Hospitality – September 1, 2019

This past Sunday we had some technical issues that led to us not being able to post a video of the sermon. For those who may not know, I write my sermons in script – not typing. They are not always full “manuscripts” either but enough notes to get me through the sermon. So, what I am posting today may be what I said on Sunday or it could be what I wished I had said on Sunday. Either way, I don’t let it get in the way of what I hoped I heard in the midst of it – Good News for all!

Luke 14:1, 7-14 Common English Bible

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely…
When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

 

It was the last week of my seminary education at Duke, a very busy time. Celebrations were scheduled. Family was coming to town. A very busy time.

The Divinity School had made arrangements with our publishing house in the United Methodist Church to offer training to students on the “hottest” new Bible study program – Disciple Bible Study. The training would normally cost a pastor several hundreds of dollars and this perk looked like something I should check out – at least the first day. I would have to miss a couple of important events but I honestly thought I would attend a session or two and then just not come back due to lack of interest.

Somewhere in the training I got hooked. And I was glad I did. In some ways, the training I received over those three days were more useful than a lot of the classes I had spent weeks in during seminary.

Over the years I have led several Disciple groups in churches that I have served and I am certain that it was offered here at First Church as well. (Out of curiosity, could I see a show of hands of the number of people who have been involved in DBS?) About what I guessed it would be.

One of my favorite parts of Disciple both in teaching and taking the course was the way it handled the Gospel of Luke. Something about the title of those lessons stuck with me – “The Least, the Last and the Lost.” DBS explained that Luke wrote that particular Gospel from the perspective of that group of people – the least, the last, and the lost. It was the Gospel of the people on the margins, the people on the outside, those who were not religious insiders.

As I prepared for this week’s message, it was disconcerting as I kept reading through this particular story about Jesus spending his Sabbath day with Pharisees (consummate religious insiders) and very wealthy Pharisees at that. In some ways the Jesus of “The Least, The Last, and The Lost” seemed to take a break from the gospel narrative Luke was weaving. I kept asking, “What is Luke’s Jesus doing with all these people who are trying to impress God with their ability to keep rules.

And the more I read it, the more troubled I became. Until…until I noticed something peculiar happening in the text. These Pharisees who stuck their claim on religious righteousness by obeying the Law to its fullest extent were breaking the Sabbath! They were throwing a dinner party on the Sabbath – the day they were supposed to be honoring God. Now, I know, they could indeed invite a guest or two to their Sabbath meal, but it is quite apparent in this text that there is a whole lot more going on than that. This was an all out celebration of all things Pharisaical.

And believe it or not, that made Jesus’ presence sensible to me. Suddenly, Jesus is hanging out with the “rule breaking, rule keepers.” (Some might call them the hypocrites, but I just prefer to see them as yet another group of “the lost.”) They were breaking the Sabbath by partying even as they accused Jesus (their guest at the party, no less) of breaking the Sabbath by healing people!

The irony of it all hit me.

The thing about trying to get close to God by keeping all the rules is pretty simple: your faith has everything to do with ‘what you do’ and nothing at all with what ‘God does for you.’

And sure enough, as they gathered for their Sabbath shattering gathering, it was all about them. So much so that Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast where the guests are jockeying for the best seats at the table. In some odd way, this parable of Jesus affirmed the Pharisees tacit acknowledgement that the Sabbath was made for humans while pointing out that they were missing the point of being invited to take part in what God could offer them by way of invitation. They would rather just point to themselves instead of waiting to be invited forward.

Jesus is saying, “Sure, have your big parties – even on the Sabbath – but if you really want to do them right, give seats of honor to the least. At the very minimum, don’t grab these seats for yourself because the host might just know to whom it really belongs. The host might show hospitality to “the least”.

And in this story we know who the host honored the most. Right after the parable, Jesus turns to that host to address him personally. Now, I am pretty certain Jesus could have pulled this off from any position at the table, but there is something about Luke’s telling of this story that makes it obvious that Jesus is seated at the place of honor – just to the right of the host. He turns to him and offers him some words that most people see as words of “warning” or maybe even condemnation.

I don’t get that.

I see Jesus thanking the host for including this homeless, wandering, Nazarene teacher as the guest of honor at the Sabbath shattering dinner party. Jesus is thanking him and letting him know that by continuing to invite people that could never pay him back with an invitation of their own, this Pharisee is really going to see some fabulous rewards.

And then there are those who are invited to a Table this morning – a Table that is hosted by Jesus. The invitation has been extended to us and if we take it we know that we could never, ever, really pay back the invitee.

Jesus is the host.

Jesus is the very Feast.

Jesus is the presence that we all need.

So, what are we to do?

When you walked into the Narthex of the Mt. Hope United Methodist Church on Sunday morning you would almost always see a snow shovel hanging on several of the coat hooks that lined the wall. It was not waiting for winter to be used, but instead had painted on it words that had been carried all through the town that morning – “Repent! Jesus is coming!”

Somewhere near the fourth row from the back – on the right hand side as you entered the sanctuary –just outside the pew and just enough in the way to trip an unsuspecting guest, you would find a pair of oversized, pull-over, rubber, snow boots as well. And you would be right to assume that the boots and the shovel belonged to the same person.

Paul – or “Crazy Paul” as the kids of Mt. Hope had christened him with their words and the occasional pelting of rocks – would be in that fourth pew from the back. His heavy winter coat on during all seasons for fear that when that sun went dark and the moon turned to blood, he might be cold and unprepared. His beard was hanging down upon his chest with the obvious crumbs from breakfasts past peppered among the hairs.

Paul was as faithful to that little church as any one of the pew racks – he was there every time the doors were open and sometimes the imagination of a child would think he was there even when the doors were locked tight.

However, on communion Sundays, when the pastor would stand at the front and offer the little cups of Jesus blood and the little cubes of Jesus body, Paul would come forward with the rest of the crowd. But he was different than the rest too. Paul would come with those weathered hands that held the snow shovel sign as he walked through town, gently crossed over one another like a beggar who would be happy with the crumbs from his own beard. He would come forward and “receive” communion – he never took it – he received it as the gift it was to him. He knew he could never pay it back.

My sisters and brothers, like in the gospel of the Least, the Last and the Lost this morning, hospitality is offered at the Table we come to today. It’s offered for rule keepers who fail gloriously and for all those who realize we can never pay it back.

And as we leave this Table today, may re remember the host/honored guest whispering in our ears like he did the host in that story we read – “Everything you need to know about hospitality you just learned here.” Everything. Whether you are in the church or at work. Whether you are at your home or talking to the server in the restaurant. Hospitality is learned at this Table.

Amen.

Twenty Five Years too Late

Greenville, NC was booming in the early 1990’s. A growing college campus, a regional hospital and pharmaceutical companies were making the area of Pitt County NC a destination for many new people.

The United Methodist Church saw the growth and new that a new congregation would be the best way to tap into the new people coming into the area. After several months of ground work by a planting team, Easter 1992, they launched their new service of Covenant UMC in a local Boy’s and Girls Club.

By the summer of 1992, the attendance at Covenant had hit 800 and was climbing. The pastor reached out to Duke Divinity School for a summer intern and somehow I ended up going there for the summer before I started my first year of seminary. It was a dream placement. I got to see the church at its most exciting. New people were coming to faith every week. Folks who had fallen away from “Church” finding their way back. The pastor was dynamic. Their music was phenomenal. And the felling around the gathering of this new congregation was one that was filled with hope – there was nothing God couldn’t do.

I was given the opportunity to preach a couple of times at Covenant that summer. On the first occasion, I had slipped into my white alb prior to arriving at the Boys and Girls Club and was just out mingling with the folks showing up for worship. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a voice in my ear said quite clearly, “Hey, where’s your hood?” And then they laughed and walked off.

I didn’t get it at first. I wondered why anyone would need a hood in the humidity of Greenville. After a couple of steps and watching the end of my white alb sway as I walked, I froze at the realization of what this man meant. I couldn’t believe this came from one of our wonderful new congregation members. How could they possibly think that this sacred outfit was “that kind of robe.”

But they did. That is exactly what they saw.

I never wore it again in Greenville but I was quite comfortable wearing it once I returned to West Virginia. Had I been given the chance, I would have worn it to my ordination. But alas, in those days, we had to wear black robes.

This week, I saw the alb hanging in my office closest and thought I might bring it out for this week’s worship service in Princeton. It had been a while since I had worn it.

And then Friday night happened in Charlottesville. And then Saturday’s horrors.

I took the alb to the sanctuary Sunday morning but I was not wearing it. I simply hung it up where it could be seen.

The text I preached on that morning was Matthew 11:22-33. You may know it as the one where Jesus walks on water. And the one where Peter sinks. The disciples all get called people of “weak faith.” What had struck me that week was the fact that Jesus used people of weak or little faith to build the Kingdom. As I thought about the weekend’s event and my holding onto that symbol that could be so easily misunderstood, I realized that I too was a man of weak faith.

I told the story of that morning in Greenville and my inability to say anything in return. I told my congregation that I was a man of little faith. Then I picked up the alb and ripped it in half and placed it on the chancel rail of the church. Here is a picture of the destruction for now. Here is a link to the video…It is silent, but I think it speaks louder that way – you already know the story!  https://vimeo.com/229491973

Torn Alb

I know that not every white person in our churches see albs and think immediately of the Klan. But some of them do. Some of them do. I did not want anything of my already white privileged life to become a confusing symbol to anyone. Anyone. We have allowed symbols to lead to hate. Hate lead to speech. Speech lead to the disaster that hit a beautiful college town in Virginia. I will no longer wear a symbol even closely resembled to white hate in any way. I hope to find somewhere, some way that I can send the pieces of this alb to be refashioned into something of peace. Don’t know if that’s possible but I’m open to ideas.

I also offer a challenge to my fellow white clergy anywhere.

Ditch the albs.

Sure, I know they have other meanings. I know that they symbolize so much. But I also know that our actions here could speak much louder than anything else. Ditch the alb…Take up the preaching robe with love, justice, and peace. Let’s make a change that no one can miss. It took me twenty five years to gain the little bit of faith I needed to make a statement with this piece of white clothing. I pray it takes you less.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for joining me if you wish.

To see the entire sermon…go here.

 

Profession NOT Possession

A sermon for Princeton First United Methodist Church, September 13, 2015…

Mark 8:27-38

041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgI was standing outside the “Princess Playhouse,” the local community theater in Mt. Hope. I was waiting on others to arrive for the rehearsal scheduled that afternoon and evening. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time and really didn’t expect much to be happening on the streets while I waited.

To kill time, I decided to look over the copies of the playbills that were displayed on the walls outside the entrance to the Princess. I read one from ten years before and then started to look at the playbill for the production of Count Dracula we had performed the previous Fall.

In the midst of my reading and daydreaming I suddenly heard a loud voice behind me say, “Friend, do you know Jesus?”

I’m not sure if the two young men who had snuck up behind me thought they would get extra points for sending a teenager straight to heaven by scaring him to death or if they thought this was a particularly effective evangelistic approach. I can tell you from experience, however, that they were much closer to succeeding on the former than they were ever going to get on the latter with me.

After composing myself I turned around and gave them my best United Methodist Youth smile and said, “Why yes. Of course I know Jesus. I go to the United Methodist Church just over the hill there.”

“Well,” the young man who had not scared me said, “you may have learned about Jesus in Sunday School but do you know him?”

The other joined in as he opened a Bible he was carrying, “The Bible tells us that all have fallen short of the glory of God.” He let me glance at the moving Bible page. “And it tells us that Jesus came into this world to save us from our sins but we have to accept him in our heart and confess him with our lips.” He flipped through a couple of bookmarks he had in the Bible and let me see the words blur by my eyes.

“So,” the second one asked again, “do you know Jesus well enough that if you stepped off that curb and got hit by a car that you would be assured that you went to heaven?”

I just blinked at them a couple of times and said, “Yes. I do.” And I turned around and kept reading.

I heard their feet shuffle a few times and then finally one of them said, “We will be praying for you, brother.” Thankfully, he said this as they were leaving.

This text we just read from Mark’s gospel is one about some people who definitely “knew” Jesus. At least, it is about those people who were closest to him, who shared their lives with him, who witnessed the work that he did and gave up all they had to follow him.

In a conversation with them as they are walking along some road Jesus asks them, “Who do the people say that I am?”

I’m sure that those who knew Jesus so well wanted to show that they were paying attention to the crowds around him and they offered the many answers that they heard.

I imagine that there was bit of silence – not really silence but more of just the sounds of people walking for a few minutes while those answered hung in the air – before Jesus asked his second question, “Yes, but who do you say that I am.”

I can almost hear the gravel sliding as Peter comes to an abrupt halt on the roadway and answers Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”

The whole group stopped when Peter said this – at least in the way that I see it happening – and Jesus kinda nods and then does something rather odd. He sternly orders them – not asks them nicely, not laughingly tells them – but sternly orders them to tell no one about him.

There is another account of this conversation in another Gospel that tells us a bit more about Jesus’ response to Peter but that didn’t matter much to Mark. At least not enough for him to include it in his account, so we will go with Peter’s answer that he knew Jesus well enough to profess him as Messiah and Jesus sternly orders the whole group not to tell anyone about him.

A rather odd way to get a movement going, don’t you think? Don’t tell anyone about it.

Scholars have used gallons of ink and preachers like me have thrown around millions of words about this whole idea of Jesus telling the disciples to be quiet about who he is. I have been and obviously am going to be another one of those participants today.

I think the key to understanding why Jesus said this is in the several verses that follow this warning. The ones where Jesus explains exactly what being the Messiah meant to him. The ones where Peter tries to treat Jesus like a child and scolds him about saying such things. The ones where Jesus calls Peter Satan for just thinking about himself and human things rather than the heavenly, kingdom things. You hear it also as Jesus says to the disciples, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Deny yourself – means setting aside your own agenda. Take up the cross means that we acknowledge when we are following Jesus things are not going to be so clear and easy, they are going to be messy. Things are going to get rough.

It is clear from these words that follow Jesus’ order to the disciples to not talk about who he was that Jesus was worried that maybe disciples have a hard time figuring out how to explain Jesus and they do much better when they just follow Jesus.

In other words, for disciples then and now, this lesson from Mark is telling us that our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus – instead, our profession is to possess the cross. We are to give up our own agendas, our own thoughts of what God should be and let Jesus be the leader, no matter what.

Peter and the rest of the first disciples had a difficult time with that way of living. Jesus knew it and thought it best to tell them to be quiet.

Disciples today? Well, I think if we are honest, it is still a struggle sometimes.

The pastor was happy to announce to the small country church that an anonymous donor had given a gift to the church in order for the Trustees to outfit the church with chandeliers. The Trustees would hold a meeting later that afternoon to decide whether to accept the gift or return it to the donor.

The meeting time came and people who felt both ways about the gift came ready to fight.

“If God had intended for chandeliers to be in this church, we would have had them a long, long time ago,” said one side.

“God means for us to have these chandeliers, or else he wouldn’t have put it on the heart of someone to donate them,” said another side.

The arguments went on and on. Neither side willing to budge even after an hour or so of debate. The resorted to name calling. They resorted to questioning the faith of one another, the donor and the pastor. The arguments went on till it began to get dark outside and darker inside.

Finally, the one person who hadn’t said a word throughout all the meeting cleared his throat and said, “Folks, I don’t know much about chandeliers – don’t know nothing about them actually, but I will tell you this. What this church needs is some light!”

Sometimes, the church does need some light. Especially when they fight with each other over earthly things rather than focus on the heavenly, kingdom things of being one in Christ.

Over the past several weeks, many of us have witnessed a battle which has caused mind-numbing damage to Christianity. The battle took place in a circuit clerk’s office and in courtrooms in Kentucky as well as in front of the watchful eye of the entire world.

First of all, I know that many people have feelings about whether Kim Davis should issue marriage licenses or not. Many people have strong feelings about the whole same sex marriage issue that has risen to the forefront of our society. Our church has been engaged in conversations about sexuality and faith for almost my entire life – and people feel very strongly about things one way or another.

Second, I have restrained from saying anything about this latest battle because I know how easily it is to be misunderstood when someone already disagrees with me. It is hard to speak when we don’t know if anyone is really listening. I know it is equally difficult to listen when I don’t like what someone is saying to me.

However, regardless of how we feel about same sex marriage and the battle continuing in Kentucky, I hope and pray that we can all see why sometimes Jesus tells us to just keep our mouths shut when it comes to telling people who we think he is.

On the same sex marriage side of these demonstrations, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the side of this argument that starts their position by saying “Jesus loves all sinners.”

AND, on the side of Kim Davis and her supporters, I have heard people completely disown their brothers and sisters in Christ who choose to act differently than they would in these circumstances. I have heard vitriolic, hurtful name calling. I have seen hate filled signs from the very people in this argument who say Jesus is their Savior and Lord.

You see, the saddest part of all this is that both sides lay claim to Jesus as Messiah. And they do so loudly, so all the world can hear.

Is it any wonder that sometimes, sometimes, Jesus just looks at the disciples and sternly tells them not to tell anyone who they think he is.

The only one winning in this battle in Kentucky is Satan, because all of us Christians just can’t seem to keep from dragging Jesus into our battles.

A person I follow on Twitter, an author named Doug Bursh, made this comment this week: “I think we might need fewer reformers and more repenters. Perpetually pointing out the sins of others makes us annoying.”

I believe we have seen Christianity take a mind-numbing blow in the hearts and minds of many people who have not yet met Jesus. And it is going to hurt us all in the long run.

Our profession of faith must never be one in which we take possession of Jesus. Instead, our profession is to possess a cross and help one another carry it when necessary.