Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Amazing Grace

John 9, 1-41
March 26, 2017
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Who knows what hymn these words are from: ‘was blind, but now I see’

Of course, these words of this hymn: Amazing Grace come directly from our Gospel this morning.
And I love how these words fit into our scripture story this morning.
The blind man brought back to the Pharisees the second time to answer their questions about his healing: And the Pharisees really load the question this time. Give glory to God they say to the blind man. Give glory to God. Tell us that the man who healed you is a sinner.

The blind man responded wisely: I don’t know whether he is a sinner; here is what I do know: I was blind and now I see.

The implication of course is; how could someone who can heal a man born blind from birth be anything but holy. It is a ridiculous notion.

But of course, this was a problem with the religious leaders of Jesus day, and I think of any time period, if something doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions of how God works then it must not be from God. If something doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions about how God works then it must not be from God.

According to their laws and what they thought God had told them, the rule was: don’t work on the Sabbath. And somehow to them, healing a blind man was working on the Sabbath.

One of the lessons Jesus was trying to teach the people who followed him was: the law was not to be used to oppress any one.
If someone was hungry on the Sabbath, feed them. If someone was blind on the Sabbath, heal them. If someone was lost on the Sabbath, find them. If someone was in need of rescuing on the Sabbath, save them.

In other words, don’t hinder the work of God in any way shape or form. No matter what day it is.

It is so easy to fall into the trap of piety. Of thinking we know how God is supposed to work in the world because somehow, we have the direct message from God.

On Wednesday, this week we were talking about how it is that we have learned to fear the other, the stranger who seems dangerous to us. The other who is so different or who has been defined by society as scary.

We did a little experiment. I passed out names of historical people to each person and had them line up according to whether the person is good or bad. So, on my right hand we had people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks. On my left side, we had Attila the Hun, Judas, Hitler, Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 terrorists.
Then I asked the person who was Jesus to choose a side. Which side would Jesus be most comfortable on? Which side would Jesus choose to associate with. The saints or sinners, the good or the bad.
Of course, we want it to be the ‘good’ side don’t’ we. And that is what we would expect. Except Jesus said: love your enemies and do good to them that hate you. And Love as God loved you.

It is hard isn’t it. To think that God would love enemies such as Hitler. Or terrorists. Or that person who mowed down pedestrians in London this week.
Except that we know that Jesus loved us and we are enemies of God.
We do things all the time that aren’t what God wants us to do and the world is worse off for it. We may not mow down 40 people but we certainly hurt a few people with words and actions. We may not topple towers with airplanes but we certainly destroy the sacred planet.
We may not gas millions of people but we certainly are unable to treat everyone with dignity and love.
And yet, God loves us. God forgives us. God loves us.

You see I have to believe that in the end everyone has a chance at the grace of God. Everyone. Because this is how big God’s love is.
And I have to believe that God works in ways that I don’t understand or that may seem wrong, even.

The song Amazing Grace was written by a man who was pretty despicable. Many of you have heard of John Newton and know that he had a conversion experience that influenced his writing of the hymn. But most don’t know how utterly horrible he was.

One biographer has said that his career was marked by head strong disobedience from the age of 11 on.

As a youth, Newton began a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits. Finally, he denounced any faith he had.
John Newton’s sailing career was aboard slave ships. But it wasn’t just the despicable trade that he was known for, he was a profane man. Newton was known for writing profane poems and verse about the captain of the ship and encouraging the crew to join in.

“While aboard the ship Greyhound, Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met. In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”

He mocked his captains, he mocked his crew mates, he was an all-around bully. And was vocal about his lack of faith in God.

John Newton did have a moment when, in the midst of a storm, he cried out to God because he was afraid that he would be drowned. Lord have mercy on us, is what he cried out.

But this wasn’t a moment of immediate conversion.

John Newton continued in the slave trade and even became the captain of a slave ship. But all the while he was wondering, could God have enough mercy for even him?

Could God have enough mercy for even a profane, disobedient, vile, slave trader who abused men, women and children in some of the most despicable ways?

And John Newton’s conversion wasn’t a miraculous one, either. It didn’t happen because he almost drowned at sea, or because he collapsed because of ill health.
Newton began to study theology and explore what it would mean to live as a Christian.

Now here is the most amazing thing in his story to me: Once he did give his life to God and began teaching and using his gift of writing verse for praise of God rather than profanity. John Newton wrote religious lessons for children.

For children. I wonder if anyone said: How can someone who had such a hard heart be able to teach children? Do you think it is safe for him to be teaching children?

Well, as a matter of fact John Newton became a beloved pastor to his flock in the poor lace making community Olney, England. Through his gifts of writing verse, he was able to teach his people about God’s love for them, even though they were poor and illiterate he assured them that if God could love a sinner like him, God could love them, too.
One of the things they liked most about their pastor John Newton was that he was honest about his past. He didn’t pretend that he was holier or better. He told of God’s grace in his life that made it possible for him to be loved sinner though he was.

And so, we have the much loved, hymn:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.

You see, we can’t prescribe how God acts in the world. Who God can act through. Who God can love.
We also can’t ever say, I am not good enough. I am not holy enough. Because you might just be that very being whom God wants to show to the world: look how much I can love even you.

You might be God’s John Newton.

Monday, March 13, 2017

John 3:16: The Verse Everyone Knows. But Do We?

John 3:16
Chatfield UMC
2nd Lent, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

John 3:16. The verse everyone knows.

We see this verse John 3:16 draped in some of the most strangest of places: on the risers at sporting events. On T-shirts, Tattoos, and of course on Rainbow Man.
It is the one biblical reference people know.
If a person is suddenly asked by someone: what is your favorite bible verse, usually they will spout off the only one they know: John 3:16
At least we don’t look too biblically illiterate.
Unfortunately, people don’t often know what it means. Or its importance. Or its purpose.

This is very clear when it is used as a banner for proselytizing. For trying to get someone to say they believe in Jesus. To pray the Jesus prayer. Or to commit their lives to Jesus.

We are talking together this lent about finding the sacred in the stranger, the neighbor. Our neighbors. Who don’t’ always believe the same things we do.
Who aren’t always of the same religion we are.
Who use a different name for God than we do.
Names like: Great Spirit, Allah, the Lakota of our area would have said: “Wakan Tanka” Sacred Spirit.

But, we say, the bible says: whosoever believes in Jesus…Jesus is the way…

So, what do we do? Do we just let them alone to be who they are and hope for the best? Or not care about their souls and their eternal damnation?

And then what do we do with a god who would condemn our neighbor to some kind of hell? Some kind of second class religious status? Because they call God by a different name?

Do we just live with the incongruity of it? Hope it all gets sorted out in the end? And live a ‘well I’m a Christian but I don’t like parts of my religion’ sort of life?

Or do we listen carefully to what it is the Gospel is saying to us, into our culture and lives and neighbor’s lives so that we can live as authentically as possible even with a verse like John 3:16 in our holy scriptures.

Well, this morning I want to help you on that journey to authentic living. And it is hard, what I am going to say this morning is hard. So listen hard, please.
And know that you will have to keep working at this because it challenges most of what we have been taught as American Christians.

This verse: John 3:16 and others like it, that point to an idea that Jesus is the only way to God are in the Gospel of John. Duh. The Gospel of John was written with a particular message about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that stands over and against what we have become as American Christians. Which has historical roots in Roman Catholic Christianity, the State Churches of almost all the western European countries, and the way our world has been colonized throughout the generations.
The Gospel of John stands over and against a Christianity that is state based and state endorsed.

The Gospel of John stands over and against Empire. And yes, it could mean THE Empire, as in the Star Wars movies. It is a good analogy. But it also means any empire that is threatening to destroy a just and peaceful existence for all of God’s creatures. Whether that be Rome or ISIL or White Supremacy or the KKK or Wall Street, or even religious institutions.

I was with some dear people this week who have basically given up on the church because of the ways we have thrown our money and influence and power into maintaining our structures and our status and our belief systems at the expense of being the people of God.
And we have used John 3:16 as a basis for building our religious empires. Claiming that Christianity has a corner on the religious market of truth. Claiming that we should do whatever we can to make Christianity strong, wealthy, powerful, exclusive.
We have even gone so far to say our strength in numbers, our power in influence and our institutional wealth is proof that God is blessing us.
Let me say that again:
We have even gone so far to say our strength in numbers, our power in influence and our institutional wealth is proof that God is blessing us.

Which is a radically different god than the god of Jesus. Because… aren’t we followers of the one who said, the first shall be last? There is power in weakness? The meek shall inherit the earth?
You see this is what the Gospel of John is really about, combating the idea that empire building is the way to God’s blessings. That more and bigger and better is proof of God’s love.

God so loved the world that God has shown us a different way of living and thriving in the world.
God so loved the world that God came and lived among us. Showing us how it would be if God were in the world.
God so loved the world that God showed up in Jesus so that we could learn to live alongside each other in mutual respect and understanding and hope.
God so loved the world that God no longer wanted us to live in fear and resentment and within our own little tribes and within our own little understandings of what is success.
God so loved the world that in the midst of a roman occupied era of gods of power and military might and unfair economic policies that kept the poor impoverished and the rich wealthy, God came and showed us how to escape, how to be saved from the empire.

God so loved that world that God came to show us that
Empire building demands structures of power and wealth and weapons and fear. Empire building demands that the weak are a detriment to the system.
Empire building demands that the sick are a burden to the system.
Empire building demands that the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant are a danger to the system.
God so loved the world that God came to save us from ourselves.

I read a quote that is so powerful from Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit martyr from El Salvador
"Very soon the Bible won't be allowed to cross our borders. We'll get only the bindings, because all the pages are subversive." If all the bible was about was saying we love Jesus no one would get killed from it. It wouldn’t be considered radical. People don’t get killed because they agree with the systems of power that make up the church and society. People get killed because what the bible really says is radically against systems of power. Against Empires.

And of course, we don’t know how to break free of Empires. We don’t know how to love people who are perceived as enemy.
We don’t know how to talk with someone who calls God by another name.
We don’t know how to share what we have with our neighbor without fear.
So, we take John 3:16 which is supposed to be about God loving the world and we crucify that God. By setting up barriers to love.
Instead of having abundant everlasting life we have a narrow view of life filled with fear.

And we become enslaved rather than saved.

Monday, March 6, 2017

We Turned Away and Our Love Failed, But....

1st Lent 2017
Matthew 5, 2017
Temptation of Jesus
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

There is one thing about following the seasons of the church year along with our regular lives. Of coming here together in worship on a regular basis, living together the rhythms of a church year alongside all of the mundane, chaotic, catastrophic and confusing parts of our daily lives. That is so helpful, to me, at least.
We get to start over. And start over. And start over.
We get to re-center ourselves and re align ourselves.

We get Advent. Waiting for the Christ child to come among us. Such joy and anticipation.
Then it is over with and boom we are back to reality and messy houses.
Then we get Epiphany, bright shiny moments of revelation and anticipation.
Then boom we have to flee to Egypt and exile.
And we have to get through the long winter days…
But in the midst of those days are the stories of Baptism, Resurrection, Transfiguration. Moments of renewal and joy and purpose.
But the winter days get long and boring and mundane and, sometimes, depressing…
Just when it can’t get any worse, we get to start all over again with Lent.

Another chance of renewal and purpose and re-centering.

Unfortunately, the church, as it often does, makes Lent into another sludge fest. Requirements of fasting and self-denial and giving up chocolate for 40 days. Eating fish sandwiches at McDonalds, and walleye specials at Culvers.
Ridiculous and burdensome and slightly bizarre practices that are supposed to bring us closer to God but usually just make us feel guiltier about who we are and what we are and in the end, make us want to flee as far from God as possible. So that we don’t have to look on God’s disappointed face as we eat a beautiful piece of imported Swiss chocolate.

Lent is supposed to be a time of re-beginning. Another new year of possibilities. Another moment to remember where we came from, where we are going and finding a path to get there.

That is why we do Lent the way we do here, this year we are reminding ourselves that the journey to the cross is also the journey toward light. By lighting these candles every week and singing a song from a tradition that knows how to journey into Light from Darkness, we are saying no to the idea that Lent is about descending into darkness. Lent is not about scraping the bottom of despair in order to get to some kind of self-understanding.

Lent is about reconnecting with our roots again. The same way Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism and Transfiguration reground us in who we are and whose we are and where we are going. Our purpose, Our passion, Our vision. Our community.

Now, there are times when we do have to get to the bottom in order to come out of darkness into light. That is a separate journey than what we are embarking on as a congregation during Lent.
If you have taken that journey into darkness, you know that it is not something that you would chose to do to prove somehow that you are a better human being.

Jesus journey into the wilderness was not a choice to descend into darkness any more than someone would choose to take on the journey of depression. Jesus didn’t go seeking darkness, Jesus went seeking light. The Light of understanding his purpose, his vision, his passion. His reason for being.

The scriptures focus on the vision quest of Jesus. On the three encounters Jesus has with the Evil One.

When I read this story I always imagine. ALWAYS imagine that the entire universe is holding its collective breath at each encounter between Jesus and the Evil One.

Because each encounter will determine the outcome of the future of the Universe.

Will Jesus stay true to where he came from, where he is going and the path to get there?
Or will the power, the glamour, the glory, the easy path that will not lead to death on a cross win out?
Will Jesus just decide to settle down into a nice rural community life style, make a sensible living making furniture, find a wife and have a few children, pay his taxes to Caesar and get himself to the synagogue on a regular basis.  It would be a good life. He could live out his human existence ignoring the demands of justice and peace in the world, denying people of his gifts of healing and forgiving words, letting them all live with a false sense of a god who is for the powerful and the glorified and the pseudo holy.

And he could die just like the rest of us. Content but with a growing sense that something was missing. That he had somehow missed his life’s purpose.

So the universe holds its breath. Because Jesus seems to be the last hope. God had already sent Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, prophets, preachers, teachers, healers.
God had already said: Love me with all your heart soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. God had already said: let your yes be yes and your no be no. God had already said: care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger who lives within your gate. God had already said, I have written your name on the palm of my hand, I love you, you are mine.
God had already said all of this, over and over and over again.
And the universe watched we turned away, as our love failed.
So here is one more, one final more chance.
God, God came.
Putting aside all glory, all power, all of God’s ownership of the universe. God came.
And God didn’t turn stone into bread, even though God was hungry.
God didn’t test the limits of God’s power even though angels were waiting in the wings to save God.
God didn’t turn to worship the gods of this world, even though God knew that the path would lead God to a cross and rejection from all whom God loved.

And the universe sighed a sigh of relief.

Invitation to the meal…)

And we got the chance to start again. To move toward the light. To hear the stories of how God can live as a human being, a fully challenged and fully human, human being.
Putting aside the glory: taking the role and form of a slave. Teaching us that the first shall be last and last first, that eating with sinners is better than a banquet among the rich, and inviting us to this simple meal. To feel within us the renewing sense of our identity as children of God as we eat bread broken.

To re-center ourselves as the forgiveness of God and the love of God washes over us as we drink the cup poured out.

To know that we are never turned away. Never.
Because one man, one day, after a hard journey said ‘no’ to the enticements of the Evil One and said ‘yes’ to Love.

This is the table of Love. This is the table of Forgiveness. This is the table the Universe has been waiting for.