then survive in the afterlife. Those flip-flops and sunglasses were a bit of ancient Egyptian mythology and prehistoric burial practice that came to life on a Thursday morning in 2023. As advanced as we think we are, we’re not all that different from our ancestors regarding death and burial rituals. Our liturgy is Christian. The scriptures we quote are Judeo-Christian. However, we’re still the same scared, frightened creatures looking for the same existential answers that we were when we first started asking the most important questions any human has ever asked, “What comes next?”

By the way, please don’t leave any of my things outside when it comes my time. Just cremate me and keep my shoes, socks, glasses, and fountain pens inside the house. I don’t need or want a stone. If you meet a band of roving Vikings, let them do the funeral. Tell them I want the Viking Funeral special. They’ll know what to do. Then ask them to coordinate the reception. It will be a blast! I’ll be looking on from Valhalla, ensuring my belongings aren’t exposed to the elements. 

–Richard Bryant

Jet-Pack Jesus – Ascension Day Reflections

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Christianity is the only major world religion built around creeds and statements of faith. We require a litmus test before you can join the club. Think about that for a moment. God’s grace is free and open to everyone as long as you can agree with our belief paragraph.

We stand alone with our creedal tradition. How did we get this way?

In the early 4th century, when Christianity was legalized, and the Roman Empire’s official religion, the church’s bishops (under Constantine’s guidance) felt the need to standardize the hodgepodge of creeds into a formal statement of faith. Every local congregation from Jerusalem to Antioch and Alexandria to Ephesus used slightly different versions of declarations and statements of faith. This presented a problem for the early church. When trying to stomp out heresies, such as Arianism and the like, variations in belief are often where the seeds of heterodoxy were planted. One way to get ahead of the heretical curve would be for the bishops to issue a definitive statement of faith, a creed, to define what all churches must profess to be considered orthodox and in good standing with the bishops in Constantinople and Rome.

The Apostles’ Creed descends from a creed used by the early church in Rome, unknown to the Greek church in the east. It probably originated about the same time as the first Nicene Council in 325. However, the Creed of Constantinople, which we now call the Nicene Creed, became the church’s official version in 381 CE. For those of you counting, it took the church three hundred and fifty-eight years to summarize its fundamental theological and Christological beliefs about Jesus into one paragraph. Change comes slowly around these parts. No one who wrote that paragraph knew Jesus, saw Jesus, lived with Jesus, or had any more personal contact with Jesus than we do. Those who wrote the creeds barely had what we would call a New Testament today.

Remember, the men who called themselves Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their stories of Jesus thirty to sixty years after his death. Memories fade, especially in parts of the world where the average lifespan of an adult male in first-century Palestine was 37. The gospel writers authored stories based on memory, myth, history, tradition, and lore. It’s on these sources that three hundred-plus years later, the creed writers tried to distill the essential parts of Christian belief into a single paragraph. What a monumental task! Given the historical and theological contradictions in the New Testament text, one starts to wonder whether those who compiled the creed are asking us to believe in the right things. For instance, should they have included the greatest commandment over the ascension?

There are two accounts of the Ascension in the four gospels, which are wildly different. In Matthew’s version (often referred to as the Great Commission) 28:16-20, Jesus’ disciples are instructed to meet him on a mountain in Galilee on Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection. He gives them authority to baptize and make disciples of all nations. And with that, the resurrected Jesus vanished from the stage of human history. Mark and John lack Ascension stories, so we go to Luke.

Luke’s first version is (24:50-53) immediately following the Emmaus Road encounter. Again, on the day of resurrection, near Bethany (close to Jerusalem, not Galilee), Jesus offers a final blessing to the disciples he’s encountered. As he’s blessing them, he’s taken up to heaven. Let me emphasize; Luke says this is on the day of resurrection.

Luke’s second account, in Acts 1:3, we’re told that Jesus stayed with the disciples for 40 days with them in Jerusalem (eating with them and instructing them to wait on the baptism of the Holy Spirit). Then, after 40 days, they went outside the city (1:9), and “he was taken up before their eyes, and a cloud him from their sight.”

Which ascension are we supposed to believe in? Luke couldn’t even get his own story straight. If you’re going to lie, at least be consistent. We put something in the creed that the one author who wrote about it twice couldn’t get it right. Red flags anyone?

To understand what we’re assenting to when we recite, we must understand what and how the first century understood concepts like death, resurrection, and dying and rising Gods. Of all the crazy things we do and say each week, asking people to profess belief in a jet-pack Jesus who lifted off and flew back into heaven is the one that bothers me most. I’m not sure anyone in the first century literally believed Jesus up and flew away. People who grew up in an environment saturated with gods and goddesses had a more refined sense of metaphor and myth. I’m with Rudolf Bultmann here.

I don’t believe in a flying Jesus, a rocket man. I don’t think Luke did either. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, talking about jet-pack Jesus as one of the things we’ve got to believe in to be Christian. And this Sunday, Ascension Sunday, we’ll do it again because that’s just what you do.  

–Richard Bryant

The First Disunited Disaffiliated Church of the AR-15

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Paula Reid (CNN Anchor): Many people argue that prayers aren’t cutting it.
US Representative Keith Self (R-TX 3): Well, those are people that don’t believe in an almighty God who has, who is absolutely in control of our lives.
May 6, 2023, 7:37 PM

“There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to solve.” – Miroslav Volf

There are over 30,000 verses in the Bible.  I’ve read all of them (at times) in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and English. So, finally, I’m ready to make a declaration. I’m sick of the killing and the violence. Whether it’s at outlet malls, schools, or in Canaan. I will no longer be an apologist for a violent, war-making God. Especially when the only response so many of my Christian brothers and sisters can offer to the epidemic of gun violence and subsequent child sacrifice it entails are “thoughts and prayers.” I also refuse to be told to be considered a Christian; I must believe in the evangelical version of an “almighty God” who answers all prayers in ways other than the common sense we could answer them for ourselves: make fewer guns available to fewer people. I am done. I refuse to believe in a God with so little respect for my life or the lives of others. I refuse to defend a God in public prayers, sermons, or as a pastor, who can only intervene to stop the slow-rolling massacre of humanity after the ineffectual prayers we mutter over the bullet-riddled bodies of children.

It is past time we stop killing each other. This level of violence is a spiritual, emotional, mental, and political problem. Each component plays a role in escalating the violence in outlet malls, elementary schools, grocery stores, and city streets. They cannot be separated from each other. Common sense gun reform must be undertaken to combat white nationalist extremist philosophies and ongoing mental health crises. Nothing can be done in isolation. Law enforcement, clergy, social workers, mental health professionals, and neighbors must work together to stop the murder on our streets.

We can stop this chaos, but it won’t be stopped with our thoughts and prayers, no matter how almighty we believe God to be. The almighty God of the Old Testament instructed Israelite men to kill the Canaanite men who inhabited the other lands they invaded. God’s chosen were directed to kidnap and rape non-Israelite virgins, co-opting into sexual slavery. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) The almighty God we expect to stop this wanton slaughter on our streets has a long history of violence. In 1st Chronicles 22, God uses pestilence (what we would call biological warfare) to kill 70,000 people in support of David’s efforts to carry out a census. Today, we’d call these actions war crimes.

Russian Orthodox priests use Biblical passages like these to justify the atrocities of the Russian army in Ukraine. This isn’t a theoretical argument about the primacy of scriptural authority or how middle-class conservatives and liberals in America regard the Bible. This is not about certain passages being inconvenient to our political sensibilities, woke, or hot button issues in America’s faux culture wars. People who take the Old Testament literally today are using it to justify genocide in Europe. Innocent Americans are dying while our “Rome” burns. I’m not sure this Almighty God is the God we need to pray to save our children from the weapons of war that find their way into the hands of those intent on mass murder (or stop Vladimir Putin). Are we, in fact, praying for more death? Given what we see week in and week out and the growing body count, it would seem so. Our prayers are falling on deaf divine ears.

I refuse to live or die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Jesus told his disciples not to carry weapons. I count myself as one of his followers, so I’ve resisted the urge to buy a Sig Sauer, M-4, or an AR.

I will no longer tie myself up in knots to explain away the violence inherent in the Old Testament to make the Almighty, who condones dashing babies’ heads against rocks, jive with a loving savior who tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I can’t do it anymore. This doesn’t mean I’m a snowflake liberal on scriptural authority. It means I’ve given up on making death and the Bible fit with a 21st-century ethic of life. It means I’m human. Call me names, but to quote Captain Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” All I know is the status quo isn’t working and the killing must end. Prayer won’t stop bullets. Prayer will comfort the grieving, but if that’s all we can do, we should admit it: we worship guns and violence, not a nonviolent Savior.

So change the signs as we drop the “United” from our name. Instead, why not add something that says, “Welcome to the First Disunited Disaffiliated Church of the AR-15.” Then, at least, we would be honest.

–Richard Bryant

If They Don’t Have Hot Sauce in Heaven Then I’m Probably in Hell

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I love to eat. When I die, I want the afterlife to include homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, Neese’s sausage, fresh eggs, and hot sauce. I will know I’ve gone to Hell if that’s not waiting for me on the eternal buffet bar. Good food is essential to me. If I’m going to eat, whether at home or in a restaurant, I want to enjoy the experience. Who doesn’t? I choose my covered dish dinners from the church and the culinary reputations of their United Methodist women’s group. Why bother to go if you know they use inferior green beans and generic French onion soup mix for their casseroles?

So, how do I describe my culinary experiences? Over many years and countless church suppers, I have developed a complex system of responses to rate meals and religious dining encounters. Granted, I’m not a professional food critic. I’m a sanctified redneck with an overpriced education and refined tastes. With that in mind, here’s my scale of rating covered dish meals.

  1. Not too bad: (translation: I’ve died and gone to heaven.)
  2. That was pretty good. (translation: Baby, you’ve outdone yourself.)
  3. I liked it. (translation: It was almost as good as my grandmother’s.)
  4. I might have a bit more. (translation: I could survive on this through the apocalypse with salt and a little hot sauce.
  5. That was all right. (translation: thank you for making an effort to try and follow a recipe. I applaud your ability to read English.
  6. Mmmm. (translation: I don’t think I’d do that again.)
  7. I’m not sure I can put a finger on what was in that stew. (translation: let’s have les Brunswick and more stew.)
  8. You know it! (translation: please don’t make me eat anymore. I will die.)
  9. I’m full. (translation: can we stop by the gas station and buy a hot dog on the way home?)
  10. I love it. (translation: that was the worst meal I’ve ever eaten.)

–Richard Bryant

The Wal-Mart Blues

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Beer bellies and bad tattoos,
26 check-out lines and just two a-workin’,
I got the Wal-Mart blues,
Flip-flops malfunctioning,
You don’t need no shoes,
Keep on walkin’,
I got the Wal-Mart Blues,
Leave your cart in the space I’m parkin’,
Cut me off while I choose,
The biscuit I’d be eatin’,
I got the Wal-Mart blues,
Customer service manager smirkin’,
When I tell her the news,
My lawn mower ain’t startin’,
I got the Wal-Mart blues,
All over searchin’,
The automotive center for clues,
Bald heads with pony tails lurkin’
I got the Wal-Mart blues,
The register ain’t checkin’
Dude on steroids tries to schomooze,
The cute pharmacist who just started workin’
And I still got the Wal-Mart blues.

–Richard Bryant

The Loneliness Epidemic

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It’s getting to the point,
Where I’m no fun anymore,
I am sorry,
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud,
I am lonely.

-Stephen Stills “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”

One of our time’s most significant spiritual and emotional challenges is loneliness. That may seem strange to say. There is an epidemic of gun violence in our country. There is a horrible land war in Europe. One of the largest countries in Africa is falling into a civil war, bringing instability and refugees throughout East Africa and the Middle East. The United States, China, and Russia seem bent on barreling toward another Cold War despite everything we learned about the futility of mutually assured destruction and that most of the former Soviet Union has yet to recover from being the Soviet Union. Despite these facts, loneliness is as great an immediate threat to millions of Americans, if not more so, than Vladimir Putin, China’s balloons, or a collapsing bank.

People rarely admit to their loneliness or come right out and say, “I am lonely.” To say one is lonely is often viewed as a tacit admission of personal failure. So instead, you’ll hear people say, “I’m having trouble keeping up,” or “These burdens I’m carrying are too much,” and “I don’t know what to do.” Undergirding each of those expressions is a sense of isolation. The person in question has no one other than themselves to talk with, share with, and carry life’s most important decisions. Regardless of their circumstances, loneliness is the eventual byproduct of such isolation. They believe and often do have no one (family, friends, or other relationships) to whom they can turn in times of crisis. Our society has stigmatized loneliness as it has depression. It’s okay to say you are lonely. It is okay to reach out for a relationship. Humanity is hard-wired for connection. To deny this reality is to deny the most fundamental part of our being.

Change is a constant in our lives. We know this.  In the past three years, since COVID virus became a way of life, change has become even more dominant in how we see our lives and the world. Nothing remains the same. Church has forever altered into a hybrid model that will never return to the traditional 11:00 version we knew in 2019. Jobs that existed before the pandemic are gone forever. Millions of lives were lost. Our entire world was turned upside down. No wonder people feel lonely and discombobulated. What can we do?

I was inspired by this past week’s reading from Acts 2. It’s a reading that speaks out loud as an antidote to loneliness.  See for yourself, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate the food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” The words “together,” “temple,” “they,” “ate,” “glad,” and “all the people” jumped off the page. People who are together in the temple, eating together with people, are glad and are much less likely to be lonely. So, there are solutions to our loneliness epidemic embedded in Acts 2:46. Community and relationships are the building blocks to addressing loneliness.

Specifically, how might “community” and “relationships” shape our lives? First, make 15 minutes for someone else. Or ask for 15 minutes for someone else. Then, even if you can’t talk to someone for 15 minutes, tell them you will call them back later in the day and give them your promise. Make contact. You have no idea what that promise means to someone plumbing the depths of loneliness. Do this every day. Someone you know is lonely and needs to hear a voice, specifically, your voice.

We should give them our full attention when talking to lonely people. Don’t be distracted by our phones or the time. Please give them your undivided attention. They deserve your best. Make this a golden rule moment. If you were lonely, how would you want to be treated?

Radical hospitality is a buzzword in United Methodism. We want our churches to be welcoming and hospitable places. We conceive of hospitality in institutional terms. Hospitality is not unique to Christian communities. Whether you are in a mosque, temple, synagogue, or a book club; you have a responsibility to be welcoming. However, it is also something we can extend and manifest as individuals. People can always be more welcoming to other people. This is one way all of us can work to address the loneliness epidemic. Are we friendly? Are we approachable? Are we looking for those outliers who say their burdens are more than they can handle? In short, do we see the world through the eyes of relationships, hospitality, and human connection?

Loneliness, like depression, will not go away overnight. However, there are ways we, as people of faith, can help the world feel less isolated, alone, and vulnerable in this season of constant change.

–Richard Bryant