Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Was Born in a Small Town

Human Relations Sunday 2015
John 1:43ff
January 18, 2015
Stewartville United Methodist Church
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

It is an honor to be with you this morning as your guest woman in the pulpit. As you read in my biography I am the pastor at Chatfield United Methodist Church. I have been there for 3 almost 4 years. Chatfield is my second rural ministry parish and I am loving it. I spent over 30 years in the Twin Cities but this is definitely becoming my home place. Even when I hear of openings in the cities I am not even tempted.
Do you know that one of my goals in life was to retire to SE MN?
Some of my children’s favorite memories are the times we camped in SE MN and came into the little towns around here for community parades. One of our favorites was the 4th of July parade right here in Stewartville.
Now I have the delight of bringing my grandchildren to Stewartville for 4th of July every year.

You do know how to do the 4th of July! I think the grandchildren were eating candy from the parade in September!

As I am settling in this part of the world I am becoming aware of both the joys and the challenges of living in a rural setting. While we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is very easy to feel disconnected from the rest of the world. It is easy to feel as if we don’t have some of the same problems as the rest of the world. Although I know that you in Stewartville have struggled with incidences of gun violence in these last few months. The world’s issues have come nearer your doorsteps than you probably wanted.

As people living in small town rural America, it is easy to feel as if we have no influence on the rest of the world. As if we have no chance of making a difference for good.

This is where we as UM’s have the advantage. We are, by virtue of our shared ministry in the world, connected. We are connected to people who are suffering from Ebola in Africa, with God’s people who are being murdered in Nigeria, with those who are recovering so many years later from the hurricanes, earthquakes and floods that have devastated community after community.

I will often post messages on the Chatfield UMC facebook page that highlight the work of UMCOR. I will title the post: We are there.
We are there. Through our gifts and the calling out of people from our denomination, we are there. Today on Human Relations Day, we affirm together that we honor all people and believe that all people should have the chance to reach their God given potential.

We are making a difference. And I hope you will give generously to the Human Relations Day offering of the UMC.
But it is easy to write a check, to give an offering.

What is harder is living the reality of our belief that all people deserve to have the chance to reach their God given potential. It is hard to live that right here, right now in Stewartville.

But once again, that is where being a UM gives us an advantage. We don’t have to do this alone, we can do it together. Holding each other up and holding each other accountable to what we believe Christ has called us to do.

In the Gospel this morning we see people deciding to follow Jesus. It always amazes me, when people decide to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy. It isn’t natural. It isn’t convenient. It isn’t practical.

In Nathaniel we see a man who is very practical. And cynical.

Like you and me in small town America, he thinks, what good can out of small town Nazareth? What influence can come out of small town Nazareth? Rome runs the world. From religion to the economy, the emperor’s image is on everything. Don’t bother me with a small town man. He can do nothing.

Oh Nathaniel’s cynicism. We can relate. What can we do, we live in small town America? What power do we have? What good can come out of Stewartville or Chatfield?

Nathaniel is a practical cynic, until he meets Jesus.
He is like a lot of us. Until we meet Jesus.

In his book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis states, “Perhaps the only people who view the world realistically are the cynics and the saints…and the only difference between the cynics and the saints is the presence, power and possibility of hope” (p. 347).

This is what happens when people meet Jesus, their cynicism starts edging over into hopefulness.

As we follow Nathaniel through the Gospel story we will encounter Jesus who will confront all of the corrupt power of the Roman empire, all of the displacement of people’s true worth and all of the prejudice of the society’s reliance on status. Jesus, that person from the little town of Nazareth, will not only confront it, he will blow it out of the water. All of the cynicism will explode into bits of worthless stubble.

What will be left when the dust settles will be a woman, standing by a well, who was shunned by her community. Through the power of her encounter with Jesus, she will bring hope and truth and new meaning into her tribe of people whom everyone thinks is outside the grace of God.

What will be left will be a man who took up his bed and walked because forgiving sins is as easy or as hard as healing his paralyzed body.

What will be left will be a servant of a Roman soldier who is healed because his master came to Jesus knowing that Jesus’ power was even greater than the power of his Roman command.

What will be left will be a child of a synagogue official who will see her 13th birthday because her father, defying all the cynics of the synagogue, sought out Jesus.

What will be left after Jesus shatters all the corruption of power and status and wealth will be men, women and children whose lives are changed. Whose lives are saved. Men, women and children who had no power or status or wealth, who saw their lives as hopeless, meaningless, worthless will be given meaning, purpose and hope.

Jesus told Nathanial you haven’t seen anything yet! Before this is over you’re going to see heaven open…God’s angels descending and ascending to the Son of Man. You are going to see a new world order. Which will make Roman look like, well, like a Podunk town with no power.

You see, we are not only in this together as UM’s we are in this together as followers of Jesus the Christ.
We believe with all of our being that everyone, everyone, is a child of God. Is worthy of grace and healing and forgiveness and life. And hope.

We may be from small town America but we are from Nazareth, too. A town so small and so powerful that the Savior of the world walked through its streets and changed the world.

With Christ, wherever we are, we are there. Doing the work of hope. Don’t let any cynic tell you otherwise. Expect to see heaven open. Expect to see heaven right here in Stewartville. In places you least expect.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Baptism and Human Trafficking: Resisting Evil and Injustice in Whatever Forms they Present Themselves

Hyman Trafficking Awareness Sunday
Baptism of Jesus Sunday
Mark 1:4-11
January 11, 2015
Chatfield United Methodist Church
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Today the focus of our worship is on two topics. Baptism and Human Trafficking. Seemingly very different topics.

Until you remember the vows that we all take when we participate in a baptism. We all reaffirm these vows each time we baptize a child, we reaffirmed these vows in our own confirmation services, and we promise to walk along side children and youth to teach them the meaning of these vows as they grow in their own faith journey.

Hear again the vows that we all renew each time a person is baptized or confirmed.

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of your sins?
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and race?
According to the grace give to you will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?

We are called as people of God and as Christians to live our baptisms. To live as those who are opposed to evil and injustice and oppression in whatever forms they are present.
As we contemplate human trafficking, we have to agree that it is one of the most wicked, evil and oppressive sins of human kind in the 21st century.

Human trafficking is modern day slavery wherein people profit from the control and exploitation of others, through force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against the person’s will. . It is a Federal crime in the US. It is also illegal in all 50 states.

Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 14.2 million people trapped in forced labor in industries including agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing. In addition the ILO estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally. 18.7 million people.

That would be the population of Australia, in case that helps picture the number.

How does a person become entrapped in modern slavery?

Here what typically happens to someone who is caught up in human trafficking.

They come from a place of extreme poverty. Yet, they believe that there should be a way out, for themselves and their family. They have hope, in spite of the poverty, they have hope. So they listen to the man on the street who tells them about a job he has for them. They could make enough money for themselves with some left over to send home to their families. Their families could be out of the slum within months. He would help them get a work visa, a place to live, he would bring them to America or Europe or to the city. All ythey have to do is give him $5,000 or upwards of $20,000. But don’t let that scare you. You are going to be making lots of money. You will pay that off very quickly. It’s not even a loan, it is just money to help me help you. We will settle it all up when we get there.

So you sign on the line, you agree to the terms. In a few days, sure enough, you have a work visa in hand. See the man was telling the truth. You give him all the money you have. You say goodbye to your family. You get on a ship or in a plane or the trunk of a car.

You arrive, it is overwhelming. But so beautiful and new and exciting…You are going to be able to provide for your family. It is a new life…finally your hope is paying off.
Oops says the man at the other end of the journey. The job we had lined up for you isn’t going to work out. But here, we have this for you.
We can’t pay you, not in cash, but you can work off the money you owe us.
And we won’t tell anyone about how you got here. So you will be safe.
And just to make sure you are safe and we get our money back we will take your documentation and hold it until you pay off your debt.

That is how it happens. Here in America, in India, in China, in Europe, all over the developed world. Men, women and children are lured into slavery.

We hear quite a lot about the sex slave trade; yet for every sex trafficked victim there are 9 labor trafficked men, women and children.

And what jobs are they doing?
They are Farm workers, picking our produce, milking our cows,
Factory workers, slaughtering our meat, assembling our clothing, making our electronics
Hospitality workers, cooking our meals, cleaning our rooms, bussing our dishes, doing our laundry.

Why? Why are there over 18.7 million people being trafficked in this world?
Because it is a $20 Billion dollar industry.
$20 Billion dollars!
Why is it a $20 Billion dollar industry?

Because the global economy wants lots of cheap goods. The cheaper the better.

Labor trafficking is not easy to trace. Because we live in such a global economy where pieces of what we buy are made here, there and everywhere, it is hard to trace the path of a manufactured item.

But logic will tell us that if something really cool costs $1 it is probably not being made by someone who is getting a fair wage. Let me say that again.

This is where our baptism vows come in. As people who are called to live our baptismal vows, As people who are called to resist evil, oppression and wickedness in whatever way they present themselves, it is necessary for us to be aware that our purchasing habits might be contributing to human trafficking. And it is our baptismal vows that call us to advocate for fair wages and fair labor practices for all humans in all places.
Here is what one website said: By supporting fair pay for workers and basing our purchasing choices on the fair treatment of those who make our products, consumers have the power to reduce the demand for labor trafficking.

We have the power.
It isn’t often that we feel as if we have any power. Particularly over something as complex and pervasive and hidden as human trafficking.
But if we start to make wise purchasing decisions based on what we do know and simple logic, we exert power in the market place. Power that could change the way the world’s economy works.

That may sound polyanna-ish to you. But I do believe that we are called to be this sure of our influence in the world.
By choosing to purchase those items that you know are made in a fair way by people who are receiving a fair wage you will change the way you see the world. I can guarantee it. You will find that you might now need everything that you think you need. You will find that you care about your neighbor whom you don’t even know who works in dismal conditions. You will find that you pay attention to the stories of the world’s poor. You will find that you will seek out places to support those who are transcending the market economy.
You will find that you are more and more connected to the human family.

And you will begin to realize your place in this world. In the family of God in this world. And you will realize that you, in fulfillment of your baptismal vows truly are Christ’s representative in the world.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Luke 2:22-40
Chatfield United Methodist Church
December 28, 2014
Rev. Debra Jene Collum


Did you get what you expected? Are your needs all met? Are your wants satisfied? Was it the Christmas you expected?

I love getting and giving gifts. I love watching to see what other’s reactions are to what is revealed as the paper is torn from a package. Even if it isn’t total joy or even acceptance, I just love seeing the reaction. I don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t like the gift I gave them. It is the giving that is the fun.
I also like to unwrap gifts to see what might be inside. Just the anticipation, the expectation of wondering, what is hidden in there. It doesn’t matter what it is…it could be a hairbrush or even a toaster. I don’t care. I just like the expectation of seeing what is there.

I had one of those awful experiences this year. I had asked for a gift for Christmas a while ago, sometime this summer. I saw it in a magazine review and it looked like something that would be really useful and environmentally responsible. And fun. So I sent the product information to Steve and my daughter just suggesting that they think about this for a gift for me. Then I promptly forgot about it. I was reminded when I went into to Hammell’s a few weeks ago, but then forgot about it again.

Then, wouldn’t you know it; I saw a package on the front steps of the parsonage. It was tall and skinny. I had no idea what it was. Until I went to bring it into the house. Instead of just a shipping label on the box, emblazed on the sides were the words that explained exactly what was in the box.
It was the very thing that I had forgotten about. The thing that I would have never expected getting for Christmas this year. The thing that would have been so fun to unwrap. Because I wouldn’t have been expecting it. And would have been so surprised…
Rats. That gift, while still useful, environmentally responsible and fun and appreciated, very appreciated…was just a thing now…
The expectation had been taken away.

What about you…did you get what you expected?

This Sunday our texts are about expectations. Two people, two old people, have been waiting, all of their lives it seems. Waiting for salvation. Expecting to see God’s revealed glory before their lives were over.

One of those poignant verses in the scriptures is old Simeon’s speech as he holds baby Jesus:
Picture it, an old wizened gentle Jew, led by the Holy Spirit to attend temple services on that particular day. Who knows what he was expecting when he came to temple. There was nothing special to indicate that his Savior was in the temple. Just a crowd of people going about the business of the temple.
The Simeon saw a baby. No labels on this child. No, angels singing, no star in the sky. Just a poor baby from a poor family, they could only afford pigeons for the offering. Just a very poor baby in for his customary dedication. Yet, Simeon was drawn to this child, some prompting of the spirit led him to take this child in his arms. What was he expecting? He was waiting the restoration of the nation of Israel. He was waiting for Rome to be overthrown. For a political upheaval. Would he see in this child who was coming to the temple that day the fulfillment of his expectation? Would you?

In a child? Would you be able to see the fulfillment of your expectation for the restoration of Israel?

Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God…Then he said: God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. I have seen the one who will restore Israel.

Simeon’s life was fulfilled. Wow! How would that be, to have that expectation fulfilled?
Your whole life’s purpose and journey! Fulfilled! By the poorest of children?
Enough so that you could say: take me now, God. I am done.

I have been at the bedside of many saints of God who have spoken this same refrain.
I am ready. I have seen my salvation and I am ready.
This is the sort of life we should all hope to live. Ready to leave this earth when our purpose is fulfilled. Ready to move into the next stage of our journey when we have experienced the completion of the expectation of our salvation.

We pray in our prayers during a funeral: let me so live as one who is ready to die. And enable us to die as those who go forth into life

Simeon knew something about this salvation he was expecting. It wasn’t a salvation that brought him a warm fuzzy feeling in his soul. Nor was it a song that would lodge in his heart and put a smile on his face. We have seen those types of salvation in our Christmas specials all month.
And those are wonderful moments of salvation.

But Simeon saw a deeper more earth changing salvation. A more soul and spirit changing salvation. Not a happy ending, at least not an easy happy ending.
He saw a sword, opposition, a death, the rise and fall of empires and of stories and of expectations.
Yes, salvation will come through this tiny infant. Born to a poor family raised in a small village. Salvation will come, has come to the world through this one named Jesus. But, even though we expected great change when our salvation appeared,
the world wouldn’t change much.
Sin would continue to permeate the powers and principalities of the landscape. And war would continue to threaten the nations. Neighbors would continue to take each other to court. Families would continue to break apart. People would continue to be suspicious of each other. And personal sins would continue to beat us down.

But Simeon wasn’t lying when he declared: I have seen salvation. I am holding the salvation of the world.

For Simeon’s immortal words: now dismiss me, now release me will be echoed again when we encounter the cross: Jesus himself will fulfill his purpose at his death saying to God: it is finished. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

We weren’t expecting that.
This tiny infant will become a man whom we will crucify. Because he dared to bring a salvation to the world that we were not expecting. It is NOT the salvation that we wanted. We wanted a king to wipe out our enemies; we wanted a savior that would destroy those who destroy us. We wanted a man of power and might who would stand on the pinnacles of heaven and earth and say: these are my people, don’t mess with them.
We wanted a happy ending, at least.

But what we got was a salvation that required a death, so that all death could be defeated. So that anything WE ever did do, will do or might think of doing; anything that would destroy another, would in fact itself be destroyed. It wasn’t our enemies that we needed salvation from, it was ourselves. We needed saving from ourselves.

We weren’t expecting that.

Unlike my gift, the Gift of the Savior of the World didn’t come clearly labeled. We have to have the eyes and heart and expectation of Simeon to be able to see it. To be willing to unwrap it and accept it for what it is, the Salvation that we need. To believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world is one thing. To believe that he is the Savior that we need, is another.

The Savior that we need is a Savior who will live the messy, dirty life with us. The Savior that we need is a Savior who will go to family functions with us and prompt us to bring peace rather than drama. The Savior that we need is a Savior who will walk with us through our dark valleys and stand with us on our joy filled mountaintops bringing meaning and purpose to both.
To believe that a purposeful, benign Creator created the universe is one thing. To believe that this Creator took on human flesh, accepted death and mortality, was tempted, betrayed, broken so that he could walk with us and know us all because God loves us, is quite another.

It is not the gift we were expecting. But it is the gift we have received. May this year of our Lord, 2015, by the year that you open fully the gift of Salvation for yourselves for the sake of your world.

(in the package, clearing labeled, was an electric, rechargeable chainsaw.)