Monday, January 30, 2017

Little Brown Jobs and Murmurations

Matthew 4:12-23
Chatfield UMC
January 22, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

I think this is one of the saddest sentences in Scripture:
“When Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee...”

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus had just finished his vision quest in the desert. Confronting the voice of evil and the temptations to envision his mission and purpose from the perspective of power rather than servant hood.
Coming from a potent time of affirmation of purpose and mission it must have been devastating to hear that his cousin John was in Herod’s prison.

Remember John had just baptized Jesus, just reaffirmed his own ministry of kindom of God building. And in his zeal John offended Herod and was arrested.
Jesus knew that this was more than just an arrest over an offense. It was the state trying to silence anyone who called them to account for their actions against morality and service to the people.

Jesus knew that if he continued his purpose and mission in the way his time in the desert directed him, he too would face persecution by the government. Because he knew he was going to have to say more against Herod than what John had said.

John simply pointed out that Herod’s marriage was based on an adulterous relationship and the quest for power. Jesus was going to have to speak about the ways the government, which Herod represented, was abusing the poor and creating a culture of power only for those who were wealthy.

Jesus knew it was going to get messy.

So what does he do? In his grief and resolve. He starts building a team. From the least likely of places with the least likely of people.

He goes to Galilee; to the land that at one time was called Land of Zebulum and Naphtali. Hasn’t been called that for 700 years. Two of the tribes of Judah. That had been under siege by the Assyrians 700 years before a promise had been given to the people of Zebulum and Naphtali by the prophet Isaiah: “a people who living in dark have seen a great light. A light has come upon those who living in this region, in the shadow of death.”

Jesus now stands on this very land that is again under siege from a foreign power: Herod’s Rome and says: the prophecy will again be fulfilled: Light is here. The kindom of God is coming.

In this out of a way place of foreign occupation that has known oppression for centuries Jesus begins to build a team. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John. Come, follow me. I’ll give you a new purpose for life. A new way of being.
You are great fishermen. Now let me put those skills to work showing people that they belong in the Kindom of God.

Jesus doesn’t go to the halls of power to build his team. Does he? He goes to a land that was of little importance to people of little importance. People who feel as if they have no say in the life of the government or even the religious institutions.
People who are living hand to mouth, literally. Hoping that the foreign powers will not focus on their little village. Not over tax them during the next wave of power grabbing. Not bring in an army to take over the fishing trade.

Jesus walked along the shores of Galilee and chose fishermen.

This week I was led, more than once, to think of little brown birds: sparrows. As I came up to the church on Friday morning in the balmy 40 degree day, the house sparrows were thinking about mating. You could hear it in their calls. They will be very surprised, if they were successful, when they try to lay eggs in the snow in a few weeks.

These were the very common and somewhat obnoxious house sparrows. Such common and ordinary birds.
There are tons of sparrows throughout the world. And many different types of sparrows. Just here in MN there is the possibility of seeing 20 different types of sparrows. I have a few yet to see on my bird life list.

To most people sparrows all look the same. Unless you pay close attention and use a good set of binoculars it is hard to tell one sparrow from another In the birding world we often call a sparrow that is too far away to be identified as a little brown job, or an LBJ.

Yet, what does Jesus say about these little brown jobs? Jesus said: not one sparrow shall fall but what our Creator God doesn’t know and care and mark that sparrow’s passing. What a powerful metaphor for those of us who find ourselves thinking we are small, of no great worth. A sparrow, a common brown bird that many people don’t even notice; that are so common, is important to God. Important to Jesus.

Just like common fishermen, a despised tax collector, and a few others about whom we know very little. These men and the women who began following Jesus would step out into this place of foreign occupation and life in a way that would get them in trouble. But before that happens they will participate in a ministry of kindom calling and healing.

Jesus preaches and teaches the “good news” of God’s empire that has invaded Roman Galilee (Matthew 4:23). He also heals people’s diseases and infirmities.

Why are there so many sick people in the Gospel?

The Gospel reflects the sickness of the imperial world at this point. Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty -- from the very poorest to those who temporarily fell below subsistence levels. Understandings of hygiene were limited; social stresses were high; water quality poor, food insecurity was rife with low quality and limited quantities.
Is it any wonder that people were sick? Poor nutrition, lack of immunity. These kinds of diseases were death-bringing in a world that required physical labor for survival.

Jesus’ healings are acts that don’t just repair the body but repair imperial damage and enact God’s life-giving kindom in restoring people’s lives.
And they anticipate the completion of God’s working that creates a world, envisioned by Isaiah, a world of light and God’s kindom embodied.  In which all people enjoy abundant good and physical wholeness, where “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5; Isaiah 35:5-6).

Jesus embraced his call to ministry and invited others to join him.
And the common people followed.
Because they saw the possibilities of living in a new way of being community. In a place of health and wholeness and care for neighbor and concern for self.

I want to turn to another birding metaphor. Because I believe this kind of community kindom building is going to become more and more important as we learn to walk alongside each other and care for one another.

Already we are seeing signs of violence and hatred and repeals of laws that have protected our health and welfare.
So how do we become kindom people? Aren’t we like the disciples? Little brown jobs? Of very little consequence? Our ripples seem to make very little impact.

But I learned something this week about an amazing phenomenon called murmurations. This is when large flocks of birds coordinate their flight so that it looks like they are in a ballet. Here is a video of one made up of starlings.

Now starlings are another bird that gets little respect. However, researchers have learned that the way they accomplish these beautiful movements is by consistently coordinating their movements with their seven nearest neighbors
Isn’t that awesome. Each little group of seven overlapping with another group of seven keep the communication going with the entire flock so that out of chaos, beauty happens.

Now here is the thing. A murmuration is almost always caused by a predator threatening the flock. They are trying to put distance between themselves and the threat to the flock.

I love this because it gives me hope for the potential for kindom building. We don’t have to protect the whole flock nor do we have to worry about whether the entire flock will fly toward the light. We only have to concern ourselves for those nearest us. Those seven neighbors or family members or coworkers or friends. Communicating with them. Building the kindom together with them moving toward the light with them. And they in turn will build with their seven and they with their seven on and on until the whole flock starts looking more and more like the kindom of heaven and more and more people experience healing from destruction and disease. And the empires that threaten us, the predators are kept at a distance.

Where more and more people walk into the light of God’s love. Where more and more people dance into the wholeness of being the people of God. Where the beauty of the kindom of God outshines any ugliness. Where Light shines in darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

False Truths Have No Place Here

The Beatitudes 2017
Matthew 5:1-12
January 29, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Chatfield UMC

 We come to the Sunday when the Gospel text is the beatitudes.  The great blesseds. We love these words. But they are also hard words.
I realized one day that those of us who live in relative comfort without a great deal of fear of persecution or disruption of our lives because of our faith cannot really feel the impact of the beatitudes. They sort of go over our heads.
As a matter of fact, most of the time we try to make them fit who we are.

We try to reword them into something like this:
Instead of ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit:’ we want to say: blessed are those who are rich in material things but are humble about it.
Instead of Blessed are the meek: we want to say blessed are those who have power because of the color of their skin and birthright but try not to be racist about it.
Instead of Blessed are those who are persecuted: we want to say blessed are those who can go to church and practice their faith without fear but who don’t draw attention to it and who you would even know were Christians by the way they act....

Believe me I have sat in many bible studies where the beatitudes are reinterpreted for white, relatively wealthy, safe American Christians. And I’m afraid I have done some of this interpreting myself.

I have come to believe that one of the great sins of American Christianity is that we have tried to make American Christianity fit into what it means to be a biblical disciple of Jesus Christ.
Rewriting and misinterpreting the beatitudes is just the tip of the iceberg.

Pope John Paul II spoke to a group of teens in March 2000 about the difference between Christianity and modern culture. "Modern culture says, 'Blessed are the proud.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' Culture says, 'Blessed are the pitiless.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the merciful.' Culture says, 'Blessed are the devious.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the pure in heart.' Culture says, 'Blessed are those who fight.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.' Culture says, 'Blessed are the prosecutors.' Jesus said, 'Blessed are the persecuted.'"

Last week I shared with you the beautiful image of Starlings creating murmurations by communicating with seven other birds in the flock. I encouraged you to find your seven others and start moving together as people of God. Moving together to form the kindom of God on earth, right here.

Today I want to continue to encourage you and even more, to encourage us to be very honest with each other in our communications.
For the good of the flock.

For the good of the Christian church in America.

Now I’m not exactly sure what the communication is like for those seven birds as they fly together I have no idea what exactly they ‘say’ to each other or how they influence each other’s patterns of behavior so that they all fly in what looks like a ballet.
But I do know that they must be very clear about the truth of their communication. They don’t try to come up with alternative facts about the purpose of their formations or their movements.
They don’t try to tell the other birds that everything is ok. If it is true that they are flying in such an intricate pattern to keep a predator from preying on the flock, then there is no room for false truths.
That would be deadly.

So it is with us, as we come together in community to keep ourselves protected from the enemy. The evil one who wants to convince us that lies are facts. That we can justify misinterpretations of the biblical text in order to bring ourselves comfort.

In the Gospel of John it is recorded that Jesus preached some strong words to people who wanted to make the bible, the teachings of God, into something easy to digest. Easy to follow. People who wanted the word of God to justify their unjust treatment of the poor, their oppression of the widow, their condemnation of those who were giving up their all to follow Jesus.

Jesus reminded them that the truth would set them free. If they were willing to hear the truth and allow the truth to change them. To open up their hearts to the poor, the widow, the oppressed, the blind, the lame, the outcast. To see that the meek, the person with no power was truly the blessed one.
That the person who is grieving is that one whom God comforts
That the ones who long for justice and peace will be given places of honor.

When we really see this as truth and not try to sugar coat to fit our own experience. To really be humbled by this truth and seek to allow our hearts to be melted and concerned and changed for and by people who are the heart of God then we are closer to the truth.

Unfortunately, those Jesus spoke to didn’t want to hear such a thing. And Jesus said to them: You are the children of your father, the Devil, the Evil One, and you want to follow your father's desires. From the very beginning he was a murderer and has never been on the side of truth, because there is no truth in him. When The Evil One tells a lie, he is only doing what is natural to him, because he is a liar and the father of all lies. (John 8)

We must be sure we are telling truth to one another. Like Cameron, whom I read about this week.

Cameron was a man who visited those in the care center who had no visitors.
He would simply read to them. From the newspaper, the bible, a book.

We have people like that here among us. Who visit people in the care center. Who whisper words of love and show great acts of mercy just by their presence. Who connect the parts of the flock at the care center to the rest of us. So that they can fly in the same beautiful formations with us.

Cameron had three Bibles—big, heavy editions streaked with highlighter or underlined with ink. Most of the passages marked are in the Psalms or the Gospel of John. “According to your steadfast love, O God, remember me.” “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” “My times are in your hand.” “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

A refuge for the afflicted, steadfast love for the lonely, companionship for the forgotten—that’s the nature of Cameron’s God.

Every Sunday, Cameron—he would offer the same prayer. Week after week, Cameron would ask us to pray for people without homes, people in hospitals and prisons, and anyone stuck where they didn’t want to be.

His petition was an act of solidarity, a call to remember who we forget: people hidden from us, people from whom we hide ourselves—God’s children everywhere who pray the words of the psalmist, “Remember me, O Lord, for I am lonely and afflicted.” Cameron remembered, every Sunday, the beloveds of God who long for companionship, all of us who long to know that we occupy the thoughts of another and the mind of God.

Cameron remembered the blessed beloved ones of God.

Max Lucado describes blessings from God as sacred delight:  He wrote in The Applause of Heaven:
"Blessing is sacred delight. It is having God as your biggest fan, and your best friend." Blessedness is God doing what you hope God would do but you are too afraid you are not good enough to receive it.”

The beatitudes and Jesus and people like Cameron remind us that it isn’t the ones who are so amazingly good who are blessed, it is the ones who are struggling, grieving, hopeless, poor. The ones who long for peace not power.
Blessed by God, of sacred delight to God, are those who are merciful instead of vengeful, those who make peace even in the smallest of ways.
Blessed by God, of sacred delight to God, are those who change their hearts to become followers of Jesus without trying to make excuses for who they are. Without trying to reinterpret the facts so that they feel more comfortable. Without turning their backs on the love God will pour down into their lives as they become more and more like person they were created to be.
Blessed by God are those who live into their sacred worth because they want to honor who God is. Who know they are a sacred delight to God because of who God is. Blessed by God are those who live into their sacred worth because they have no need to fabricate the details.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Kindom Walking Among Us

Baptism of our Lord, 2017
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
Matthew 3:13-17

Imagine what it would look like if we celebrated the baptism of Jesus more loudly than we celebrate Christmas. Instead of Christmas cards we would send out ‘remember that you are baptized cards’. Instead of decorating a tree we would decorate the font. Instead of eating sweets we would drink more water. And take more baths. Or at least learn to revere the water we use.

The prominence and importance of Jesus’ baptism is not usually reflected in the rhythms of our modern Christian traditions.

Yet all four gospels feature the baptism of Jesus. Told in much the same way. Unlike the birth narratives, which are told in only two of the gospels Luke and Matthew and told in very different ways in each of them.

Suggesting that Jesus’ baptism seems more critical to any telling of Jesus’ ministry than does the narrative of his birth.

What made the baptism of Jesus so important?

Over the centuries, Christian scholars have filled many pages arguing about just that question. Was Jesus in need of being washed of his sins? Of conversion? Did Jesus need to repent of something before he could get on with his ministry?

“Repent” was certainly the word John the baptizer used when calling people to baptism.  Repent: Metanoia that is the word in Greek that is used here. Metanoia does not mean ‘feeling sorry for doing bad things.’ Or needing to say you are sorry. Or getting rid of a sin of some kind.
Metanoia, repent here means a turning around. Or a change that is so complete you become greater than you started out. Metanoia can be likened to metamorphous. What a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly. What you were is something important and special but what you become is so different and new that you have to learn how to do things completely differently. You are able to do things completely differently.

What a different perspective this opens on a familiar Christian word. Rather than “Change your bad ways!” we now hear “Look! Look! God is inviting you to a new way of seeing!

Come into a completely different way of seeing and being so that you can now see how God sees!”  This is no easy task, but the baptism of Jesus offers us some clues to how we might take steps to “repent.” To experience a metamorphous of being.

John, of course said: Jesus I won’t baptize you, You should be baptizing me. The scriptures say that John stopped Jesus. Prevented him...
We know that John and Jesus were learning more and more about their roles and their identity as messengers of God’s good news. John knew that Jesus was special and was above him; so

You remember, they were cousins. I know that we like to think of this as a very dignified event. However, I wonder if there wasn’t  a little wrestling match, like cousins do, on the banks of the river as John kept trying to stop Jesus from going into the river.

John needed to know that a new thing was happening. His baptism for repentance was going to be transformed into something that would start a revolution. A new thing.
This water of baptism was going to go from being a Jewish ritual of cleansing into a mark of grace and a calling to full time, all the time, discipleship. Repentance for sin was no longer the focus. Now the focus would be on living day in and day out as a disciple of his cousin Jesus.

Remember what John said: Come for your baptism. Repent for the Kindom of Heaven is at hand.
Jesus transformed those words into: Be baptized for the Kindom of Heaven is now with us.

Jesus left the waters of baptism and walked out into the world declaring, the Kindom of Heaven is like: a woman who searches for a coin, a shepherd who searches for a lamb, a father who waits patiently for his son to come home, a judge who gives a woman justice reluctantly, a Savior who eats with sinners, touches the untouchable and declare the unclean holy.

Jesus walks from the waters of baptism, the heavens are ripped open and the kindom of God is on earth as it is in heaven.

Walking around. Showing us how to who we were created to be.

This week the confirmation students and I looked at the baptismal covenant service that we speak every time there is a baptism here.
I think it is so important for us to pay attention to baptisms. To be together in this holy time of surrounding the newly baptized as they begin their journey into Christian discipleship. AND as we reaffirm our own commitment to Christian discipleship.

In the United Methodist Church we do not take vows on behalf of the child. We simply reaffirm our own vows that we took at baptism and promise to walk alongside the baptized as they live in a way that will lead them to affirm the vows at their confirmation.
And the vows we take are some powerful words.
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?
I was at a peace and justice session on the Doctrine of Discovery at Assisi Heights this week where we were amazed at how the church that lifts up these powerful vows can also be the institution that creates evil and injustice and wickedness.

We will be talking and discovering more about the Doctrine of Discovery during Lent this year. But just to say: it is an insidious mandate that has been used to force Native Americans from their land, enslave people around the world, and exploit the earth. And it was created by the Church.

These baptismal vows are powerful words. And we ignore them at our peril. Because these are the words that bring about the furtherance of the Kindom of God that Jesus opened for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins. Embracing these words and acting on them in whatever way you can is what metanoia means. Embracing a counter cultural way of living that opens up the kindom of heaven here on earth.

This is what Jesus did. This is what the baptism of Jesus signified: he was embracing all that he could be and do to bring about the kindom of heaven here on earth. He was entering into the metanoia that he invites us all to.
And it got him crucified. Because that much love and grace and Godliness is too much for us to bear.
UNLESS! And here is the good news of the resurrection: Because we can’t kill love and grace and Godliness, we can begin to live into that much grace and love and Godliness.
And IF more and more and more and more people begin to live into that much love and grace and Godliness it will no longer be counter cultural it will become the norm.

Wouldn’t that be amazing?
If we took our baptism as seriously as Jesus took his, walked out of those waters and into the world renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness:
Low self-esteem, anger that results in violence, peer pressure, poverty, racism, homophobia, shame, addiction

And rejecting the evil forces of this world:
Systems that create entrenched poverty, slavery, lack of health care, laws that bind rather than free, attitudes that declare some people more worthy than others.

If we did that right here where we live. Embracing our baptism and living the life we are saved to live. The live that Jesus lived. We could start to live into the kindom of heaven right here in Chatfield.

Now, we aren’t doing this by ourselves on our own strength or goodness. For we also speak these words in our baptismal covenant:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

God gives us the freedom and power we need to be the person we are created to be. That is the most amazing grace filled truth of all times. We are not expected to work at it on our own strength. Just as the voice of God spoke to Jesus so the power of God works in us.
Whew! Because I could never do any of this on my own. But with the power of God’s Spirit in my life and in the life of this community, we can become those whose new normal is the kindom of heaven.

There is a wonderful poem penned by The Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American civil rights leader and pastor of one of the first interracial and interdenominational churches in America.

As we leave the season of Epiphany and walk again from the place of our baptism into the world, these words would be good to remember

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music from the heart.

To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent, change into that person you are created to be. All with the power and freedom of God and our collective witness as people of Chatfield UMC.

What will happen here this year because we take our baptismal covenant seriously? I can’t wait to see.