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.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

And He Truly Does Walks With Me

Easter 2017
John 20:1-18
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

The daffodils in the parsonage gardens started blooming last week. I thought they might get snowed on. And I was worried about them the night we had a hard rain that felt more like hail.

But their bright yellow heads have stood up through it all. Each year more and more flowers appear spreading over the gardens and putting smiles on the faces of those who have been longing, longing for a sight of spring, of resurrection from the death of winter bleakness.

I think that there is nothing more profound than a flower emerging from a brown blub or a tomato from a tiny, tiny seed.

No farmer has ever planted a seed, a shriveled-up seed, without wondering, how? How does this little bit of seemingly dried up useless looking bit of tissue turn into a green life-giving plant?
I firmly believe that when our seeds and bulbs cease to be mysterious we have lost a little something of our souls.

Which is why, I also believe, gardens are so important to the story of the resurrection. Actually, to the story of Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection.
Even if you have never raised a plant on your own. Even if you couldn’t plant a garden to save your soul. Even if your thumb is purple with pink polka dots rather than green. You would have to be the scroogiest of scrooges and the grincheist of grinches to not be amazed or at least a little cheered by the sight of daffodils after a long winter.

Now I want you to remember something here: About our story as God’s people. For today we find out, not the end, but a very important chapter in the story of God with us.

Where did the whole story begin? The whole story of humans and God. Where God said let us make humans in OUR image? After Our likeness?
Where did this all begin? In a garden…
The garden of Eden.

This is not lost on the writer of the Gospel of John. The Gospel begins reminding us that Jesus was with us at the beginning: In that garden. The first words of the gospel of John are: In the beginning was the Word, was Jesus, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus was there at the beginning. In the garden. Creating and giving breath and life to human beings

And throughout the story of Jesus we know that he went to gardens to pray, to illustrate the ways God works in the world, to contemplate, and finally, to plead for his life.
Go to dark Gethsemane, we sing. The garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus asked, please God, not the cross. But only thine will be done.

And now, at the end of the story, or is it the beginning again???
We return to a garden.

How do we know it was a garden? Because of how Mary spoke to the stranger who turned out to be Jesus:

She, thinking that Jesus was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so that we can care for him.”

But this isn’t the garden of Eden. It is not a perfect place. Not yet anyway. It is still a graveyard, because Mary’s Lord is missing. And Love seems to be defeated.

The early morning of Easter didn’t begin with alleluias. The early morning of Easter began with weeping.

Jesus comes upon Mary weeping. Just as he did outside the grave of Lazarus. Mary is alone.
The disciples had come to see what it was Mary told them about. They came quickly, running neck and neck, one translator has written.
They quickly look in the tomb, see the grave cloths folded neatly and the grave empty,
and then they return to whatever they were doing.

I have never known quite what to make of that.

Except that typical of the gospel of John, it will be the woman who experiences and sees and believes the truth about Jesus. Not because woman’s gender is more attune to something. But because women in Jesus day are more like us. All of us. People who are ordinary. Not disciples. Not religious leaders. Not government authorities.
Ordinary people who will have ears to hear, eyes to see and a heart open to recognizing and believing in the Lord.

Why are you weeping Mary? Oh Mister: Because they have taken MY lord away and I do not know where they have laid him.

We always begin the Easter service here with the altar draped in black because we cannot just walk into the sanctuary on Easter Sunday and suddenly pretend that it is all over with. That the crucifixion and death is neatly put away.

We have to approach the buried altar, approach the tomb, and realize that without the grief of a death there cannot be the joy of a resurrection. We must stand for, at least a moment, with Mary.
And we have to learn to feel the deeply personal angst that Mary feels: My Lord. This is my Lord that was buried, that was crucified. This is My Lord who has been taken away. This is My Lord who is missing. My Lord.

Until this becomes fully personal. Not just a story with triumphant hymns of feel good alleluias, but a personal encounter with your Lord, it will only be a nice spring story.

When the Easter story is only that, a story. Of what good is it?
When it is not about your Lord who was crucified, dead and buried. Shriveled up in a grave. Seemingly just a pile of bones and tissue and elements. With no potential for anything but something to grieve over. Of what good is it? You can just go home, like the disciples. Back to what you were doing in the first place.

But if we linger with Mary, in the garden. Weeping because it seems our Lord is no longer with us. It seems that death has finally taken our Lord away.
And it is very, very personal for who can we be without Our Lord?
What can we do for the rest of our life without Our Lord?
What is the purpose of all of this, without Our Lord?
If we can stay with Mary weeping for a moment, then when the cover comes off death, when the Lord shows up to walk with us in the garden, calling us by name, then we can finally and truly sing the alleluias.
Because then the joy makes sense.

Because it is Our Lord who is raised. Who is no longer dead and buried and missing. It is Our Lord who personally overcame death for us.
Not just any death, but Our death that is overcome. It is Our sin that is forgiven.
It is Our garden in which Our Lord now walks with us.

We are not quite back in the garden of Eden there is still sin and destruction and death all around us. And the threats of war still echo. And the abuses of poverty still devastate. And the fear of the stranger still hurt. But we can now, once again, glimpse the hope and promise of an already but not yet coming of God’s kindom. We are now closer because our Lord, our Creator, has proclaimed that the garden, our world, is a place of birth and growth and new life. In the garden, Our Creator and Our Lord waiting to walk with us and journey with us until we finally do reach the completion of God’s kindom.

You see how important the garden is to our story? Our Lord, Your Lord wants to walk with you in the garden. Wants you to experience the personal moments with God so that you can know that resurrection is possible. That life comes from death. That even in the most darkest of hours and places Jesus, your Lord and your Creator will always walk with you.

There is a hymn that is sung most often at funerals but which I believe is more about Easter and the experience of Mary in the garden with Jesus. It is really more about our experience of life in the garden of this world. Not at our death but in our living. As we walk along and find ourselves walking with the risen Christ. In the garden that is not quite yet but getting to be the Kindom of God.

Find the hymn in your hymnals #314. And we will sing it together but only the 1 & 2 verses because I don’t believe the 3rd verse is true.
Mary was in the deepest night of her soul life, and Jesus didn’t bid her go, Jesus deliberately and purposefully came to her. Jesus will never bid you go. Never.

So, let us sing verse 1 & 2 of In the Garden.

1. I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear,
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known.

2. He speaks, and the sound of his voice
is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing.

 The United Methodist Hymnal Number 314
Text: C. Austin Miles, 1913 (Jn. 20:11-18)
Music: C. Austin Miles, 1913; adapt. by Charles H. Webb, 1987
Tune: GARDEN, Meter: 89.557 with Refrain