By Pastor Linda Dolby
Jesus had a terrible reputation. He spent time with the wrong kind of people. He ate with the grungy and despised of the world. He associated with the worst among us. He reached out to the poor, the broken, the marginalized.
But Jesus also found himself among the powerful of his time. He associated with people of means and influence. He even drew near to the purported enemies of Israel and dared to praise them.
In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. He had a deeply cherished slave who was ravaged by illness. This centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.
A centurion is not your typically friendly neighbor. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome's power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this very same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion, even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus' neighbors, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world.
And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.
The centurion sends friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. He recognizes that he is unworthy to host Jesus. This is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military leader used to having his orders followed, not questioned.
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
What was the content of the centurion's faith? What did the centurion believe? What faith did Jesus see in him? The centurion believed and recognized Jesus' power over the forces of death. As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes such power in Jesus, but there is a difference in Jesus' power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world.
Military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. An army can't heal his faithful servant. Imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, but only their fear. On this Memorial Day weekend, it good to remember that Jesus' power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus' power heals people and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That is, Jesus' power turns the world upside down and inside out. That a centurion would recognize this power is the very essence of faith; faith is seeing the world with God's eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God's love and God's grace.
There was a distance between Jesus and this Centurion. Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the Centurion was a Gentile; in those days Jews kept as much distance as possible between themselves and Gentiles. Jesus was a man of peace, the Centurion was a man who was accustomed to using violence in fulfilling his duties. Jesus was a representative of God, seeking to free God’s people; the Centurion was a representative of Caesar, involved in suppressing and oppressing the Jewish people. There were distances between these two men that we can’t even imagine. Yet God is able to overcome those distances, bringing healing and health to this Centurion’s home. That’s the nature of our God.
God is one who bridges the distance, and makes people well. Even the distance that exists between people - a distance marked by race or ethnicity or economic status, or political sentiment, or religious beliefs.
Some insight this scripture came to me in the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey breaking the race barrier in baseball in 1947. Rickey is the team executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is a man under authority, and he orders men around and they obey him. He is also a man who, for twenty years, has carried around inside him a memory of the intense pain that ripped apart a black man who played on an early team he coached, when a hotel where the team was staying for an away game refused him a room because of his color. Rickey got the hotel to back down, but the hurt he saw in that man stayed with him as a lasting heartache, until he finally came to see that he had not begun to address the evil from which that incident had sprung, and that he could choose to use his authority to integrate baseball.
Rickey had come to understand enough about racism to know that Robinson needed to be on the Dodgers because of his athleticism, not because Rickey wanted to integrate the team, and that he, Rickey, needed to stay out of the limelight and provide Robinson all the help he could, so that Robinson, No 42, could survive the hatred that would come to him. Rickey is unwavering. And when Robinson, enduring abuse after abuse, asks him why, Rickey answers that he had not done enough long ago.
The theme of redemption recurs in the film. The team lawyer tells Rickey that he is breaking a code, an unwritten law, and that people forgive you when you break laws, even sometimes admire you for it, but when you break codes they seek to destroy you. And Rickey himself confronts the manager of the Phillies by asking him if he thinks, when he dies, that God will be satisfied that he cancelled a game over Robinson’s race. The guy backs down, the game goes on.
And somehow, in the 1947 season, Robinson received the power to heal from taunts and gibes, from a baseball hit in the head and letters so ugly the FBI was called in to handle the threats in them. Robinson prevailed as a ball player, becoming Rookie of the Year. And Rickey went on to hire more non-white players, including AfricanHispanic superstar Roberto Clemente.
Branch Rickey actions came in a time when segregation was legal in America, when public restrooms had signs for White and Colored, when black people’s skin was considered to be contaminating, and when their abilities were considered to be inferior.
Such deep prejudice has not left us in this country, as we see and hear and fail to notice nearly every day. Rickey says, in one scene, we just won a war against fascism in Europe, we need to win one against racism here at home. .
Our habit of honoring people for their power, of ingratiating ourselves to their powerfulness, and of heaping contempt upon the powerless as unworthy, unworthy of their food stamps or their low-income housing, their free health care or their college admissions, persists without much question.
The heaping of abuse upon the powerless whom we consider unworthy continues to plague us. It is the kind of illness that is only cured by people like Branch Rickey, who dare to stand up to it, and to say No.
God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us; God will even enrage us when God's grace extends even over those we deem unworthy of such a gift. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
God is one who bridges distances and guess what: God wishes to bridge those distances through the church today. It seems as though there is so much these days that divides us. Where do those divides exist? Who is it that we ignore, or dislike, or suspect, or fear? Who might think the same way about us? Or feel a bit uncomfortable; perhaps even unwelcome, here in our midst? With whom are we estranged? With whom are we unfamiliar? There is a poem by Edwin Markham that says:
He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Who do we shut out? Think about those who are at distance from us, in a variety of ways. God wants to make a difference in their lives. God wants to bring them healing and hope. God wants to transform them with the power of the Gospel. God wants to invite them into the peace and joy that comes from faith in Christ. God may even be planning to do that through you and me. May it be so.
Let's pray. God, we turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear, with boldness and with trepidation. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care, O God. Draw us together. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith can be found where we least expect it. In the name of Christ our Lord.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 9:1-6
If you have a Methodist background, you know that Methodist pastors itinerate. We move from congregation to congregation at the assignment of our bishop. To make this transition easier, the majority of Methodist congregations provide a house for their pastors as part of our compensation. Now, one of the challenges in that is the difficulty in keeping track of your stuff, particularly seasonal items. I am someone with a visual memory. When I attempt to recall where something is, I often see it in my mind’s eye in its physical context. But, because no two parsonages are alike, the context is continually changing. Early in Britt’s and my ministry, while we were living in Dayton, I decided one Christmas season to put out my nativity set in a more theologically accurate sequence. In those first couple weeks of Advent, the scene included only shepherds and animals. Then, Mary and Joseph arrived. On Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus was laid in the manger. On January 6, the shepherds were removed and wise men and camels took their place. But something went wrong when it came time to pack up my nativity set. I think that, intending to do the same thing the following year, I did not want to wrap up Jesus with the camels and wise men. But I had already boxed up the shepherds and animals. Somehow baby Jesus got lost in the shuffle. The following Christmas: there was no Jesus to be found. I did, however, console myself with the thought that, in the process of moving (the advent of which was inevitable), I would, undoubtedly, find Jesus again.
Truth be told, many of us Americans have more stuff to keep track of than we should. The burgeoning of “U-Store It” facilities over the past couple of decades is proof. Once utilized for short-term storage, they have now become like extra attics or basements… another place to store away stuff; stuff we don’t necessarily use or need, yet cannot bear to part with. And so this interesting evolution is taking place in our culture; a curious flip flop of a century ago. The stuff we once engaged with daily – things like appointment calendars, address books, books in general, newspapers, typewriters, albums, record players, even clocks – have become smaller, lighter, more compact and merged with one another; while other items – clothing, shoes, kitchen gadgets, tools – have exponentially multiplied. How much stuff do we really need to do the things we need to do? The dawn of disposability has brought a trash crisis with discarded plastics having created an island in the ocean larger than some that have become submerged with global warming. We live in an interesting world. So, what are ya gonna do with all that junk; all that junk inside your trunk?[i] And, what would Jesus do?
Well, Jesus and his disciples have a good bit of experience with itinerating. Together, they are a sort of traveling rabbinical school. But they are more than that because the disciples of Jesus (those who have come to him to learn) are also cut loose to go. They are both disciples (meaning, “those who learn”) and apostles (meaning “those who have been sent”). They have a dual function of spending time with Jesus in order to learn from him, experience him, understand his purposes AND going for Jesus, sent by him to do and say what he has been doing and saying.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching a sermon series entitled “Built to Last.” None of us can debate that the world is changing dramatically and sometimes it seems the Church is on as shaky of ground as Wonder Bread and the Polaroid camera. But, as I mentioned a couple weeks back, Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – is God’s idea and so we know that Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – won’t ever fail. The Church is built to last… but perhaps, not always in the format we envision or are accustomed to. Church has always been, from its beginning, a contextualized phenomenon. Jesus came, proclaiming the kingdom of God, in a way that first century Palestinian peasants understood. With the stories he told, the metaphors he used, the controversies he addressed, he captivated and transformed his audience. When he said, “the kingdom of God is like…”, people knew they were about to hear a teaching that – curiously enough – might be confounding to the religious and political establishment; yet it would be compelling truth, the reality of God at work when heard and seen by a simple Galilean peasant.
So as churches in America today wrestle with the reality of declining numbers, we need to ask, where is our focus? Is our focus today, at times, on religious establishment; maintaining the organizational structure we’ve come to know and love? Or, are we committed solely to communicating the good news of the kingdom in ways that allow it to be heard and seen clearly by those who need it most?
In Luke, chapter 6, we read “Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”[ii] The chosen twelve are identified by both terms: disciple and apostle. Disciple is the translation of a Greek word meaning, “a pupil, one who learns.” Apostle is the translation of a Greek word meaning, “to send forth to an appointed place.” We also hear these guys referred to with a term that simply means “followers.” So, they are to be those who stay with Jesus to learn AND those who are sent forth by Jesus to do. They stay and they go; they watch and they learn and they do; they listen and they speak. The mission of Jesus becomes their mission. And when they are sent forth by Jesus, always – with great consistency – they are commanded to travel light. They are not to allow themselves to get bogged down with stuff. They’re reassured that those who welcome them will care for them and, when they’re not welcomed, they’re to move along to the next place. But the mission is always in motion and the mission is more important than anything else.
Today, here at Trinity we’ve claimed the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” And we accomplish that through our vision of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” But we have to recognize that – just like the first century – we will have to go to build that sense of community and develop those relationships. We are blessed with a beautiful church building and for people who come, this space is awe-inspiring. But there are many who will not come on their own; and so we must go. It is easy for the stuff we have – facilities, committees, structures – to hold us back. And most certainly this is a beautiful place for us to gather as disciples to learn, to worship, to pray. Yet, true followers of Jesus, are also sent. We are modern apostles sent forth to take the good news of Jesus out beyond our walls. The resources God has blessed us with are abundant. God has taken good care of us. But all the stuff we have ultimately serves no other purpose than to make disciples and to grow in love and service through relationships with God and community.
There will always be church buildings, I think. And there are churches still building bigger buildings. Yet research also reveals that many of the fastest growing faith communities in America today don’t own any buildings because, as we sang at the end of worship last Sunday, “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people”[iii]; a people sent forth to bring other people into relationship with Jesus.
And what is true for us as a congregation is also true for each of us as individual Christians. We need, each one of us, to be continually assessing and asking ourselves: “Is all the stuff in my life – possessions, activities, organizational meetings and events – helping me become a more mature disciple and apostle? Or, is it distracting me and fragmenting me, exhausting me and getting in the way of my effectiveness at being an apostle for Jesus?” We need to ask ourselves, “Are there things that Jesus wants me to be saying and doing on his behalf that I’m neglecting because I’m too invested in all the other stuff in my life?”
As I’ve been reading and thinking lately, there is a quote by Pastor Andy Stanley that is really growing on me. He says it’s important for us to understand the distinction between wanting something from people and wanting something for people. When we want something from people, it is about us and what we need. We expect them to help us carry the burden of all our stuff. But, when we want something for people, it is about the new life that we know they can experience through a relationship with Jesus. When we invite people into the Church to serve, is it about what we want from them or for them? Do we want them to stay inside here with us to help us take care of our stuff? Or do we want to gather here to worship and pray and learn so we’re cut loose to go out there, traveling light, bringing the good news of Jesus to a world in need of healing. Friends, Jesus calls us to a life of service, not a life of busyness. He calls us to a life in the beautiful rhythm of coming and going; of listening and proclaiming; of learning and doing. He calls us into Christian community, not into a religious establishment.
Luke tells us: “Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”[iv]
And even in these days, Jesus calls his disciples… whom he also names apostles. Jesus calls us.
[i] Black Eyed Peas
[ii] Luke 6:12-13, NRSV
[iii] We Are the Church, music and lyrics by Avery and Marsh, 1972. #558 in the UMC hymnal.
[iv] Luke 6:12-13, NRSV
Scripture: Acts 2:1-24; Philippians 2:1-11
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Happy birthday, everyone! Today is Pentecost, the day we commonly refer to as the birthday of the Church. And, I must say, for being nearly two thousand years old, you all look fabulous; remarkably well-preserved.
As Christians, we observe Pentecost by remembering and celebrating what is recorded in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts. Luke’s gospel closes with a loose thread; the story is unfinished; we know to expect a sequel. You see, after Jesus was crucified, he rose from the dead, and he appeared to his disciples to be sure they still understood the meaning of his life in light of his death and resurrection. Then, he charged them with the mission of preaching forgiveness of sins in his name throughout the world. That would be their life’s mission just as it had been his mission to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of God.
Now, it’s important for us to remember what repentance and forgiveness are all about in the gospel of Luke. It goes far beyond ideas like getting into heaven when we die or being declared “not guilty” for things we’ve done wrong. In the gospel of Luke, repentance and forgiveness of sin brings us into right relationship, a healed, renewed relationship, with God AND with one another. Forgiveness lays the foundation for true Christian community because repentance and forgiveness change the way we think about one another and, therefore, change the way we relate to one another. [repeat] The Greek word for repentance means “a changing of one’s mind.” When we repent, it changes our mindset – our thinking, our attitude – toward Christ and one another. We think, and therefore behave, differently with one another. So the disciples are charged with this life-long mission of proclaiming this repentance and forgiveness that will heal our relationships with God and each other and cultivate a true sense of community – Christian community; what we know today as The Church. That’s the disciples’ mission.
But, they need to hold on for just a bit because that is not an easy mission and, frankly, those disciples have not proven themselves up to the task. At Jesus’ arrest, they scattered in fear. But, the risen Jesus promises them, after he’s returned to heaven, they will receive a source of power and might that will equip and embolden them to carry out their mission.
So, the disciples gather together; they worship, they pray and they wait. And then, suddenly, 50 days later, on Pentecost day, that power comes and the timing couldn’t have been better because among the gifts that “Holy Spirit power” brings is the gift of communication (essential to the forming of community); they receive the spiritual gift of speaking in a variety of tongues on a day when the city of Jerusalem is bustling with religious pilgrims from a multitude of places. In the ancient Jewish world, there were three great religious pilgrimage festivals each year. One of those was Pentecost or the Festival of Weeks. On those festivals as many Jews as were able would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem. Although they were Jews, their primary, everyday language would have varied; it would have reflected the country or region where they lived. Now, in historic actuality, the everyday Jew couldn’t be making three pilgrimages to Jerusalem every year. Traveling was far too difficult and dangerous in the ancient world. That kind of traveling was beyond the ability of the average peasant. Nevertheless, a religious festival like this was the best opportunity to get the message of Jesus out to the greatest number of people in a way that would cause it to spread rapidly like something going viral on the internet today. And that is what occurs and that’s why we’re here today. So, happy birthday!
But, how is the old birthday girl doing? What kind of shape is she in after all these years? What is the condition of her mind/ her way of thinking and are there things she could be doing to be a little sharper and a little healthier. We all know if we’re going to stay healthy as we age, it takes work and commitment. Can I get an “amen” for that?
To that end, I’ve been preaching this sermon series entitled Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture; so this morning I’m talking about the Church as community; a place where we share the same mind and the same love.
It’s an important topic because, along with God, community is what people say they are seeking the most when they check out church nowadays. And that’s really pretty exciting because the community people are seeking is integral to the identity of Church; so essential to what it is that defines Church as Church, according to scripture. We don’t have to make Church something new to make it something people are seeking today. Rather, we simply need to restore Church to its original intended purpose. And this story from Acts and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that I shared this morning clarify the meaning of Christian community.
Now, to say that today we live in a small, small world would be an understatement. With the explosion of social media and other technology, our engagement with people is no longer limited by geography. We can be “with” anyone, anywhere in real time. And yet, as our number of human contacts grow, our sense of community seems to be diminishing… which would seem to imply that “community” has a deeper meaning, a more subtle distinction; one that I believe is revealed clearly in these two passages of scripture from this morning.
And so I want to suggest that “community” is about a commonality, a “sameness”; but not a “sameness” like that we often see modeled out in the world, in a “circle the wagons” sense. Sometimes we seek the wrong kind of “sameness.” “Sameness” of appearance and culture; economic and social standing… Well, that kind of “sameness” divides more than it unifies. Our sinful, fearful, human nature pushes us to seek people who are the same as us in appearance, political ideology, cultural biases, economic and educational status. But the “sameness” Church calls us to is a “sameness” of mind; a “sameness” in our mindset, a commonality in our way of thinking. Our minds are called to uniformity – sameness – because each of us must be striving to match the mind of Christ Jesus. We are called to a common way of thinking that reflects the attitudes of Jesus. The sameness we’re called to as the Church cultivates a unity that binds us to one another as we love and learn and serve and share. Our common mindset, our common attitude, is what allows us to love and learn and serve and share with one another, joined together in this diverse organism we call Church.
So Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi what that mindset of Jesus looks like. What is that commonality we should be striving for? Well, it is a common, Christ-like mindset of humility; of service and sacrifice for the good of others. It is a way of thinking – and therefore, acting – that places the needs and interests of others ahead of our own. It results in cooperation, not competition. It results in openness, not fear. It results in a generosity that does not stop to count the cost. It results in a joy that is overflowing.
The sermon that Peter preaches on that first Pentecost is quite a bit lengthier than what I shared with you this morning and, because Peter’s audience is Jewish, a great deal of his sermon is a digging in to how Jesus fulfilled Hebrew scripture. But if we go a little further on in chapter two, we read more of Peter’s sermon and the response he received:
Acts 2:32 This Jesus [Peter proclaims] God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear…
[and Peter closes with his final point]
Acts 2:36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified."
37 Now when [the people] heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" 38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
[Now remember, repentance and forgiveness have to do with changing our mind and Peter is proclaiming that these folks need to change their thinking about Jesus. He was not a rebel-rousing insurrectionist deserving of death. He was not just a prophet and he certainly was no fraud. He was – and is – both Lord and Messiah.]
39 [Peter continues…]
For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." 40 [Peter] testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added [to the Christian community].
That’s amazing, isn’t it? But here’s what’s even more important; that it wasn’t a flash in the pan. It wasn’t like a spiritual retreat someone attends and then goes home and life just goes back to the same old same old. No; this experience completely changed their lives. The Church was born that day and here is how it is described in Acts; here is the “portrait” of this new-born “baby Church” that we find described at the conclusion of chapter two:
Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
This is the story of a newly formed community sharing a common way of thinking; they were loving and learning and serving and sharing together.
Now, incidentally, we get similar summary statements in other places in Acts so our author wants us to be clear that this is how Church began and this is what Church is supposed to be. Church is a place where our minds are transformed so that we no longer think in those divisive categories the world keeps track of. Instead, we come together to form an incredible community like nothing else this world can offer. Church is a place where people love and learn and serve and share together; where together, we incarnate or embody the mind of Jesus.
But here is what concerns me: I think that many Churches today experience Church as a place and not a community; as an organization and not a diverse, living organism. And, I think that we fall short on the humility that Paul calls us to because our understanding of humility is limited. Humility also involves vulnerability and openness. In the Church, we don’t generally have trouble with things like arrogance and bragging. Rather, we have trouble sharing our weakness and failures with one another. Can you imagine what it must have felt like in the early Church to share your life in such intimate ways as those described with people who were not your family, your biological kin. Those folks’ lives were an open book to another. They shared more than a mindset; they shared pretty much everything. And sadly, that level of vulnerability and humility is tough to find in churches in America today.
Friends, folks come to churches nowadays looking for community. They don’t just want friendly people; they want friends. They don’t just want good people; they want real people trying to be like Jesus. They don’t just want common courtesy; they want genuine support and encouragement. Church isn’t something that ends with the final notes of the organ postlude ‘cause it’s not a building or an event. It is people striving to share the mind of Christ; loving and learning and serving and sharing with one another. Amen.
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