Monday, May 8, 2017

Through the Work of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2
May 7, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield UMC

So I have been bragging on this congregation in all sorts of places recently. At Diversity Council and Mayo events. At clergy gatherings. At casual conversations with friends. I tell them about all the work we are doing together. Serving at funerals. Opening our doors to a food shelf. Juggling schedules that make use of the building challenging at times. Collecting items for adults who face challenges in their lives through addictions and mental illness and debilitating disabilities.
I tell them how we find those things that touch our hearts and respond with acts of mercy and compassion.
I tell them how we are living out the heritage of our founder, John Wesley and the call of God through Jesus who told us to give a cup of cold water to those in need.

As a side note, do you know how hard it was to give a cup of cold water to people in Jesus day? Unless you were at the well when the water was drawn the water you drank was probably at the most lukewarm if not hot. Whenever I travel to developing countries one of the greatest luxury is often a cup of cold water that is safe to drink.
Jesus was saying more than just give people a drink. Jesus was saying, give people a precious type of drink. One that would cost you something and would be out of the ordinary.

I think that is what we do here. It isn’t convenient to do what we do, to juggle schedules, to allow our building to be used up, to work with others in the community who aren’t always on the same page as we are.
I don’t always keep the schedule straight. I so appreciate all of you who help us get from one event to another seamlessly. Particularly my husband Steve who has put up and taken down more tables and chairs than most paid custodians.

You know, when people go to seminary to train to be a pastor or when people think of church what they imagine is worship, prayer, visiting the sick and dying, teaching classes that sort of thing. So, in one of my facebook pages I follow called: Things they didn’t teach us in seminary, new clergy are astounded at the ways being in ministry is complicated and challenging.  And so much more than worship, prayer, visiting and teaching.

The early church found that out too. In our passage from Acts this morning, it would be tempting to think that worship, praying and visiting were all the early church was about. But if we read any of the other passages about the early church we will learn that they were doing quite a bit of juggling and figuring things out.

There was the whole question of where to meet. How to meet. Who all to meet with.

Then there was the question of how to take care of each other and how to manage their resources. From the sounds of this passage everyone just gladly shared what they had with each other. But we know from other passages in the scripture that wasn’t the reality. People who were wealthier weren’t so generous as this passage suggests.

There was a huge conflict in the early church about who could come and eat at the weekly potluck type of meal that was held before regular worship. While we don’t know the exact details, it seems that the wealthy only wanted to eat with their own kind. The poor people had to come after the meal was over to join in on the worship service. So, the wealthy were full and well fed while the poor came with rumbling stomachs.
That seems like a no brainer when you think about Jesus teaching about sharing and the first shall be last and last shall be first and whoever has a coat should share with those who don’t. You would think the church wouldn’t have even struggled with this.
But they did.

And not just this. They struggled with how to be a Christian in the midst of a culture that was much like our own. Full of temptations toward violence as entertainment. Full of the disrespect of women as sexual objects. Full of abuse of the environment, abuse of power, abuse of children.

They struggle just like we do. And were making it up as they went along, just like we do.

Which is good news for us, isn’t it?
We won’t always get it right, even the obvious stuff.
But God continues to use us for God’s purposes and even God’s glory! Amazing!

And I believe that God will always use us for God’s purposes as long as we have the attitude of Jesus. Or as it is put in this scripture passage:
They served with glad and generous hearts. I really like that, glad and generous hearts.

You know, sometimes when things don’t work out very smoothly and things get complicated… Sometimes when we don’t see eye to eye with another person… Sometimes when what you planned to do conflicts with what is on the schedule…Sometimes when things get complicated our hearts become sad and mean spirited. We become discouraged and discouraging.

And the whole point of what we do becomes clouded and a burden rather than a joy.

But then, the Holy Spirit does her work, if we are open to her.
The Holy Spirit warms our hearts again.
The Holy Spirit does what we cannot do on our own.
The Holy Spirit creates a community that can work together in spite of the challenges. In spite of the complications. In spite of the differences of opinion.

Which brings me back to bragging on you all.

What I say to people is: we are not of one mind. We have different ways of being and seeing the world. Our farmers have different ways of farming. Our shop keepers have different ways of looking at the community. Our people who work in Rochester have different places in society.
Our people who work in Chatfield have different ways of looking at the economy and how it should work.
Our people who are retired have different experiences and expectations.

Yet, in the midst of all of these differences, we come together to worship and celebrate the sacraments and speak words of blessing to each other and serve the community together.

(Invitation to the Lord’s Supper:
Today we will all eat at the table of God. No one will be turned away. We will come no matter who we voted for, where we shop, what team we root for. We come because this is not our table it is God’s table and God invites us saint and sinner to eat.)

The Holy Spirit works in the midst of our differences to create a community that means something. For us and for our neighbor and for the glory of God.

When people ask me if I believe in miracles, I say, “yes” Because I live in the midst of a miracle called Chatfield UMC every day.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Is It Christian?

This week I was privileged to be a part of an interfaith panel at Charter House in Rochester.
Charter House is an adult senior living facility that caters to well off seniors. According to Chaplain Rachel Hanson, many of the residents are involved in the community and hold leadership positions. 

The panel had representatives from Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish traditions. It was truly a great experience to be able to speak clearly about our own traditions and interact where our traditions intersected.

As the white, middle class, Christian I was able to be more 'up-front' about my position on the topic. Which created some controversy and some resonance with the audience members.

The statement we all spoke to

Faith commitment is an intensely personal matter.  It is something we each choose for ourselves, which then becomes a foundation for decision-making, living and action.  However, faith is usually formed and shaped in the setting of a faith community or faith tradition.  And that takes place in the context of a nation or state or cultural milieu with national or tribal interests and concerns.  Sometimes, this results in conflicts of interest between faith claims upon conscience and national claims upon allegiance.  How do we balance freedom of religion with the “national interest” of the tribe nation?  How do the claims of individual conscience relate to the claims of the nation for full allegiance?  How do we balance personal faith claims upon us as believers (in whatever we choose to believe in), and the expectation that as citizens we are required to support our national security in the midst of a much larger world community of peoples and nations?

What I said:

I was born and grew up in small towns in Iowa. But unlike the small towns I experience in southern and central MN, patriotism did not play a central role in my life.

I am still astounded by the
·      prevalence of flags and
·      other patriot symbols displayed and
·      the ceremonies and parades dominated by patriotism
that are central to the life of a small town in central and southern MN.

It is something that I must grapple with as an ordained clergy in a denomination that is global in its polity and membership.
Unlike the other protestant denominations in the United States, the United Methodist Church is global. Which means our mindset should not be focused only on the United States. Our worship and way of being should have a global focus. We should at least see ourselves as citizens of the world but even more as United Methodists we should see ourselves as primarily people of the Kin-dom of God. Outside of the confines and doctrines of nationalism of any sort.
Our question should not be “what can we do for our country.” It should always be “how can I serve and honor God first and foremost.”
Nor should we ever pretend that following the mandates and doctrines of the United States is the same as honoring and serving God because the USA is a ‘Christian’ nation.
The USA cannot be called a ‘christian’ nation until the example of Jesus is lived out in all the laws and practices of the governments of our nation. Which would mean that all of our scales would be completely fair, all of our laws would be applied equally no matter one’s race, gender, economic status, orientation, or family connections, and priority would be given to alleviating poverty rather than amassing wealth.   

So I always cringe when I see an American flag in a sanctuary of a UMC. I do not say the pledge to the flag and have not since I was in primary school. My allegiance is only to God's kin-dom and the teaching of Jesus who was killed because he challenged the authority of the state. Therefore, I do not think it is appropriate to have a flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church.

But I have only been able to get the flag removed from one church that I have served and that was in the Twin Cities.
When I have tried in my other two parishes I have been crucified. Even after I explained the significance of a flag in a place of worship and its position of honor over and against the position of the cross. Which is, of course, one of the most powerful of symbols of our faith.

Which tells me that national pride of some sort runs very deep in the psyche of the people of my churches.

And what this says to me even more deeply is that the people I serve will have a very difficult time separating the promise of the nationalistic American Dream from the call of the Sacred texts of Christianity to love and service of God, self and neighbor.

Which means much of my work needs to be around converting Christians to discipleship as followers of the Christ who taught that our allegiance and passions should only be directed toward God, self and neighbor.

And this is very hard in a place where nationalistic pride and military service and the American Dream and pseudo-christianity are so interwoven that it is hard to tease out truth from fiction. Because men and women from my town have fought in wars, have been taught to hate the enemy, have been enticed with the promise that if they obeyed their government’s orders they would come home to glory and prosperity. They have been taught to kill in the name of a so-called ‘christian nation’ They have been taught to hate in the name of a so called christian nation. They have been taught to strive for their own welfare in the name of a so called christian nation.

And it has irreparably damaged the true meaning of being a Christian and harmed souls.
There is a hymn in our tradition by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness set to Finlandia: It is the song I go to when I feel national pride is overtaking our thinking and we need balance and a corrective

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shire;
But other hearts in other lands are beating

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Thomas the Believer

John 20: 19 Thomas
Chatfield UMC
April 23, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Let’s look at the disciple Thomas today; whom we often refer to as the doubter, based on this one passage alone. But we have to be careful when we make assumptions about truth based on one incident and one scripture. And we have to be careful when we use a word like doubter thinking that it is a bad thing.

So, Thomas, who was he? And why does his name keep popping up in the Gospel of John.

For some reason, Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples and we never know why that is. Was he not afraid of the Jewish authorities? Was he done with it all? Was he grieving on his own in his own way?
We don’t know.

For the purposes of the story in John, Thomas shows us after Jesus has come through the locked door. After Jesus has made his first appearance to his disciples. After Jesus has given them the breath of new life. Oh, there is so much in this passage we could explore. But let’s stick with Thomas.

“We have seen the Lord,” the disciples tell Thomas. But Thomas said, “First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”

This is where we get the idea that he is a doubter. Which I think is pretty unfair. Even if this incident is all that we might know about Thomas. Because it isn’t like a bodily resurrection was an every-day occurrence.
And we do know a little more about Thomas than this.
For example, earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus is on his way to raise Lazarus from the dead, heading toward Jerusalem which was a dangerous place for Jesus; the other disciples were trying to get Jesus to no go, but Thomas said bravely and maybe a little resignedly: Let us go with him and die with him. Already Thomas knew that it was inevitable. That eventually Jesus was going to cross that line and someone was going to kill him.
Thomas knew that Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and inclusion and freedom was so radical and so threatening to the Roman and Jewish authorities; Thomas knew Jesus was going to die an early death.
Of all of the disciples, Thomas knew.

The next time we hear from Thomas, Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples about his death and ascension into heaven. This is the passage in chapter 14 that is often read at funerals. In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.
We read this at funerals as if we know what it means. Jesus was telling his disciples this and they were listening as if they understood what he meant. Yet, how could they make any sense of this talk? How can we? It is Thomas who blurts out: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t understand this at all. How can we know where it is you are going?’
There are times when I read this at funerals and what to say the same thing. I don’t understand this Jesus. I want to believe it but I’m just not sure I get the whole picture here.
And I think that is the proper response to this great mystery.

I read a story about a former narcotic addict who had learned through a very long, long relationship with other Christians to believe the message of God’s love through Jesus. But what had put him off Christianity was what he called the hype. He would say, ‘don’t believe the hype.’ And I think this is what he was talking about. Just because others say it is true and just because others act like they know and understand the deep mysteries of life, doesn’t mean that they do. And if they tell you that they have it all figured out. And if they tell you should just believe it the way they tell you to believe it…well, run. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t be afraid to call out the stuff that doesn’t make sense. Don’t be afraid to name the incomprehensible. Don’t be afraid to stand naked and vulnerable in the face of the mysteries of God’s truth.

Thomas was willing to call out the stuff that didn’t make sense. That was incomprehensible.

And now we are with Thomas after the crucifixion. Remember, Thomas was the disciple that was willing to go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. It must have been horrible to watch as Jesus, his mentor and friend was murdered. To expect to be with him. And then to not be able to stop it. To watch as Jesus seemed to just let it all happen.

You can see why he is so confused. And so unable to process all that has happened.
Thomas wasn’t a doubter. Thomas was a man just like any other human being, after all he had seen and experienced and believed he wasn’t ready to go out on one more limb until there was evidence that it would support him.

I mean why should he believe the other disciples? Why should he trust them? None of them have acted with great integrity over the last few days.
Betrayal, fleeing the scene of the crime, cowering behind locked doors. 
It would be logical to say: ‘yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.” But Thomas even goes further:
“First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won’t believe unless I do this!”

Now before we jump to the end of the story, I want to take a pause here.
I want us to live a moment with Thomas. It will be 8 more days before Thomas sees the proof he needs to believe that Jesus is resurrected and that hope is still alive.
I wonder what those 8 days were like for Thomas.
I wonder if they weren’t like our own 8 days, or 8 years, or 8 decades, or 8 hours. Living a normal human being wondering if he will ever be loved again. If any of it was true. If any of it made any difference?
We often move a little too quickly to the end of the story.
We often skip the part where Thomas has to decide whether to believe or not believe.

Here is where the church’s hype and ‘stuff that doesn’t make sense’ gets in the way.
The pictures we see of the disciples now look like the one on the screen. An icon. A saint. We give them a holy glow and construct myths around them. We have made them into saints and mediators between God and us. But they aren’t. They just aren’t. We do ourselves and them a disservice when we do that.
I saw a video clip this week about how we have made the masculine archetype into this silent, strong, brooding, guy who always wins at the end. Always wins. Always has the right answer. Always, through some force of power and domination, comes out on 

And we have done the same thing to Jesus followers. Made them into John Wayne’s and Luke Skywalker’s. But they aren’t.
They are and always will be just like us.
Where it is always a question of why? And how? And Really?
As in, really, God, you want me to do that? You want me to believe that?

Thomas is the one who doesn’t take things at face value and wants to be involved but isn’t sure exactly what to make of it all.
Can you relate?
Yeah, I want to take up my cross and follow Jesus; but I’m not sure that I want to be all that committed to something that might seem, well strange.
Yeah, I want to live each day in sure and certain hope of eternal life. But I don’t really know what that means most days.
This is what I love about the disciples. They are just like us. And we should never make them into anything more or less.

Actually, Jesus said that we, we are the ones who are the most amazing.

There are some rather gruesome paintings of Thomas and Jesus meeting after those eight days of limbo. In the paintings, Thomas is actually sticking his finger into the wounds on the side of Jesus. Now Jesus did invite Thomas to do that. “A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples 27 and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!”
But there is no record that Thomas actually did need to touch the wounds. It seemed that it was enough for Thomas just to hear the voice and see the face of Jesus.  For Thomas proclaimed, “You are my Lord and my God!”

And then Jesus said: “Thomas you believe because you see. The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!”

We are the ones who are really bless-ed. Because, while it was hard enough for Thomas to make sense of it all and to believe; it is harder for us.

Because all we have to go on is the revealed love of God that shows up when we, sinners as we are, show love to each other. All we have to go on is the stories of our faith and the ways those stories make sense when they are lived in and through the lives of others. In and through our lives.

You see why we don’t need the disciples to be saints? Why they can’t be anymore saintly that we are. We need them to be people just like us. Getting it wrong. Not believing. Believing. Betraying. Fleeing. Staying together. Showing up. Learning. Leading. Vulnerable. Open.

Just like us. Because the world needs people just like us. It is the only way they will see God’s love revealed.